Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension?
Carol Padden has established that there are indeed accents in sign language and therefore interpreters need to consider “voice coaches” if they want to deliver clear interpretations on the public stage.
It’s nice to be here. I’ve been meeting lots of people, and I find this conference and its format to be quite interesting. It seems that the other speakers have presented on their material before. I haven’t presented on my topic publicly, so you will be the first to see it. I’ve been pondering this issue for a while, and I’d like to give you some background on how I came to it.
I’ve worked on the analysis of sign languages and sign language linguistics for over 30 years. I’m very familiar with the structures of ASL, though we’re still finding new elements. In the last 10-15 years, however, I’ve focused on sign languages from different parts of the world. While I’ve done some of this work in Europe, in the last 10-12 years I’ve begun studying an emerging sign language used by a small community of about 3000 people, 130 of whom are deaf. In their communication with one another they’re developing their own sign language. It’s interesting that, having worked for about 20 years on American and European sign languages, I thought I knew a lot about the facets of sign languages which are generally shared, such as the use of space, role shifting, and directionality. When I first went to this small, remote community, however, there seemed to be no influence from other sign languages. It seemed that within the last 70 years, they were forming their own, unique language.
Thus, when I arrived, their sign language was still new. I first assumed that this emerging language would share the common features of other sign languages I had studied, but it didn’t. That fact really changed my ideas about language. It caused me to rethink the work I’ve done on sign languages over the last 30 years. Through my observations, an idea started to take form. I realized that when we explicitly teach sign languages, we teach vocabulary, sentence structure, discourse, role shifting, and use of space. These are the discrete markers of language we can identify, such as the use of an incorrect sign in a certain position, the semantics of a sign, etc.
Through this realization, I was struck by the fact that we never discuss something called accent, those features that are neither in the lexicon nor in the grammar. Rather, accent exists between and alongside the overt properties of language. It’s the rhythm, the prosody, a certain quality. That’s not the right term, but it’s something in the quality of the signing.
I’ve studied languages extensively, and I use interpreters every day. In my travels, often where we discuss very technical matters, we use many, different interpreters, some of whom I don’t know. While watching their work, I find that some produce language that’s easy to understand, while others produce a message that’s more difficult to parse. This happens regardless of their skill level, as some indeed may be highly skilled, or how many years they’ve worked in the field. Some may have been interpreting for 20 years, but in reading their ASL, there’s something amiss, and I realized that it can be attributed to accent. So, that’s what I want to talk about here.
I first want to make clear what accent is not. Accent is not style. Style is a personal feature. For example, people who grew up in another country using a different sign language bring with them certain language features. These features are identifiable as different, but the signer is still intelligible.
Accents in sign language?
What is accent in sign language? Is it good? Is it bad? If I grew up signing in ASL and go abroad and begin learning German Sign Language, I will have an ASL accent when I sign in German. It’s unavoidable. That’s simply my native language influencing how I sign.
Take a person who learns sign and later becomes an interpreter. We teach sign vocabulary, syntax, etc., but there’s not enough attention paid to those fine-grained details of the language. They’re little things that, if changed slightly, would improve comprehension. That’s what I’d like to try to get you to begin thinking about. One might say that an interpreter isn’t good, when in reality maybe she just needs a bit of practice with those little things that are often overlooked. I’ll give you some examples below.
Now, some accents are very difficult to understand. A person with such an accent might need only to make certain modifications to her production. For example, if I was a public speaker, an actor, or on stage in some capacity, I would be counseled to modulate my voice to make sure I was clear. Many people think that to sign more clearly, one must sign bigger, but that’s not the case. Being clear can have to do with what happens between the signs. When some very common mistakes are rectified, signing can become much clearer.
As part of my job, I’m always looking for interesting, different elements that people might not have noticed, so that’s what I want to bring to the fore. We have a room full of interpreters here. You can start this discussion, and I’m open to your ideas. Maybe you’re already doing this, and if so, I’d like to hear from you. I make heavy use of interpreters, through VRS, lectures, etc. Every day they stream in and out. Occasionally, I see one I’ve never met before, and I think their signing is wonderful. I think, “Wow, they have a really nice accent!” The interpreter may be new to the field, may not be a CODA, but they have a really nice accent. Other times, I’m met with people who are very difficult to understand. So, we have this contrast. As trainers, Deaf people, attendees at this conference talking about partnering, can we work together to identify those fine-grained elements, that which happens in between the signs? Can we address that certain quality?
The purpose here is firstly to improve understanding, and secondly, while we grapple with misunderstandings of the interpreted message, to examine the ease of comprehension and the comfort of the presentation. This is crucial in the platform setting, where we often counsel women to speak more slowly, or we tell speakers not to mumble. I think we can raise the same issues in the signing medium.
Now we’ll move on to some examples, and I’ll demonstrate what I mean by that certain quality I mentioned before. I’ll begin with what I think are more straightforward examples and then work my way down to those examples I think are more difficult to capture. I encourage you to send me more examples of your own.
Accent and Sign Production
Infixes in ASL
Some of the features I think are not fully understood are what I call infixes, that wiggle of the fingers within a sign such as FAR-OUT. The misunderstanding is that all such signs will incorporate this finger wiggle, and that notion has spread. Interpreters don’t realize that this inflection is very rare and connotes emphasis. Signs such as LONG-AGO, COLLECT, and AMAZE should normally be uninflected, but we often see them articulated with this finger wiggle. These emphatic inflections have erroneously spread, such that they’re used when emphasis is not called for, which becomes quite distracting. That’s what I see as an accent appearing in the interpreter’s work.
Another example is when one adds an extra, circular movement prior to the beginning of a sign, such as SPECIFIC or HIT or FOR. This added flourish becomes confusing, and one must decipher its function, and whether it’s connected to the previous sign or to the following sign. It’s an extraneous movement. Other examples include ACTING or FOR-FOR. These create a visual distraction, and I would like to see them addressed by a voice coach.
Sign Location – Too High, Too Low
I see that you’re all starting to recognize what I’m describing here. The next example occurs when the location of a sign is altered, where the level of the sign is pitched too low or too high in the signing space. Again, this is important in platform interpreting. Watching the interpretation, we often find ourselves having to alter our gaze to read the signs. The interpreter may not be aware of this and may need some coaching.
We also have to think about when the right time is to raise these issues. In encouraging someone’s sign practice, we coach on vocabulary and sign choices, but when is the right time to address the issue of signing too low or too high or perhaps off to the side? In the course of interpreter training, when do we address this before it’s so ingrained that it’s difficult to remedy?
Accent can sometimes mean choosing the wrong sign. Someone might use a sign I’m unfamiliar with. I work in a community that uses some signs that don’t have an exact translation in ASL, no real equivalent, and I often make mistakes as a new signer in that community. There’s a certain sign that means embarrassed, ashamed, scared, or that sense of being watched, and I often get feedback on my use of that sign. This is a vocabulary issue. There’s a lot of vocabulary that I would consider too young for certain situations, too “in-group”, so to speak, for use in the general population. Examples include FAR-OUT, WOW (var), KISS-FIST, EXPERT, and SKILL. Now, the signs SKILL and EXPERT or FAR-OUT and WOW (var) differ in nuanced ways. Some of these signs are more appropriate in conversational settings, while others work better in a platform setting, and still others are more suited to the classroom. Interpreters have to make these sign choices based on the setting. If someone has worked 20 years in a classroom and then suddenly finds himself interpreting on stage, he may look like a 12 year old signer. Am I right? He may be a skilled interpreter, but his sign choice is accented, if you will.
Rhythm of production
Within the vocabulary there’s the production of the sign or the rhythm of the signing. Different rhythms are appropriate in different settings. In a one-on-one setting, the rhythm is faster than it would be on stage. In a sense, it’s the speed. There are many things you can do in a conversational setting that you cannot do on stage. Ultimately, some signs are overused and should be replaced by others that are more appropriate for general audiences.
This next category is a tough one, but it’s something that happens quite frequently. It’s the repetition of signs that should not be repeated, such as WILL-WILL, HAVE-HAVE, DON’T-KNOW-DON’T-KNOW, and MANY-MANY. There are times when WILL can be repeated in a specific way, but that alters its meaning. Interpreters may see this type of repetition and over-apply it. This production error is confusing and dramatically affects comprehension. The inaccurate repetition of single-movement signs is far more common than the failure to repeat dual-movement signs.
Inappropriate Mouth Movement
My last example has to do with erroneously mouthing the gloss of a sign, such as mouthing ME WANT or FOR-FOR. You all know this problem; it’s very common for interpreters to mouth what they’re signing. It’s these little things. Examples include WANT GO ME where ME is mouthed. HAVE can be mouthed, but never as the third person HAS. It’s incorrect to change the mouthing according to the English inflection.
Addressing Accent for Remediation
Hence, it is little things like these. When do we counsel learners on these features? No sign language book addresses which signs should be mouthed, when signs should or should not be repeated, or when signs should use infixes. Some of these errors spread and become commonplace. As my husband talked about yesterday, the body of the interpreter is never constant. It’s always in flux. Whether in person or on screen, interpreters are frequently replacing one another, and consistent comprehension across those changes becomes increasingly important. Given these frequent changes, there’s simply not enough time to correct each one’s errors. This is a challenge I submit to you as mentors and trainers. Sometimes I’ll offer feedback on these issues, but I’ve wondered for a long time about what makes some interpreters so hard to understand. They might be very skilled and have years of experience, but they have some entrenched bad habits, and if only they could work with someone to get rid of those habits, like a voice coach would for a presenter, their work would improve.
Comprehension is Critical
Finally, my intent is not to take away a person’s language history. Someone may come from a different country and use a different sign language, and in my view, their signing is absolutely clear. Also, I’m not talking about someone’s personal style. Some people I’ve seen have a wonderful, beautiful, different way of signing, and that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking more about the awkward features that impede understanding. As we progress in the field of interpreting and we see changes in how interpreters are used today, it becomes a matter of comprehension. Deaf individuals want to know. They need to understand the message. Whether it is a life and death situation or a professional matter, if there’s an important person talking, it is critical that the message is clearly understood. The nature of the interpreted interaction requires that we create a strong communicative bond between Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters.