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Sign language interpreters open State Fair concerts to all

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A woman makes ASL hand signs on a stage.
Sign language interpreter Tanya Hoting Mrazek signs the lyrics to Queen songs on stage at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As the tribute band One Night of Queen banged out a version of the rock anthem “We Will Rock You” for a State Fair crowd, Tanya Hoting Mrazek stood on stage with her hands up — although not for the reason you think.

She wasn’t singing; she was signing, helping the band deliver the huge moment to deaf concertgoers who’d come to enjoy the fun.

American Sign Language interpreters are some of the important but mostly unsung folks working at the fair. For those who need them, they’re vital to the experience — even at the fair’s loud, high-energy concerts.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the fair and other concert venues are required to provide sign language interpreters for people who request it. In the past week, sign language interpreters have worked State Fair concerts by “Weird Al” Yankovic and Daryl Hall & John Oates on the grandstand stage.

On this night, Lisa Garrison of Coon Rapids requested interpreters for One Night of Queen.

“My son loves Queen and the only way I can enjoy a concert like this is if I have interpreting services here for the concert,” she said through interpreter Jody Converse, who worked the show with Hoting Mrazek. “And I want to enjoy the music with my family and with my son and I want to share in that experience.”

The lyrics to "We Will Rock You" on a binder in front of a stage.
Lyrics of Queen songs fill a binder as sign language interpreter Tanya Hoting Mrazek signs the lyrics on stage during a One Night of Queen concert at the fair.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The interpreters help deliver a more complete sense of the performance, Garrison said via Converse. “Whatever is happening on stage, as far as music goes, or the story of the song or the lyrics, that’s very important to me, to know what exactly the lyrics are about and what’s happening.”

Hoting Mrazek and Converse always prep for the shows they work. They have a set list and printed lyrics. They’ll also try to meet with the people who’ve requested their services to meet their needs.

“Usually the sign language interpreters will chat briefly with the folks that use the services and find out what they prefer as consumers,” said Hoting Mrazek.

As an interpreter, Hoting Mrazek wants to know what style of sign language the concertgoer uses. And she also wants to know how that person wants the lyrics interpreted.

“Perhaps they just want exactly word for word and you try to follow that,” she said. “If they want more meaning, you try to follow that. So, you never really know.”

Interpreters can also convey changes in the pitch of the music and other fluctuations in the composition of a song.

“All of that is shown in our interpretation,” said Converse. “When it’s a high note, you’ll see our hands going higher.”

During the concert, Hoting Mrazek stood on the side of the stage. She used her arms and facial expressions to convey not only the words, but some of the raucous energy of the song.

Interpreting at concerts is a very specialized area, said Hoting Mrazek, who’s been doing this work for more than 20 years. It’s also physically and mentally taxing, she said. That’s why interpreters work in pairs so they can alternate after a few songs.

A sign on a bench designates it for those who need sign interpretation.
A sign notes that a front-row bench at a stage at the State Fair is reserved for audience members who need a clear view of a sign language interpreter.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Sometimes particularly expressive sign language interpreters wind up as the subject of viral videos. To Hoting Mrazek, that’s a distraction from what is most important about what interpreters do.

“It’s really more about the deaf community and the deaf community’s access to have equality with all the hearing people at the State Fair,” she said. “So, they can enjoy the music, visually, the same way as the hearing people enjoy it, auditorially.”