Where'd I Park the TARDIS?  The Pop-Culture Savvy Terp

By: Kaitlyn Mielke


Who Ya Gonna Call?

To interpret effectively for Deaf and Hard of Hearing consumers in the K-12 and postsecondary education systems, educational sign language interpreters should be savvy on popular culture issues and trends.Think of the eighth grader proclaiming their love for vampires who sparkle inthe sun. What about the high school student sketching picture after picture ofa TARDIS? Or the group of college students hotly debating the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey? Let’s not neglect the kindergarteners sporting Frozen apparel and singing “Let It Go” for the umpteenth time. What about the high number of young padawan learners practicing their lightsaber skills in preparation of the newest Star Wars film? Then we have those who have been eagerly anticipating their letters of acceptance to Hogwarts.Still think a working knowledge of popular culture is unnecessary in workingwith students in K-12 and postsecondary settings? Think again. May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor.

There are a number of possible scenarios when pop culture references surface in working with Deaf/HOH students.You are interpreting a discussion between the Deaf consumer and their friends about a movie. You haven’t seen the movie, and decide not to interpret the conversation as you don’t want to ruin the movie for yourself. This puts the Deaf student in a sticky situation – refusing to interpret the conversation, the interpreter has unknowingly made the Deaf student a social pariah.You find yourself on the field amidst players straddling broomsticks, hearing utterances of “Quaffle” and “Bludgers” as well as catching something called the “Snitch” which oddly resembles a student in a gold lame bodysuit running around with a tennis ball in a sock hanging off the back of their shorts.You have a second grader who insists on naming every Pokemon character on the cards in his hands and expect you to know them, let alone pronounce the names.You are cornered by a cult following of Gleeks demanding the reason for why you do not know the names of the famous Broadway actors who guest star on the show depicting a high school Glee club. This leads to a “Who’s Who” of McKinley High school – and you are still struggling to remember the names of the consumer’s own classmates.You are in a college class where the professor has made a sly reference tolast night’s episode of Game of Thrones which you do not watch as you did not feel the need to do so.The Deaf student in front of you has no idea who Madonna or Michael Jackson or Beyonce are, and you have a choice to feed them information under the table. Go ahead and interpret someone’s ringtone of “Single Ladies”along with an explanation to the Deaf student if needed. What about moments where the Drama class bursts into a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” – is it your role to explain to the consumer of its significance in the hearing world. After all, those moments would be classified under hearing privilege.You find yourself being asked whether you are Team Edward or Team Jacob.Which side do you take – that of the vampire or the werewolf? You’re in the middle of a group sing-along of “Let It Go” with little Elsas and Annas crowding around you. Do you know the lyrics? You want to run away and hide after accidentally misquoting the well-known quote and make the Deaf consumer lose their credibility as a diehard fan? Not to mention, there’s the taboo words such as You-Know-Who.

 In short, the conversations that happen outside class (and during class) are as important as those taking place in class. Just because your fancy degree in interpreting didn’t cover popular culture references, does not mean that those references should be categorized as ‘fluff’ and deemed unimportant. Note the presence of two interpreters – one checking their email on their phone, the other reading the latest Percy Jackson book. Which one will ultimately be more effective in voicing for the fifth grade student’s discussions on Greek and Roman demigods? Interpret it all – the references, the comparisons, the theories, the discussions– everything. Let the consumer decided if they want to partake in or not. Don’t assume the Deaf consumer in front of you would care less about who has the Ring or know who the Tenth Doctor was. Even if it goes against your preferences (on various grounds – moral, ethical,personal belief, etc) do be open minded and pick up the book and read it. It’s not about you – it’s about the self-proclaimed (fill-in-the-blank) in front of you.The more you know about the particular fandom, the better you will be at interpreting for the specific Deaf/HOH consumer.Live Long and Prosper Now that you’ve accepted the fact that you need to include Popular Culture 101 into your prep workload, the question presents itself: how do Iresearch/prep?Fear not – there’s no need to learn Elvish or Klingon. Read what the studentsare reading. Watch what they are watching. Listen to what they are listeningto. Brush up on fandom-specific jargon and well-known sayings and you’llkeep up with those Potterheads, Trekkies, Gleeks, Jedi, Ringers, Whovians,Narnians, Tributes,Twihards, Bronies, Pokemaniacs and everyone inbetween.So dust off those stacks of books, whether it be Harry Potter, The HungerGames, Twilight, or Lord of the Rings. Pull out those DVDs of Star Wars andback episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek. Set the DVR for every upcoming episode of Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey. Join in tailgating for theSuperbowl game on TV, spiffy up for the Oscars broadcast, and vote for your favorites on Dancing with the Stars. Buy your tickets for Mockingjay Part 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Aside from those, engage in discussions with the students and their particular choice(s) of fandom. Do be prepared for the Look when telling them that you haven’t read this book or seen this movie or TV show or heard of this musician or song. But do let them lead you on a crash course of everything one would need to know to survive in that particular universe – even when the student drags up the podium and turns on a PowerPoint presentation, notecards at the ready. Ask them about fandom-centric sign choices and preferences. Keep track of which consumers belong to which fandom(s) (and try not to mix them up). 

You’ve got an excuse now .

May the Force be with you.


Kaitlyn Mielke, a recent graduate of University of Minnesota Twin Cities with
a Master in Liberal Studies, did her thesis on interpreting for the performing
arts with a special focus on Musical Theatre. She also has a Bachelor of
Individualized Study from UMN in English, Theatre Arts, and Deaf Studies.
She works as a Sign Master collaborating with interpreting teams for touring
Broadway musicals. When not sitting in the front row of a show, she can be
found with her nose in a good book (Harry Potter, for instance) or working on
multiple writing projects.
She has a blog at http://thecreativepensieve.blogspot.com/ and can be
reached at [email protected]