Unfolding Scenarios: resources for critical reflection.

The Boston Northeastern University has launched a series of videos to practice critical thinking and ethical reasoning in signed language interpreting. The “Unfolding Scenarios” project is aimed at deaf and hearing signed language interpreters, interpreter students, and educators. It offers twelve situations (scenarios) in which interpreters are expected to make certain decisions (decision points). The materials help interpreters to assess the situation and to reflect about the way(s) they would handle it. For some of the decision points sample response are offered from a deaf and a hearing interpreter’s perspective. 

The series consists of two modules. 

On the one hand the twelve scenarios of interpreting situations (five from the perspective of a deaf interpreter and seven from a hearing interpreter’s point of view). Each video describes an interpreting situation within a specific setting, such as for instance medical setting, (mental) health care, education, etc. Within these fictional scenarios various decision points are introduced and the interpreter is encouraged to think about what he/she would do. 
Interpreters and students can use these twelve scenarios to critically reflect about how they would proceed within the given situation. Additionally, they can help to analyse the decision-making process and their choice architecture.
All videos are in American Sign Language and transcripts in English are available. 

On the other hand the series also includes sample reflections and responses from a deaf and a hearing interpreter. These are available for four scenarios. Each interpreter responds to the decision point individually and afterwards they discuss their decision-making process together. These sample reflections are offered in American Sign Language and unfortunately there are no English transcripts available. There is however a Learners Handbook in written English to assist the independent learner.

These (free) materials are amazing resources for signed language interpreters, students, signed language interpreter users, and educators (there is even a Curriculum Guide). Whereas the practical use of the videos allow interpreters – and all involved in interpreted mediated settings – to literally “stop and think” about certain decision points, the more fundamental rationale underlying the Unfolding Scenarios project helps to understand what interpreting is and what it is interpreters do: they make decisions. 

Whereas my research focuses on the linguistic choices signed language interpreters make, this project demonstrates – amongst other things – that decision-making is an inherent part of the interpreting process. Indeed, the nature of interpreting is strategic on many levels. 

Hopefully these materials will be an inspiration for other regions to produce similar videos in their own signed language and culture. 

What is a strategy?

Vlaamse Gebarentaal vlog: wat is een strategie?

The focus of this blog and of my research is on interpreting strategies. More specifically, on linguistic interpreting strategies used by signed language interpreters. Before exploring what those exactly are and why they are of interest, I would like to consider what is meant by a strategy

When turning to the general definition provided on dictionary.com, the following explanations are offered:

  1. the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.
  2. the use or an instance of using this science or art.
  3. skilful use of a stratagem.
  4. a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result. 

The concept of strategies is also used in various domains. As is clear from the above definition, the military is one of them. Strategies are devised and applied in order to defeat the enemy, to conquer lands or to survive on the battlefield. The idea is also frequently used in business and marketing models, where strategies are aimed at bringing about desired business goals. Over the years it also has become increasingly important for managers to display strategic leadership. The idea of strategic marketing has also entered the political arena with parties and leaders talking about their campaign strategy. Similarly, organisations, such as for instance universities and ngo’s are also known to put forward strategic plans based on their vision and mission statement. 

The most obvious commonality across the different domains when it comes to the use and purpose of a strategy or strategies is that there is an aim you wish to achieve and in other to do so an approach is envisioned. There is a pathway you wish to follow to arrive at your goal and you apply or reject certain strategies in order to stay on that path. 

It should be clear that the path is in most cases not a straight road. It can be quite bendy, including U-turns and diversions. Even if an overall goal is set and a general plan as how to reach that goal has been designed, the strategies used to get there are not carved in stone. They can be altered, depending on how the path towards the envisioned goal develops. This is a crucial aspect of strategies, namely that they are part of a process, which in itself is dynamic and not linear.

This also holds true for interpreting strategies. When we regard interpreting as a goal-oriented (Kalina, 1998) or a goal-directed (Pöchhacker, 2004) process, the role and importance of interpreting strategies is apparent. If interpreting is a process with a certain aim, interpreters (can) use strategies in order to achieve that goal. One question that is not easily answered, is what an interpreting strategy is. Various labels are used in Interpreting Studies such as for instance coping tactics (Gile, 1995), strategic processes or strategic action (Kohn & Kalina, 1996), interpreting techniques (Jones, 1998), miscues (Cokely, 1985; 1992) and, linguistic coping strategies (Napier, 2002) for similar phenomena. Additionally, not all studies reporting on interpreting strategies clearly define what is meant by the term. 

Based on the literature on strategies in both Translation and Interpreting Studies, it seems that most scholars take into account the following four distinguishing characteristics when considering strategies in translating or interpreting:

  • process-oriented vs product-oriented 
    (Kohn & Kalina, 1996; Korhonen, 1998; Pöchhacker, 2004; Chesterman, 2005; Gambier, 2009)
  •  problem-solving vs routine 
    (Lörscher, 1991; Kalina, 1998; Scott-Tenet et al., 2000; Zabalbeascoa, 2000; Napier, 2002; Jääskeläinen, 2009; Gambier, 2010; Wang, 2012)
  •  global vs local
    (Chesterman, 2005; Gambier, 2010)
  •  obligatory vs optional 
    (Toury, 1995)

Some studies also make a distinction between an error and a strategy. In general, these studies do not perceive an action that does not lead to a successful result as a strategy or strategic. However, other researchers, based on the above-mentioned distinctions, claim that even if an interpreter’s decision results in an unsuccessful interpretation, the decision was still strategic. And what the interpreter did is a strategy. The argument in this case is that the interpreter envisioned a certain goal and made a choice to do something during the interpreting process with the intention of achieving that goal. Consequently, we can only talk about errors when comparing the source text (input) and the target text (output) of an interpretation. Not when we are describing the process as such. 

What these interpreting strategies are when talking about signed language interpreting will be a topic of a next post. 

Some suggestions for further reading on the topic: 
on the general notion of strategy:

on strategies in translation and interpreting:

And don’t forget to leave any (respectful) comments, suggestions, and contributions. 


It is new and still under construction but you have already found it! So, welcome to my blog (English) and vlog (Flemish Sign Language). Soon you will find information about research on interpreting strategies in (signed language) interpreting, my research projects and upcoming events.

I encourage contributions to this blog/vlog. Let me know if you have publications, opinions, exciting work or events related to interpreting strategies you want to share: isabelle.heyerick@warwick.ac.uk.

See you soon!