ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Live music events are a staple of summer. For most of us, they're a chance to see and, of course, hear our favorite artists. Now imagine not being able to hear or sing along.
Well, NPR's Andrea Hsu has this report on what the concert going experience is like for the deaf.
ANDREA HSU reporting:
It's a hot, sticky night at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Thousands of Paul Simon fans gather on the vast lawn. More take their pavilion seats indoors, among them, Molly Hullinger.
Ms. MOLLY HULLINGER (Deaf Concertgoer): I'm with my husband and good friend, Carrie, and her husband Pat.
HSU: Molly Hullinger is deaf. She lost the ability to hear speech in her early 20s - that was about 30 years ago. So you might ask, what's she doing here?
Ms. HULLINGER: Well, I'll make this very simple, I'll make it very clear, real fast. I like old music because back when I had more hearing, I learned the music and I learned the words to it. So I go see oh, Grateful Dead, Barry Manilow, things like that. The new singers I can't understand at all.
So an event like with Paul Simon, I got his new album, so I play it and listen to the music but I can't understand any of the words. When I come here tonight, she'll tell me the words and then when I go back home I'll remember some of the words, you know.
HSU: She is Janet Bailey, a sign language interpreter who's been interpreting my questions. She's one of three interpreters here tonight to sign lyrics for Hullinger. Who, by the way, is the only deaf person in this audience.
(Soundbite of audience clapping)
HSU: The lights dim. The crowd gets impatient. Finally -
(Soundbite of applause)
HSU: Paul Simon takes the stage. But let's back up for a moment to the morning of the concert. Janet Bailey and co-worker Kevin Dyels are in final rehearsals for tonight's show.
Mr. KEVIN DYELS (Sign Language Interpreter): So I was just doing this for Cecelia.
HSU: Dyels runs through the signs he's chosen.
Mr. DYELS: Breaking my heart, I'm crushed, I'm crushed, my confidence is lost.
HSU: They've been listening to Paul Simon on their iPods for two weeks straight and in every spare moment, rehearsing their translations. All to make sure Molly Hullinger enjoys the concert.
Ms. JANET BAILEY (Sign Language Interpreter): I fell on the floor and I'm laughing.
Mr. DYELS: Yeah.
Ms. BAILEY: How are you doing that?
HSU: Bailey and Dyels have considered the various signs for laughter.
Ms. BAILEY: I'm suggesting the ha, ha, ha laugh, as opposed to the -
HSU: Janet Bailey founded her company, Sign Language Associates, in 1982. It staffs conferences, hospital visits, theatre productions and video relay services. Requests for concerts started coming in after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. It required venues to provide equal access for people with all kinds of disabilities, including hearing loss.
This season, the company will interpret at some 50 concerts in the Washington, D.C., area. But it's not a cash cow. For tonight's gig, including all the prep time, the three interpreters will earn a total of $700. Kevin Dyels says it's not about the money.
Mr. DYELS: We're finally able to give deaf people access to a part of American culture that they never had access to. And as such, there's a certain responsibility you feel to that audience, you know. They can't hear the music so they're - well, most of them can't hear the music - some of them have some residual hearing, right. So they're not going to get the aural experience. So we try to give them an experience through the language.
HSU: It's a challenge, says Janet Bailey, to make sure a song's meaning isn't lost in translation. Take Paul Simon's 1973 hit, Kodachrome.
(Soundbite of Paul Simon)
Ms. BAILEY: You know, we all know the words to Kodachrome, and mama don't take my Kodachrome. What does that mean exactly when you have to sign it? And the word Kodachrome, am I going to finger spell that? That would mean making the shape for every one of the letters in Kodachrome. Or am I going to come up with a sign that will be representative of that?
When you're choosing your translation, you think in terms of is this the best conceptual way to show this concept? Is it pretty? Does it flow with what's coming next and what came before? Is it going to help me show the rhythm of the song? And so there's all of these things that we build into our translations.
HSU: Back at Merriweather, it's an hour before showtime. The interpreters have just been handed Paul Simon's set list for tonight.
Mr. DYELS: After all that discussion about Kodachrome and it's not on the list.
HSU: Bailey says that's just a part of the job.
Ms. BAILEY: I am a little sad. But, you know, I'll get over that. We'll get into the moment. And, yeah, but of course you work on something and you kind of were hoping for it.
HSU: As for Molly Hullinger, there is one song she's hoping for.
Ms. HULLINGER: Bridge Over Troubled Waters. That's my favorite song.
HSU: The concert gets underway with a more recent tune, Gun Boots.
(Soundbite of Paul Simon)
HSU: And through its 21 songs, the interpreters sign furiously, their hands and arms in constant fluid motion, their eyes expressive, their lips mouthing the words. And at the end of the night, Molly Hullinger gets her wish. The concert closes with Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Though this -
(Soundbite of Simon and Garfunkle)
HSU: - the original Simon & Garfunkel is no doubt what she was hearing in her mind.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And to see videos of Janet Bailey and Kevin Dyels interpreting Paul Simon songs into sign language, you can go to our website, NPR.org.