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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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In ISL, “neck” does not function as a homonym. In translation, interpreters normally seek an equivalent TL meaning that is driven by the context, with the result that the SL form is lost. Yet the reason the professor cited these examples to illustrate homonymy in English. An interpretation, while semantically equivalent, would fail in terms of functionality because it would not capture the crux of the professor’s message.

Therefore, one facet of the interpreter’s task is to decide when it is appropriate to opt for a literal (Nida, 1964) or a “free” interpretation (Napier, 1998).3 Of course, in Example 2 the interpreter is constantly mediating aspects of both formal and dynamic equivalence in the TL output and is making conscious decisions about how these aspects interrelate and which approach is most suitable at any particular point in the interpretation. This mirrors Janzen’s (2005) view of sophisticated interpretation as that which occurs when the interpreter attends to both form and meaning (thus formal and dynamic equivalence) in every text. He notes that, for some texts, dynamic equivalence is primary (and perhaps total), whereas in others it is not. Furthermore, as is evident in Example 2, the emphasis on any one approach to interpreting can shift within a single assignment and not only from assignment to assignment, as the literature often implies.

The range of meanings associated with a word (or the range of words that is expressed in the same formal representation) is, of course, an issue for every language. In the semantics classroom we were particularly conscious of this fact as one word was sometimes used in several different senses even within the same lecture. For example, the word “sense,” as discussed earlier, was used in a variety of settings, with a range of meanings, often derivable from context. In addition, when two words exist for two concepts in English, there may be only one sign for both of these concepts in ISL (i.e., they are not homonyms in English but are in ISL). An example of this arose in a lecture on word meaning, when the professor was discussing “ambiguity” and “vagueness.” In ISL one would normally interpret these concepts using the same sign, but in this context it was necessary to differentiate between the two.

Since these sessions were being interpreted simultaneously, time pressure affected the number of options available to the interpreters. When no word-for-word lexical equivalent exists, interpreters have several strategies to draw on, but a tension exists between maximally utilizing these options (e.g., paraphrasing, describing) and accepting the consequences of such action on subsequent parts of the message. Baker (1992) discusses the choice of options open to translators when seeking TL equivalence at lexical, sentential, and textual levels, while Gile (1995) explains strategies that spoken language interpreters employ and the consequences of their choices. Leeson (2005a, 2005b) discusses the effects of these and other strategies used by signed language interpreters. For example, paraphrasing extends the interpreter’s processing time (or lag time, as it is sometimes called in Europe) and may divert attention from the subsequent SL message, leading to a gap in the TL message.


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