RSS feed

Exploring Semiotic Resources in Sight Translation

Tatjana R. Felberg and Anne Birgitta Nilsen1, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences


In this article, we present a pilot study with data from exploratory video-recorded experiments of sight translation, and subsequent focus group interviews. Our theoretical perspective is interactionist, with the encounter as a whole taken into consideration. The question we aim to answer is: what kinds of semiotic resources do interpreters use while interpreting from a written text? Thus, we supplement the interactionist perspective (Wadensjö 1998) with perspectives from multimodality and socio-semiotics. We demonstrate how these perspectives may offer a new way of studying the interpreter’s dual function as a translator and as a coordinator of the dialogue.
The results from our pilot study show variations in how interpreters exploit semiotic resources such as handling of the written text, body posture, and gaze. Therefore, we argue that it is necessary to draw attention to the semiotic resources available for sight translation. There is also a need to rethink assessments and educational programmes regarding sight translation, and to include perspectives from social semiotics and multimodality. We recommend further investigation of the exploitation of semiotic resources in the process of interpreting. In particular, more research is needed that relates to how interpreters combine semiotic resources to construct their renditions.


Sight translation, multimodality, social semiotics, public service interpreting, interpreter training.

1. Introduction

In the research literature, interpreting is widely construed as overcoming barriers between two languages in spoken discourse (Bührig 2004: 228). This indicates an important point of difference between interpreting and translation. Sight translation (ST), however, is a hybrid form of interpreting, because it relies on both written and spoken discourse, and does not fit into the above classification. Nevertheless, ST seems to be commonly applied in interpreter-mediated communication in public services. Interpreters in public services in Norway report that they sight translate almost every day (Felberg 2015, Nilsen and Monsrud 2015). They perform ST in various locations and contexts, such as courts, asylum interviews, hospitals, schools, child welfare and social services. According to Felberg (2015), the most common application of ST in Norway is when it is used in the following manner: a public service employee (such as a police officer, an immigration officer, a schoolteacher, a judge, and so on) hands over a document to an interpreter, and asks them to interpret its contents to the public service user (PSU). After the interpreter has finished their ST, the public service employee usually asks if there are any questions before the PSU signs the document to verify its content.

There is little detailed knowledge available concerning ST practices. Furthermore, dialogue interpreter training has traditionally focused on the way in which the interpreter manages and maintains verbal interaction between the primary participants, while it seems to overlook the importance of specific non-verbal aspects that are inherent in mediated interaction (Demi Krystallidou 2014). In addition, to a large extent, verbal and non-verbal aspects of interpreting seem to have been treated separately.

However, research with a multimodal focus has studied how people communicate using combinations of the full repertoire of meaning-making resources, referred to as ‘semiotic resources’, and the effects of these uses. These semiotic resources include: visual (images and gaze), spoken, gestural, written, three-dimensional, and others, depending on the domain of representation. As a method, social semiotics focuses on analysing and describing the semiotic resources that people use in different contexts, and on developing ways that show how these are organised to make meaning.

In this article, we use a multimodal approach in the sense that we understand meaning to be constructed by using combinations of semiotic resources. The focus of this article, therefore, is to describe types of semiotic resources used in ST based on six experimental encounters. The question we aim to answer is: what kinds of semiotic resources do interpreters use while interpreting from a written text?

The aim of this article is to start bridging the knowledge gap in relation to ST practices. We will do so by presenting a pilot study using data from video-recorded experiments of ST involving three interpreters, and subsequent focus group interviews with them. In the pilot study, we explored how the interpreters interpret from a written text. The theoretical perspective is interactionist (Wadensjö 1998), whereby we take into consideration the encounter as a whole. We base the methodological approach on multimodality. As far as we know, no previous researcher has studied ST by taking a multimodal approach. Therefore, we argue that this methodological approach paves the way for new perspectives on the nature of ST, and in turn on teaching ST. The results indicate that the interpreters vary in the ways they use semiotic resources such as gaze, handling of documents, and body posture. Furthermore, the results indicate that the interpreters are seldom aware of how they use and combine semiotic resources. Three particular topics that appeared interesting for future research are: the interplay between different semiotic resources in general; how interpreters handle the documents, and how this is connected to the use of gaze while sight translating; and ethical perspectives caused by the specific dynamics of ST.

In the following, we will firstly introduce ST. Secondly, we will introduce multimodality as a field of inquiry based on social semiotics (Hodge and Kress, 1979/1993, 1988; Kress and van Leeuwen 1996/2006, van Leeuwen, 2004) as a theoretical and methodological approach to exploring ST. Thirdly, we will present our analysis with a subsequent discussion of the results. The final section of the paper offers concluding remarks.

2. Sight Translation (ST)

The term ST can refer to different types of activity, depending on the conditions under which the ST is performed. Firstly, one may distinguish between ST with and without preparation of the text, called ‘unstressful ST’ and ‘stressful ST,’ respectively (Lambert, 2004: 298). Secondly, the literature on ST also distinguishes between ST and sight interpreting (Lambert, 2004). The question is whether this specialised activity is actually interpreting or translation. Since both oral and visual forms of information processing are involved, ST can be defined as a specific type of written translation, as well as a variant of oral interpretation. Sylvie Lambert (2004: 299) states that sight interpretation occurs when the message is presented both orally and visually. This activity is also known as ‘simultaneous interpretation with text’ (Pöchhacker, 2004: 19). It occurs when the interpreter sight translates while listening to the speaker’s live delivery, a mode that is common in conference interpreting. ST, on the other hand, involves the transposition of a message written in one language into a message delivered orally in another language (Lambert, 2004: 298). In the public sector in Norway, in addition to interpreting written official documents orally from Norwegian into other languages, ST also includes different types of report, like for example police interviews, that are firstly interpreted from another language into Norwegian, then written down by the public service employee, and then sight translated by the same interpreter. In that way, the interpreter is one of the ‘co-authors’ of the written text (Felberg 2015).

As teachers and researchers in Interpreting Studies, we have received reports of a number of challenges experienced with ST from one of the biggest users of interpreters in the public sector in Norway, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. Of particular concern were noticeable differences in interpretation speeds, which we found in a previous study to be related to the interpreter’s reading skills (Nilsen and Monsrud 2015), and to changes in patterns of engagement between communicating parties (Felberg 2015). The interpreters voiced another type of concern with respect to ST, which had to do with the interpreter’s role, and their interaction with the PSUs. By the act of handing over a written document to be sight translated, the public service employee usually effectively withdraws from the institutional dialogue. Thus, they seem to hand over to the interpreter some of their responsibility in the public service encounter. The written document indirectly communicates the public service employee’s message, and the constellation changes from three communication participants to two communication participants plus a document. The document becomes foregrounded and influences such encounters. At the same time, according to interpreters, PSUs sometimes exclude themselves from the interaction because they have difficulty in following what is being interpreted (Felberg 2015).

3. Multimodality

We base the analysis presented in this article on an interactionist perspective, inspired by Cecilia Wadensjö’s (1998) approach, where the interpreted encounter as a whole is taken into consideration. This approach regards interpreting as an interaction, with the interpreter performing two different functions - as a translator and as a mediator. A mediator is a person who coordinates the dialogue between two conflicting parties. In theory, translating and mediating may be distinguishable activities, but in practice they are intimately intertwined (Wadensjö 1998: 7). We will supplement the interactionist approach with perspectives from multimodality.

As a field of inquiry based on the theory of social semiotics, multimodality is an interdisciplinary approach that emphasises communication to be more than just language and verbal interaction. An important theoretical assumption in multimodality is that communication draws on several modes, such as the written and the verbal mode, all of which contribute to meaning-making. The multimodal approach puts emphasis on the cooperation of different modes in social interaction, and on how different modes may contribute to meaning in communication. Multimodal approaches have provided concepts, methods, and a framework for the collection and analysis of visual, aural, embodied, and spatial aspects of interaction. The term ‘mode’ refers to a set of socially — and culturally —shaped semiotic resources for meaning-making (Kress 2009). However, modes are not autonomous and fixed, but are created through social processes. They are fluid, and subject to change. What is meant by a mode continues to be subject to debate, and definitions of mode are continually being refined and developed (Norris 2004). Some scholars view colour and layout as modes, and hence view writing as multimodal, whereas others would not make this distinction. One response to this is that definitions of mode are dependent on what people consider to be well-acknowledged regularities within any one community (Norris 2004). Thus, the object of our study views ST as an activity that consists of two modes, namely the written mode and the oral mode. These modes rely on semiotic resources that all contribute to making meaning. Semiotic resources can be defined as follows: semiotic resources are the actions, materials and artefacts we use for communication, whether produced physiologically — for example, vocally, or by the muscles we use to make facial expressions and gestures — or technologically — for example, with pen and ink, or by using computer hardware and software — together with the ways in which these resources can be organised. Semiotic resources have a potential meaning based on their past use, and possess a set of affordances based on their possible uses. These will be actualised in concrete social contexts, where their use is subject to some form of semiotic regime (van Leeuwen 2004: 285).

ST is a highly complex activity. The text to be translated/interpreted is written and constructed with various semiotic elements, including: words, sentences, headlines, tables, lists, icons, drawings, fonts and colour. We will also refer to these as semiotic resources. When interpreting from a written text, in order to translate and coordinate the dialogue, the interpreter relies on his or her own use of semiotic resources, such as utterances, gaze, and so on. In ST, the coordination of the message is highly influenced by the written text.

Multimodality based on the concepts of semiotic resources opens up possibilities for recognising, analysing and theorising the variety of ways in which interpreters construct meaning in ST. The study of interpreting from a social semiotic perspective seeks, for example, to identify the semiotic resources that are available to the interpreter, such as words, gaze, gestures, and so on, and to identify which resources the interpreters choose to exploit in their renditions. However, these resources should not be seen as representing a fixed meaning. They should rather be understood as representing a potential meaning that is realised in context, and in combination with other resources. In this way, the meanings associated with various semiotic resources continually adapt to communication in various contexts.

As we shall see, semiotic resources are both a challenge and a resource in ST, as they are in translation; a topic that has been discussed in a recent special issue of this journal (see O’Sullivan 2013). Semiotic resources are used to construct meaning in the original text, and the interpreters use semiotic resources to render these texts in an oral form for the listeners.

4. Methodology

We based the pilot study on a mixed methodology: exploratory experiments and focus group interviews (Böser 2016: 238). Exploratory experiments are rather common in translation and interpreting research. Gile (2016: 223) defined them as “…simple experiments with little or no manipulation or complex setups.” In our experiment, three interpreters were asked to sight translate the same two official documents. In order to contextualise the interpreters’ renditions, we subsequently conducted two focus group interviews with the interpreters.

The experiments took place at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in September 2014. For the experiments, we selected three professional interpreters experienced in interpreting from Norwegian into English. They all have at least ten years of experience as interpreters in the public services, and they belong to category one in the Norwegian National Register of Interpreters. That means that they have accreditation by authorisation, and have completed university-level interpreter training (with a minimum of 30 ECTS). They comply with the Norwegian ethical guidelines for interpreters (IMDI, 1997), and have participated in training programmes for interpreters. The chosen interpreters have not had any particular training in ST, since such training was not previously available in Norway. The interpreters themselves volunteered to take part in the pilot study during a seminar for interpreters at the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. We selected them based on their long experience with ST, and because they interpret a language that both researchers understand, namely English. Furthermore, they received a high score on a prior test related to reading skills (as described in Nilsen and Monsrud 2015), skills that are an important prerequisite for ST. The participants gave their written informed consent prior to the collection of data, and the project was registered with the Norwegian Social Science Data Services.

The methodological steps taken are summarised below:

  • We briefed interpreters on the objective and practicalities of the experiment.
  • We gave interpreters 10 minutes to acquaint themselves with each text before the interpreting started.
  • We filmed the experiment in parallel sessions. The setup included two persons present with each interpreter in each room; one acting as a listener and the other operating the camera. In order to lower the number of variables, we instructed the listeners not to engage in any verbal communication with the interpreters. For rooms, we used offices that resemble those in which similar interpreting tasks are conducted in naturally-occurring interpreting.
  • After they had interpreted both texts, we conducted the first focus group interviews, which we recorded. The focus group questions were semi-structured. The aim was to elicit interpreters’ experiences of interpreting the particular texts.
  • We transcribed all videos (non-detailed verbatim transcriptions).
  • We sent the videos and transcriptions to the interpreters so that they could reflect and comment on them.
  • In January 2015, we held the second focus group interviews with the three interpreters. We provided the interpreters with feedback about their performance, and informed them about our research in the early stages of writing this article. The interpreters commented on their own performance on the basis of the videos and the researchers’ observations.

The material used for the experiments consisted of the following two authentic written texts:
Document 1: Requirements for carrying out a community sentence (Krav for gjennomføring av samfunnsstraff), from the correctional services context. This document is read to convicted persons who are about to start serving a community sentence. After reading the document, the official and the convicted person both sign it.

Document 2: A statement by a suspect (Avhør av en mistenkt), from the police context. The statement is an anonymous written report based on an oral statement. It is written by a police officer. The suspect reads and signs the report at the end of the interview.

In addition to written words, these documents also include punctuation marks, tables, the Norwegian coat of arms, lists, lines for signature, footer with addresses, different fonts and font sizes (see Figure 1). Taken together, these semiotic resources make up a template that contributes to making the documents official in the Norwegian context. The official documents convey power vested in them by the institutions that produced them. The images below, although of poor quality, give a sense of the nature of the documents:

Figure 1. Layouts of Document 1 (left) and Document 2 (right)

The two documents differ in length, exploitation of semiotic resources, and type of content. Document 1 is 562 words long, consists of several lists, and is written in formal language with extensive use of judicial terminology. Document 2 is 528 words long, has one list and a table, and is a combination of formal and informal language, that is, judicial terminology and the suspect’s reported speech. One of the interpreters had previous experience with interpreting Document 1 in her job, while all three had experience interpreting similar texts to Document 2.

Figure 2 demonstrates the experimental setting in which the three interpreters were sight interpreting a document for a listener (visible only in the picture of Interpreter 2).

Figure 2. Interpreters interpreting during the experiments

5. Analysis
5.1 Results from the focus group interviews

In the focus group interviews, the interpreters reported that the introduction of a document into an interpreter-mediated encounter can occasionally contribute to exclusion of the public service employee from the interaction. By handing over the document, it seems that the responsibility for communication is passed to the interpreter. From that point on, the interpreters report that the participation/involvement and engagement happens between the interpreter and the PSU, that is, the minority language speaker. Thus, the presence of a document changes the interaction pattern between the main participants in the communication — the PSU and the public service employee. In addition to interpreting, this places an additional task on the interpreter — whether and how to interact/engage with the PSU while sight translating.

It is important to mention that the public service employee is not the only one that can be excluded from the interaction. It also happens that the PSU disconnects when the ST method is used (Felberg 2015, Nilsen and Monsrud 2015). The reasons for this may be found either in the nature of the texts interpreted, which have high information density, and include difficult judiciary terminology, or in the physical or emotional exhaustion of the PSU. Interpreters report that they feel a responsibility to try to engage the PSUs in the interaction, and to make them listen to the interpretation. This concern leads to discussion around interpreter ethics — what are the limits of the interpreting profession in the case of ST? As we will see in the analysis, one way of involving the PSU is through gaze, as gaze can be understood as a demand to interact (van Leeuwen and Jewitt, 2001: 31). van Leeuwen and Jewitt state that gaze demands something from the viewer — demands that the viewer enter into some kind of interrelation with the person who is gazing at them. In interpreter-mediated communication involving children, Nilsen (2013) finds that the interpreter attracts the child’s interest by making eye contact, and in this way establishes a relationship. On the other hand, Hanneke Bot (2005) finds some evidence that gaze and gesture are used to facilitate turn taking in interpreter-mediated communication. Ian Mason’s study (2012) confirms the importance of gaze shift in turn management.

While discussing the types of document with the interpreters, all three interpreters evaluated the first text as far more difficult to interpret. The difficulty was a result of the nature of the text, which consisted of long sentences with many judicial references. The interpreters agreed that such texts are not suitable for ST. According to them, such texts should be translated into the relevant language and handed out to the PSU. Alternatively, the documents should be written in simpler language, read by the public service employee, and interpreted by the interpreter.

Figure 3. Sharing the document with the listener (left) and keeping the document away from the listener (right).

5.2 Semiotic resources in interpretations

In addition to words and utterances, the interpreters reported in the interviews the following semiotic resources in their renditions: proximity (distance between the communication participants), head movement, gestures, posture (body position), gaze, and handling of documents. We will focus on the description of three semiotic resources: body position, gaze and handling of documents, as these were the most salient in our data. We will also address the written text, and the semiotic resources that it offers.
The interpreters differed in their posture, that is, their body orientation and body position. Figure 2 shows that Interpreter 1 is turned sideways, Interpreter 2 is partly turned towards the listener, while Interpreter 3 is facing the listener. Interpreter 1 seems to distance herself from the listener by assuming a closed posture, with the body orientation towards the printed paper and away from the listener, while Interpreters 2 and 3 each assume a more open posture (see Figure 2).

The interpreters positioned themselves on one side of the table, approximately 60 to 70 centimetres away from the listener. In this respect, they do not differ. The document to be interpreted indirectly influences the proximity: Interpreter 1 holds the document in her hands close to her body, Interpreter 2 places the document in front of her on the table, while Interpreter 3 positions the document between herself and the listener. The ‘sharing’ of the document causes Interpreter 3 to lean more towards the listener, and thus she comes closer to the listener than the other two interpreters do.

The interpreter’s choice of proximity and body orientation are influenced by the layout, such as positioning of the table and the chairs, and by the presence and positioning of the video camera. However, the interpreters noted in the focus group interviews that the physical constraints present in the experiments were almost identical to the physical constraints present in a real life situation.

The interpreters differed both in their interpretations and in the time used for translation (see Table 1).2 One striking difference between the three interpreters was the use of gaze and handling of the document while sight translating. Gaze is understood to be the organisation, direction and intensity of looking (Norris 2004: 36-37). Interpreters differed in their organisation, the number of times they looked at the PSU, and in the intensity of looking, that is, the length of their gaze. Two of the interpreters used gaze on average nine times more often than the third interpreter. However, at this stage in the pilot study, we counted only the number of times the interpreters looked at their listener. We concur with Norris (2004) that it is almost impossible to count gazes. However, we performed the quantitative analysis here in order to explore potential tendencies.

Table 1. Approximate number of gazes, and the time spent on the interpretation

Why does Interpreter 3 use gaze significantly less often than the others? The rare use of gaze seems to be directly related to an extensive use of the document as a point of engagement with the listener. By pointing to and following the text on the paper while she is interpreting, Interpreter 3 indirectly engages her own and the listener’s gazes by way of the document. Another point to consider is the body orientation of the interpreters. Interpreter 3 is already highly involved with the listener through her body orientation, which possibly makes a lesser demand on her gaze engagement. This explanation given by the researchers was discussed in the second focus group interviews. The interpreters agreed with this explanation of their own strategies.

Another difference noticed was the difference in the number of gazes made while interpreting the two different texts. Interpreters used gazes more often for Document 2. As mentioned earlier, Document 2 consists of both formal and informal language, and the interpreters evaluated it as easier to interpret. The interpreters concluded in the focus group interviews that this seemed to free up their capacity so that they could instead use it for engaging through gaze.

5.3 Semiotic resources in the documents

Semiotic resources such as the coat of arms and tables were not interpreted explicitly by any of the interpreters. However, one of the interpreters allowed the document to be visible to the listener all the time (Figure 3, left), and another interpreter allowed it to be visible part of the time. The third interpreter (Figure 3, right), kept the document close to her body, so that it was not visible to the listener.

Elements like quotation marks and different types of bullet lists contribute to meaning-making. The interpreters had two different ways to indicate quotation marks in their interpretations. Interpreter 1 used the words “Quote; end of quote,” while the other two interpreters used their hands to gesture quotation marks (see Figure 4). Interpreter 2 used one hand (Figure 4, left), while Interpreter 3 used both hands (Figure 4, right).

Figure 4. Gesturing quotation marks

Another element often found in the official documents is bullet points. When it comes to rendering bullet points/lists, interpreters 2 and 3 used fingers to simulate counting (see Figure 5). Interpreter 2 used this strategy consistently, while Interpreter 3 used it on one occasion only. Interpreter 1 did not use gestures. Her hands were occupied holding the document. She indicated lists by the tone of her voice and pauses.

Figure 5. Gesturing lists

5.4 Coordination of the dialogue: engaging the listener

From the above description and analysis, we have seen that the three interpreters interacted with the listeners in different ways. All interpreters engaged the listener with the document at the moment when the listener had to sign the document. They did that by handing over the document, and indicating the place where they were expected to sign (as illustrated in Figure 6). Following Cecilia Wadensjö (1998), engaging the listener can be described as a type of coordination of the dialogue. Wadensjö (1998: 108-10) distinguishes between two types of coordination: implicit and explicit coordination. Implicit coordination is achieved by translating, or in Wadensjö’s terms, rendering from one language to another. Explicit coordination, however, is achieved by actions that explicitly focus on the organisation of the dialogue. These actions include: requests for clarification, requests for time to translate, comments on the translation, requests to observe the turn taking order, and invitations to start or continue talking. We suggest that the interpreter’s engagement of the listener can be described as either explicit coordination or as reflexive coordination. Reflexive coordination is a term that refers to actions that either aim to elucidate the question, by expansion, implementation, and so on, or claim an understanding and/or acceptance of utterances and meanings (Baraldi and Gavioli 2012: 5-6).

Figure 6. Indicating where to sign

The three interpreters differed in how often they used pointing gestures to engage the listener with the document. Interpreter 1 pointed only once to the place where the listener should sign, Interpreter 2 pointed from time to time, while Interpreter 3 pointed almost all the time during the whole period of interpreting.

Another way of coordinating the dialogue was the deictic use of gestures, for example, pointing at the person while saying “convicted person” (see Figure 7). One interpreter used pointing gestures consciously, explaining her actions with the following self-experienced episode from her work. After the interpreter interpreted a similar document to a convicted person, the convicted person asked if he could pose a question. His question was, “Who is this convicted person you are reading about?”, indicating that he did not understand the judicial term used in the document. By including the deictic use of gesture, the interpreter’s intention was to ensure that the listener in the experiment understood that he was the convicted person.

Figure 7. Deictic use of gestures - pointing at the listener

While interpreters were interpreting Document 2, we also noted another example of coordinating the dialogue using both verbal language and gestures. The date, February 31st, written at the top of the document, was obviously wrong since the month of February does not have 31 days. The researchers had made the document anonymous. Thus, the date was fictitious. The researches had not purposely made a mistake. However, the three interpreters had three different solutions to this challenge. Interpreter 3 used a combination of gaze, face expression and pointing. The interpreter commented in the focus group interview that she wanted to convey an unuttered question: “This is wrong, are you going to react?” (see Figure 8)

Figure 8. “This is wrong, are you going to react?”

Interpreter 1 used a combination of facial expression (frowning), followed by gaze, and then a facial expression of questioning as if indicating, “Something is wrong here” (Figure 9), while Interpreter 3 stressed the words, “31 February, while reading.

Figure 9. “Something is wrong here.”

In focus group discussions, all interpreters mentioned this mistake, which for them epitomises the challenge that they meet almost daily in their work. Interpreting an obvious mistake in the text makes them feel obliged to point out the mistake. At the same time, they are trained to abide by ethical guidelines (IMDI 1997), and interpret everything that is being said the way it has been said (in this case everything that was written). The interpreters described their own frantic thinking as to what to do, and indicated how little time they had to decide which strategy to use.

6. Discussion

Although they sight interpreted the same texts, the three interpreters in our study relied on different combinations of semiotic resources, mostly without realising why they chose those semiotic resources. The most salient semiotic resources that they used for interpreting from written texts included utterances and gestures, while semiotic resources used while coordinating dialogue included a combination of gaze, handling of the document, and body orientation.

As noted in the analysis above, the interpreters used gestures to interpret bullet lists and quotation marks, and to draw attention to tables in the documents. It is also worth mentioning that they did not verbally interpret tables and the coat of arms since the interpreters considered interpretation of these items redundant. Two of the interpreters held the document in such way that its contents were visible to the listener, while the third hid the contents of the document from the listener.

In a study on medical briefings for informed consent in doctor-patient dialogues, Kristin Bührig (2004) underlines the importance of integrating verbal language and other modes to build up knowledge of skills, and for training purposes. Our pilot study supports her findings. In the focus group interviews, the interpreters expressed surprise at their lack of awareness of their own use of different types of semiotic resources. This lack of awareness indicates a need for a greater emphasis on multimodality in interpreter training. The variation in use of semiotic resources while sight translating, and possible variations in the outcomes of encounters, indicates that there is a clear need for a discussion regarding efficient strategies to use in ST. In teaching and researching interpreting, we argue that a multimodal perspective should be taken into account to a much greater degree. Thus, our study lends support to the research of Demi Krystallidou (2014), who argues that interpreter training should include non-verbal aspects in a systematic way. The multimodal perspective would include non-verbal aspects in a systematic way, and draw attention to the multimodal nature of language use, which we believe cannot be separated into non-verbal and verbal communication. Moreover, we must view interpreting as a multimodal activity for constructing meaning.

Most research on interpreter training has viewed ST as a pedagogical exercise, an exercise for raising students’ awareness of syntactic and stylistic differences between the source and target languages (Martin, 1993: 400; Viaggio, 1995: 34-35). Interpreters are rarely trained in this task per se (Pöchhacker 2004: 186). Others consider that ST is useful for developing oral skills and language-transfer skills through the process of syntactically restructuring and paraphrasing the source text (Ilg and Lambert 1996: 73). Furthermore, apart from the above-mentioned pedagogical tasks, ST is also used as a traditional step between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting (Song 2010). It is also considered a challenge to learn how to anticipate a speaker’s next move (see, amongst others, Noel and Song 2006, and Weber 1990).

However, training in ST is necessary (Changmin 2001, Ersozlu 2005, Nilsen and Monsrud 2015, Sampaio 2014). Results from a study conducted by Marjorie Agrifoglio (2004), show that ST is a complex and unique technique, whose cognitive demands on the interpreter are by no means less than those of simultaneous and consecutive interpreting. Furthermore, Agrifoglio’s study indicates that the continuous presence of the source-language text seems to be the greatest obstacle for the sight translator, affecting target-language expression and the ability to coordinate the tasks of silent reading and oral translation. Visual interference seems to be stronger than audio interference (Agrifolio, 2004:61, Shreve, Lacruz and Angelone 2010). Anne Birgitta Nilsen and May-Britt Monsrud (2015) suggest that another cause of interference may be the sight translator’s reading skills.

Our pilot study supports prior studies that demonstrate the need for training in ST. In addition, our study demonstrates that the multimodal perspective should be emphasised in ST training. It is also necessary to draw attention to the affordances in written texts, and ways that an interpreter can get the most out of a written text by exploiting various semiotic resources.
Research in interpreting studies has largely ignored ST, so there is a need for more research in this area. Moreover, the few studies that have been conducted seem to be from the perspective of conference interpreting, and with an emphasis on European language pairs, as noted by Jieun Lee (2012). Nevertheless, this mode of interpreting is often part of the assignment of interpreters in the public services in Norway. We can assume that this mode of interpreting is also common in public services in other countries; although, for example, in the Flanders region of Belgium, the ethical code prohibits community or public service interpreters from sight translating.

7. Concluding remarks

In this article, we have demonstrated that the multimodal perspective offers a new way of studying the interpreter’s dual function as a translator and a coordinator of the dialogue (Wadensjö 1998: 110-140). Furthermore, we have demonstrated that interpreters vary as to how they perform ST on assignments in settings modelled on public service encounters. The analysis from our pilot study demonstrates that this variation relates mainly to the interpreter’s exploitation of semiotic resources, such as handling of the written text, body posture, and gaze.

We have also highlighted the need for a multimodal perspective in interpreter training, in order to raise the awareness of students of interpretation to the many semiotic resources available in interpreting, and to enable them to choose the most effective combinations of resources. We argue that there is a need to rethink assessments and educational programmes regarding ST, and to include multimodal perspectives. It is necessary to draw attention to the multimodal nature of the texts themselves, and also to draw attention to the multimodal resources available for ST, such as handling of the written text, body posture and gaze. Our research shows that there is a clear need to further explore the exploitation of semiotic resources as a way of constructing meaning in interpreting, and for studying an interpreter’s dual function as a translator and a coordinator of the dialogue.


We would like to thank the interpreters for their participation in the experiments, and for their active contributions in focus group interviews.

  • Agrifoglio, Marjorie (2004). “Sight Translation and Interpreting.” Interpreting 6 (1), 43-67.
  • Baraldi, Claudio and Laura Gavioli (2014). “Introduction: Understanding coordination in interpreter-mediated interaction.” Claudio Baraldi and Laura Gavioli (eds) (2014). Coordinating Participation in Dialogue Interpreting. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Bot, Hanneke (2005). Dialogue Interpreting in Mental Health. Amsterdam/New York:Rodopi.
  • Böser, Ursula (2016). “Interviews and focus groups.” Claudia V. Angelelli and Brian James Baer (eds) (2016). Researching Translation and Interpreting. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Bührig, Kristin (2004). “On the multimodality of interpreting in medical briefings for informed consent.” Eija Ventola, Cassily Charles and Martin Kaltenbacher (eds) (2014). Perspectives on Multimodality. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 227-241.
  • Changmin, Kim (2001). Sight Translation in its Own Right. (MA thesis), California State University, Monterey BayZ
  • Ersozlu, Elif (2005). “Training of Interpreters: Some Suggestions on Sight Translation Teaching.” Translation Journal, 9(4). (consulted 05.05.2017)
  • Felberg, Tatjana (2015). “Utfordringer ved prima vista tolking i asylintervjuer.” FLEKS 2 (1), 1-17. (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • Gile, Daniel (2016). “Experimental research.” Claudia V. Angelelli and Brian James Baer (eds) (2016). Researching Translation and Interpreting. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress (1988). Social Semiotics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Ilg, Gérard and Sylvie Lambert (1996). “Teaching consecutive interpreting.” Interpreting 1 (1), 69-99.
  • IMDI (1997). “Retningslinjer for god tolkeskikk.” (Ethical guidelines for interpreting) (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • Kress, Gunther and Robert Hodge (1979/93). Language as Ideology. London: Routledge.
  • Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (1996/2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge Falmer.
  • Kress, Gunther (2009). “What is mode?” Carey Jewitt (ed.) (2009). The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. London: Routledge.
  • Krystallidou, Demi (2014). “Gaze and body orientation as an apparatus for patient inclusion into/exclusion from a patient-centred framework of communication.” The Interpreter and Translator Trainer 8 (3), 399-417.
  • Lambert, Sylvie (2004). “Shared Attention during Sight Translation, Sight Interpretation and Simultaneous Interpretation.” Meta 49 (2), 294-306. (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • Lee, Jieun (2012). “What Skills Do Student Interpreters Need to Learn in Sight Translation Training?” Meta 57 (3), 694-714. (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • Martin, Ann (1993). “Teaching sight translation to future interpreters.” Catriona Picken (ed), Translation: The Vital Link: 6-13 August 1993, Brighton: Proceedings. London: Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
  • Mason, Ian (2012). “Gaze, positioning and identity in interpreter-mediated dialogues.” In C. Baraldi and L. Gavioli (eds), Coordinating Participation in Dialogue Interpreting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Nilsen, Anne Birgitta (2013). “Exploring interpreting for young children.” The International Journal for Translation & Interpreting Research 5 (2), 14-29.
  • Nilsen, Anne Birgitta and May-Britt Monsrud (2015). “Reading Skills for Sight Translation in Public-Sector Services.” The International Journal for Translation & Interpreting Research 7 (3), 10-20.
  • Noel, Pierre and Stanley Song (2006). Sight translation as a tool to teach anticipation skills in simultaneous interpretation. (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • Norris, Sigrid (2004). Analyzing Multimodal Interaction, A methodological framework. London and New York: Routledge.
  • O’Sullivan, Carol (2013). “Introduction: Multimodality as challenge and resource for translation.” JoSTrans, The Journal of Specialised Translation, 20, 1-14.
  • Pöchhacker, Franz (2004). Introducing Interpreting Studies. London: Routledge.
  • Sampaio, Glória Regina Loreto (2014). “Undergraduate Research on Sight Translation: Implications for Interpreter training.” TradTerm, São Paulo, 23, 121-139.
  • Shreve, Gregory, Isabel Lacruz and Erik Angelone (2011). “Sight Translation and Speech Disfluency.” Cecilia Alvstad, Adelina Hild and Elisabet Tiselius (eds). Methods and Strategies of Process Research. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. (consulted 27.05.2016).
  • Social tolken en vertalen.” (consulted 27.05.2016)
  • van Leeuwen, Theo and Carey Jewitt (eds) (2001). The Handbook of Visual Analysis. London: Sage.
  • van Leeuwen, Theo (2004). Introducing Social Semiotics: An Introductory Textbook. London: Routledge.
  • Viaggio, Sergio (1995). “The praise of sight translation.” The Interpreter's Newsletter 6, 33-42. (consulted 27.06.2016)
  • Wadensjö, Cecilia (1998). Interpreting As Interaction. London and New York: Longman.
  • Weber, Wilhelm (1990). “The Importance of Sight Translation in an Interpreter Training Program.” David Bowen and Margareta Bowen (eds) Interpreting - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (pp. 44-52). New York: Binghamton.

Nilsen portrait

Anne Birgitta Nilsen is associate professor at the Department of International Studies and Interpreting at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, where she teaches Interpreting Studies. Her research includes various types of discourse analysis. She has done research on interpreting for children in the public sector, on courtroom interpreting, and on interpreting between Norwegian and Arabic in police interviews.

Felberg portrait

Tatjana R. Felberg is associate professor at the Department of International Studies and Interpreting at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, where she teaches both interpreters and interpreter users. Her research includes various aspects of interpreting in the public sector such as interpreting and culture, court interpreting, and sight translation. In her present research, she explores interpreters' perceptions of impoliteness.


Note 1:
Both authors contributed equally to this article. Return to this point in the text

Note 2:
The aim of the project was not to evaluate the quality of the translation. Our focus was on the semiotic resources interpreters used while interpreting from the written mode to the oral mode. Return to this point in the text