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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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Both the source text as well as the interpretations and transliterations that were produced helped us to further narrow the scope of this first report. As we began analyzing the target texts, one specific type of discourse strategy quickly became our focus—the way that the major topic boundaries were marked and not marked in the targets. Other topics that were immediately salient were the ways that space was used, the strategies used to reflect the involvement strategies of constructed dialogue and action, and the cohesive use of repetition in the source. Although we do not discuss these topics in detail in this chapter, we will mention a few striking examples as they co-occur in some of our other examples. These topics will be fascinating areas of future research that will require in-depth analysis.


For the purposes of identifying and discussing the boundary-marking strategies in this research, we first want to present some working definitions that we used. We make no claim that the definitions we use in this study are exhaustive or definitive.

Topic boundary. A topic boundary is the place in a source-language text or in a target interpretation or transliteration where the signer or speaker indicates, through the use of a variety of discourse strategies and features, that a topic is ending, changing, shifting, expanding, etc. This topic segment would usually include more than one utterance.

Utterance boundary. An utterance boundary comprises the places where a single idea unit is begun and ended.

Discourse strategy. A discourse strategy is the decision by the signer-speaker to use a set of specific linguistic, prosodic, and extralinguistic features common to a language to communicate an underlying message. This definition is based on Gumperz’s (1982) discussion. For example, pausing in a text is a strategy that enables the audience to chunk the discourse structure of a presentation and to interpret the underlying meaning of the presenter.

Features. Features are the physical productions that combine to produce a message. For example, eyebrow raise, torso shift, and head nod were considered individual features that may be combined within a discourse strategy (see Photo 6.1).

Pauses. Other studies such as that by Siple (1993) discussed the nature of pausing in transliterated texts: “[S]ign language interpreters do rely on source message pauses when creating by transliteration the target message, and tend to show a pause at the same location at which pauses are present in the source message” (p. 171). However, for the purpose of this study, we used the definitions of pauses defined in Winston (2000):

For spoken languages, the pause may simply be the cessation of sound. But for ASL the pause can be more complex. While it is similar to spoken languages in that there is a cessation (of movement rather than sound), it is different in that the signer can continue to hold the signs in space, keeping the watcher’s attention on the sign rather than in the absence of it. (p. 109)

Winston (2000) tentatively identified three types of pauses used by signers in ASL: the filled pause, the prosodic pause, and the extralinguistic pause. These are somewhat different than those of Siple. Siple’s (1993) “empty” pause is our “extralinguistic” pause. Our prosodic pause includes any type of feature shift between clauses. Siple’s two categories of “held” and “filled” pauses are our “filled” pause. Our preliminary types of pausing were developed from studies of ASL source texts. In our study of target texts, we have found that these kinds of pauses also occur in both the interpreted and transliterated texts.
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