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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Innovative Practices for Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

Cynthia B. Roy, Editor

Chapter One

Training Interpreters -
Past, Present, and Future

Cynthia B. Roy

Ever since the formal education of interpreters began, educators have been trying to determine what to teach in order to produce entry-level interpreters who achieve the minimum level of competence needed to perform their jobs successfully. Etilvia Mona, former director of the translation and interpretation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, suggested that interpreter training programs should take students to levels in which they “routinely transfer or interpret the message accurately and appropriately, thus bridging the communicative gap in a meaningful manner” (1983, 6). The notion that beginning interpreters should be able to consistently convey accurate and appropriate messages—no matter what the situation or event—is intriguing. Nevertheless, this concept is consistent with the way that other professions construct their educational programs. How best to teach students a body of knowledge, as well as a professional skill, that adequately meets entry-level requirements is a question most interpreter-training programs are still trying to answer.

One problem is a profession-wide lack of agreement about what constitutes a basic, or generic, interpreted meeting and what an interpreter must know and be able to do to participate in an appropriate way. Training programs typically base courses and curricula on theories borrowed from translation studies, spoken-language training exercises, and information-processing techniques. They also practice interpreting as it is done in specialized settings such as schools, doctors’ offices, and courtrooms. Interpreting courses, consciously or unconsciously, are designed around the concept of an interpreter as a producer of a text—a singular, bounded entity of words, sentences, or signs. In such a framework, the correctness (or equivalence) of the text is central, speakers are secondary, and listeners are typically anonymous. Interpreters are—and students learn to think of themselves as—passive conveyors of others’ words and thoughts. Most programs accept this set of beliefs about an interpreter’s role and pay little, if any, attention to the nature of interpreted situations or to the other participants within such situations.

When educators do have a chance to gather and discuss training, they rarely discuss fundamental notions such as those just considered. Rather, they present teaching activities at conferences, which permit only a brief exchange of ideas or activities. Extended discussion, practice, and evaluation are precluded by time constraints. These activities are often presented as random teaching strategies, without grounding in theoretical notions of language, or in interaction among people, or in connections to research. Instructors who take home “new” ideas are often unable to determine their place in a curriculum, and they do not have a sequential, scaffolding learning structure that allows them to incorporate the “new” activity and then proceed to the next stage. Courses thus become haphazard strings of exercises and activities that lack a clear purpose.

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