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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting

Melanie Metzger and
Earl Fleetwood, Editors

Part One: Translation Considerations

Deep and Meaningful Conversation: Challenging Interpreter Impartiality
in the Semantics and Pragmatics Classroom

Lorraine Leeson and Susan Foley-Cave

This chapter challenges the reality of two related notions that are central to interpreter behavior, namely that interpreters are not actively involved in creating the discourse that they “mediate” and that they are impartial with respect to both the message and the participants in an interpreted event.1 While much has been said regarding the myth of neutrality vis-à-vis interpreters in medical settings (Metzger, 1999), police interviews (Wadensjö, 1998), and other legal domains (e.g., Brennan & Brown, 1997), we wish to look at the particular challenges that interpreters face in the postgraduate education environment, specifically, in a classroom dedicated to introducing topics in semantics and pragmatics.

We suggest that the challenge of discussing the semantics of one language in interpretation demands that the interpreter make decisions on several levels. We outline some of these and consider the consequences of such decisions. We also discuss the role of consultation with students and staff regarding the appropriateness of message transfer and contrast the practice of active preparation, as well as consulting and decision making both on and off task, with the notion of the interpreter as mediator and impartial bystander.

Finally we suggest that, while the decisions that interpreters make in a semantics or pragmatics classroom are influenced by a metalinguistic framework, similar decisions are made in other interpreted domains, but the nature of interpreter decision making and information management as a necessary component of successful interpretation is typically overlooked. We propose that the highly embedded model of interpreter as conduit continues to influence our understanding of the interpreters’ role and that this needs to be challenged in order for us to appreciate more fully the nature of co-constructed interpreted discourse in action.


In this section we look at some of the challenges that are specific to the interpretation of semantics and pragmatics. We begin by considering interpreting as a three-party exchange, that is, a triadic interaction (Wadensjö, 1998), and argue that, while classroom interaction in a traditional lecture session may not be as interactively participatory as other triadic domains, it is nonetheless a situation in which two languages are being used, typically in simultaneous mode, with the potential for communication breakdown. We then examine the ways in which the interpreter’s understanding of the function of the interpreting event can aid in preparation and on-task work. Finally we look at how the historic relationship between Irish Sign Language and English presents specific challenges to interpretation, particularly when the focus of the interpreting event is on a metalinguistic discussion of the meaning of words and the ways in which they are contextually driven.

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