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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Advances in Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

Cynthia B. Roy, Editor

Chapter Seven

From Theory to Practice:
Making the Interpreting Process Come Alive in the Classroom

Robert G. Lee

One of the greatest challenges in teaching interpreting is providing students with both an abstract knowledge of a theory of interpretation and a personal understanding of the application of the theory. The ability to recite the stages in a specific theory is not a particularly helpful skill for a student interpreter. Along with knowing the outline of a model, students must be able to experience the stages, thereby developing an awareness of their own control of the interpreting process. A primary goal of teaching the interpreting process is providing students with a feeling of control, something they can take away from the classroom and exercise on their own. The following exercise is designed to help students in both acquiring knowledge of the interpreting process and understanding their control of it. I begin by outlining the underlying model framing the exercise, then provide some preliminary notes, and finally explain the exercise itself.


Having taught interpreting in both workshop and university settings, I have been struck that many interpreters, novice or experienced, talk about the application of a theory of interpretation but rarely put theory into practice outside a learning environment. In working with student interpreters, I want to instill an understanding of the interpreting process from the very beginning to help them integrate the process in their work in and out of the classroom.

Theoretical Framework

The model I am working under is Dennis Cokely’s sociolinguistic model of the interpreting process (Cokely 1992). I have chosen this model for a variety of reasons. First, I feel that the level of detail it offers is helpful in clarifying for students the discrete stages that interpreters proceed through in order to successfully interpret between two languages. Second, the model clearly delineates those specific skills needed at various points in the interpreting process. The ability to know and articulate one’s work in terms of subparts can be very helpful in looking at successful and less successful interpretations. Third, Cokely’s taxonomy of miscues is very helpful in having students discuss why a specific interpreted message is successful or not.[1]

Some have claimed that Cokely’s model is too complicated for students to learn, let alone work with in a classroom setting. I disagree; I think we underestimate the ability of students to both learn a complex theory of interpreting and apply it. I have found that students may be somewhat daunted by the model initially but that clear presentation and examples of application help students to learn the model as outlined by Cokely as well as use it in discussing their own work and the work of their classmates. In addition, students have reported that the ability to look at the stages of their work and see

1. Cokely defines a miscue as “a lack of equivalence between the s(ource)L(anguage) message and its interpretation or, more specifically, a lack of concordance between the information in an interpretation and the information in the s(source)L(anguage) message it is supposed to convey” (Cokely 1992, 74).
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