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Directionality Effect - The Unexplained Phenomenon

Background and aims

Explanatory approaches on difficulties with sign-to-voice interpreting from the sign language interpreters' point-of-view.

Sign language interpreters state that it is more difficult to interpret from the sign language into the spoken language (technical term: sign-to-voice) than vice versa (Nicodemus, 2011). There are different – certainly complementary or overlapping – explanatory approaches, but none of these approaches supplies a precise description of the varying facets of this phenomenon (e.g. Emmorey et al., 2009; Nicodemus, 2011; van den Bogaerde, 2011; van Dijk et al., 2011). The phenomenon is followed up within the framework of this research project.


Based on specialist interpreting literature of spoken languages, a clear statement cannot be made on which interpreting direction adds to a better interpreting quality, in order to use it as a "base" for sign language interpreting (e.g. Gile, 2005). The results of the empirical studies in sign languages are controversial (Nicodemus, 2011; van Dijk et al., 2011). They do not explain, whether interpreting in one direction is more difficult, how this phenomenon is noticed by the interpreters and why it is like this from the interpreters' point-of-view. This leads to the following research questions:

  • Do sign language interpreters find voicing more difficult than signing?
  • If so, what explanations do the interpreters give?


The first stage was to interview sign language interpreters from German-speaking Switzerland (n=38) and Germany (n=7) by telephone with the aid of a structured guide. The second stage was to conduct in-depth interviews with four sign language interpreters who also work as trainers on sign language courses in German-speaking areas in order to ascertain why they find voicing more difficult.


The findings from the first survey show that interpreters prefer working from the spoken language into sign language, and that there is, indeed, a directionality effect due to the difficulties of voicing. New hypotheses for both research questions can be derived from the findings of the second, qualitative survey based on in-depth interviews.

  • Hypothesis 1: When voicing, difficulties arise at an earlier stage in the interpreting process (reception) than when interpreting from spoken to sign language. This direction is consequently regarded as more difficult. The findings derived from the second question (2) about the reasons for this are pivotal, however. There are two hypotheses which might provide an answer:

  • Hypothesis 2a: The explanation is not down to one particular factor, as the difficulty of an interpreting situation must be sought in the accumulation of three clusters: a) situation-related factors, b) language-related factors and c) psychological/person-related factors. This situational perspective (on the interpreting situation) can be complemented by macro-situational (longitudinal) aspects.

  • Hypothesis 2b: Lengthy professional experience, high proficiency in the reception of the sign language, rapid self-monitoring and broad strategical knowledge reduce voicing difficulties during the interpreting situation.

Consequences for practice

The various factors accounting for the difficulties experienced in voicing serve not merely to gain a clearer understanding of voicing, but could form the basis – in a second and third phase – for providing additional content for initial and further training.


  • Audeoud, M. & Haug, T. (2013). „Directionality Effect" beim Gebärdensprachdolmetschen – Welche Dolmetschrichtung präferieren Gebärdensprachdolmetscher in der Schweiz? Teil 1. Das Zeichen, 93, S. 124-136.
  • Haug, T. & Audeoud, M. (2013). „Directionality Effect" beim Gebärdensprachdolmetschen – Welche Dolmetschrichtung präferieren Gebärdensprachdolmetscher in der Schweiz? Teil 2. Das Zeichen, 94, S. 306-316. 



Project Management

Prof. Dr.  Haug

Leiter Bachelorstudiengang Gebärdensprachdolmetschen


Forschung und Entwicklung
Tel: +41 44 317 11 81

zfe[at] zfe