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American Annals of the Deaf

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Advances in Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

Cynthia B. Roy, Editor


Franz P�chhacker
University of Vienna

In what we have come to call interpreting studies�an academic field grown from professional practice with research input from a variety of other disciplines, educating the next generation of professionals, or indeed expanding the pool of qualified interpreters at a given time, has always been an overriding concern. Teaching has been a crucial element both in the process of professionalization and in the development of interpreting studies as a field of research, and the following reflections will center on the relationship between teaching, professional practice and research, and on the weight of research in the balance between tradition and innovation.

Generally speaking, the teaching of interpreters has been in the hands of experienced practitioners rather than scholars with higher academic credentials. Training programs too, as the term suggests, have had a distinct vocational orientation rather than academic aspirations, even where affiliated with prestigious universities. In �interpreters� schools� such as the ones founded as early as the 1940s in Geneva, Vienna, Germersheim and Washington DC (Georgetown University), practitioners of conference interpreting called upon to teach would have found it easy to adopt what Sergio Viaggio (1992, 307) referred to as �the �do-as-I-do� system inherited from the medieval guilds.� This apprenticeship approach, i.e., the transfer of know-how from master to student, mainly by exercises modeled on real-life tasks, was defended particularly by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters, to counteract the commingling of interpreter training with foreign-language pedagogy and such tasks as word translation and pattern drills. The AIIC �training paradigm� (Mackintosh 1995) thus consolidated a professional practice-based tradition of instruction, with teaching practices often passed on from one generation of professionals-turned-instructors to the next.

A striking example of such tradition was found in a survey on teaching methods in simultaneous interpreting conducted at the University of Vienna (P�chhacker 1999). One of the items in a questionnaire distributed in each class to the students and the instructor concerned correction, i.e., the way in which students� performance is critiqued in class. More than 16 percent of the 165 respondents (in 25 different classes) reported that feedback was �usually� or �always� given by the teacher during the interpretation, interrupting the input speech (often a written text read live by the teacher). Without going into detail on this instruction technique as such, it is striking to see that it was documented � and called into question � even in Eva Paneth�s (1957) pioneering fieldwork on teaching practices at various conference interpreter training institutions in Europe:

But there are also regular and prolonged tutored sessions, when the connection between the teacher�s (speaker�s) desk and one booth at a time is of the type of a telephone conversation: The teacher takes a speech phrase by phrase, more or less waits for the answer to come back in another language, and picks up unsatisfactory translations, querying them and waiting for better terms or turns of phrases to come. The booths are thus criticised in turn and those not under scrutiny get a little more of a chance to produce whole sentences, but there was hardly a paragraph without interruption (which not only I, but Mr. Kaminker, would regard as �paedagogically indefensible�) (Paneth 1957, 110)

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