Contributed by LUNA ASL Coordinator & Interpreter, Natalie Pomeroy

As a recent graduate in American Sign Language/English Interpreting from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, I am very much an infant in the interpreting world. Although I’m very grateful that IUPUI’s interpreting training program has given me a solid foundation of ASL interpreting, I’m still a very small fish in a giant pond, learning how to swim with the big fish.

Throughout my college years, many ASL interpreters have given me advice and have mentored me. The Indianapolis interpreting community, as well as the Deaf community, have been paramount in my growth as an ASL interpreter. I’m not a seasoned interpreter nor do I know everything about interpreting, but even a little fish can contribute to the sea of interpreting.

ASL interpreting programs have not been around very long in the United States. Most seasoned interpreters learned ASL by hanging out with Deaf people, or were CODA’s (Children of Deaf Adults) whose first language is ASL. English is their second language. They learned the ropes of interpreting through hands-on experience. To become nationally certified, a bachelor’s degree is required, therefore, more people wishing to be ASL interpreters are attending interpreter training programs. ASL wasn’t recognized as an official language until 1965, thanks to Dr. William Stokoe’s research on ASL and linguistic principals. To put it simply, the field of ASL interpreting is in its infancy.

I recently attended an educational interpreter’s conference here in Indianapolis. One of the workshops I attended was on storytelling in ASL. The presenter provided clips of Deaf people telling children’s stories in ASL. The most mind blowing part of ASL story telling is that Deaf people hardly use signs to tell the story; it’s all told through depiction.

The presenter went on to discuss depiction using the terms constructed action vs constructed dialog; so many interpreters in the room had looks of confusion because they had no idea what the term “depiction” meant. Remember, I’m just a little fish trying to swim with the big fish, so I soon found myself in an awkward place trying to describe what depiction was to many seasoned interpreters. I just graduated, and here I am coming off as a “know-it all” about interpreting because I understand the new lingo/research in the field. I’m certainly NOT an expert on interpreting, but with more and more research being completed in the field causing older definitions to change with the times; I decided to write a simple and to the point summary of what depiction means and what it entails.

I would say depiction was the foundation of my interpreting training program, it’s nothing new, and ASL interpreters know what it is. They just know it based on its former titles: role shifting and classifiers. For example, classifiers use hands or the body to depict something. Role shifting is using the body, eye gaze, and facial expression when becoming an entity.

Role shifting has become a specific type of depiction known as constructed action and constructed dialogue. Constructed action is role shifting without dialog. For example, a mother walks in her daughter’s room, with an expression of shock on her face because the room is in such disarray. If the mother were to say, “I told you to clean this room!” the depiction becomes constructed dialogue. Role shifting and classifiers are now in one category known as depiction. According to Mary Thumann, in the article, Identifying Depiction: Constructed Action and Constructed Dialogue in ASL Presentations, depiction is the “representations of nonliteral behaviors.” To put it simply, showing what something is like or looks like versus telling or signing what something is like or looks like. In ASL, depiction occurs most frequently through change in eye gaze and head position.

Thumann identified changes in body position, facial expression, head position, and eye gaze prior to or at the onset of depiction. Depiction is often very subtle and hard to recognize for second language learners. Depiction provides the viewer with a partial representation of an event and conveys conceptualized information. Depiction is grammatical, so if it’s not present the signer isn’t using ASL; that’s why understanding depiction is so important for ASL interpreters. An interpreter is using depiction as they are conveying the meaning clearly by using real space instead of signs.

Why is depiction such a big deal? Depiction is grammatical in ASL, without it one isn’t using ASL. Most second language learners are not taught depiction when taking ASL classes. ASL courses focus heavily on grammar and vocabulary. The organization of the classes is very structured and rigid. Students are not learning how to converse in everyday conversation. Second language users mainly learn how to use depiction by hanging out in the Deaf community and by watching Deaf people sign. If second language learners are taught depiction, they are taught to look for extreme instances of depiction, like obvious body shifting, eye gaze, or facial grammar. Depiction is not obvious. It is very subtle in eye gaze, body shifting, head tilt, or facial expression, therefore, second language learners cannot identify depiction nor can they replicate it. Depiction is only learned by observing native signers.

As ASL interpreters, we need to be educated on the research surrounding depiction so we can accurately describe the new components in our field to other interpreters. Interpreting is a profession and we should all be experts in our field. Depiction is a big deal because without it we are not being grammatically correct.