Arts Profile: Mark Nakhla Talks Sign Language, YouTube Fame, and Expressive Therapy
If you’re bored of Wesleyan’s stale, English-only music scene, Mark Nakhla ’13 offers something fresh: he interprets and performs popular songs in sign language. Since his first forays into signing, Nakhla has carved out an impressive niche for himself, adapting increasingly more complex interpretations of songs like Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Drake’s “Headlines” that have amassed tens of thousands of views on YouTube. The Argus sat down with Nakhla to discuss the craft of sign language interpretation and his plans for the future.
The Argus: How did you get interested in sign language?
Mark Nakhla: I took sign language because I needed a fourth class freshman year [laughs]. I took Spanish throughout high school, but it was so different. They keep emphasizing when you learn that [American Sign Language] is a very visual language. You don’t quite understand that until you learn more about it, but that’s why I liked it so much.
The final project of your first year is to do some sort of interpretation, and I did a Taylor Swift song. The second year you pick up a lot more vocab, so it becomes much more of an interpretation instead of just signing the English lyrics. That’s when I did the first video I put on YouTube. I didn’t expect it to be a whole series of videos, but I really liked it. Looking at other sign videos, I realized I could interpret things in ways that hadn’t been done before, so I just ran with it.
A: People often assume that sign is a direct translation of English. Can you talk about the differences between the languages and how those affect your interpretations?
MN: It all comes back to it being a spatial language. When you speak or write any language, you have your paper and you have your words. With signing you have your canvas; what you work with is in the space in front of you. You set up everything in space; if you’re talking about two things in different places, you’re visually showing that. There are a lot of words that have a very similar meaning in sign, a very direct meaning, but it’s not just making sentence after sentence. There’s a separate structure to it.
A: When you’re making a sign interpretation, what do you consider your responsibilities to be?
MN: It has changed over time. When I first started out, I wanted to make it the clearest interpretation possible. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with doing my own interpretations and doing more extensive and difficult songs, I’ve decided that sometimes you need to experiment with things. I’ll do something and people will be like “Whoah, what does that mean?” and I’ll explain it, and they’ll say, “Whoah, I’ve never seen it that way!” That’s how you get twenty different interpretations of a Miley Cyrus song. It’s one of the things that can’t be replicated in English—taking someone else’s material and translating it in your own way without losing some of the meaning.
A: Have you ever thought of signing professionally?
MN: I’d have to take more classes. I’ve only been doing it for two years, but I’ve done so much outside practice that I look more fluent than I am when I’m doing the music. If I were to take more classes, I might pursue it professionally. Maybe not in the music sense; maybe I’d become an interpreter while doing the music thing, carve out my own little niche [laughs].
A: Can you talk about where signing has taken you outside of the videos?
MN: When I put them on YouTube, a bunch of people who watched them asked me to go perform. That’s one of my steady jobs now: to go perform for kids. It’s nice. It’s also given me other opportunities, just the fact that I know sign language has let me do things I couldn’t otherwise. I worked in a hospital last summer, and I was just gonna work with the kids there as a psych intern, just sit there and talk to the kids if they needed it. Through sign language I started my own expressive therapies class, and they were able to talk through their experiences by signing it. That was something no one there was able to think of.
A: What guides your selection for songs?
MN: First, I have to like the song. That’s most important. Usually I’ll try to pick a song that people will recognize or know to some extent. Not that I’m aiming for a ton of YouTube views, but it feels good, not gonna lie.
A: Can you talk about songs being difficult to interpret?
MN: There are certain songs that focus on very English-y things that can’t be translated into ASL. Like brand names, you have to finger-spell the whole thing, that’s not gonna work. I’m sure there are ways to interpret trivial things like women, money, and cars, stuff that a lot of rap is about, but when you interpret that into ASL it won’t make sense. There are ways to do it, but you’ll lose the meaning of each individual line. The whole thing would just be, “Profanity! Sex! Money! Hoes!” That’s pretty much what you get anyway, but it wouldn’t be as slick.
A: Speaking of trivial rap music, what’s the deal with this much-hyped, super-mysterious, probably-awesome [Kanye West and Jay-Z’s] “No Church In The Wild” cover you’ve got in the works?
MN: I’m lucky to have good friends who are film majors! They add a lot to what I set out to do. “No Church in the Wild” is going to feature another signer, too, my friend Greg Faxon, who made a little cameo in the “Headlines” video. It’s going to be more of the same in terms of the crispness and fluidity of the signing, but even more visually appealing.