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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Advances in Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

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With all due respect for the teaching efforts that brought forth generations of highly esteemed international conference interpreters, it seems fair to say that, for many years, the knowledge base for the teaching of conference interpreters owed more to personal experience and intuition than to systematic research.

It must be acknowledged, of course, that across professional domains the teaching of interpreters had to be jump-started by practitioners without the benefit of consolidated research findings. Simultaneous interpreters were trained long before the task and its features (e.g. time lag) were first studied experimentally by Oléron and Nanpon (1965/2002) and, some two decades later, by Dennis Cokely (1992) for sign language interpreting. By the same token, dialogue interpreting in community settings was the subject of training initiatives years before the discourse-based analysis of the task by Cecilia Wadensjö (1998). In an important sense, then, research has followed rather than preceded teaching, at least in the formative stages of interpreter education. Hence the inevitable tension between tradition and innovation, between teaching approaches inspired mainly by professional practice, and insights gained from various forms of research.

But the time delay with which research findings become available is only part of the problem. A more general limitation stems from the relatively weak academic infrastructure for generating research on interpreting and interpreter education. With the exception of Paris, where Seleskovitch succeeded in “conquering the bastion of the Sorbonne” and establishing a doctoral program in traductologie as early as 1974, most well-established schools for (translator and) interpreter training struggled until the 1990s to offer more than a graduate (MA) degree. Even the venerable school in Geneva fared no better, and it is hardly surprising that university-level programs for interpreter education in the US do not normally extend to the doctoral level. In many cases, therefore, the kind of sustained research effort that is required for completing a PhD – and for generating substantial theoretical or empirical innovation – will be carried out in a disciplinary framework other than that of interpreting studies. In the best case, this can be a source of great interdisciplinary enrichment – as with Cynthia Roy’s broadly sociolinguistic approach; conversely, research may take a path that primarily suits the interests of, say, psycholinguists or neurophysiologists rather than scholars and teachers of interpreting.

For teachers of interpreting, research is of interest in at least two ways: they may want to publish, usually about what they do, in order to advance their academic career; or they may look to the research literature for guidance in their teaching. Either option could be subsumed under the principle of research-based teaching, which is the hallmark of university-level education. It should be stressed, I think, that research need not be geared mainly to immediate application in the classroom. Any inquiry that deepens our understanding of interpreting as a practice – in particular interactions, in a given institution, in society at large, or even in history – and sharpens our analysis of the task and its performance will be valuable in its own right, by making teachers more knowledgeable about the subject of their teaching (and their professional practice). This would mean that teaching staff should be conversant with the state of the art in research on interpreting; judging from some colleagues I know, in some institutions, this is by no means universally the case. But if Seleskovitch (1978, 11) was right to claim that “to interpret one must first understand”, it would be reasonable to formulate the corollary that “to teach, one must first understand interpreting”. The question is, of course, what level of understanding, of familiarity with the state of the art, would be required. What and how much does a teacher of interpreting need to know?

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