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!

7 thoughts on “Viral Signs

  1. I am a Sign Language Interpreting Graduate and I have found Sign singing an interesting subject. Even more interesting is video clips you mentions I understand the concerns. However, I believe that in the right context of an interpretation such as at Festivals or part of conference, or for me at church services etc.. Sign singing could be required. However if purely for performance this should really be done so by deaf people rather than hearing people. At a recent baptism, I interpreted the spoken word and my deaf colleague signed the hymns.

    When you talk about hearin people putting signed songs on line is for me like performance and showing off skills (they may or may not have). I saw recently an article about people watching signed singing as being cool which may encourage interest and for some warning this will start the process in becoming interpreters. For deaf people it may look like an insult on the language especially if they feel they are watching a poor version of the language.
    This article as it should stirs further conversations about ownership of the language and who should be signing what.

  2. Pingback: ENCORE | Auslan Stage Left – Viral Signs

  3. Where does the the signing choir with LARGE percent of them are hearing fit in? I feel they are damaging our Deaf community language.
    What real gets me that they often fundraised but monies not going back into the Deaf community, according to my knowledge.

  4. Thanks for your comments. At the Eurovision final, most but not all were Deaf. The strongest viral response though was to a hearing interpreter at the Swedish heats. I certainly think it leaves us with a lot to consider!

  5. My intuition is that it makes a difference when money is changing hands – but, then, I suppose one can gain forms of *social* capital from these performances, as well as doing them for financial gain. But I am sure some people would argue that it’s all just “celebrating the language”.

  6. I am a hearing person and in the fall will begin college and major in ASL. I started signing when I was invited to join a local signing choir through a church as ministry. I loved signing and learning new signs and think sign language is beautiful and very expressive. I don’t view the deaf as disabled, so I don’t feel I’m doing any diservice to them by learning the language they use. I think the idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous and I don’t understand it at all. When I’ve met deaf people they have expressed that they love signed songs. If I were to (as a native speaker of English ) have fallen in love with the Spanish language instead and begun translating English songs to Spanish would that also be disapproved of? I think the deaf are equal with hearing and could do anything a hearing person could? Why should we insult their capabilities by treating them as if they need us as hearing people to step back for them so that they might be successful? deaf people are also capable of being successful and I won’t pretend they require me to step aside. I am not in the way.

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