Viral Signs

by Graham Turner

We’ve had the ‘fake interpreter’ at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Johannesburg. We’ve had successive mayors of New York (Bloomberg and de Blasio) and the Premier of Queensland supposedly being upstaged by their interpreters while making announcements about a hurricane, an epidemic and a cyclone. You might be forgiven for wondering if a sign language interpreter will ever hit the headlines for the right reasons.

Well, the Spring of 2015 has seen not one, but two interpreters go at least a little bit viral – and both for undertaking the same kind of assignment. No death or crisis this time. This time they were, erm, well, could we call it ‘singing’?

In Sweden, an interpreter delivered an exuberant performance as part of the country’s Eurovision Song Contest selection process. And in the United States, it was a particularly dramatic version of a number by the rapper Eminem – not broadcast on television, just uploaded as a personal project to YouTube – that caught the attention of millions online.

Thank goodness, I hear you say! Some harmless, artistic fun from a little light-hearted signing. But not so fast…

Something about the interpretations of these songs has fired up the twitterati all over again. So what’s the fuss about?

One of the primary objections seems to be that interpreters shouldn’t be ‘glory-seekers’. In the US, the Registry of Interpreting for the Deaf writes in its Standard Practice Paper on Interpreting for the Performing Arts that performance interpreting “is not a vehicle for interpreters to become performers but rather a vehicle for the target audience members to enjoy the performance event.” But if the function of the event is performative, isn’t the interpreter expect to, erm, perform? Entertain? Convey the intent of the source message?

In any case, in one of these two instances, the interpretation was created as a personal exercise – is that an illegitimate thing to do? The interpreter didn’t make it go viral. Blogs like this one ( have argued that, when people are busy talking about interpreters, they’re not talking about more important issues around sign language recognition or advancing Deaf causes. That may be so, but it’s the individual decisions of millions of people that create the viral effect in such cases, not a deliberate propaganda campaign by anyone trying to distract the world from weightier matters.

The chances are, of course, that most of the ‘favourites’ and ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ for these videos are perpetrated by hearing people, many of them almost certainly non-signers. They just think it looks good or fun. Are they, in fact, harming the prospects of Deaf people because their actions are somehow ‘inappropriate’? This is certainly a complex question: is it possible to find signing attractive for the wrong reasons?

What is not being discussed much is whether these performances embody ‘good’ translations. But, then, if the issue is about ethical and unethical behaviour, does it actually matter whether the interpretation would score a 57% or an 83% as a graded course assignment? If it’s only okay to post video-recordings of yourself on YouTube if you perform well, the internet just got an awful lot roomier.

One of the reasons some give for disliking it when interpreters become prominent is that they may be achieving significant financial gain from their actions. In an economy where every interpreter should be well aware that Deaf people tend to be under-employed, it is argued that lucrative personal enrichment, secured in this way, is immoral.

Some interpreters are said to slide from prominent performances to a willingness to ‘represent’ Deaf people’s interests in the media. Intuitively, this may seem straightforwardly wrong. Is it? Are there any instances where people would see this differently – where are the boundaries? Can we always find a clean line between representing Deaf interests and representing interpreters’ interests?

But back to the music. Is the problem simply that Deaf people don’t actually enjoy song interpretation? (Would it surprise us if the answer were that some do, and some don’t?) Or is the frustration that these are instances of hearing interpreters occupying the limelight when, actually, some Deaf people enjoy producing signed songs, too?

Or could this be flipped on its head? Is the concern fundamentally that signing to music isn’t culturally Deaf? As artistic as these performances may or may not be, perhaps they represent a form of cultural appropriation – re-purposing an aspect of Deaf heritage in a way that is not rooted in Deaf ethnicity, and therefore stands as an ill-informed and ill-judged act of exploitation.

In under 800 words, we’ve found our way from the throwaway hilarity of Eurovision to the knottier end of intercultural politics. No-one said that LifeinLINCS would be an easy ride!