As a college freshman, Portland resident Holly Maniatty decided to study American Sign Language at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York — partially because it seemed like a good challenge, and partially because it just seemed interesting. The fact that it has led to her hobnobbing with musical stars including Bruce Springsteen, Mumford & Sons, the Beastie Boys and Eminem is just a bonus.

Maniatty has achieved instant fame in the past week, thanks to a video that surfaced on YouTube of her translating into sign language a performance from hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan on Friday, June 14, at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. There are several different videos of her translation, which have received hundreds of thousands of views. Jimmy Kimmel showed the clip on his show last week. Stories about her have appeared in Slate, the Huffington Post, Gawker and Rolling Stone.

She has been at it for more than a decade, working in the Portland area as well as for major artists and music festivals nationwide.

Maniatty’s first translating gig was at a Marilyn Manson concert in Rochester. Nobody else wanted the gig, so she gave it a shot — and was instantly hooked.

“I love the challenge of making the music accessible to deaf patrons,” said Maniatty, who by day is a Portland-area manager for Sorensen VRS, which makes videophones for deaf callers. “It takes a lot of prep work to get ready for a concert; studying the musicians, their body of work, who they are, their political affiliations and how they move when they perform. All of this goes into interpreting a song or performance — the more true you can be to the intent of the performer the more equitable the performance is.”

For Maniatty, who is not deaf, the decision to study sign language as opposed to a purely auditory language stemmed from her general knack for languages. When she started, she had no previous experience with ASL, which only added to the welcome challenge.

“It was a really hard language to learn, because it is a visual modality and not an auditory one,” said Maniatty, a Vermont native who has lived in Portland for 10 years. “It is a total change in how you process the language to interpret. I am so grateful that I went for it. It has become the center of my life, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The deaf community in Maine is really wonderful — full of amazing people that are very welcoming.”

Maniatty has translated for a variety of musical genres, from the Mumford & Sons concert on the Eastern Promenade in Portland last summer to Phish — for which she gets long passages to take a break while the band jams. Last week she translated for the Melissa Etheridge concert at the State Theatre in Portland, which has her on call for when they need a translator. When the Beastie Boys performed at Bonnaroo in 2009, she learned their New York City-specific ASL dialect to make her interpretation more authentic.

Her exuberant, highly physical way of interpreting has made her one of the most in-demand sign language interpreters in the country. When she translated for Bruce Springsteen at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in April, he came off the stage to sign with her.

“I got him to sign ‘Dancing in the Dark’ while he was singing it,” she said. “It was a great ‘aha’ moment for him to see that he had deaf fans and also that he reached out and connected with them.”

Maniatty said the hardest group to translate for is Wu-Tang — they rap quickly, and there’s nine members, each with their own distinct personality. Making sure her signs match each rappers’ words and represent their individuality is a mental and physical marathon.

“Each genre is different. In the same way that a Phish show is different than a Wu-Tang Clan show, so is the interpreting,” she said. “The interpreting is a representation of the auditory performance, so they are very different. Each musician has their own style of conveying a song and all of that has to be melded into the interpreting.”

ASL interpreting has grown in popularity at concerts and festivals. Interpreters are now commonplace, to allow deaf music fans the chance to experience the performance fully alongside hearing audience members.

“A few years ago when I was interpreting at the Life is Good Festival in Massachusetts, the Avett Brothers said, ‘That is exactly what that song looks like’ after we — myself and team interpreter — had finished doing their song ‘The Ballad of Love and Hate,’” she said. “As an interpreter, you can’t ask more than that, for a performer to say your work looks like what they manifested musically.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.