Lost In Translation

by | Sep 7, 2010

This morning I opened up Twitter to find a direct message from a follower recommending that I tune in to Steve Hargadon’s presentation at UIMP 2.0, in which he discusses University 2.0. The video of his talk, as it appeared on the live video stream from the event is available here.

Those of you who do not speak Spanish (like me) will immediately encounter a problem in the form of a very loud translator, who is drowning out the speaker, who is presenting in English. The person who recommended the presentation to me was physically present in the room, so was able to listen to Steve speak in English whilst those around him listened to the translation using headphones. He was therefore totally unaware of the difficulties I might have when viewing remotely.

This got me thinking: if we take the specific languages involved out of the equation, we can boil what has obviously happened here down to the following basic scenario:

  • Speaker X presents at an event dominated by language other than his own
  • Organiser provide translation for the local audience in the dominant language
  • Organiser live stream all presentations from the event, the majority of which are in the dominant language
  • Organiser embeds the dominant language translation of Speaker X’s presentation in the live stream audio, assuming that the majority of the remote audience will be speakers of that dominant language

This final point seems like a perfectly reasonable assumption on the surface, as those following the event as a whole are very likely to be speakers of the event’s dominant language. However, a foreign speaker may have his own colleagues and followers who wish to hear the presentation and will be taking advantage of the live stream to do so. This opens up a case for offering two language options: the dominant language and the original language of the the speaker. The translation may be available as an option that viewers of the live stream can turn on or off according to their needs rather than as an embedded feature in the live stream, or alternatively the translation could be balanced with the original audio in such a way that it is possible to follow either without requiring significantly higher concentration (and volume) levels.

I think this is an issue that we tend to overlook at English-speaking conferences, as we tend to assume English is the lingua franca of global communications. Non-native English speaking presenters will also usually give presentations at English-speaking conferences in English, however uncomfortably, rather than expecting the event organiser to provide a translator, which seems to be more common at non-English speaking events. However, I think it is an issue to consider when a speaker does require a translator for the benefit of the majority of the local audience at an amplified event.

Unfortunately, we are not currently at a stage (and arguably never will be) when we can offer automatic speech-to-speech or speech-to-text translation so that presentations made accessible online to a wide variety of language speakers. However, Martin Hawksey has been doing some great work with the [http://www.rsc-ne-scotland.org.uk/mashe/ititle/]iTitle project to apply Twitter captioning to videos after a live event, which can then be translated automatically using Google Translate, making a presentation more accessible to a wider range of language speakers. Examples of this are available for Brian Kelly’s recent talk: “What Can We Learn From Amplified Events?”, which I live blogged remotely using my @eventamplifier account. Whilst the audio for the talk is still in English, the captions can be viewed in English, Spanish and Catalan. The original Twitter stream for the talk featured a mix of all three languages. It isn’t the same as being able to participate live and Google Translate obviously provides a machine translation which is by no means perfect. However, this approach does provide a post-event resource to open up a talk to a wider audience, regardless of their native language.

As an amplified event may reasonably be expected to have a global audience (depending on the subject matter), I think it is worth considering the principles of best practice with regards to the provision of translations. In the meantime, I will be picking up the key points of Steve Hargadon’s talk as identified by Twitterers in the audience.
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