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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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For decades now, the théorie du sens, or sense-based, interpretive theory of interpreting (and translation) championed by Seleskovitch at E.S.I.T. in Paris, has served as a simple and effective conceptual underpinning for the Paris School’s widely adopted pedagogical approach (cf. Seleskovitch and Lederer 1989/1995), which has recently been extended also to interpreting with signed languages (Seleskovitch and Lederer 2002). At the same time, research on the cognitive component skills in (simultaneous) interpreting was used to propose a more scientifically based approach to training (e.g. Lambert 1988). Which, then, is the better paradigm for teaching?

The point here is not which theoretical and methodological framework to choose, but that there is a choice available in the first place! And for a teacher to make an informed choice about his or her understanding (conceptualization, model, theory) of interpreting, s/he must at some point take stock of what knowledge, however tentatively held, there is. In my recent attempt at facilitating such a stock-taking (Pöchhacker 2004), I have suggested that there are a number of paradigms in interpreting studies which are not so much competing with each other (in the strict Kuhnian sense) as complementing each other. The interpretive theory of the Paris School, research on mental processes rooted in the cognitive and even neuro-sciences, approaches from translation theory foregrounding communicative functions and (target )cultural norms, and analyses of (interpreted) discourse in cross-cultural interaction within social institutions all offer a broad range of insights into interpreting, covering many, but by no means all, facets of the phenomenon. There is much room for complementing or consolidating the current knowledge base, and this is of course where research, i.e., theoretical or empirical innovation, comes in. But not every teacher of interpreting needs to be a productive researcher (unless required by the academic institution); being an informed consumer of research would already go a long way.

Admittedly, this assessment is based mainly on spoken-language conference interpreting, for which several authors have raised doubts about the impact of the interpreting studies literature on actual teaching practices (e.g. Dodds and Katan 1997, 90). Referring specifically to training-oriented research, Gile (1990, 33) concludes that

it does not seem to have had any significant effect on training methods and results except in courses given by the researchers themselves, and sometimes in the schools where they teach, but on the whole, interpretation instructors prefer to keep their personal, most often traditional methods, and take no heed of research.

It is hard to say whether progress in interpreter education since the early 1990s has been such as to render Gile’s statement obsolete. His pessimistic assessment is certainly a challenge to this collection of “innovative practices” and to its predecessor. Observational research on teaching practices, as pioneered by Paneth (1957), would be needed in response.

Looking at some of the contributions in this volume, there is certainly encouraging evidence of a broader view, and of research that does make a difference in interpreter education. The work of Dennis Cokely is a case in point: Based on a shift of emphasis, if not paradigm shift, from a “monologic” cognitive-processing view to a focus on different genres of interactive discourse, and on the strength of empirical research on assignment types, Cokely (this volume) questions long-standing curricular arrangements and justifies their replacement by an innovative sequencing of courses. At the same time, Cokely’s (1992) processing model is put to good use by Lee (this volume) in an exercise to make students more aware of cognitive component skills such as monitoring.

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