The term “sign language” had always been a bit of a misnomer for me. The word “language” suggests a unique ability to communicate emotion and meaning simultaneously, and I was unconvinced that, without words, you could convey the same amount of feeling and uphold the same standard of narrative integrity that you can with spoken statements. Last Thursday night, however, when sign language interpreter Alan “Abababa” Abarbanell’s show graced the stage in Hoyt Auditorium, I found myself shocked at the wide array of intense emotion that Abarbanell was able to communicate in both his words and his signing.
From the accounts he told of his early experiences growing up as a CODA – a child of deaf parents – to the later years, when his job as a professional interpreter left him in a situation of uncertainty at a dying man’s bedside, Abarbanell’s act flowed from one memorable event to the next in clear succession, all the while demonstrating that interpreting is a difficult art to master.
Abarbanell’s story began by detailing the standard tribulations of children, including a less-than-perfect relationship with his brothers and parents. Abarbanell’s depiction of his brothers locking him out of the house without any clothes on was a painfully heartwarming image. The audience erupted in laughter when Abarbanell described having to translate between his father and a man in a wheelchair as they argued over which handicap was more disabling.
“It’s not often you get to call your father a stupid ass,” Abarbanell said. His father eventually reached the conclusion that people in wheelchairs were clearly worse off because they aren’t able to fly.
Abarbanell’s next story had a more relevant political basis. Leading up to the 1992 election, Abarbanell translated at a rally for Bill Clinton. The interpreter went on to describe the conversation he had with Clinton while onstage and how he taught the former president how to sign “shit” on national television.
After chronicling his life as an interpreter, Abarbanell spoke of some of the more meaningful moments in his interpreting career. The image of him with the dying deaf man was particularly powerful – it demonstrated that, while it is generally thought that an interpreter is supposed to act as an invisible middleman, he actually has an inordinate amount of power.
Abarbanell also described his painfully awkward trip to the OB/GYN as an interpreter for his friend’s mother – “Slow-Talking Deaf Woman” – where he took on the uncomfortable job of intermediary between doctor and old lady in what is usually considered the most private setting.
Overall, Abarbanell’s ability to meld humor into life lessons is what made his performance so enjoyable. His facial expressions allowed the audience to form a connection with his story and, even at the end, when he did a portion of his act only in signs, the emotion of his unspoken words still reverberated in me. It was easy to see through his performance, when he mentioned the large impact his parents had on him, that they left a lasting impression on his life. Crediting them with teaching him the importance of humor and laughter and the commonly overlooked idea that “legless, crippled people can’t fly,” Abarbanell’s performance was an excellent expression of their timeless impact.
As he wrapped up his act, Abarbanell asked how many in the audience were currently interpreters. When a dozen or so hands shot up, he smiled.
“Someday, I hope you’ll get it right.”
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.