Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Researching Signed Language Interpreting Research through a Sociolinguistic Lens

Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Researching Signed Language Interpreting Research through a Sociolinguistic Lens

Article excerpt

Introduction (1)

One of the things often said about interpreting as an academic endeavour is that it is multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary, meaning that it can be studied from a variety of disciplines--sociology, anthropology, psychology, linguistics and/or a mix of these disciplines. It is also said that interpreting is cross-disciplinary, meaning a researcher can use frameworks, theories, methodologies, or analysis from more than one discipline to study different facets of interpreting.

We would like to suggest how it is that sociolinguistics is already multi, cross- and interdisciplinary and, given its focus on both linguistic matters and social ones, is perhaps the most valuable way to study interpreting, whether in spoken language combinations or signed language (SL) combinations. In this article, however, we focus on studies in SL interpreting.

Sociolinguistics includes an array of approaches that can answer many kinds of questions about human interaction. Sociolinguistics does not focus on language as an abstract system, but rather on language in use--how humans conceptualize particular meanings or select among the possibilities of meaning in their everyday lives just as interpreters select among the possibilities of meaning intended by others. Studying how interpreters do what they do requires a rigorous analysis of linguistic form and function with the awareness that producing and understanding communication are matters of human feeling and human interaction--this is sociolinguistics.

The founding fathers of sociolinguistics, Dell Hymes and John Gumperz (1972) argued that language can only be studied and understood from within the active social and communicative situation in which it is embedded. This means that they believed that to truly understand human communication, language behaviour should be studied when captured in real events with real people doing real and genuine talk to meet their own communicative goals. While sociolinguistics borrows both theoretical constructs and methodological approaches primarily from linguistics, anthropology and sociology, one can now find studies in a multitude of disciplines that while not labelling themselves sociolinguistics are so in nature, all blending together to study human behaviour, most of which is revealed in the use of language.

Sociolinguistic approaches and methodologies are then well suited to interpreting studies, precisely because interpreting involves such a complex array of language and social behaviour. Interpreters perform intentional sociolinguistic analyses, and reflect tacit, sociolinguistic knowledge as they engage in the task of interpreting. In this sense, not only is the sociolinguistic context a relevant aspect of interpretation as a profession, but also the larger sociolinguistic context in which interpreters work. Each interpreted interaction undertaken by a professional interpreter is situated within communities that harbor their own unique multilingual, bilingual, and language contact phenomenon; within a setting that represents a snapshot of what may be a long history of language policies and planning; and in a social environment beset with language attitudes about one or both of the languages involved.

The dynamic nature of interpreted interaction has led SL researchers to sociolinguistic investigations of interpreting. These studies have followed a variety of methodological approaches within sociolinguistics, as well as described different aspects of interpretation. Since the earliest studies of signed language interpretation in the 1970s, a growing body of research from a variety of disciplines has contributed to our understanding of interpretation as an interdisciplinary activity (Metzger, 2006).

In this essay, we describe some major and minor sociolinguistic studies of signed language interpretation with the underlying assumption that interpretation itself constitutes a sociolinguistic activity from the moment an assignment is accepted, including the products and processes inherent to the task, reflecting variously issues of bilingualism or multilingualism, language contact, variation, language policy and planning, language attitudes, and discourse. …

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