SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone who’s attended the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival knows that when those storytellers walk out onstage, you never know what’s coming next.
It could be anything from piece of African folklore to a story based on the storyteller’s life, presented in anything from song to rhyme to a conversational style.
It’s all part of the magic of storytelling: You’ll never hear the same story, told in exactly the same way, twice.
But one year, when two storytellers walked onstage and announced they would tell their story in pig Latin, Dale Boam knew he had a challenge ahead of him.
Boam, who has been one of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival’s regular American Sign Language interpreters for about nine years, thought fast on his feet.
“They started singing this song in pig Latin and I thought to myself ‘How in the world do you interpret something in Pig Latin (into ASL)?’ And the first thing that popped in my mind is I’m just going to interpret it straight and do a pig nose with my other hand,” Boam said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “Luckily it worked for the show.”
For 29 years, the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival has brought storytellers — each with their own signature tones, cadences, facial expressions and modes of delivery — from all over the world to tell their stories and this year’s festival, which runs Sept. 6-8 at Thanksgiving Point’s Ashton Gardens in Lehi, won’t be an exception.
But for ASL interpreters like Boam, each year of the festival and each individual event presents its own set of challenges — and opportunities — for how to accurately interpret an art form so rooted in the nuance of how it is delivered verbally into ASL.
Boam, who works as a lawyer primarily representing people who are deaf in addition to coordinating Utah Valley University’s deaf studies interpreter program, often interprets plays and other events where he can receive a script beforehand to prepare, but the storytelling festival is a completely different ballgame.
“It’s never the same thing twice,” Boam said. “Even if you’ve interpreted for that storyteller before and they’re telling a story that you have interpreted before, there’s always changes and nuance and sometimes the storytellers themselves never know which story they’re going to tell before they stand up on the stage.”
Boam said transitioning between the differing grammar structures can be another obstacle — especially with puns.
“Puns — oh my gosh,” he said with a laugh. “Puns are terrible because puns are cultural and they’re dependent on the specific language, so puns are tough (to interpret) but they’re not impossible. Nothing is impossible, but they are difficult.”
Kristi Mortensen, who is deaf and has attended several Timpanogos Storytelling events, including workshops during the festival and the organization’s annual Biggest Liars Contest in the spring, said although telling stories verbally and with ASL are obviously different, they both rely on visuals. She said a hearing storyteller uses words to paint a picture in the heads of listeners, while a deaf person paints the picture with their body.
“The hearing storytellers are all based on sound and wording but for deaf people, it’s different. It’s set up on visual rhyming and expression,” Mortensen said in an interview. “For hearing storytellers, it’s like what they say, the inflection in their voice, is like the expression I put on my face.”
So when a story is being interpreted, Mortensen said the interpreter’s body movement and facial expression are paramount to the story being told accurately.
“The interpreter must feel the story at the beginning when they start signing it,” said Mortensen, who said stories and storytelling has always been a passion. “They have to listen to the voice inflection. Even 5 or 10 minutes into it, they start to understand the story and can sign it accurately and put it in the little nuances.”
While Mortensen said process and accuracy differ from interpreter to interpreter, she said the different styles of the storytellers can also make a difference. Boam comes from a storytelling family — “My wife says nothing ever just happens to a Boam. There’s always a story,” Boam said — and participates in Timpanogos Storytelling events both as an interpreter and as a storyteller, including the 2017 Biggest Liars Contest, which he won. Mortensen saw his performance and said his was one of the easiest for her to understand.
“He used his body and gestures and it made it easier for the interpreter to catch everything, and I understood everything,” Mortensen said.
Boam emphasized that interpreting the storytelling festival is made easier and more enjoyable by the fact that communication in the deaf culture is built on storytelling. He used the example of a conversation about a football game. Boam said hearing people go into a conversation assuming that even if the other person didn’t see the game, they likely at least heard about it, so they often don’t give background information.
“(But) the way deaf people communicate is exactly opposite of that,” Boam said. “They come into a situation … and tell you the story (of what happened) and give you the foundation and background until you tell them to stop. … You have to tell the story and give the foundation and give the background information, so storytelling in American Sign Language … , it is a deaf art form, and it’s amazing.”
Because of that, Boam said, members of the deaf community are ideal audience members for the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
“(As) an interpreter … I have to remember (that) the story is a very cultural idea in the deaf community and so … I have to, in my interpretation, sort of give a nod to the ASL story grammar and structure, but I also have to try to preserve what the storyteller is trying to bring across: the feeling, the movement, the tone,” he said. “It’s a balance, it really is, but it’s a lot of fun to do.”
If you go …
What: Timpanogos Storytelling Festival
When: Sept. 6, 6-9 p.m.; Sept. 7, 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sept. 8, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Where: Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point, 3900 Garden Drive, LehiComment on this story
How much: Various ticket packages available, including weekend passes, day passes and individual event passes. Weekend passes are $30 for children, $40 for students and $50 for adults.
Note: The Timpanogos Storytelling Conference, which features storytelling performance and the use of stories in life, will take place at Ashton Gardens preceding the festival on Sept. 6, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 for students, $90 for adults and $115 for a dual conference and festival weekend pass.