Signing to the Music

Jeff Wildenstein uses ASL to interpret lectures, plays and rock shows for the local deaf community.

1/ Wildenstein also teaches yoga. “Being able to visualize what the ASL translation is going to look like prior to doing a show is very similar to preparing for a yoga class,” he says.

2/ Recent challenge: when Beck sang a brand new rap song in concert. “I ended up signing something like, ‘He’s speaking very fast, a lot of words the interpreter can’t hear.’”

3/ Dream assignment: interpreting for (deceased) singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley.

4/ Despite technological advancements, “ASL is its own bona fide language,” Wildenstein says, “and it’s here to stay.”

Unlike many American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, Capitol Hill resident Jeff Wildenstein, 40, didn’t grow up with deaf relatives or friends. In fact, he didn’t discover his knack for ASL until he attended Seattle Central Community College. He graduated from the school’s interpreter training program in 1996 and worked for local agencies before becoming a freelance interpreter in 2004.

Having signed for everyone from President Obama to David Sedaris to the Dalai Lama, Wildenstein has found particular joy and success interpreting rock concerts for the likes of U2, Gwen Stefani, Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists.

The process of translating music for the deaf is lengthy, requiring advance study, memorization of lyrics and concepts, and practice with an interpreting teammate and a deaf coach.

“You’re also paying attention to the rhythm so you can land the signs to the beat,” Wildenstein adds. “It’s kind of an out-of-body experience—in some deep recess of my mind I’m actually the singer portraying my music out to the world.” His goal for each show? “I want deaf people to basically leave with the same experience that a hearing person would.”