September 8, 2015
Auslan Stage Left, Encore Blog

[Reposted from Auslan Stage Left’s blog, ENCORE]

Danny McDougall, CSC
Founder and Owner, TerpTheatre

I admit it: I make assumptions. We all do, right? In fact, part of our strategy for getting by in life involves anticipating what others want, what they’re going to say, and what’s going to happen next. Whether it be anticipation, prediction, or guessing, some sort of an attempt at peering into the thoughts and hearts of others is a part of the interpreting process. I think most interpreters working in theatre and entertainment assume that the Deaf people in the audience want to be entertained. If that’s the case, do theatre interpreters need to be entertaining?

During the recently WASLI conference in Turkey, I lived vicariously through colleagues who could attend. Scrolling through Facebook I came across a photo from a presentation, which included a slide with the moniker “LAMs” for a particular type of interpreter – “Look At Me’s”.  LAMs enjoy the attention they receive as interpreters. They aren’t unique to theatre interpreting – LAMs (and student LAMs) are ubiquitous. Search for ASL videos on YouTube, and you’re likely to encounter more second language learners of sign language showing off their most recent interpreted song than you are to find a native signer showing off their sign language poetry skills.

The LAM phenomenon is a special challenge for theatre interpreting, where the interpreters are an obvious part of the event (usually) – and where entertainment is presumed to be an objective. While the interpreters aren’t the purpose of an interpreted performance, they are often central to everyone’s experience of an interpreted show. Many Deaf friends tell me that their decision to see an interpreted performance is swayed by who will be interpreting. Some interpreters have “it”, and so they draw a following. These interpreters often develop unique relationships with theatres, musicians, and bands, which result in exclusive working arrangements. In order to fully promote their work, theatre and performance interpreters often become savvy purveyors of social media, and develop a following of their own. But, in promoting their work, and being an active part of the entertainment process, how do theatre interpreters avoid becoming LAMs?

People choose their work for a variety of reasons. Some physicians choose their profession to help people, some choose it for financial security, and perhaps most choose it for a blend of each. Interpreters are no different, and we each derive our own enjoyment out of our chosen work. Like actors and other on stage, theatre interpreters work to bring to life a story that is not their own. Whatever benefits we derive from our work, the entire effort is devoted to a “stewardship of meaning” the extends far beyond our own needs.

Stewardship of meaning is the act of carrying forth the content and intention of a piece of theatre text and its related performance, and representing the various iterations and varnishes laid throughout the legacy of the performance being interpreted. This legacy starts with playwright, and is shaped by subsequent players in the production: director, creative designers, actors, and others. Finally, when the original text has been embellished through the creative sieves of others, the interpreter’s work is to translate this legacy – literally, through the manner in which she translates the language of the production; and, figuratively, through the manner in which she embodies the language physically.

Simply put, Stewardship of Meaning calls for theatre interpreters to represent the intention of the playwright, the director, the actors, and all others involved in shaping what the audience sees on stage.

It is the physical embodiment of the translation that makes theatre sign language interpreters different than people who translate theatre scripts from one written language to another. The performance aspect of sign language – and sign language interpreting – makes the effort of the performance inseparable from the experience. We don’t have the same reaction to the script presented in other ways – for example, when it is provided as captions, instead of through interpretation. When a theatre interpreter has “it”, her skills may be obvious – the trick is for them to not be the center of attention. Like every other element on stage – theatre interpreters are there to do the bidding of the story, and to honor the legacy of decisions made by creative members of the production team before them.

Out of all the people involved in the stewardship of meaning, interpreters are meant to have the least amount of impact on the intent of the production. Instead of extending the performance – like each previous link in the creative chain – we are meant to represent the performance. It is this focus, on the stewardship of meaning, where theatre interpreters really shine. At a time when Deaf people are staring on Broadway (in Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening), we interpreters have the chance to reflect on our place in the continuum of sign language on stage. For everyone on stage, the real rock stars are the stories. When we honor stories, and the others who bring them to life, we find honor in our translations and they way we perform them.



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