3 Awesome Translations From This Sign Language Rap Battle

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Holly Maniatty, Joann Benfield, Amber Galloway Gallego are American Sign Language interpreters who have worked concerts for some of the biggest names in rap. Jimmy Kimmel had them on his show for a “rap battle” where they took turns interpreting for Wiz Khalifa as he performed “Black and Yellow.”

People often watch sign language interpreters to see how they’re going to sign a particular word, but sign interpretation isn’t a word-for-word recreation of a song. In fact, no kind of language interpretation works that way. When it comes to interpreting, meaning is key, and that means finding not just the right words, but the right way to frame a whole idea. These three interpreters do a great job capturing the meaning and feeling of the lyrics in this song. Here are 3 particularly good translations.

1. “And I got the pedal to the metal, got you n*s checking game”

Maniatty signs a foot pressing the pedal, then the needle on the speedometer shooting up, then scenery flying by, and sets of eyes on both sides turning toward her.

2. “No love for ‘em, n*a breakin’ hearts. No keys, push to start.”

Benfield makes a sign for emotion in the heart with a dismissive look on her face, then the sign for cry, then the sign for key, throwing it over her shoulder, and starting a car and putting into gear. With attitude.

3. “So many rocks up in my watch I can’t tell what the time is.”

Galloway Gallego signs watch and looks at it while making the sign “sparkle” off the position of the watch, followed by the sign for eyes looking at it while wobbling around confused, followed by an adoption of the confused person’s point of view to show the reaction.

It is important to remember, that while an explanation like this points out many ways in which the signs “look like” the meanings they represent, we are not dealing with imitation or pantomime. All the interpreters are working within the well-defined grammar of ASL, using things like classifier predicates, role shift, and facial grammatical markers. (Which we’ve discussed before here, here, and here.) It’s language, poetry, and performance all coming through at the same time.