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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting
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“sensible.” But this is articulated in the same manner and at the same location as the ISL sign for sense (i.e., “common sense” or “sensible”). This sign is also a tempting equivalent for the semantic notion of “sense” that we discuss later. In these situations, opinions vary on what an interpreter should do: Llewellyn-Jones (1999) and colleagues suggest that transliteration and fingerspelling may work best; Deaf informants in an Irish sample proposed nonce signs as a viable option (Leeson, 2005b), but Stratiy (2005) rejects these. One problem is that interpreters have no way of guaranteeing that the client will comprehend the TL lexical item that they choose to convey the meaning embedded in the source language (SL). This can lead to a breakdown between the interpreter’s intentionality and the audience’s understanding of the presenter’s point. While this situation may arise in any interpreting setting, a potential for misunderstanding arises when specialist terminology coincides with lexical items that crop up in everyday discourse, where they are used in a different sense. This risk may be greater than is the case when the SL introduces new vocabulary that does not have existing TL collocations or generic uses of the specialist lexical item in the TL (e.g., thematic roles, hyponymy).

The interpreter’s decisions are often guided by the fact that the students will have encountered a term in the textbook before class or will do so when they read the relevant chapter after class. Indeed, Sandler (1995, p. 5) made this point when referring to the interpretation of linguistics: “The material is academic: the academic register requires use of the English terminology; and the students have to be able to recognize the English term when they read it.”
Other pertinent factors include the following:

  • The Deaf students are bilingual.
  • A lexical item may or may not exist in ISL.
  • The students may express a preference for one lexical sign over another.
  • While on task, a nonce sign is agreed upon and maintained throughout the course.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that this particular course focused on the semantics of English also influenced the interpreting decisions. We were constantly conscious of the potential for an interpretation to mislead students into believing that the professor was making universal statements about semantics and pragmatics or implying that the semantics of ISL are the same as those of English. We felt this would be a possible outcome if we interpreted the English sentences that formed the basis of class discussion into ISL. To have done so would have produced very different semantic analyses given verb classification and the attendant semantics of certain polymorphemic or classifier verbs in ISL. The verb “to hit,” while something of an “old chestnut” works well here: In English, information about an instrument that is used to hit someone is added after the verb; that is, it is encoded lexically and results in sentences such as “I hit him with the frying pan.” In ISL, as in other signed languages, this information is encoded in what are usually called “classifier predicates” (although we note the controversy over the naming of such structures. See Schembri [2003] for an excellent discussion of the issue).

Thus, if an example with the verb “hit” was used in class, an ISL interpretation would usually encode information about the fact that the agent (the person doing the hitting) used a fist or a flat hand or held an instrument in a specific way when doing the hitting. Semantic analyses of ISL show that information about the agent is embedded in such a verb, and the path of motion ends at the point in space (the locus) associated with the patient (i.e., the person receiving the action, in this case, the person who is hit). In English, however, while “hit” involves both the agent and the patient of the action, it does not encode information about the instrument. That information must be added by the speaker (e.g., “He hit me with a hammer”). The point is that information is packaged differently in different languages. For interpreters in the semantics classroom, this knowledge must guide all of their decisions. They must reflect consciously and extensively on the metalinguistic aspects of their task and the semantic relations between the SL and the TL.

To avoid misunderstandings, we agreed, in collaboration with the Deaf students, to transliterate the English sentences and then interpret the discussion of the example’s semantic or pragmatic properties in ISL. This maintained the notion that the discussion was about the semantic or pragmatic properties of English, not ISL. This was successful insofar as the students themselves entered into discussions during break times about the relative similarity or difference in semantic and pragmatic encoding in ISL and English.

However, the use of signed English was embedded in the ISL structures and did not in any way replace ISL. That is, when the interpreters used signed English to establish the SL example, they presented the sentence as if it were printed on a page; in other words, they used signing space to position the sentence.2 The interpreters then co-referenced the loci established for each argument in order to demonstrate relationships. This use of locus establishment, co-referencing, and placement is typical of signed language interaction, and it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of these structures, even when talking about another language.


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