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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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Neglected is the interactive nature of most interpreting situations and the complex nature of meaning produced by human beings who are purposely interacting. An approach that emphasizes discourse and interaction understands that people use language to do things and that language always occurs within specific situations that are composed of linguistic, social, and interactive conventions as well as conversational styles and attributes. In a discourse approach, for example, the question “Can I help you?” does not have the same meaning, and thus the same interpretation, when uttered by a receptionist, a secretary, and a bank vice-president. The meaning of this relatively simple question clearly depends on several factors, such as the status of the persons uttering the question, their reasons for asking, and their expectations for a response.

A New Approach

Researchers increasingly realized that interpreting is an active process of communicating between two languages and cultures and that theoretical frameworks of social interaction, sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis are more appropriate for analyzing the task of interpreting. My own study (Roy 1989) demonstrated that an interpreter actively participated in an interpreted event and made several decisions in regard to taking turns within a teacher-student exchange. Wadensjö (1992) demonstrated that interpreters are asked direct questions, and they answer them, ask for clarification, and participate in the process, while Metzger (1995) demonstrated that when an interpreter responds briefly to a direct question, the interpreter’s effect on the communication is minimal.

This perspective in research (and teaching) explores the social order of real-life interpreter-mediated conversations. It tries to detect what people in these situations expect as the adequate (should we say “correct?”) way to act, given the immediate situation. It asks what norms of language use are valid in a given conversational event and what norms are valid for which persons and why. As Wadensjö suggests, “For instance, what communicative conventions are involved when an interpreter, talking on behalf of another person, suddenly switches from ‘I’ to an emphasized ‘she’?” (1998, 5).

The starting point for this research is speech activities or, as Wadensjö (1998) suggests, speech genres, situated in their sociocultural context. These concepts come from the work of sociolinguists such as John Gumperz (1982), sociologist Erving Goffman (1981), language philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1986), and others. From these theoretical explanations of the nature of conversational interaction, recent interpreting research has begun to seek participants’ perspectives, “trying to find out what meaning they attribute to particular words; how phrases and stretches of talk make sense to different actors in situated events” (Wadensjö 1998, 7). This approach forces the perspective of interpreting as “dynamic inter-activity” (Wadensjö 1998, 7). And this perspective asks how all the participants are making sense of what they are talking about, of what they are doing with talk. Interactional analysis then analyzes the ways in which participants use language and discourse strategies and how they use both language and strategies differently. Within this analysis, words and longer phrases are simply one part of the whole picture.

This perspective sees talk as an activity in which participants determine minute-by-minute the meaning of something that is said. This means that speakers and interpreters process information at several levels. At any one point in a conversation, participants rely on schemata or interpretive frames (Bateson 1982; Gumperz 1982; Tannen 1979) based on their experiences with similar situations as well as grammatical and lexical knowledge. In doing this speakers (and interpreters) rely on their knowledge of both variation and ritual in language to interpret the significance of conversational options. When people engage in interpreter-mediated interaction, they see themselves as doing things, such as asking for information, explaining, making a request, arguing, and so on. As participants talk back and forth, the meaning they assign to various words and phrases becomes something they compose together, and all participants work to make sense of the talk. Words and utterances have meanings and functions within layers of context, layers that are particular to the individual situation and to generalizable, recurring situations. What participants say and mean can be understood only when considered as part of a reciprocal process among the individuals present.


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