Cultural differences: One component of interpreting the English source message completely

From Interpretation Skills: English to ASL 2nd Edition

Marty M. Taylor, PhD

Key Skill 7.2: Interpret the English source message completely into the ASL target language, including cultural and regional differences.

There can be significant cultural differences between the speaking participants and the signing participants. For example, the speaker may talk about a popular radio station, “National Public Radio” (NPR), which is not part of the Deaf community’s experience, because it is primarily available in an auditory format only, not visually. When referring to “NPR,” the target message will likely include information about the broadcasting organization—for example, “a radio network broadcasting world news and analysis programs, music, and so on.” In this way, the signing participant is provided with specific information that gives access to a general concept that English radio listeners are more likely to know about. Interpreting only a part of the message, “radio NPR,” is insufficient, leaving the signer without information about the nature of this kind of programming. As a result, the signer’s involvement in the communication event could be hampered.

Another example of cultural differences is that signing participants often will talk about facts that usually are not discussed as overtly among other cultural groups; for example, a signer might remark that the person with whom she is talking has an angry-looking cold sore on his lip, or has gained a lot of weight since they last met. By contrast, speaking participants are more likely to avoid commenting on another person’s appearance; instead they may ask vague questions such as “Are you okay?” rather than asking specifically about, for example, the speaker’s cold sore or his weight. If the interpreter knows that the speaker is referring to the cold sore, she should be very specific and include reference to the sore, instead of conveying the more general question, “Are you okay?” If the cultural adjustments equate to the meaning, without adding to or subtracting from it, then the interpretation is accurate.

When speakers of English are being emphatic, they often move their heads from side to side; this appears to Deaf people as a negation, which is not necessarily the case. For example, a teacher is praising a student and shaking her head side to side while saying, “Tommy’s vocabulary is just incredible!” Tommy’s father, who is Deaf, anticipates that the teacher’s statement will be negative, but the interpretation is positive. A cultural conflict is caused by the apparent incongruence between the interpreted target message and the father’s observation of the teacher’s actions. Interpreters should be aware of these cultural differences, if and when they occur.

When a judge asks an eyewitness who is deaf about his account of a robbery, the deaf person often will nod his head up and down while watching the interpreter interpret the message. From the judge’s perspective, this can appear to be the witness expressing agreement with what is being said, but this nodding more likely indicates that the witness understands the question and may or may not mean an affirmative response.