Music is abstract. Music is emotional. Music is divine. Music is a lot of things. But is it translatable?

Concerts are an incomparable experience. They can touch us deeply. Or make us jump with joy. Overwhelm us with emotions. Or just let us enter a completely different world. The world looks different when you are listening to music. Colors become brighter. Rain becomes romantic. Trees become living creatures. Imagine now that you cannot hear. And that no sound exists in your world. Until now, the interpreters for the deaf have only indicated music with a “Music is being played” sign, which does not convey the content of music in any way. The hearing world has only recently become aware of how enriched the world of the deaf would be through the experience of music.

There is a group of sign language interpreters working on translations of music for the deaf. In people with impaired hearing, the possible frequency of residual hearing varies greatly. In the 125hz to 8,000hz range, some can only hear really deep tones like the ones bass guitar produces, while others only hear high notes like in singing. Deaf people feel rhythm as vibrations of the floor and walls. In this way, dance groups consisting of deaf participants manage to synchronize incredibly well with the music they dance to.

However, how can we convey the whole musical experience to people with impaired hearing? The first and probably most important question is: what is music made of? What triggers those strong emotions we have, when we hear music?

First of all, the rhythm of the music moves us. We feel it with our body and through it we understand the mood of the piece of music. As stated earlier, if there are strong beats (such as drums), the deaf will be able to feel the rhythm. Sometimes, for example when it comes to classical music, the rhythm is experienced primarily through the melody played by, let’s say, the violin. In that case it’s necessary for the interpreters to “feel” the music and not only indicate the “form” of the melody with their gestures, for example with wave-like movements, but also to indicate the length of the tones. If a singer holds a tone for a long time with a crescendo (the tone becoming louder) and abruptly interrupts it, the intensity of the moment will not be delivered in simply making one short movement for a long tone. The translator must reproduce the character of the tone through whole body posture and gestures.

Another aspect, in the case of a song, is the lyrics. The lyrics are expressed in sign language. Songs often include puns, which can be represented with a combination of more than one sign in one movement.

A pitch of a song is also one of the aspects of music that can give us goosebumps. This is an aspect that can be presented well with facial expressions. With guitar sounds, for example, we tend to contract facial muscles when miming high notes. Heavy, low tones, are symbolized with blown-up cheeks.

The challenge for interpreters when they “translate” music for the world of the deaf is that they have to “act out” music, which they feel with their whole bodies and minds, and to convey their experience and impression vividly. With that comes the problem of expressing thoughts and concepts quite differently in sign language than spoken/written language. For example, the phrase “Hungry like a wolf” expressed in sign language would not have the meaning intended in the song. Therefore, it is very important that the music interpreter for the deaf prepares the translation of the lyrics before the concert.

One of the most famous interpreters for the deaf is Amber Galloway Gallego, who has interpreted concerts for popular artists such as Kendrick Lamar and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Interpreters like her drew a lot of attention to interpretation for the deaf and made it a popular issue. However, there are music interpreters who are deaf themselves and who believe that the popularization of this topic has a downside: more and more translators who are not deaf themselves are hired for music interpreting. In the eyes of interpreter Shawn Vriezen, who himself suffers from severe hearing loss, the bridge built between the hearing world and the deaf community can never be as strong if the bridge builder is from the other side.

Whether able to hear or deaf, as in so many other situations, the physical, spiritual and emotional presence of the interpreter is the deciding factor that enables or disables the transfer of the musical experience from the hearing world to the world of the deaf. If interpreters do not include their whole being in the translation process, if they miss details such as the intensity and length of the tone (for example legato, smooth and connected, to staccato, short tones), or the change of rhythm and character of the music, the hearing-impaired person will remain in front of the locked door of the magical world of music.


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