American Sign Language - English Interpretation

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Interpretation: What is it?

    In order to understand interpretation between American Sign Language and English, it will be helpful to examine certain aspects of interpretation in general. We can begin by trying to define interpretation. As with so many aspects of human interactions, there is no simple definition of what interpretation is. We could, for example, define interpretation by describing the desired outcome of situations in which interpretation takes place. Using this approach, we could say that interpretation is what someone does that makes it possible for you to understand what a third person is saying (or signing) when that person is using a language that you do not understand.

    We could also define interpretation by describing what stages or steps the interpreter must go through in order to make it possible for you to understand. Using this approach we could say that interpretation requires that the interpreter knows both languages (yours and the language being used by the other person), understands the meaning of the specific message being conveyed, determines how that meaning must be expressed in your language, and produces an utterance that expresses that meaning in your language.

    We could also define interpretation by trying to incorporate the theoretical and empirical research findings on interpretation. Using this approach, we could say that interpretation is the competent and accurate use of either of two naturally evolved languages for the purpose of negotiating the opportunity for a successful communicative interaction in real-time within a triad involving two principal individuals or groups who are incapable of using, or who prefer not to use, the language of the other individual or group.

    Regardless of which definition we might use (and, indeed, we might use them all, each under different circumstances and for different purposes), we can use these definitions to identify certain prerequisites or conditions that must be met in order for interpretation to take place. We can, without much difficulty, identify at least the following prerequisites:

  • Participants:

there must be at least three individuals involved in the interaction, two (or more) primary participants and the interpreter. However, although there are three individuals involved in the interaction (a triad), the interaction belongs to the primary participants; only they can (or should) introduce new topics or change topics; only they can challenge or correct each other; and only they can determine whether, for them, the interaction has been successful or not.

  • Two Languages:
  • each of the primary participants must be competent in at least one language. The interpreter must be competent in both languages. In fact, the interpreter may be competent in several languages, but only two of those languages will be used at any one time in any given interpreted situation. The primary participants may also be fluent in more than one language, but they either do not share a common language or they prefer not to use a shared language for this particular interaction.

  • In Real-Time:
  • unlike translations, interpretations occur while the interaction is taking place. This means that the interpreter is involved in a rather complicated process. A overly simplified explanation of this process might be that the interpreter is producing message A, while analyzing message B, while receiving message C. The point is that an interpreter is engaged in several cognitive tasks simultaneously. This means that the task is an extremely demanding one.

  • Interaction Goal:
  • since the interpreted interaction belongs to the primary participants, it should be clear that the interpreter's goal is to make possible the opportunity for a successful communicative interaction between the primary participant's. In order to ensure that the communicative goals of each of the primary participants has equal opportunity for success, an interpreter must remain impartial. That is, the interpreter's allegiance must, as far as humanly possible, be with the interaction taking place, not directly with either of the participants.

    Interpretation Accuracy

        One of the fundamental issues concerning interpretation (both from the primary participants' perspective and from the interpreter's) is "What constitutes an accurate interpretation?". We know that no two languages in the world are grammatically identical, so how can a message expressed in one language be expressed in another language? The basic answer is that the interpreter must extract meaning from the message and then convey that meaning. This means that the interpreter must first understand the original message and then determine how that meaning would be expressed in the other language. Often understanding what someone means is not an easy task, even for someone who does not have to interpret.

    Consider, for example, the following situation:

        It is a Monday afternoon (say January 8, 1996) and you are in a committee meeting. You have finished your business for this meeting and the committee chairperson says "Alright, then, we'll adjourn for now. But we'll meet again next Thursday right here, same time."

        The question is what does the chairperson mean; does everyone know when the next committee meeting will be held? Is it to be held on the Thursday immediately after today's meeting, i.e. the "next" Thursday after today? If so, that would mean that the next meeting will be on January 11. Or does the chairperson mean that the next meeting will be held next week on Thursday? If so, that would mean that the next meeting will be on January 18.

        The point is that there is potential ambiguity in the chairperson's communication. The interpreter must be clear about the chairperson's meaning. This is especially true if the interpretation is into a language that does not express time arrangements/schedules in as ambiguous a manner as in the situation above. For example, in many languages, such as American Sign Language, there would be (and in fact could be) no such ambiguity because a different word or sign would be used to refer to the Thursday that follows today and to the Thursday that occurs next week. Basically, the interpreter's ability to render an accurate interpretation is directly related to whether and how the interpreter understands the original message. If the original message is misunderstood, it will be misinterpreted; if it is not or cannot be understood, it cannot be interpreted.

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