Interpreting or Transliterating?

In previous installments, I’ve written about the importance of matching the Deaf speaker’s mastery of language, vocabulary, and register, especially when it comes to our ability to produce spoken English that is worthy of that speaker’s signed language. In my last, somewhat “controversial,” column, I wrote about the dilemmas we must face as interpreters when Deaf speakers produce signed English that is “wrong” or “broken English,” (as many second language speakers do). I believe that some of the controversy really turns upon the issue of whether we are voice interpreting or voice transliterating. This article will examine more closely the process that we might use to determine whether a Deaf speaker is producing an ASL message that must be interpreted or a signed English message that must be transliterated.

I’d like to start off with the assertion that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Many of the sentences that Deaf people sign, either in ASL or some form of manually (and orally!) coded English, follow the same syntax as regular, spoken English sentences, and should be voiced exactly as they are signed. This means that we, as interpreters/transliterators, must constantly assess the speaker’s syntax and encoding system to ascertain whether each particular word, phrase, and sentence should be interpreted or transliterated. We must ask ourselves, “if I say exactly what they are signing (and mouthing), will the Hearing audience receive the same message as the Deaf speaker intended, or must I change the wording and/or phrasing in order to produce an equivalent message to the speaker’s intent?” My assertion is that, more often than some would have us believe, transliteration is the way to go.

It is important that voice interpreters/transliterators not only be fluent in both ASL and English, but also skilled at lipreading. Despite what some ASL textbooks would have you think, many Deaf speakers mouth and sign a great deal of English, especially in the formal situations that interpreters are assigned to. Yes, Deaf people conversing at a social event may do a lot of ASL storytelling, but Deaf teachers, presenters, panelists and board members often use an English discourse style. Notice I said “often,” not “always.” It’s still very important to know ASL facial and manual grammar and the Deaf cultural discourse style, because our clients often switch back and forth, depending on the topic at hand (no pun intended).

How are we to know when the speaker is using ASL or English? The first place to look is the face! Is the speaker mouthing English or using his/her mouth and face to produce ASL morphemes? Is she signing and mouthing, “I WORK(ed) REAL(ly) HARD AT THAT FOR (a) LONG TIME?” (lowercase words indicate those mouthed but not signed) or “ME WORK+++ (stah, stah, stah) FOREVER (fluttered lips)”? While you might voice both of these phrases, “I worked really hard at that for a long time,” what you see on the speaker’s face clues you in on which “code” they are using it the time, be it English or ASL. These clues provide the context you need to determine whether the speaker is communicating in a mode which lends itself to interpretation or transliteration. It gives you the springboard you need to make predictions about whether upcoming phrases will allow you to transliterate them verbatim or require you to create English equivalents to very non-English phrases. I have seen very good interpreters flub up because they were not able to ascertain the encoding of the source message. They may try to “interpret” something that is already in English, thus causing themselves undo aggravation and producing a message that falls far from the mark. Conversely, they may try to “transliterate” something the Deaf person said in ASL, thus producing a message that makes no sense to an English speaking, Hearing audience.

One example that comes to mind is an interpreter in a videotape I once watched about Deaf people in 12 step recovery. The interpreter voiced standard “glosses” for ASL signs in the phrase, “WHEN ME BECOME STRAIGHT…” The interpreter voiced, “When I became straight,” but the Deaf person very obviously mouthed, “When I got sober,” which made a lot more sense within the context of recovery. This is one of those examples of the importance of both good lipreading and good discernment of message encoding. The Deaf person was encoding her message in signed English, and was mouthing every word. A more appropriate interpretation—transliteration, really—would have been achieved by recognizing the encoding and the mouthing, and then simply voicing exactly what the Deaf person mouthed. Also key in this instance was knowledge of the context. An interpreter familiar with the way people speak about 12 step recovery would know that the phrase that fit was, “When I got sober…”

It seems that so much is taught in interpreter training programs about ASL and interpreting, and so little is taught about Signed English (I’m talking about PSE, not SEE) and transliteration. In much of my work, however, and I’m sure in much of of our work, we must transliterate, not interpret. I have often seen interpreters voice incorrectly because they thought the source message was in ASL, and they were trying to “interpret” it into English; I have rarely seen interpreters err by thinking that the source message was in English and simply transliterating. That is not to say that going for voice transliteration is a safe bet; it’s just that so many interpreters (see, there’s that word again, not “transliterators”) are practically brainwashed into expecting to interpret from ASL to English rather than being receptive to either interpreting ASL or transliterating signed English. I believe that when interpreters/transliterators are open to recognizing both ASL and English when they are voicing, they will have a much easier time of it.

I wrote this article because I felt something must be said about the validity, importance, and downright efficiency of voice transliteration. As I said at the beginning, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Why turn a perfectly simple signed message into convoluted English when the signed message would transliterate beautifully into English as it is? The more we transliterate—provided what the Deaf person is signing makes sense in English and is what you would expect that sort of speaker to say if they were Hearing—the less we take away from the Deaf speaker’s own eloquence. The more we let the Deaf speaker’s words stand, the less work and frustration for us. By all means, if your Deaf client is using ASL both manually and orally, then knock yourself out and do your best interpretation. I’m just suggesting that we be a bit more open to recognizing clear and coherent signed English when we see it, and be willing to leave well enough alone. It matches the speaker’s intent and affect, it is culturally appropriate, and it’s a lot easier than trying to “reinvent the wheel” with elaborate interpretations!

This article was originally published in InTouch, the newsletter for the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in January 2000.






2 responses to “Interpreting or Transliterating?”

  1. Daniel Greene Avatar

    That’s true, Gregory… in some ways. There was a time when you could become an RID-certified transliterator (IC, or later, CI). However, the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) in place now demands a level of fluency in both transliteration and interpretation, so it is necessary to demonstrate skills in processing both PSE and ASL. So, in theory (and in some states), you could practice without certification or a license and just say, “Hey, I’m a transliterator; I’m PSE” and that would be okay for clients who are well served by that. But, increasingly, certification and/or even licensure is required of interpreters, so it is harder to specialize in PSE/transliteration only.


  2. gregory k gilbert Avatar
    gregory k gilbert

    I agree 100% especially about not enough emphasis in training programs regarding transliteration process. I was once involved in a mock eval for recent graduates of an ITP program and after noticing graduates struggled with ASL processing ( expressively) but could switch to tranliteration easily I asked the trainer their opinion on graduates skills and it was agreed that transliteration was something the graduates could handle but processing in ASL would take more time. So interperters need to self identify or know where they fit on the language continuum and serve consumers accordingly. I am PSE/ conceptually accurate and that is the population I will best serve and it is okay to tell consumers we are more “English”it’s not a crime and give them the option of declining service.


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