One of the basic theories of cognitive grammar (Langacker, 2008; Taylor, 2002; Croft and Cruse, 2004) is that of content and construal, where content represents the truth conditions of a circumstance and construal is, “our ability to conceive and portray the same situation in alternate ways” (Langacker, 2008, p. 43). In language, constructed dialogue (CD) is used to report the words spoken by another person, or that were spoken at a time other than the present. Different languages use CD differently. Constructed dialogue has been shown to be an integral feature in all types of American Sign Language discourse (Quinto-Pozos, 2007), while it is less common in English. This difference in use of CD is especially stark in formal lectures, where CD is still commonly used in ASL (Roy, 1989), but is rarely used in English (Tannen, 1986; Shaw, 1987). The brief study below examines one interpretation of an ASL lecture into English and applies the theory of construal in examining how the interpreter renders the content of the lecture when it is presented as CD in ASL.
The data for this study consisted of one 14-minute lecture presented in ASL and interpreted into English. The presenter is a Gallaudet University employee. The interpreter is a Masters student in the Department of Interpretation in her fourth semester of study. The lecture was about mentoring. This is important in that most of the constructed dialogue from the Deaf presenter involved | participants | for whom one had more power (the mentor) and one had less power (the person being mentored). How this may have impacted the interpreter’s decisions will be discussed below. Another aspect to keep in mind is that all of the constructed dialogue in the data represent hypothetical reported speech. That is, in all cases the | participants | are not meant to represent actual named people and their | conversation | is not meant to be taken as anything that was actually uttered by any real world referential entities.
The data was analyzed for general instances of constructed dialogue. I did not attempt a detailed analysis as I was looking for general trends. For example, each segment of constructed dialogue was coded as one instance from the when the presenter started the depiction until she returned to her presenter role regardless of how many turns of conversation were depicted between | participants |.
During the presentation the presenter produced 20 instances of constructed dialogue. Of these 20 the interpreter used constructed dialogue in her interpretation 8 times. In 6 of these cases the interpreter presented constructed dialogue from the perspective of the person in the less powerful position. In the other 12 instances the interpreter either omitted the constructed dialogue and went with an interpretation that made no mention of the fact that CD had been present in the source message (4 times), or used indirect reported speech by relaying the result of the depicted conversation (8 times).
CD in ASL
3rd Party Reported Speech
CD in English
The results showing that the interpreter used constructed dialogue are not a surprise. Previous research (Nilsson, 2010; DeMeo, 2012), along with knowledge of some interpreter training curricula leads us to expect this result. I would like to examine how the differences in the two texts can be explained in terms of construal. There are differences in Specificity, Focus, and Foreground v. Background.
Difference in Specificity
Specificity refers to the level of detail in an expression (Langacker, 2008). In this case the ASL lecture contains greater specificity in that it shows actual dialogue between two | participants |. In contrast, the interpreted text shows less specificity by either omitting the dialogue in extreme cases, or by indicating that a conversation takes place between | participants |, but instead of providing the same type of dialogue, the interpreter tells the audience the result of the | conversation |. This difference in specificity is diagrammed below.
Other concepts that I find relevant to this discussion are those of focusing, and backgrounding vs. foregrounding. According to Langacker, “Through linguistic expressions, we access particular portions of our conceptual universe. The dimension of construal referred to here as focusing includes the selection of conceptual content for linguistic presentation, as well as its arrangement into what can broadly be described (metaphorically) as foreground vs. background” (2008, p. 53). In the case of constructed dialogue in ASL the focus is on the not only the content of the | conversation | but also on the | participants |. This means that how the | conversation | is relayed is nearly as important as the end result. An audience fluent in ASL sees depicted the manner in which the | participants | interact, which tells the audience something about the speaker’s perception of both the | participants | and the | conversation |. Conversely when the interpreter chooses to relay only the result of the conversation then the result becomes the focus rather than the content and the | participants |. When this happens the content is pushed farther to the background and the | participants | become more peripheral.
Possible Reasons for the Interpreter’s Decisions
This relates back to Nilsson’s (2010) assertion that instances of constructed dialogue are so densely packed with information that it is difficult for an interpreter working into a linear spoken language to convey all of them while under the time pressure found in simultaneous interpretation. It seems when there are multiple turns of conversation within an instance of constructed dialogue an interpreter is more likely to shift to reporting the outcome of the conversation. In the data for this study the interpreter never relays more than one turn of constructed dialogue while interpreting any one instance of CD.
There are several possible reasons for this. First, it can be difficult for interpreters to relay multiple turns of constructed dialogue due to the difference in time needed to introduce each speaker. In ASL the switch can be done with shifts of body position, head, or eye gaze. In English, establishing who is speaking generally calls for an introductory phrase like, “Then the supervisor says…” If there are multiple turns of constructed dialogue it may not be feasible for the interpreter to keep up due to the inherent lag coupled with the longer production time. In these cases it is more expedient in terms of both production and processing to introduce the | participants | and then only provide the result of the conversation.
Another possibility is that while constructed dialogue is often found in spoken English, it is typically found in narrative storytelling and it is not as heavily employed in formal registers (Tannen, 1986; Shaw, 1987). The data for this study comprised a mock formal setting of a lecture within the actual formal setting of a comprehensive exam. Through both frames (as described in Metzger, 1999) the interpreter could feel influenced to produce an interpretation that adheres to the expectations of formal English discourse.
Possible Influence of Power Relationships
As noted above, when the interpreter did employ constructed dialogue she relayed the dialogue of the person with less power 6/8 times. While there are many possible explanations for this pattern the statements about the perceived formality of constructed action in a formal English seem plausible here. In talking to faculty and students in the Department of Interpretation, some English speakers believe that use of CD in English is often associated with younger speakers engaged in narratives, the concept of the chatty teenager was used by several informants. With this in mind it is worth noting that the interpreter overwhelmingly used CD to represent the speech of the | person being mentored |. In terms of conceptualization for both the general American public and for the Deaf presenter the person being mentored is seen as being younger. Also, according to Tannen (1995), the person seeking information is often seen as being in a less powerful one down position. This conceptualization of the | person being mentored | could lead the interpreter to allow herself to employ CD to represent this | person’s | speech.
Possible Net Result of Construal on an Audience
In examining the differences in construal of constructed dialogue between the ASL presentation and the interpretation it is helpful to think of the impact on construal on a mixed audience of people who know ASL and people who do not. In a mixed audience, assuming, as is the case in the data for this study, that the interpretation reaches a certain threshold for factual equivalence the two groups that comprise the audience would be exposed to the same truth conditions. It is plausible to think that if they were given a questionnaire on the topic and facts of the lecture that the groups would score similarly. However, their experience of the lecture will have been different. This is not only because of the differences in linguistic resources available between the two languages, but also because of how those resources are typically employed in a given setting. As we have seen above ASL appears to require the use of constructed dialogue. English is more limited in terms of how, where, and how much constructed dialogue is employed. Thus the non-signing audience receives the result of the depicted interaction but little if any of the manner in which that result is derived. The non-signing audience does not get the same sense of how accommodating the | mentor | is. Nor do they see the level of trepidation on the part of the | person being mentored |. While some of these affectual features are evident in the use of constructed dialogue by the interpreter through the use of ventriloquizing (Tannen, 2010), the fact that the interpreter employs this tactic far less than the presenter creates this difference in construal. Even if the interpreter did endeavor to present more formal equivalence in their product the experience of the lecture for the non-signing audience would still not match that of the ASL fluent audience. As noted above frequent use of constructed dialogue is not common in a formal English presentation and could skew the contextual force (Isham, 1986) for the non-signers. In this case their experience of the speaker’s approach to the discourse would be more similar in terms of form, but their perception of the speaker herself, (in terms of formality, appropriateness, adherence to convention, etc) would likely be different. Thus, the interpreter’s goal of providing a text that matches the audience expectations draws the construal of the lecture further from that of the original source.
Though audiences attending to the ASL lecture or the English interpretation are exposed to the same truth conditions they have different experiences of the presentation. They are left with different impressions of the speaker’s style. Future research in this area could explore difference in audience perception of the presenter when the interpreter tries to produce a product closer in formal equivalence than they might usually. I do not say closer since in terms of construal because no two descriptions of any event will be exactly the same even if they are produced in the same language. Thus it is impossible to have the same construal of any content in a dual language situation. Other research might seek to explore if there is a pattern of construal that can be found in multiple interpretations of a text. For example, do specific ASL expressions of CD trigger a CD or non-CD interpretation more often than others? This type of study could help identify discourse features that are commonly accepted as being appropriate for CD in an English interpretation. This knowledge could aid future interpreter education.
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