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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Innovative Practices for Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

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approach-taking words and phrases as starting points for defining units of meaning-is not in line with current understanding of the nature of discourse, meaning, and interaction between communicants (Goffman 1981, Gumperz 1982, Wadensjö 1998). In fact, it contributes to the faulty notion that words (or signs) in and of themselves have meanings that do not change over the course of an interpretation and can be transformed with only a dictionary knowledge of a language. Although words have meanings as they stand alone in a dictionary-type, static sense, they begin to acquire multiple, layered meanings the minute they are exchanged, connected to experiences, and used by people within specific situations and times.

When interpreting skills were taught specifically, instructors employed a methodology of successive approximation, according to which students were provided with texts, either spoken English or ASL, and were expected to produce simultaneous interpretation from the outset of their training (rather than acquiring this complex skill in stages). The goal of this sort of training was to gradually improve the degree to which a student’s target language product approximated a quality interpretation.

Although many of the instructors were community interpreters, the bulk of whose interpreting consisted of interaction among three participants, courses were structured as though conference (or platform) interpreting were the typical model of interpreting. When interpreting for a single speaker, the focus is on the informational content of a message. Thus courses came to emphasize primarily details of the message’s surface form rather than the communicative situation as a whole. Accordingly, teaching then focused on accuracy and speed.

Cognitive psychologists and psycholinguists, whose central area of interest was language processing and transference, conducted much of the early research on interpreting. Focusing on the complexity of the tasks of simultaneously listening, understanding, reformulating, and speaking, this research produced detailed models of the cognitive stages necessary to perform the task of interpreting (Gerver 1976; Moser 1978; Cokely 1984). Research into cognitive processes involved hypothesizing about what went on in the minds of interpreters, which often resulted in the application of deductive, experimental, or quasi-experimental research. The logic behind such studies concentrates on omissions and distortions, asking questions such as What gets lost? and What gets added? Studies with this orientation thus prescribed what interpreters ought to be doing and saying. Success or failure was defined as the degree to which the interpreted message approximated the source message rather than whether the participants perceived the event as successful and whether the task of a meeting was accomplished.

This perspective misses the complex ways in which talk is dynamic, going back and forth between two or more speakers while they ask questions, argue, complain, or joke. Also missed is the dynamic activity during which the interpreter assists this exchange and manages the direction and flow of talk. Imagined listeners—and their responses and expectations—are not considered or assigned any importance. Talk as text is removed from the natural process of ordinary conversation and conversational features such as two speakers talking at the same time, one speaker correcting a misunderstanding, or one speaker talking directly to an interpreter.

Elsewhere I have attributed this way of thinking to everyday perceptions about language and communication (Roy 1989, 1993) and to what Reddy (1979) calls the conduit model of language and communication. These conduit metaphors, used to describe the role and function of an interpreter, reveal an underlying perception of the interpreter’s role as passive and neutral. These metaphors blind re- searchers and educators to a concept of the interpreter as a conversational participant who has an impact on a situation and almost obscure the impact individual speakers have on the situation.

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