How Sign Language Interpreters Prepare For Festival Performances

Barbie Parker
Dave Mead

Interpreter Barbie Parker onstage with Lamar at the ACL festival in 2013.

Ever since American Sign Language interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego went viral after signing Kendrick Lamar’s Lollapalooza set in 2013, more attention has been paid to ASL interpreters at festivals. But Brooke Chambers, the ASL program manager for C3 Presents (the promoter behind Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival), asserts, “Really, we’ve been there all along.” Ahead of Lolla in August, Chambers -- who graduated with a degree in deaf studies from the University of Texas at Austin -- offers insight on the training and research her team does and how the popularity of hip-hop headliners has posed a new challenge.

Assembling the team: “Signing music is a niche skill. There’s an application to submit details about work experience and a video submission. I take that video and send it to a panel of evaluators that is typically made up of six to eight people -- deaf people, working interpreters and also interpreter-training professors -- for feedback. I decide who and how the team will work. There’s everything from an intern level that works only a couple of shows to maximum nationally certified, highly experienced veterans who can handle potentially four shows a day.”

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Galloway Gallego (left) & Wiz Khalifa 

Giving assignments: “We determine what shows get interpreted based on patron requests [submitted online] -- we’ve always done headliners unless it’s a DJ who doesn't have words -- and after, we fill in blanks to provide as much coverage as possible. I take those shows that are going to be interpreted and [tell my team], ‘Rank them from one to 10.’ I base [assignments] on interpreters’ requests; usually that means they’re connected to the music. I have people who are skilled in hip-hop, so they, by default, will be on that [show]. I do wish more people were more skilled in hip-hop and rap, but it is one of the hardest because obviously there is a cadence, a rhythm, and it’s very fast.”

Preparing the show: “My team researches the last year of an artist’s setlist and does a probability equation that says how often a song has been played in the last year to determine a pseudo setlist. There are other interpreters I’ve come across that do a more spontaneous interpretation, but I think some practice always makes [for] better work -- especially with hip-hop. Even some of the old rock material is harder. After they decide who’s going to do what songs, they watch interviews of the artist to facilitate the [intended] communication [so they don’t deliver their own] interpretation.”

Balancing the workload: “I used to call Lollapalooza ‘my beautiful beast’ ... We don’t interpret every single act. We average eight to 10 shows per day. This work is so grueling that after a certain number of acts, the quality of work can degrade. I don’t let [interpreters] do more than four shows. [Now that Lollapalooza] is four days [Aug. 2-5], we average 30 shows [total]. My focus has been providing the highest-quality interpreter services that focus on the deaf-patron experience. If I get one deaf patron smiling, then my job is done.”


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Cardi B

Though Cardi B canceled her Panorama set, the Bronx rapper will soon be back onstage. Interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego breaks down one of the four common ways to sign lyrics to Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow,” in which “I make money moves” roughly translates to “Me success money get.”

This article originally appeared in the May 5 issue of Billboard.

Festivals 2018