Chapter One of Sign Language Interpreting continued...
banner Seleskovitch suggests that word-for-word literal translations are not even possible a majority of the time: "There are words which have direct equivalents in other languages, just as there are words which are ‘untranslatable.' This is a cliché which, for once, is true, but with one small correction: untranslatable words are the rule, and words which always have exact translations the exception" (1978, 84). The fact that there simply is not a one-to-one correspondence of words between languages has influenced the search for semantic equivalence. Ray (1976) describes the problem of translating the French pronoun il into Bengali, a language with pronouns that do not distinguish gender. She indicates that in order to translate the meaning of the original in an equivalent fashion, one must incorporate the notion of masculine, despite the fact that this might require structural changes. Various approaches to determine the semantic equivalents of words in different languages have been developed to aid the translator in trying to avoid making personal or subjective decisions—to remain neutral and not personally influence the text itself. For instance, Nida (1975) discusses the use of componential analysis in the identification of the contrastive features of certain words for translation purposes.

Another example of the search for equivalent meaning can be seen in the translation of figurative language. Herbert (1968) posits that translators should find equivalent expressions, rather than attempting literal translations of such literary devices as proverbs and metaphors. However, Frishberg (1990) cautions that such choices might be situationally dependent. She describes how the substitution of one literary quote for a quote of similar historical and symbolic meaning in the target language can be appropriate in one circumstance, but not another. She cites an example from Mehta (1971) in which a United Nations interpreter renders a quote from Pushkin within a Russian presentation into an equivalent quote from Shakespeare in the English translation. Frishberg (1990) points out that such a feat would be difficult between English and ASL due to the fact that ASL literature has not traditionally been taught in schools, and thus, ASL literary quotations might not be widely recognized by many audiences (52). Frishberg is not alone in suggesting that situational factors influence such choices in translation (for example, Herbert 1968; Wilss 1982). In fact, the issues that influence translator decisions in the search for equivalence can be described as both numerous and contradictory.

Savory (1968) identifies ten requirements for the production of a good translation. These include the need for a translation to represent both the words and the ideas of the original. As has been discussed here, deferring exclusively to either the words or the ideas of a source text can be problematic, while attempting to do both simultaneously exacerbates these problems. What is, perhaps, most interesting about the pursuit of equivalency is that the underlying premise for both literal and free translation appears to be the same: translators should not influence the texts with which they work.


Much of the research and discussion on interpretation has been influenced by information-processing models that perpetuate the notion of interpreters as machines or conduits (Roy 1989a, 1993). These studies have primarily focused on input (same time + rates), manipulation and segmentation of information (lag + chunking + pauses), and strategies used to cope with information overload.

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