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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Turn-Taking, Fingerspelling, and Contact in Signed Languages

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Self-selection by a signer when a hearing person was speaking proved extremely difficult. In the meeting with only one interpreter, these attempts resulted in overlap and loss; thus, what the Deaf participants had signed was not interpreted into Dutch. In the meeting with two interpreters, self-selection by a signer proved difficult because of the “interpretational lag.” During this lag, the interpreter has trouble determining the point at which he or she can interrupt the speaker to signal that the signer has self-selected (the signer also lags behind because he or she has to wait for the voice-to-sign interpretation). In the meeting with two interpreters, the problems caused by overlap were sometimes resolved by one of the interpreters, but sometimes the interpreters chose not to take the initiative and let the chairperson and the Deaf participants resolve the problems.

Roy (1993) claimed that interpreters have four options in the case of overlap, but the data discussed in this article suggest that, at least in multiparty conversations, a fifth option is available: The interpreter can choose to warn the interlocutors that overlapping talk is occurring and can let them resolve the conflict.

Finally the study identified a serious difference between the all-sign meeting and the mixed meetings with respect to making sure that everybody participates. In the all-sign meeting, a signer usually checked whether the other participants were looking at him or her. When the signer saw that a person was not looking, because he or she was reading something for instance, the signer would either tap the table or ask the neighbor to warn the person that conversation had started again. In the mixed meetings, this practice hardly ever occurred. In fact, quite frequently, a hearing person started talking and the interpreter started interpreting, but one or more Deaf people were not looking at the interpreter and nobody got their attention.

A similar phenomenon could be seen when papers were distributed during a meeting. When papers were distributed in the all-sign meeting, time was given for people to look at them. Afterwards, the person distributing the papers explained what was written down, showed the relevant passage to the whole group so everybody knew the passage about which he or she was talking, and then discussed it. When papers were distributed in the mixed meetings, no time was given to look at them. The hearing participants listened to the explanations and looked at the papers at the same time whereas Deaf participants needed to first read the papers and then look at the explanations, but were unable to follow this process without missing important information. Moreover, relevant passages were not shown to the Deaf participants. An alternative proposed in this study is that perhaps the interpreters could resolve this problem instead of attempting to act as a neutral, passive conduit, an attempt that is not possible to do anyway. This proposal strengthens Metzger’s remark:

Thus, the question for the field of interpreting becomes clear: should interpreters pursue full participation rights within interpreted encounters? Or should interpreters attempt to minimize, where possible, their influence within interpreted interaction? Herein lies the paradox of neutrality. (Metzger 1999, 204)


A common assumption is that the presence of a sign language interpreter creates equality between hearing and Deaf participants in a mixed meeting. However, this analysis clearly showed that, to obtain equality, at least two conditions need to be fulfilled. First, the chairperson needs to control the meeting tightly in the following ways:(a) allowing only one person at a time to talk or sign, (b) allowing ample time for the interpreters to interpret everything before reactions are invited, (c) glancing at all the participants (hearing and Deaf) on a regular basis to monitor which participants want to ask for the floor, and (c) ensuring that Deaf participants are looking at the interpreter as the conversation is progressing and, if papers are distributed, that sufficient time is given to Deaf people to first read the papers before talking about them. If the chairperson does not follow this practice (e.g., because he or she is not well acquainted with Deaf culture), then the interpreter’s task should be to step out of his or her neutral role and resolve the problem, becoming a manager of “the intercultural event of interpreting” (Roy 1993, 341).

The second condition is that, in mixed meetings, at least two interpreters need to be present, one to interpret into the sign language being used and one to interpret into the spoken language being used, to guarantee optimal access to the conversation and minimal overlap. With only one interpreter present, overlap occurred more often and usually led to loss. With two interpreters (one sign-to-voice and one voice-to-sign), overlap could be resolved by one of the interpreters or by the chairperson who could then allocate the next turn to one of the participants. If only one interpreter is present or if the chairperson has no experience with Deafness and the interpreter assumes a neutral role, then the presence of a sign language interpreter will create only an illusion of equality. In this case, equal participation of both parties is out of the question.

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