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Eye-tracking in Translation and Interpreting Studies: The growing popularity and methodological problems

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Abstract

The emerging eye-tracking technique has opened a window of opportunities not only in medical research but also in Translation and Interpreting Studies. In recent years this research method has been used to trace the processes of reading, translation and interpreting. Eye-tracking has recently become a popular technique to examine cognitive effort involved in written translation, audiovisual translation and conference interpreting. Thanks to the use of an eye-tracker one is able to investigate the whole process and not limit oneself to analysing the quality of the output. To be more precise, by means of eye-tracking experimenters may investigate moment-by-moment changes in the cognitive effort necessary to perform a given translation/interpreting task. Useful as the eye-tracking technique may be, researchers must often face methodological and apparatus-related challenges. The present paper is intended to discuss the eye-tracking methodology and then to address the potential problems of applying this method to investigate the processes of translation and interpreting. Among the notions to be discussed are: the types of eye-trackers and their usability, accuracy vs. ecological validity, accommodation (O'Brien 2010), sampling, the use of inferential statistics for small experimental groups as well as ethics. I will also refer to my own research on the notion of language-pair specificity in sight translation (Korpal 2012) as well as a collaborative work on numerical data processing in simultaneous interpreting (Korpal and Stachowiak, manuscript in preparation).
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This is a pre-printed version of the article.
The final version of the article was published as:
Korpal, Paweł. 2015. “Eye-tracking in Translation and Interpreting Studies: The growing popularity and
methodological problems”, in: Łukasz Bogucki and Mikołaj Deckert (eds.), Accessing audiovisual
translation. Łódź: Peter Lang, 199-212.
Eye-tracking in Translation and Interpreting Studies: The growing popularity and
methodological problems
Paweł Korpal
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
Abstract
The emerging eye-tracking technique has opened a window of opportunities not only in
medical research but also in Translation and Interpreting Studies. In recent years this research
method has been used to trace the processes of reading, translation and interpreting. Eye-
tracking has recently become a popular technique to examine cognitive effort involved in
written translation, audiovisual translation and conference interpreting. Thanks to the use of
an eye-tracker one is able to investigate the whole process and not limit oneself to analysing
the quality of the output. To be more precise, by means of eye-tracking experimenters may
investigate moment-by-moment changes in the cognitive effort necessary to perform a given
translation/interpreting task.
Useful as the eye-tracking technique may be, researchers must often face methodological and
apparatus-related challenges. The present paper is intended to discuss the eye-tracking
methodology and then to address the potential problems of applying this method to investigate
the processes of translation and interpreting. Among the notions to be discussed are: the types
of eye-trackers and their usability, accuracy vs. ecological validity, accommodation (O'Brien
2010), sampling, the use of inferential statistics for small experimental groups as well as
ethics. I will also refer to my own research on the notion of language-pair specificity in sight
translation (Korpal 2012) as well as a collaborative work on numerical data processing in
simultaneous interpreting (Korpal and Stachowiak, manuscript in preparation).
Why eye-tracking?
At first glance, studying eye movements appears not to have anything in common with
linguistic studies. While one would say that the examination of a human eye may be useful in
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medical science, the applicability of the eye movement research to linguistics is probably not
that straightforward. Nevertheless, the examination of eye movements has played a pivotal
role in a range of psycholinguistic studies, since “eye tracking can possibly provide
significant information about an observer’s cognitive overload” (Goldberg and Wichansky
2003: 500). In other words, thanks to the study of eye behaviour a researcher may gain insight
into the operation of the human brain (Leigh and Zee 1999: 3). It is assumed that eye
movements reflect the cognitive processes taking place in the human mind (the so-called eye-
mind hypothesis, Just and Carpenter 1980). In many linguistic empirical studies the analysis
of the product is not enough to corroborate certain hypotheses. The veracity of the results may
be, however, enhanced by means of investigating the process itself. The eye-tracking
technique, i.e. the study of eye movements, is one of the ways to achieve it and, hence, it has
gained great popularity in recent years in the field of psycho- and neurolinguistics.
Eye-tracking is only one of the psycholinguistic methods that have been eagerly adopted in
recent decades to trace the cognitive processes involved in translation and interpreting. In
order to make the results of an experiment more credible several different techniques are often
used at the same time (cf. the notion of triangulation, Alves 2003). Špakov et al. (2009),
while investigating cognitive processes involved in translation, proposed an integrated
monitoring model. So as to have an even greater insight in the process of translation, the
researchers combined eye-tracking with key-logging, electroencephalogram (EEG),
electrooculogram (EOG) and electrocardiogram (ECG). Similarly, Lachaud (2011) used eye-
tracking, key-logging and EEG in order to examine the cognitive mechanisms involved in
written translation. The product-oriented approach limits an experimenter to formulate
assumptions concerning the cognitive overload involved in certain tasks on the basis of
quality assessment. However, the intricacies of the process itself are not analysed in this
approach. When one takes it into consideration, it is no longer surprising that linguists
working in the field of translation and interpreting have started to adopt eye-tracking as one of
the process-oriented psycholinguistic methods.
The main types of eye movements
Human eye functions with great precision. The working of the human eye is made up of a
continuation of very rapid movements followed by moments of stillness when the eye focuses
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its attention on a specific point of interest. Crucial to the understanding of eye movements is
the distinction between saccades and fixations. Rayner and McConkie describe this
relationship by saying that “the eye does not move smoothly in reading but rather executes a
series of rapid movements (saccades), each followed by a relatively long period during which
time the eye is relatively stationary (fixation)” (1977: 186). The velocity of saccades is so
high that instead of comprehending them as a sequence of small movements we tend to
perceive them as continuous. They occur in both eyes simultaneously and every single move
lasts for about 25-100 ms (Goldberg and Wichansky 2003: 503). The moment of fixation, on
the other hand, has the average length amounting to 200-300 ms. It is assumed that the more
the eye fixates on a given element, the more attention is given to process this stimulus. For
this reason, fixation count and fixations length are much more often used as eye-tracking
metrics in psycholinguistic studies than saccade count or the length of individual saccades.
The number of refixations and regressions during a reading task has also been proved to be
informative of the cognitive effort invested in performing a given operation. By saying that a
word is refixated one means that it receives additional fixation(s). Refixations and regressions
are believed to be of a corrective nature and in studies involving reading they often result
from comprehension problems. As a reader fails to localise the most appropriate point of
interest, the word has to be examined again to be understood correctly. In one of the eye-
tracking studies on language-pair specificity I examined whether sight translation from
German into Polish is more cognitively demanding that sight translation from English into
Polish. The reason for such a presumption was that one of the common characteristics of
German is the verb-final structure. An example of a pair of sentences illustrating this problem
has been given by Campbell (1995: 196):
(1) Ich weiß, daß er in die Stadt gefahren ist.
(2) I know that he has gone to town.
It transpired in the course of the analysis of eye-tracking results that many participants had
major comprehension problems with processing such sentences which was reflected by a
considerable number of refixations on both the final verb and the rest of the sentence. In this
way computing refixations made it possible for me to identify parts of the text which proved
to be cognitively challenging for the participants.
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Eye-tracking metrics
The amount of cognitive effort involved in performing a specific task can be calculated by
means of eye-tracking metrics. In order to be able to operationalise such effort a researcher
needs to choose a set of eye-tracking indices which would function as dependent variables in
the course of a study. In this section I will discuss the most common eye-tracking indicators.
One of the most commonly used eye-tracking measures is fixation count, i.e. the number of
fixations within a particular Area of Interest. Fixations play a very important role since their
number and duration determine the cognitive effort of a person performing an experimental
task. A relevant example of the use of the fixation count indicator has been given by Chieh-
Ying Chang (2011: 166) who compared reading a text in one’s mother tongue with
translation. It has been manifested that the translation task involves a higher number of
fixations since apart from comprehension skills the latter activity requires conversion and
text production.
Fixation length, i.e. the length of fixation(s) within a given Area of Interest is also informative
of the cognitive load invested in performing a particular task. Longer fixations are believed to
correspond to a greater cognitive load. On a more practical note, it often happens that one
eye-tracking indicator is referred to by using different names. For example, fixation length
and total fixation time denote the same measure and these names are often used
interchangeably. Some researchers, instead of giving the total fixation time, provide the value
of first fixation duration, i.e. “the duration of the initial fixation in a region” (Henderson and
Ferreira 2004: 37). This measure has been used in the experiment carried out by Huang
(2011). She demonstrated that there is a statistically significant difference in the cognitive
effort involved in the three different tasks, i.e. silent reading, reading aloud and sight
translation. It turned out that the highest number of first fixation duration is attributable to
reading aloud whereas the lowest to silent reading.
As has already been suggested, the number of refixations and regressions may indicate
processing difficulties. Returning to a previous word or a phrase to process it again may be a
sign of comprehension problems. For instance, one could expect a greater number of
regressions while reading a text in a foreign language than in the case of a native language
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excerpt, assuming that the former task requires more cognitive energy than the latter.
Moreover, regression probability measure has been used in the study on the process of the
resolution of temporary ambiguity (Vasishth 2011). It appears that ambiguity forces a reader
to concentrate more on the process to grasp the correct meaning from a couple of available
ones.
Another cognitive effort indicator used in eye-tracking studies is the so-called observation
length understood as a “total time a person has looked within an AOI, starting with a fixation
within an AOI and ending with a fixation outside the AOI” (Chmiel and Mazur 2013: 196).
Computing observation length is yet another way of verifying how long it took for a person to
process a given visual stimulus. Again, one needs to be aware of terminological differences
which may result from fact that researchers use various eye-tracking software to analyse the
study results. The name observation length used in TobiiStudio corresponds to the so-called
dwell time in EyeLink Data Viewer. Hence, it is of the utmost importance for a researcher to
make sure that they are aware of what the names of eye-tracking indicators stand for before
conducting an eye-tracking study.
An additional feature of many eye-trackers is the possibility to compute pupil diameter. In
one the first studies related to cognitive effort involved in the process of interpreting
Tommola and Niemi (1986) used pupil dilation as an eye-tracking measure. As has been
underlined by Tommola and Niemi (1986: 175), “[p]upil dilation is related to the mental
effort required by cognitive tasks, and relative pupil size has been found to be useful as a
measure of task difficulty in a wide variety of situations”. Hence, they claim that pupil
diameter is correlated with the cognitive (over)load experienced by a participant of an
experiment. Pupillometry, i.e. measurement of pupil diameter, has been often used as a
research method in Translation Studies. The example of such a study is that of Chieh-Ying
Chang (2011). He used pupil dilation to examine the cognitive load involved in the process of
translation from Mandarin Chinese into English and the other way round. The statistical
analysis showed that the difference between the two directionalities is statistically significant
(2011: 169).
To summarise, within the last decades the method of pupillometry and other eye-tracking
metrics have been used in numerous psychological and linguistic studies in order to trace the
processes of reading, translation and interpreting and to account for the cognitive (over)load
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involved in them. What should be made clear is that the choice of a specific measure is
dependent to a large extent on the eye-tracker device that is going to be used in a study. Many
eye-trackers are able to compute only the basic formula and, hence, it is impossible to take
advantage of some of the measures. It should also be remembered that the choice of particular
eye-tracking measures should depend on the nature of an experimental study. For example,
when studying comprehension difficulties in the processing of ambiguous sentences the
analysis of refixations appears to be indispensable. Similarly, when one is interested in the
total time spent on the visual processing of a given stimulus, total fixation time needs to be
computed instead of a first/single fixation time.
Eye movements in Translation and Interpreting Studies
As has already been stated, eye-tracking has recently become a popular technique to examine
the cognitive effort involved in the process of translation and interpreting. In the present
section I will provide examples of translation and interpreting research avenues in which eye-
tracking has been adopted. One of the first researchers who used the method of pupillometry
to investigate cognitive effort in Translation and Interpreting Studies were Tommola and
Niemi (1986). The authors of the study proposed that measuring pupil dilation proves
applicable to examine the variations in cognitive load which is created during the process of
simultaneous interpreting. The main purpose of the experiment was to examine the amount of
mental load in simultaneous interpreting from Finnish into English. Due to the fact that
languages vary syntactically, restructuring was necessary in some parts of the text. As could
be predicted, the results of the study demonstrated that interpreting the clauses which needed
to be restructured resulted in a greater cognitive load. The researchers pointed out that the
examination of the human eye may serve as a reliable indicator of the processing effort
involved in simultaneous interpreting.
Another attempt to apply eye-tracking to Interpreting Studies was made by Hyönä et al.
(1995). One of their experiments was designed to compare the amount of mental load in three
linguistic tasks: simultaneous interpreting, shadowing and pure listening. The results
demonstrated that there existed a strong correlation between the type of the task and the
mental effort reflected in the pupil size variations. Simultaneous interpreting turned out to be
the most cognitively demanding, whereas listening involved the least amount of the overload.
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In the second experiment, participants were supposed to perform similar tasks but this time on
a single-word level. Again, the correlation between the task and the pupil size was observed
(Hyönä et al. 1995).
Jakobsen and Jensen (2008) recorded participants’ eye movements while performing several
reading tasks: reading for comprehension, reading a text before translation, sight translation
and reading while translating a text. Eye-tracking measures, such as the number of fixations
and fixation duration, were used to answer the question whether task type has an effect on eye
movement patterns. It transpired that the purpose of reading a text had a visible impact on the
amount of processing effort (Jakobsen and Jensen 2008, as cited by Alves et al. 2011: 178f.).
The complexity of the task correlated with both the number and the length of fixations.
Pavlović and Jensen (2009) used the eye-tracking technique to examine the notion of
directionality in written translation. Four different eye-tracking indicators were incorporated
in the study: gaze time, average fixation duration, pupil dilation and total task length
(Pavlović and Jensen 2009: 98f.). The authors of the study manifested that “in both directions
of translation, processing the TT requires more cognitive effort than processing the ST”
(Pavlović and Jensen 2009: 95). There were some other hypotheses formulated by the authors
which were only partially corroborated in the course of the experiment. The reason for that
was that some of them were confirmed only by some eye-tracking indicators or for only one
of the experimental groups. Such results are pivotal for present considerations since they
show that every time an eye-tracking experiment is conducted, it is crucial to adopt a set of
various eye-tracking measures so as to increase the reliability of the results. Using a limited
number of such metrics (or only one) may make a researcher draw erroneous conclusions.
The process of sight translation was juxtaposed with written translation in a study conducted
by Shreve et al. (2010). The peculiarity of sight translation lies in the fact that a sight
translator has to produce his translation orally with constant access to the written original text.
The authors of the study wanted to compare the distribution of mental efforts in both language
tasks. The first aim of the study was to investigate eye movement during sight translation, as
compared with bilingual reading. The second, more precise, hypothesis was to check whether
“manipulation of characteristics of the sight translation text, such as lexical difficulty and
syntactic complexity, could produce an effect in measures of effort, such as eye movements”
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(Shreve et al. 2010: 71). A range of eye movement patterns were used in the experiment, i.e.
“fixation frequency and duration, fixations in areas of interest (AOI), regression frequency
and duration, and certain derived metrics (fixation/regression ratio, etc.)” (Shreve et al. 2010:
71). The results of the experiment showed that bilingual reading is not as effortful as sight
translation. The effect of the AOI complexity on cognitive overload reflected in eye
movement patterns turned out not to be so straightforward.
Sjørup (2011) used the eye-tracking technique to study cognitive effort involved in the
translation of metaphorical language. Metaphorical expressions may be problematic for a
translator since they can be translated by means of various techniques. A translator (or an
interpreter) may look for the metaphorical equivalent in the target language. However, he may
also decide on a functional translation, i.e. he may dispose of the metaphorical image and
translate (interpret) the meaning of the metaphorical expression. In her study, Sjørup (2011)
attempted to investigate whether translators invest more cognitive effort in translating
metaphorical language when compared with non-metaphorical expressions (2011: 197). The
author of the experiment hypothesised that the difference would be reflected in eye-tracking
measures and that the translation of metaphorical expressions would be correlated with longer
gaze times than in the case of non-metaphorical expressions. As concluded by Sjørup, “there
seems to be a slight correlation between the distribution of translation strategies and in the
two texts and the mean gaze times”. Nevertheless, the study again proves the usability of eye-
tracking methodology to examine cognitive overload involved in the process of written
translation.
In recent years eye-tracking has also been eagerly applied to audiovisual translation. One of
the pioneers of applying the analysis of eye movements to subtitling is D’Ydewalle with his
collaborators (e.g. 1991; 2007). Szarkowska et al. (2013) conducted a series of studies in
which they used the eye-tracking methodology to study audio description in art, education as
well as subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing. The authors intended to investigate the use
of subtitles and the perception of the audio described works (Szarkowska et al. 2013: 179).
One of the results of their research is that “children’s eye movements – and thus their
attention can be positively affected by AD [audio description], which helps them to focus on
relevant elements of the screen” (Szarkowska et al. 2013: 173). Although the authors
acknowledge that eye-tracking may prove useful in audiovisual translation and media
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accessibility, they also report on the methodological problems they have encountered. They
point out that so far eye-tracking has been mostly used to analyse static images and they
suggest that smooth pursuits (which allow the eyes to follow a moving object) should be
included in the analysis of dynamic media (Szarkowska et al. 2013: 180). Even though there
exist methodological and apparatus-related challenges of applying psycholiguistic methods in
linguistics, audio description is a great of example of the growing popularity of eye movement
research in Translation Studies, also in Poland. In 2013 Grucza et al. published the
Translation Studies and Eye-Tracking Analysis volume in which they published the results of
the ongoing research on eye movements in the processes of written, sight and audiovisual
translation.
Methodological problems
The main purpose of the previous section was to give examples of research avenues in which
eye-tracking may be (and has been) combined with Translation and Interpreting Studies. In
the context of the growing popularity almost a trend of using eye-tracking methodology to
investigate the process of translation and interpreting, a discussion of the major
methodological problems that a researcher may encounter appears to be even more relevant.
As has already been mentioned, the choice of eye-tracking measures should not be haphazard
but ought to result from the nature of an experimental study. The choice of a particular eye-
tracker is also subject to the purpose of the experiment. There is a major distinction between
remote eye-trackers and head-mounted eye-trackers. Remote eye-trackers do not support the
head of a participant and it is believed that the use of such equipment enhances the ecological
validity of a study. A text to translate or sight-translate may be displayed on a computer
screen and the eye movements on the screen are then recorded by an eye-tracking machine.
Using a head-mounted eye-tracker could mean forcing a participant not to move his head
while (sight-)translating a text which would not imitate the natural translation context.
However, there is one downside to using remote eye-trackers, i.e. it is generally believed that
the results are slightly less accurate when compared with head-supported eye-trackers. Jensen
discussed eye-tracking accuracy in translation studies and managed to conclude that an error
rate of 20% or more (sometimes much more) must be expected” (2008: 173). This shows that
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eye movement accuracy is one of the most central problems and major limitations of the eye-
tracking research. Even if one chooses the most modern head-mounted eye-tracker available
on the market, this person should not expect 100% eye-tracking accuracy.
Before choosing a particular eye-tracker, it is suggested to consider whether the ecological
validity is crucial to obtain reliable data from the study. In the experiment on language-pair
specificity in sight translation I used a remote eye-tracker to cater for the natural context of
the experiment but I also complied with Gerganov’s (2007) recommendations regarding the
choice of the font, the number of characters per line and lines per slide. In this way I
attempted to reach a compromise between the problem of data accuracy and the validity of the
experiment. In the study on numerical data processing in simultaneous interpreting, the use of
the SMI head-mounted eye-tracker transpired not to be the best idea. Together with my
collaborator we noticed that some participants were preoccupied with the unnatural procedure
of the experiment which distracted them from performing an interpreting task (Korpal and
Stachowiak, manuscript in preparation).
Another important problem related to the use of psycholinguistic methods is ethics. One of the
rules listed in the Ethical Principles Underlying Human Research Participant Protections
published by the American Psychological Association states that: individuals should not be
exposed to harm or unnecessary risk, and any benefits should be maximized
(http://www.apa.org/science/leadership/research/ethical-conduct-humans.aspx?item=2). Eye-
tracking is generally believed not to be an invasive research method. On the other hand,
infrared light is emitted during eye-tracking experiments which, in extreme cases, might be
detrimental to participants’ health. O’Brien (2010: 259) suggests that not informing the
participants that their eyes are being tracked could also be considered unethical by many
researchers. One of the ways to minimise the problem is to notify the participants of the
experimental procedure and to inform them how an eye-tracker works, i.e. that the infrared
light is emitted by the machine so as to record their eye movements. Collecting participants’
written consents to take part in an eye-tracking study is not only a good idea but an obligation
of every researcher. According to the American Psychological Association: “[t]he principle of
respect for persons requires voluntary informed consent be obtained from potential
participants” (http://www.apa.org/science/leadership/research/ethical-conduct-humans.aspx).
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It seems to me that one of the greatest problems of studies involving professional translators
and interpreters is collecting a sufficient number of participants. In the case of eye-tracking
experiments this problem may be magnified since some people are not willing to take part in
psycholinguistic studies which they find invasive. Many statisticians would argue that at least
25 participants are needed in each experimental group to be able to draw reliable conclusions
from inferential statistics. However, O’Brien (2010: 255) pinpoints the advantages of small-
scale studies in Translation Studies by saying that such experiments “are pioneering in their
use of eye-tracking in translation studies. Researchers are testing equipment, research designs,
and methodologies”. Hence, even if it is impossible to make valid generalisations, small-scale
eye-tracking studies may prove useful in Translation and Interpreting Studies.
In eye-tracking experiments consideration must also be given to accommodation which may
be regarded as a limitation of this research method. There is a range of variables which need
to be controlled in the course of the experiment. Since pupil dilation is analysed in many
studies concerning the cognitive overload involved in performing a translation task, an
experimenter should control the amount of light in a room. O’Brien (2010: 253) gives
examples of some other potentially confounding variables which may skew the results of the
experiment, for example caffeine level and eye make-up. The former has an impact on the
organism’s activation level which, in turn, may be reflected in pupil dilation. Heavy make-up
(or even long eyelashes), on the other hand, may distort the correct recording of eye
movements. The questions is whether it is possible to control all these factors and dispose of
all the potential confounding variables. While conducting a study on number processing,
together with my collaborator we asked female participants not to wear heavy make-up. We
also asked the interpreters not to drink any coffee right before the experiment but this, of
course, was impossible to be verified as the experiment started (Korpal and Stachowiak,
manuscript in preparation).
Summary
The main purpose of the present paper was to discuss the main eye-tracking research avenues
and the major methodological challenges of using eye-tracking in Translation and Interpreting
Studies, such as the choice of an eye-tracker, eye-tracking accuracy, ecological validity,
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ethics, sampling and accommodation. Since psycholinguistic methods are more and more
eagerly adopted to trace the processes of translation and interpreting, such knowledge appears
to be indispensable. The article began with the discussion of the advantages of the eye-
tracking technique over the analysis of the translation product. Then I described the main eye
movements and eye-tracking measures used to operationalise the cognitive effort invested in
performing an experimental task. I discussed the examples of eye-tracking experiments
conducted in Translation and Interpreting Studies with an attempt to manifest that the
examination of eye movements has gained great popularity in research on translation and
interpreting in recent decades. I aimed at showing that there exist numerous methodological
problems which a researcher must face when conducting an eye-tracking experiment. Even if
it is impossible to design and conduct a perfect eye-tracking study, I strongly believe that
methodological awareness makes it possible to obtain more reliable data and, in turn, it may
boost the quality of eye-tracking research.
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... It was then introduced in IS by McDonald and Carpenter (1981), who investigated the interpretation and parsing of ambiguous idiomatic phrases, as well as error detection and correction in sight translation, a variant of interpreting (Herbert, 1952;Agrifoglio, 2004;Chen, 2015;Pöchhacker, 2016). Later, it was increasingly adopted in linguistics, as evidenced by a growing number of studies in this field using eye-tracking in the 21st century (Conklin and Pellicer-Sánchez, 2016), and is now gaining ground in IS (Korpal, 2015;Ma, 2017;Tiselius, 2020). ...
... training. Despite the insights afforded by previous reviews of eye-tracking IS, they are somewhat limited in breadth and scope, as the focus is either several selected studies (Moratto, 2020), or a specific research dimension-methodological issues (Korpal, 2015), or a specific theme-cognitive load (Su et al., 2021), or a specific interpreting mode-sight interpreting (Ma, 2017). Thus, this is the first attempt at a comprehensive review of eye-tracking in IS in its entirety. ...
... " Within fixations, fixation counts, probabilities and proportions, and duration were the most favored metrics, and they were mainly adopted to examine cognitive processing and cognitive load. This corroborates previous findings, that fixation counts and duration were predominant measures in psycholinguistics and translation studies to indicate cognitive effort (Hvelplund, 2014;Korpal, 2015). ...
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