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Ginger Dellenbaugh

Ginger Dellenbaugh is a cultural critic, musician, and professor at The New School, where she teaches about music, politics, and the voice. A trained opera singer, she performed for over a decade in Europe and the U.S. In 2015, she released the album Pastorale. Dellenbaugh lives in Vienna, Austria, and New York.

“Seeing Songs: Pop Music, Sign Language, and the Translation of Voice into Sung Silence”
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode “Louder than a Whisper” features Riva, a famous mediator fetched to solve a blood-feud on a neighboring planet. He arrives on the Enterprise accompanied by a translator chorus; Riva is deaf, and his empathic entourage speaks for him, resulting in a voice beyond a normal speaker’s natural capacity. It is this compound voice—speaking wisdom, passion, and logic—that gives Riva his magical gift for mediation. When his chorus is killed, Riva is lost. Without his voices, he loses his power to influence others.

Vocal power, its allure, is difficult to define. In his oft-cited text about the voice, Roland Barthes settles on the term “grain.” For philosopher Mladen Dolar, this is less a quality than a voice in and of itself, a “third voice” existing somewhere between the semantic and aesthetic. For the deaf (like actor Howie Seago, who played Riva), the “grain” would appear to be out of reach. While sign-language follows all the patterns of established languages, it lacks the one quality essential for grasping vocalization's elusive appeal—vibrations of the voice in space. Song, in particular, seems beyond translation. For both Dolar and Barthes, the sung voice heightens the ineffable je ne sais quoi—song is where the voice flexes its seductive muscles.

And yet, there is an astonishing niche economy for sung voice translators—non-profits like Bridges Nashville, for example, provide highly specialized, genre-specific ASL linguists for artists as diverse as Beyoncé and Vince Gill. Like Riva's chorus, the sung-voice translator represents a porous layer between emitter and receiver. The translator becomes the essential mediator of a time-based process that specifically seeks to represent the voice's “grain” and song content, but within limits—they cannot afford to lag. In holding to tempo, the interpreter must sacrifice text to serve rhythm, entering into a liminal space where signs, musicality, and the voice's particular qualities combine. As a result, the translator functions not as a mimic of the performer but rather as an embodiment of the performer's voice—a mute reification somewhere between elocution and dance, semantics and aesthetics. It is a voice projected in soundless space, a sibling, perhaps, to the unique phenomenon of the inner voice—a voice that sings, but has no sound; a voice that we recognize, but cannot define.

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