Sign Language Interpreter Keeps Up with Phish, Wu-Tang Clan and Springsteen

For Holly Maniatty of Portland, Maine, actions certainly do speak louder than words, as thousands of concert-goers use her skill as a certified American sign language interpreter to follow along to the lyrics of headlining artists such as Phish, Wu-Tang Clan and Bruce Springsteen.

"I've always been a little bit faster of a signer," Maniatty, 32, told, of her ability to keep up with fast-paced freestyle rap artists or jam bands like Phish, which tend to digress from their usual lyrics.

"Interpretation comes quickly and easily to me," she said. "I have a knack for processing language quickly."

Maniatty has been an interpreter for 13 years, with a certificate of interpretation, a certificate of transliteration and a national interpreter certification - master level, but she just recently gained national attention when a video of her signing along to a Wu-Tang Clan performance at this year's Bonnaroo music festival went viral. It has had more than 43,000 YouTube views since it was originally posted on June 22.

"It took about 50 hours of prep work for the Wu-Tang show," said Maniatty, who tries to embody the artists in her movements. "In general, interpreters have niche areas that they are better at. Some are much better at legal, or medical, but performance interpreting just happens to be my niche. It's something I really enjoy. I spent a lot of time developing my style and skill."

In order to prep for each show and the vastly different performance styles of each artist, a lot of research is involved.

"Where they grew up, where they were born, what their background is, what political affiliations they have publicly - that's important because it usually bleeds into their music," Maniatty said. "I do research on each song. Wu-Tang spans about 15 years, so the period in time when they wrote a song is crucial to the interpretation."

She also watches as many taped performances of the artists as she can to see exactly how they move and communicate, in order to convey their meaning with her body.

"We're being the performer as much as possible in the interpretation, so it's as authentic as possible," she said. "[I reflect] however they move their body or gesticulate. I would never really be part of the Wu-Tang Clan, but as much as I was able to strategically move my body with the beat and hunch over like Method Man does, it's so much more visually accessible to people."

Her latest major performance was signing on stage with Phish July 26-27 at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. This was Maniatty's 10th show with the band over the past four or five years.

"With Phish, they are their own culture," she said. "They tend to do a lot of improvising on the stage and they'll turn the words around. It's a storytelling challenge rather than a speed challenge like rap. It's a relaxed show vibe and a lot of people are excited to see the interpreter."

Now that word has spread about Maniatty and her interpreting services that are offered at headlining venues and shows, larger deaf audiences have started coming out to enjoy the concerts. Some of them didn't even know signers were an option in the past.

"I'm just really excited the word's going to get out there," she said.

As far as her commitment to her line of work, the challenge each show presents is what Maniatty enjoys most.

"I realized what a huge challenge it is and I love a good challenge," she said. "I strive to look at each artist and musician as their own person. It's their life's work. I feel a strong commitment to render that in ASL as authentically as possible."