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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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From Topic Boundaries to Omission: New Research on Interpretation
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Mather and Winston (1995) investigated prosodic patterns in ASL story retellings, illustrating patterns of spatial use that were prosodic in nature. Another discussion of ASL prosody by Mather (1989) also provided research about the uses of eye gaze in ASL for teaching preschool children, and Bahan and Supalla (1995) presented research demonstrating that eye gaze serves as a segment boundary marker in ASL. Winston (2000) presented a preliminary discussion of prosodic features found in ASL discourse. She listed and described several features that make up ASL prosody, including configurations of the head, eyes, face, torso, and hands within the signing space. These configurations result in patterns of intonation or prosody that are essential parts of ASL discourse.

Wilbur (1994) discussed the use of eye blink as a marker of ASL phrase structure. Brentari (1998), in her in-depth study of ASL phonology, provided information and insight into the prosodic structures of ASL at the phonological level. She detailed features such as syllable length and structure. Nespor and Sandler (1999) investigated the interaction of phonology and syntax in Israeli Sign Language, describing features such as hand dominance and phonological prosody.

In addition, studies of other ASL features are helpful to interpreters and transliterators. Some of these studies address different uses of space. For example, Locker McKee (1992) investigated the eye-gaze and body-posture cues in constructed dialogue, asides, and quotations in ASL. Winston (1995), Metzger (1995), and Metzger and Bahan (2001), have reported on performatives, constructed dialogue, and constructed action (commonly referred to as role shifting). Moreover, descriptions and papers, most especially in publications like the proceedings of the various CIT conventions, discuss ASL features found in transliteration. These provide some excellent pointers but are not clearly grounded in research. In fact, common belief is that, to be effective, transliteration requires a prerequisite knowledge of ASL and of interpreting (Colonomos, 1992). Again, these commonly accepted beliefs that are held by some in the field are not adequately substantiated by research. Unfortunately, those who do not know either ASL or interpreting find that ignoring these claims is easy because adequate research is lacking. One of our ongoing goals for this study is to investigate these commonly accepted claims.

A frequent question asked by students and working interpreters relates to the relationship of ASL to transliteration. Hence, a long-term goal of this area of research is to analyze the ASL features that are required in transliteration. In this narrowed chapter, we look specifically at pausing in both interpretations and transliterations. We compare the same person interpreting and transliterating a single spoken-English source and analyze the pausing features used at major topic boundaries.

We often hear from those who transliterate only, especially when they have learned English signs without a foundation in ASL, that they see no need for knowing ASL. A study of transliterated texts produced by skilled, qualified interpreters provides one perspective on the need for ASL as a foundation for any transliteration. The Sofinski et al. (2001) study mentioned above is another source of information on this issue. The pausing features analyzed in our preliminary study demonstrate that ASL prosodic features occur throughout the transliterations. ASL pausing and phrasing features such as use of space for sentence boundaries, lengthened final holds for signs, and head and torso shifting are essential to clear segmenting of ideas and topics within a text. No English features are used to segment these texts because the segmenting features are not English words. One could argue that pausing is a prosodic feature used by all languages. However, the nature and form of the pauses in signed and spoken languages are different. In spoken languages, pauses are defined by the length of the silence between words. In signed languages and systems, silence is irrelevant.


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