Crisis: A danger, an opportunity, or a crucial point?
In a memorable speech delivered in Indianapolis on 12 April 1959, the future US President John F. Kennedy said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” Though Victor H. Mair (2009) has clearly explained in his essay that “opportunity” is more the result of wishful thinking than of etymology (see picture 1), this dichotomy is particularly vivid in pop culture, and perfectly describes what happened to simultaneous interpreters during the lockdown that many governments of the world have imposed on their citizens to limit the spread of the covid-19 pandemic.
Interpreters during Covid-19 lockdown
The covid-19 pandemic has certainly been a crisis and will be remembered for many reasons. While many professionals have had to stop working across the world because trials, conferences and even parliamentary gatherings have been suspended for months, many others have had the possibility of working from a remote workstation, mainly at home. This has had important economic, technical and social repercussions on diamesic translation (Eugeni 2020) and particularly on the job of reporters and captioners. In this rapidly evolving world scenario, the profession which has changed probably more than any other in terms of process, product and even function – the three pillars of descriptive translation studies, or DTS (Holmes 1988) – is simultaneous interpreting, meaning the real-time translation of speeches into another language.
Interlingual Live Subtitling: A case study
As a professional, I predominantly work as a conference interpreter and live captioner (I subtitle scientific conferences and political meetings from Italian into Italian). With the lockdown, my perspective was like that of many colleagues: stopping working during the busiest months of the year, with an ongoing financial loss. Although many clients cancelled or postponed conferences, a handful of brave organisers moved them totally or partially online. In this context, most of the speeches have been recorded, subtitled and uploaded to the conference platform. Other conferences have been kept live. To interpret conferences in real time, online platforms need to allow many people to connect (e.g. Zoom, Teams, Meet, etc.) but they also need to provide multiple audio channels to choose from (e.g. Kudo, Interactio, Interprefy, etc.), so that participants can listen to interpretation in their language. As a result of an increase in the use of the web, however, technical issues often arise when attendees connect via a wi-fi connection. When such connection flaws happen, images and audio get frozen. The result is that attendees do not understood or ask for a repetition, thus impacting negatively on the whole event.
One of the bravest conference organisers I have ever met asked me in April how he could adapt the interpreting service to the new context, avoiding the risk of such communication flaws. Combining my two professions, simultaneous interpreting and live captioning, I proposed that he provide live subtitles instead of interpretation; this would involve similar costs and provide customers with a different product that none the less served the same function. Subtitles were made from English into Italian through respeaking, or voice writing, which means speaking the message straight into text, with the use of automatic speech recognition (Eugeni, 2016). Descriptively, this experience can be illustrated through the three pillars of DTS: process, product, function, which I will describe in the following sections.
As Eugeni and Marchionne (2014) describe it, such a hybrid form of translation – remote live subtitling – was organised as a nine-step process that encompasses three types of text:
- Source text
- The speaker speaks
- The audio text is transmitted to the respeaker (or voice writer)
- The respeaker listens, understands, and processes the source text
- Mid text
- The respeaker translates what the speaker has said by dictating it to a microphone
- The microphone is connected to an ASR software which processes the respeaker’s words
- ASR software turns the processed spoken words into written words
- Target text
- The output is monitored and corrected by the same respeaker
- The respeaker sends the text to a subtitling interface which displays the subtitles
- The audience can read them with a delay ranging between 2 to 10 seconds
As one can imagine, this complex workflow needs concentration, coordination among the parties involved, accuracy and rapidity, and the subtitles having to appear as close to the original speech as possible.
The product as seen by the target audience is composed of one or two lines of text appearing under the participants’ faces (picture 2), or overlaying a shared document, translating speeches from English into Italian. The average delay of five seconds was considered acceptable by the audience, given the long speech turns of conference speakers.
The function of these live interlingual subtitles is the same as that of simultaneous interpreting: letting the audience access a speech in a language that is not (sufficiently) known. However, several important added values are worth noticing. First, subtitles remain readable even with connection flaws and can be used to improve understanding of the spoken language. Moreover, a written record of what is said is available for re-use (e.g. proceedings, report, notes, etc.). Finally, attendants have more opportunities to join conferences because of the time and money saved. By staying at home, they even contribute to reducing their environmental footprint.
During crises, humans are usually confronted with a danger and need to take crucial decisions to overcome it, and this can hopefully bring opportunities. At a lower, personal, level, this one-off experience is a clear example of the fact that crises can become opportunities: the conference organiser could cancel or postpone the conference (crisis), but may decide to run it online instead (crucial point). This has brought an incredible opportunity for the organiser and for speakers and attendees not only to hold the conference as scheduled despite the circumstances, but also to turn the online conference from a second choice to an event with added value. Participants understand better, can better organise their day, and have a written record ready to re-use. In the end, though, remote interlingual live subtitling is not new, and it is far from being as common as simultaneous interpreting. For me and other professionals in the field, replicating such events at a larger scale could be a tremendous opportunity to increase job opportunities and at the same time help the world reduce human footprint on the ecology.
Carlo Eugeni is lecturer in respeaking and subtitling for the deaf and the hard of hearing at the University of Leeds (UK).
Eugeni, C. & F. Marchionne (2014) “Beyond Computer Whispering: Intralingual and French into Italian TV Respeaking
Compared”. In Petillo, M. (ed.) Reflecting on Audiovisual Translation in the Third Millennium. Perspectives
and Approaches to a Complex Art. Bucharest: Editura Institutul European.
Eugeni, Carlo (2016) “Respeaking at BBC”, in CoMe I (1) 87-95 http://comejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/9.-CoMe-I-1-2016.-Eugeni.pdf (last accessed October 2020).
Eugeni, Carlo (2020) “What’s in a name?”, in Tiro 1 (1), retrieved from https://tiro.intersteno.org/2020/05/whats-in-a-name/ (last accessed April 2020).
Holmes, James (1988/2000) “The Name and Nature of Translation Studies” in The Translation Studies Reader. Lawrence Venuti (ed.), pp. 172-185. London/New York: Routledge.
Mair, Victor (2009) “How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray”, retrieved from http://www.pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html (accessed July 2020)
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