Extralinguistic Knowledge: Why Is It So Important in Interpreting?
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by Naomi Sheneman
In the interpreting profession, we often talk about how important it is to take jobs tied to topic manners that we are familiar with. For example, someone who hates or knows nothing about cooking may not be best suited for interpreting for a culinary arts student. The interpreter may not be prepared to provide a conceptually clear interpretation of “Fold in the eggs.” How would one express the ASL interpretation for the word, fold in? There is actually a name for that contextual knowledge that is discussed in spoken language interpreting research: extralinguistic knowledge (ELK). Daniel Gile (1995) was the first known researcher to present the idea of extralinguistic knowledge. Let’s first dissect the word, extralinguistic. Extra- outside. Linguistic- language. Extralinguistic knowledge essentially means any knowledge one possesses that is outside knowledge of the language. As sign language interpreters in the United States, we know English and American Sign Language. Those two languages make up our linguistic knowledge. Everything else is knowledge that we built upon throughout in our lives through our experiences, including implicit and explicit learning.
Gile (1995) proposes a formula to represent the relationship between extralinguistic knowledge (ELK) and knowledge of language (KL): C= KL + ELK. The letter C is comprehension. Gile’s premise is that if one has the right type of extralinguistic knowledge, there will be comprehension which is necessary for processing interpretation or translation outputs. Back to the example I mentioned earlier, the phrase “fold in” would not be understood by the interpreter which in turn compels them to go with the form typically used for the words FOLD IN. If the interpreter chooses to go with the form rather than meaning-based interpretation, the consumers will then not understand what is going on. It is in my belief that with the right type of extralinguistic knowledge and language knowledge, the interpreter is able to let go of form and focus on the meaning, opening them up to range of sign choices appropriate for the interpretation. Research in spoken language interpreting thus far has supported the value of having the right extralinguistic knowledge for any given situation. Several studies have reached the conclusion that the right type of extralinguistic knowledge improves the quality of interpreters and translators (Kościałkowska-Okońska, 2012; Kim, 2006; Wu, 1994).
What does this all mean? I am challenging the notion that many interpreters usually take by calling themselves “medical interpreter”, “educational interpreter,”, and “legal interpreter.” Those labels are very broad and do not offer the actual picture of what those interpreters know. One medical interpreter who is familiar with oncology and without any familiarity in cardiology might not be fit to interpret for cardiology appointments and would be best for oncology appointments. Notably, sign language interpreting is a vocation that many depend on as the sole source of income. In order to ensure livelihood, it is easy for many of us to focus on that automatically without considering carefully whether we are the right fit for the job. Remember, it is about providing optimal communication access to Deaf consumers. The second tenet of the RID’s CPC states: “Interpreters possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting,” (RID, 2005, p. 2). Interpreters and translators with appropriate extralinguistic base could greatly benefit the Deaf consumers that they serve.
Gile, D. (1995). Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Kim, R. (2006, June). Use of extralinguistic knowledge in translation. Meta, 51(2), 284-303.
Kościałkowska-Okońska (2012). Translation professionalism and translation quality in
interpreter training: A survey. In L. Bogucki & M. Deckert (Eds.), Teaching translation
and interpreting: Advances and perspectives (p. 93-106).
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2005). NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. Retrieved from http://www.rid.org/UserFiles/File/NAD_RID_ETHICS.pdf.
Wu, J. (1994). Task-oriented and comprehensive training of translators and interpreters. In R.K. Seymour & C.C. Liu (Eds.), Translation and interpreting: Bridging east and west. Selected conference papers Volume 8 (p. 85-98). Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature.
Naomi Sheneman, M.A., M.S., & CDI has been working professionally in the interpreting profession since 2000 in various roles. She is currently working as the Vice President of Business Affairs for Network Interpreting Service and as an adjunct ASL-English interpreter education faculty at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She is also a doctoral candidate at Gallaudet University in the Interpretation program. She co-developed ASL-English Interpreting Diagnostic Assessment Rubrics. She co-authored a case study of hearing and Deaf interpreters’ work in an international conference involving several sign languages. She recently published her study of Deaf interpreters’ ethics.