The Interpreter’s Library: Sign Language Interpreting by Melanie Metzger


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One of the first (and only) careful and thorough accounts of the interpreting process is Melanie Metzger’s Sign Language Interpreting: Deconstructing the Myth of Neutrality.

I read it enthusiastically for the first time in 2004 and I was moved by its vivid and grounded analysis. In its simplest form, it’s a close analysis of two interpreted interactions (one mock, one real) between a doctor and a patient. The driving question is, “do interpreters influence communication in interpreted situations? And if so, how?” You already know that the answer is “yes”. But what Metzger gives the reader is a more careful analysis of how that happens. The purpose of the book (in my view) is to show how one could go about  studying the interpreting process in action. It’s a book that demonstrates research methodology and attempts to answer a straightforward question.

Four notes on the book.

  1. The term “deconstruction” is included in the subtitle of the book, but the book has nothing whatsoever to do with deconstruction. Deconstruction is a specific philosophical approach introduced and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The word deconstruction has achieved that strange place in popular vocabulary as a term which many use and few understand. A book on deconstruction in interpreting would be excellent, but this is not it. Instead, Metzger’s book is a relatively traditional analysis of interpreting done much better than most. (See this NYT article for a primer on deconstruction.)
  2. The book is well-cited, to Melanie’s great credit. Contrary to popular perceptions, citations are not about academic pretension. Citations situate research within a broader field and let the reader know where to look to learn more about the assumptions that guide the research. In my view, many popular texts in our field, including Mindess’ Reading Between the Signs and Cokely’s chapter on interpreter positionality, could be stronger if they engaged more directly with relevant academic literatures.
  3. I have heard some interpreters suggest that this book insufficient because it only includes two interpreted situations. In Metzger’s defense, it is not the number of analyses that are as important as the quality of the analysis. For some reason, interpreters are obsessed with large surveys. This is probably due to the lamentable dependence of surveys by sociologists and political scientists, which has gained a public reputation for being “the way you do real research”. Interpreters have to get over this.
  4. Despite the excellent study, I can’t help but notice that what drives the book is an assumption that interpreters disrupt otherwise “authentic” communication. The idea that there is real communication between two people and that interpreted situations “deviate” from these is a misplaced assumption. I don’t think we should view any mode of communication as authentic or inauthentic, closer or further away from “natural” communication, and so on. See other posts on hermeneutics for some hints on other ways of thinking about this.

This book remains one of the best in our field. You should read it. And it is hereby inducted into the Interpreter’s Library.

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