ArtigosCategoriasArtigos Científicos
Rafaela Cota Silva
Rafaela Cota Silva
Intrprete de Lngua Gestual Portuguesa
Interpreting concerts
Publicado em 2015
Mind Tricks. Our brain is the limit. Cognitive processes in Sign Language Interpreting: Proceedings of the 22nd efsli Conference Antwerp, Belgium, 12th -14th September 2014
Rafaela Cota Silva
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Interpreting from and to sign language is already a complex process. When you add to this, the unique content of interpreting a song, you need to account not only for the wording but also all that it involves: the rhythm, the cadency, the tone of voice, the instrumental particularities, the double meaning of the lyrics, the audience feedback and, beyond that the chance of the language being interpreted not being of the interpreter’s native country.

This work is about the interpretation of concerts of the band “The Gift” who sing in English. Therefore, this was a live performance where the interpretation was done in three languages: English, the language in which it was being sung; Portuguese, as the language that the interpreter was mentally altering from the language being sung (English) to the audience language (Portuguese); finally, into Portuguese Sign Language. The effort required in this specific situation implied specific interpreting strategies that are very different from the ones used in a regular sign language interpreting assignment.

Aside from the interpretation, this work involves several other important strategies for the perception and understanding by the deaf audience, particularly the physical location where the interpreter is performing to ensure correct lighting and visibility for that area.


This work is based on a live performance experience which was the sign language interpretation of concerts by a Portuguese band called The Gift. Those shows took place in four different cities in Portugal, namely Lisbon, Oporto, Leiria and Coimbra and it happened during 2012.

In this paper we start by explaining the Portuguese deaf community’s situation at the moment, and talk about their fights and, also, their achievements. Next, I will describe the relation between music, the feelings that it gives to us and how music exists in a deaf person’s life. After that, we’ll explain how it worked in the live performance: we start with the preparation of the interpretation before the concert, then the show and finally we’ll consider the importance of feedback in order to improve the work. In this part, we’ll greatly focus on the interpretation process, the techniques that we use to work with three different languages at the same time and the influence the environment has during the performance. Lastly, we’ll reflect on the importance of this kind of event for the deaf community, especially the empowerment that they achieve through it.

This was a relevant experience because on one hand it was the first time that it happened in Portugal and, on the other hand, it was a situation which brought cultural access to the deaf community, as well as equality of opportunity and also a chance to show how sign language can be an art form. Besides that, this can serve as a model for other interpreters that may eventually do the same work in the future.

Theoretical basis

Currently, it is evident that modern society is very concerned with inclusion for all. This can be been for example in museums with increased access for people with visual loss, also the more visible architectural adaptations for those with reduced mobility. The barriers for the deaf community are not physical, therefore, sometimes it can be hard to make some changes that will include this minority. In order to provide full access to this information, the deaf community requires linguistic adaptation which includes sign language.

The deaf community all over the world and also in Portugal lived for years behind the oppression of not being able to express themselves in their natural language, the Portuguese Sign Language (Carvalho, 2007). In order to end that situation, the deaf community, sign language interpreters, deaf students’, parents and teachers, came together to campaign which resulted in the recognition of Portuguese Sign Language (PSL) in the Republic Constitution, in 1997, namely “proteger e valorizar a língua gestual portuguesa, enquanto expressão cultural e instrument de acesso à educação e da igualdade de oportunidades” 1 (Portuguese Republic Constitution, article 74º, point 2, paragraph h).

A deaf person’s life is always marked with the existence of all kinds of barriers such as access to communication, information, education, public services and cultural events. On the other hand, with sign language, deaf people can be fully functional citizens with a culture and identity which defines them. Besides that, people of the same community who use Portuguese Sign Language (PSL) have a strong feeling of belonging to that group. Friedner & Helmreich (2012, p. 80) wrote that “such articulations of language, culture, and sociality foster new forms of affiliation as well as new senses of self and belonging”.

Therefore, it is a society’s responsibility to understand that all the settings in which deaf people are involved, should be accessible to them if the information is translated into sign language. It may seem a little strange that a context which involves music can be appealing for deaf people, however, “the common assumption that deaf culture is a culture without music has been a misjudgment made by many people in the hearing population” (Darrom & Loomis, 1999, p89). The same authors add that this brings “(…) a new dimension to the existing data on the topic of music and deaf culture” (Darrom & Loomis, 1999, p.107) and the reason is “(…) because it represented a deaf people in a ‘positive way’ rather than as ‘poor, pathetic people who can’t hear music” (Darrom & Loomis, 1999, p.107). Summers (2012, p.1) also contradicts common sense saying that “music has been a part of many deaf people’s lives. Music is and has been a part of Deaf Culture, including (...) sign language interpreters’ function within live vocal music performances”.

Sign language music interpretation has grown a lot. Examples of this can be seen on Youtube where with a simple search it is easy to find music videos with sign language from different countries (Maler, 2013).

This kind of performance where sign language is associated with music, either in videos or live, is innovative because it features and shows the importance of a cultural and linguistic minority. Also, with this, there is the benefit of changing the prejudice that the majority have when they think that music is only for those who can hear. Ament (2010, sp) says that “there is a notion that music is only heard and thus, can only be appreciated by the hearing. However, deaf people have a unique and challenging perspective to music that has seldom been explored outside of deaf communities”. Besides, when we allow deaf people to access music in their natural language, sign language, we are at the same time, according to Maler (2013, p. 9) adding value to “(...) how deaf people hear, feel, and see music”.

Besides the advantage of having equality of opportunity, concerts with sign language interpretation “(...) is an art form that combines important products of two cultures that have traditionally remained quite separate (...). Their intersection in song signing provides us with an invaluable opportunity to build stronger connections between hearing and Deaf (...)” (Maler, 2013, p.9). So, another point of view of events of this type is allowing the hearing and majority community to be more alert and sensitive to the deaf community, and that is possible because these events are for “(…) those with no knowledge of sign language to fluent and native” (Maler, 2013, p.9). Furthermore, it promotes a communication between the two communities because it brings them to the same space which encourages their interaction (Friedner & Helmreich, 2012). Thus, on one hand equality is been developed and, on the other hand, there is a movement against discrimination.

The process of interpretation

As I already mentioned this performance happened in four different cities in Portugal. It was very interesting to observe and verify that, from city to city, the audience changed, which also influences the way the interpreters approach their work. For example, in Lisbon, where deaf people are more used to having performances with sign language interpreters, they were more receptive and there were a lot of deaf people in the audience interacting with the interpreter and using the signs to sing. In Coimbra, a University city, there were a huge number of young deaf people who actually like to go out at night to places which have music. Those people are used to feeling music and they were really enjoying the concert. These kinds of aspects like audience feedback can be very relevant when analyzing the interpreter’s work (Colonomos, 1992).

In regards to this, the interpretation of concerts involves many aspects during the performance that don’t exist in other interpretation contexts, for instance, the show’s environment, music rhythm, cadency, tone of voice, instrumental characteristics, the double meanings of audience, audience feedback, etc. About that, Maler (2013, p. 2) says that “song-signing performances comprise four principal forms of expression: music, lyrics, the signs of ASL 2, and other gestures independent of the signed language (i.e. dancing, swaying, pulsing, etc.)”. Summers (2012, p. 39) adds that “though the lyrics themselves are an important aspect of a signed performance, incorporating elements from the sound created by the music are important to effectively interpret the piece”.

Besides the interpretation itself, this kind of performance has to have some particularities which are fundamental for deaf people to get a good perception, namely, of the place where the interpreter is located, the lighting, visibility and also the working conditions where the interpreter is placed (McIntire & Sanderson, 1995).

In this particular situation, the interpreter was managing three different languages: English, Portuguese and Portuguese Sign Language. So, how does the mind feel when working with these three languages? What steps does the interpreter go through to get into the target language and how do they occur in his/her mind? In order to do this work, the interpreter needs to do a good preparation of the interpretation. At the time of the proposal of having concerts with the addition of sign language, the band The Gift were releasing a new CD called “Explode” which included a book with a photo report made in India. Those pictures were taken during the Holi Festival, which celebrates the arrival of spring and where people throw each other colorful balloons and that’s the reason why this festival is also known as the festival of colors. The band decided to incorporate that spirit and had a lot of stage decorations with colors. The band clothes were also very colorful so, in order to fit the show and to be in tune with the message and in the consultation with the event organizers the interpreters decided to choose colorful clothes.

So, the first thing to do was to look at the images of the CD and understand the purpose and the reason why every song had a specific image. Do the images have a special connection to the songs/music or were they just selected randomly? It was very important for the interpreters to know that, so that they could really grasp the meaning of the lyrics.

As stated, this band sings in English so all the lyrics were written in that language which isn’t the first language of the interpreters. The next step was translating the lyrics into Portuguese. Once this preparatory work was completed by two interpreters, we took some time to discuss the lyrics and the perception that we each had. At this point, while we were analyzing the lyrics we had to deal with metaphors, hidden meanings or some specific vocabulary that we were not aware of. So, doubts were unavoidable and because we wanted to make sure that we understood it correctly, we had a meeting with the band in order to clarify all the questions that were not clear to us. Also that meeting was crucial to understand the logic and the goals of some lyrics or sentences, the general ideas, the double meanings and to get an opinion of how the band wanted some information to be passed on to the audience.

After that discussion, we made an interpreting proposal and we tested each other by one of the interpreters doing the sign language while the other one observed without hearing the music. The purpose here was to test the translation with a partner and see if it made sense. We discussed the signs that corresponded directly to some words or expressions and we looked at alternatives that would be more suitable. That preparation is fundamental to the interpreters’ performances and that is because our minds think in a different way so it’s important to share our interpretation choices and work as a team. At this point, we can’t forget that we are a part of the discourse since we made choices, subjective choices that are influenced by ourselves. In other words, we have many options and we choose the ones that make more sense to us and that we think will be well perceived by the audience. We were dealing, all the time, with subjective choices that we needed to make and inter-subjective things to deal with, like how our mood, our feelings and our thoughts related to the music or about the environment at the performance moment. Additionally we needed to be very careful with the choices we made because that would reflect in the discourse that we produced and, obviously, in the information that deaf people in the audience would have access to, because deaf people were “reading” that situation through the interpreters. As Friedner & Helmreich (2012, p. 73) said “Deaf people are first, last, and all the time the people of the eye”.

Interpretation by itself is already a complex task (Brunson, 2004) and in this kind of context it’s even harder because, as mentioned before, there were three languages being used at the same time: English as the language that was sung, Portuguese, the cognitive working language converting English into Portuguese sign language, and Portuguese Sign Language, which was the language produced by the interpreter. Taking these processes into account, the question to be asked is; How does the mind deal with this level of complexity and simultaneous interpret?

In order to be able to do this, the interpreters should have a good knowledge of English, the source language, otherwise they couldn’t translate something that they don’t understand. It’s necessary to understand the source message and then, because that language isn’t our mother language, our mind automatically, does the translation to Portuguese. At this point the interpreters were working with what is called ‘mental language’ and that is because the language that is used to translate and decode the source language is not the language that will be produced in the target form. The mental language is kept in the mind and that is done in order to understand the message (Colonomos, 1992). In this situation, the interpreters had already prepared the source text which means that the mental language was ready for the task. In this situation what happens is a process of consecutive interpretation and the reason is that although the interpretation is happening simultaneously, it has been prepared. In this kind of interpretation, the interpreters had already heard what they had to translate, and had had enough time to understand the message and prepare it, so it wasn’t being undertaken live, simultaneously and unprepared.

As previously mentioned, Portuguese was the language that interpreters use only mentally but which wasn’t produced in the target language. Portuguese plays a very important role in this situation because it was the language that connects the other two languages. It was the language that the interpreters employ to analyze and encode the message. Besides that, it was also the language that they use to test if they understand the message because if the mind was able to translate the source, it means that what was heard was understood. Beyond that, the mental language here was substantial in order to organize the information in the mind, to select lexical items to be produced, to know how it is going to be explained and also to manage the process between the other two languages. That process of management always happens during linguistic interpretation, but in this specific situation, the management was done by a language which stays only inside our mind.

At the same time that the mind translates the source language to the mental language, it is already starting to be translated into the target language. So, it’s there, in the mind, that we begin to perceive if what is produced, will be an accurate equivalent target message.

Finally, we used the mental language to find the linguistic equivalents between the source language and the target language, which means that the process to go from one language to the other one occurs, all of it, in the mind (Cokely, 1992).

When the interpreters had completed the mental exercise they are ready to convert it into the target language and, in this case, what was produced was, clearly, influenced by the preparation that they had done before.

It’s very interesting to analyze and realize that what actually happened during the interpretation was that new ideas, at the time, were becoming apparent. In addition to the preparation made before, the mind was continuing to find new interpretation choices and while the interpreters were producing sign language they noticed that they had an alternative way to transmit the idea which, at that moment, seemed better. That is very common while interpreting because the professionals are not machines, and frequently their actions are influenced by the audience’s feedback or just by facial expressions which informs them whether the message is making sense (Stewart, Schein & Cartwright, 1998). But, what happens in the ‘black box’ that makes the interpreters change at that moment, the target or the discourse that they had prepared before? That is a very important aspect to reflect upon when it happens, because our mind is so full of tricks that set off alarms or gives us a clue that if we chose another way the target language produced could potentially be better? The human mind is powerful and it has many abilities to manipulate languages.

When performing, interpreters are active members once they make linguistic choices which will affect the ones who receive the language. Nevertheless, interpreters always intend to produce the target message as clearly and as faithfully as possible with the aim of constructing meaning as clearly and faithfully as possible for the receptor audience i.e. deaf people. Interpreters hear the vocabulary, the grammar, process to understand and extract the meaning and then make linguistic decisions about vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure in the target language.

In this situation, when the interpreters have heard the information contained in the song, they carry out a live simultaneous interpretation, which means that the process occurs at that precise moment.

So, during the process of interpreting and dealing with languages, what problems or potholes can our mind suffer from? Also, what can influence the mind and the performance itself? Certainly, one fundamental aspect is the knowledge of the subject. In this particular case knowing the lyrics was very important to the interpreters so that they were able to organize their ideas and have the correct tools prepared to ensure a good performance. Not understanding what was said is one aspect which can be very complicated for the interpreters because if they don't understand it, they can't translate it. So what should they do in this situation especially because they can’t interrupt to ask for clarification? Should they leave the audience with an information gap? In this particular case the situation was not easy because there was a lot of background noise, such as people clapping and screaming and decoding the message became a cognitive challenge. Fortunately, the interpreters weren’t working alone but in a team so the partner who wasn’t translating at the moment would notice that and lend a hand by feeding signs to the actively working interpreter. Another aspect are the rapid choices the interpreter has to make and the realization that one choice wasn’t the best option and then changing it if there is the time and ability to process the concept in question. It depends upon the complexity of the incoming message and the processing time being used. That happens because interpreters are, without noticing, always evaluating themselves. Also their feelings can influence the interpretation because the interpreter’s mood can have an effect on their performance. Besides that, the feelings of the people who are receiving the information are very important too. In this case, if the deaf people dance, if they clap, smile, jump or if they are sign singing together with the interpreter they are, at the same time, showing that they are enjoying and understanding. If the interpreter notices that the deaf audience isn’t enjoying the signed performance, their mind will probably search for a new interpretation strategy which can attract more attention from the deaf audience. The audience responses send visual clues to the interpreter which in turn engergises the interpreter’s performance and, unconsciously, their minds keep on doing the good work. Here the mental alertness is very significant because it is a part of the work. The mind needs to be focused on so many processes that are happening at the same time, for example, the vocabulary and the audience. However, on the other hand, interpreters can’t allow their minds to lose concentration otherwise that will potentially cause the interpreter to omit information.

There are also some psychological aspects which should be taken into account whilst interpreting. For example, things related to the band like the rhythm, the cadency and the tone of voice. According to Maler (2013, p.4) interpreter’s “(…) movements seem deliberate and dance-like is sufficient for understanding that there is a degree of conformance between music and the signer’s gestures”. Summers (2012, p.40) says that “(…) incorporating elements from the sound created by the music are important to effectively interpret the piece”. Certainly music exists to stir up emotions in people and that’s a personal experience to everybody. The interpreter must be very careful to avoid creating barriers on the way those emotions go through from the singer to the audience. This is an important issue and interpreters need to fit in with the singer so they can have as little influence as possible. To do that, the interpreters must match the linguistic environment and produce the language appropriately. Also, the speech needs to be not only linguistic but also nonverbal and that’s done through body movement and expression. In addition to the musical features from the band there are others for example related to the interpreter’s space; which should be near to the band or within the field of vision of both, and the lighting and visibility which have to be arranged and adapted for a deaf audience (note that the audience is likely to be mixed in their receptive requirements).

It is vitally important that interpreters evaluate their performance, not only during an interpretation but also post event. This process makes us think about our work, about our choices and about our performance. The musical context is no exception. So, after the concert the interpreters carried out an evaluation by asking themselves some questions like: What went wrong? What didn’t work? What can we change for the next concert? What was good that we should maintain? What can we do to make the interpretation clearer? This individual and pair reflexive practice is fundamental to realize how successful the interpretations were. To realize what were the failures, to improve the performance and to be continually improving as part of their continuous professional development. It should be added that they had the chance to do that because their performance was recorded.


Although it’s not very common to see shows with sign language in many places, it’s a reality that has slowly been growing. The concern of the majority is in including all of the people that have different characteristics whether they are physical, cognitive or linguistic. There is still though, a long way to go. Nevertheless, if we a want fully inclusive society with active citizen participation, we need to give them the environment and opportunities which allow them to do so. Most of the time, it’s not the minority that can’t do anything, it’s us who don’t gave them the chance to do it.

Cultural access to all is a fundamental tool to building a more informed society and this can be achieved by ending social inequality. This also means including the deaf sign language using community. That is their primordial instrument which guarantees them inclusion.

Moreover, sign language can also be seen as an art form and these public performances are also important because of that. Maler (2013, p.3) reinforces that idea by saying that “(…) the signed song are an artistic outlet for anyone, deaf or hearing”. If on one hand this brings the deaf community the feeling of empowerment and the opportunity to see and enjoy a concert in their own natural language; on the other hand, these performances are a way of showing sign language to hearing people. Some of these people may not have thought about the existence of sign language. The inclusion of sign language has the dual effect of raising awareness of the linguistic and cultural needs of the deaf community and makes sense in the musical domain because it isn’t the “(…) hearing that makes the music. No, it’s your heart. It’s your body. It’s your rhythm inside you that makes the music not your ears” (Summers, 2012, p.35).

Events which are fully inclusive to both deaf and hearing people make it possible to start the discussion about equality of opportunity. So we no longer have that well known “illusion of inclusion” (Russel, 2010) but a real situation of inclusion.


1 Protect and valorize portuguese sign language while cultural expression and education access tool and
equality of opportunities. N.T.
2 American Sign Language.


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