issues in translation

OK, first of all I’m having a LOT more fun vlogging than I thought. I did not expect to already have a couple of them up at this point, once I had done my first one. But I guess I’m like a kid with a new toy. Anyway, I have a longer one being processed through google video so while I wait for that one to finish, I want to address a topic that’s been knocking about in my head for a while.

That’s the issue of translating (or subtitling) one’s vlogs. Now, relax, I’m not calling for an across the board mandate 😉 by any means. I’m just examining the issues.

First off, a couple of clarifications, I suppose. Technically, because ASL is not English, one is not captioning or transcribing such a vlog. Captioning and transcribing are simply different modes for the same language, converting from spoken to written. So spoken English is captioned into written English in real time (as it is spoken), and spoken English may be transcribed into a written document (that can be read at any time separately later on).

In contrast, subtitling is when one spoken language is rendered into a different written language (as it is spoken), a translation is a transformation from one language to the other (that can be read separately later on). So a foreign film is subtitled from the spoken French into written English, or One Hundred Years of Solitude is translated into English from the original Spanish.

As I see it, there are four possible audiences for an ASL video clip. ASL speakers, deaf non-signers, deaf-blind, and hearing people. A basic consideration, of course, is “Who is your audience?” Obviously only the latter three audiences would be in need of some type of subtitling or transcription. And in many cases, hearing people don’t care about ASL clips, unless your topic is of direct interest, for example, options that are available to the hearing parents of deaf children. Amy has excellent examples of vlogs of widespread interest to all camps, especially “The Greatest Irony” series.

Non-signing, presumably oral, deaf are another kettle of fish entirely. The subtext of the manualism-oralism argument that started over 100 years ago permeates quite a bit here, and can be confusing to people unaware of this history. Clearly, there’s a lot of friction between Deaf and oral deaf in some cases, with each side putting the other down. And oral deaf are a very visible and painful reminder of all the oralism efforts that have traumatized many, many deaf people in so many ways. But remember there’s also a wide variety of oral deaf, including solitaires, of which I am one, who are unaware of all this.

Let me relate this from my perspective: last year when I started reading up on deaf history, culture, issues (sparked by Gallaudet’s protests), I ran into a number of ASL clips and quite naturally I was very interested in what they might have to say. But of course not all of them are subtitled or translated. When I asked what the clips said, I got responses ranging from “Never mind,” to “Learn ASL and then come back.” Now remember, I’m oral deaf (not by choice, either), and I’ve grown up all my life asking hearing people “What did you say?” and getting “Never mind.” But you know, hearing people. You expect them to be ignorant at best and idiots at worst. I never for a moment would have thought that deaf people would do the same thing to me. That was very much of a shocker. I mean, I expected that deaf people would understand, especially as they also lobby for captioning in TV broadcasts, etc. I also expected deaf people to understand how it feels to have hearing people say “Oh never mind.”

Now, deaf-blind, whether or not they know sign language, are not going to be able to see the video clips at all. They are entirely dependent on some kind of written form of the clip. My understanding is that a transcript is more useful, since subtitles can’t always be pulled out of a clip by their assistive software.

OK, now from the vlogger’s perspective. First of all subtitling directly onto a vlog is a lot of work (I’ve only just started playing with the software, and it knocks me straight back to my couch, with a mojito, fanning myself in exhaustion 😉 ) even if you know the technical issues it’s just plain slow work matching the subtitles up to the signing.

Transcripts present their own set of problems. Not all signers are confident in their English skills and therefore some are hesitant to provide a translation. When someone finally told me that, I pretty much dropped all my objections at that point. I hadn’t even thought of that before. Also, translation is a skill. It’s not a mechanical process to convert from one to the other. Sometimes even a relatively accurate translation just “loses” something in translation. And sometimes the message is not that “important” — it’s just chatting, back and forth, give and take, yakkety yak.

But let me throw in yet a few more considerations! A certain pool of translated and/or subtitled vlogs can help draw in anyone who’s interested in learning sign language. Yes, there are ASL classes, but you know, based on my experience, I think there’s a lot more learning that can go on here than in a class room. I’d probably still be signing “See Dick Run” if I was sitting in a classroom 😛 . Every additional person, deaf or hearing, who learns ASL is a gain for all of us.

A decent pool of subtitled/translated vlogs also puts us on the moral high ground while we’re demanding that all media be captioned in some way. Not that we should really need to do this, but it really tosses the ball back in their court.

One thing that occurred to me when I first encountered all this, is that while I really couldn’t care less if hearies feel “excluded” from ASL vlogs, there’s one interesting aspect if ASL vlogs are readily accessible: it makes it clear as day, as their computer monitor, that ASL is a rich language, with a lot of ideas and dynamism going on. It’s not “handwaving for dummies.” If that could percolate through “common knowledge” among hearies, that might have an overall benefit to greater social acceptance of ASL. If you increase the number of hearing parents of deaf children who can access ASL vlogs, they may make different choices for their children, and be inspired to learn some themselves. I mean, maybe that’s Pollyanna, but it couldn’t hurt.

Also, for those who lack confidence in their English, it’s great practice. I’d encourage everyone to translate a couple of their vlogs. Don’t post them if you don’t want to, but go through the exercise. It’s good practice.

One final suggestion I do have. If there’s an oral deaf knocking on your door about untranslated vlogs, I’d hold off the “Never mind,” and shoot them a reply about the practical difficulties. Make it a form letter if you like.

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6 Responses to issues in translation

  1. Administrator says:

    Hi, I wrote something along these lines here: Vlog captioning is translation

  2. Janis says:

    Quick-quick reply:

    One of the best translation techniques I’ve found (and what I prefer although I don’t always adhere to it) is to give two translations:

    1) a transliteration. “GW not great why? he authority, he important.”

    2) A translation, or how I would have written it if I’d used English: “Washing isn’t great because he was a powerful authority figure.”

    Educationally, that’s probably best. But it still limps, as all translations do.

  3. Janis says:

    I’ve been wondering if there isn’t a way to do this in Premiere, just make the damned subtitle slides and mask them over the vlog, then dump the whole thing to an AVI. I’m with you, the software that people use for this BITES. It’s clumsy, slow, and counterintuitive.

    I’ll let you know what I come up with.

  4. moxie_mocha says:

    Great post, BEG! I’ve experienced making movies myself, and it’s a pain. I’ve learned the hard way: do all the editing first, and then do the subtitling last. So it’ll match up.


  5. Janis says:

    You know what would help (I’m assuming here that you’re doing the Subtitle Workshop thing, but maybe not as you’re on Ubuntu)? If the subtitling software enabled the following:

    1) You make an ASL vlog or pull up a TV show rip. (That’s what made me throw in the towel was captioning a TV show.)

    2) Watch it, and type out the lines, one per line with a line break between them, or a space, or some sort of delineation character.

    3) Open the subtitling software. Import this text file. Click on each line, and in a timeline view of the AVI, click on the start and stop points for each caption.

    This can’t be that frigging hard! Hell, I’m wondering if Subtitle Workshop can have a plug-in written for it that would permit this.

  6. Very well said, BEG! If the Deaf community claims to be truly inclusive, then they should listen to what you’ve said, and take it to heart. By no means do many oral people *choose* their educational upbringing, and many remain ignorant to this day about ASL and the Deaf culture.

    I think it’s very cool that you’re now starting to learn ASL and about our culture. Enjoy your journey! 🙂