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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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ISL as an Evolving Language

As mentioned earlier, ISL is an evolving language that is just beginning to be used in academic environments. Thus, in many domains, lexical gaps exist, typically for concepts or terms that have hitherto not been discussed in ISL, primarily because Irish Deaf people have traditionally not been actively involved in these fields (e.g., law, medicine, finance). One outcome of this is the inappropriate use of established signs in a given context; signers are using certain signs that hold generic meaning to refer to more specific, restricted sets of meanings. Signers choose them apparently because they are glossed with an English word that crops up in an English source language text. For example, although it is possible to say “the store is now in operation,” one would not sign shop now operation. In general, operation refers to a medical operation and is contextually driven (i.e., the context determines where operation is located on the signer’s body; for example, was it an operation on the ear, the torso, etc.?). This type of substitution can be considered a miscue (Cokely, 1992).

However, similar literal transpositions of an English SL can also occur in educational contexts and are deliberately chosen by signers as a humorous mnemonic. This use of so-called calque terms, in which the morphemes of the SL are borrowed intact into the TL (where they can strike an observer as being odd contextually) is quite common in ISL, particularly with respect to proper nouns. For example, the place-name Ballsbridge is signed as balls+bridge, and the Irish government board established to offer redress to survivors of abuse in educational establishments is referred to (by some signers) as the red+dress board (redress board). While interpreters are trained to avoid such morpheme-for-morpheme or word-for-word replacement in favor of producing equivalent meaning in the TL, it happens nevertheless, either as a conscious decision or as a function of fatigue or processing overload. An example of this occurred during a lecture on the notion of truth and logic in semantics:

Example 1.
SL : As we know, historically speaking, logic springs from an interest in language; it springs from an interest in the correct use of argument. Even before that—the effective use of argument.
TL: logic idea link interest language//how right way use language/ /before how best use language for argument (“a quarrel”)//debate

In Example 1 the interpreter’s fatigue resulted in the use of argument, meaning “a dispute between two or more parties.” This conveyed a different connotation from the one the SL speaker intended, which was the discussion of logical argumentation. In that context a point (an argument) is presented to support or oppose a proposition. However, the interpreter realized that this lexical choice was contextually inappropriate and added debate/discuss to clarify the meaning.

The use of similarly inappropriate TL lexical choices occurred in this classroom when a metalinguistic term also referred to real-world referents (e.g., an actor, a goal, a patient) or when an SL register-specific item could be used in a more generic way in the TL (e.g., sense, reference, logic, argument).

Additionally, bilingual signed language users play with the relationship between English and ISL. For example, cl.-legs (stand) can be reversed for humorous effect to mean “understand,” drawing parallels with the use of the morphological process in English under+stand. Instead of using calque (which would lead to under+stand), the signer instead plays with the classifier form that represents animate entities. This affects interpretation in the linguistics classroom when a metalinguistic term can also refer to a real-world referent, for example, an actor or a goal. In the classroom setting we encountered many situations in which one word was used in a range of different or extended senses that exist in English but do not necessarily exist in ISL.

Another issue is homonymy, in which several words share the same form but have a range of meanings. For example, the word “sense” can refer to a physical sense such as touch or taste; it can also indicate common sense. In semantics it can signify the semantic links between elements in the vocabulary (e.g., we talk about a word that is used in a particular “sense”). Yet another example arose in a lecture on word meanings:

Example 2.

  1. He felt a python wrap itself around his neck.
  2. “I’ll drink that Beck’s by the neck,” he smirked.
  3. His idea of a night out was to neck in the car.

  4. Neck 1: noun; part of the body connecting the head and shoulders
    Neck 2: noun; narrow part of a bottle, near the mouth
    Neck 3: verb; kiss and caress amorously

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