Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Deaf ears at the EU?

Icon for hard of hearing
Media Translation and Accessibility in the EU were discussed at UCL on 25th June. The presentations, documentary, videos and discussions highlighted weaknesses in the EU's current fulfilment of its accessibility obligations towards EU citizens.

The discussion arose from the research of three UCL PhD students: Silvia Kadiu, Aysun Kiran and Renata Mliczak. Their findings and report will be published later in 2015. This blog will focus on the round table at the end of the seminar.

Non-discrimination and capacity
The Demand Management Unit manages the European Commission's communication needs against Directorate General capacity. Translated web content forms an important part of the European Union's drive to bring itself closer to EU citizens. Non-discrimination is regarded as a primary factor in deciding on coverage.

EU and UN Convention
The European Union has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was stated that some 8% of Europe's population has some sort of accessibility requirement - e.g. sight impairment, hearing impairment or old-age-related. Increasing life expectancy and an ageing population are likely to increase these figures and future demand.

Article 7 of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) states that:

Member States shall encourage media service providers under their jurisdiction to ensure that their services are gradually made accessible to people with a visual or hearing disability.

Text should be available in alternative formats - e.g. braille, automated subtitles, etc. Today's communication requirements are not just confined to the translation of legal reports, legislation and press articles. Today the EU has to consider video, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

During the session, one-off videos were played of in-house translators who kindly assisted the PhD students in their research at the Directorate-General for Translation. These were not official interviews on behalf of the EU, rather they reflected personal opinions. The interviews gave a revealing insight into the translators' personal experiences and opinions on the current status and approach to audiovisual translation within the EU.

The viewpoints expressed often seemed at odds with the official stance. The translators seemed to have limited audiovisual project experience during their time with DGT. They seemed to feel that DGT did not have a subtitling strategy. Such projects seemed to relate more to personal preference and audiovisual requirements were only considered at the end of the translation process. One translator rightly pointed out that European citizens do not read legal web content. They need more digestible and accessible content.

EU "Not leading by example"
After the videos, the invited panel drew out the issues. The chief concern was that the EU is "not leading by example".

Expert panel
The panel of experts included:
Dr Robert Adam, Research Associate, UCL (deaf native signer)
Dr Jorge Díaz-Cintas, Director of Centre for Translation Studies (CenTraS), UCL
Angeliki Petrits, Language Officer, European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom
Mrs Lidia Smolarek-Best, European Federation of Hard of Hearing People
Prof. Bencie Woll, Chair in Sign Language and Deaf Studies and Director of DCAL, UCL

Software issues
Dr Jorge Díaz-Cintas underlined that the European Commission's in-house Directorate-General for Translation (DGT) does not always understand all the issues. Jorge expressed particular sympathy for the translator who mentioned the difficulties of using subtitling software available within DGT. Lines are limited to 60 characters and the end-result looks ugly. There is far better freeware available for download online. However, for security reasons DGT translators are not permitted to download or install such software on their own.

Lack of drive
It was felt that there was an effort to reach out on accessibility issues, but there is a lack of drive to support such efforts from the top. Availability very much depends on the language concerned. For example, it was stated that many Greeks were unable to access information. As a result they often have to make do with US rather European audiovisual material.

Theory v. Practice
The panel stressed that there are clear descriptions on what is necessary for people with disabilities. The EU has signed up to the policy. However, there is a severe failure to understand the obligations related to this commitment. A voice-over is seen as an aesthetic choice rather than as a matter of access. The panel considered that there is a passing of responsibility. As the matter is not addressed properly at the top, those lower down the line do not have the necessary information or instructions to implement the audiovisual policy. It is seen as difficult for countries like Greece and Poland to argue for greater accessibility, if EU communications do not lead by example. By contrast, the BBC has set some standards to follow.

Web content progress
Angeliki Petrits defended the EU. She contrasted the subject of accessibility with web content from her perspective as an EU employee with 25 years' experience (no direct accessibility involvement). Angeliki stressed that ten years ago the EU did not have any web content. She considered that the EU was "100 years ahead of that now" having made a huge amount of progress.

Budget and political will
In order to address the accessibility issue, there has to be a top-down decision. There is immense pressure on resources with a 5% cut in budgets at the same time as an increase in translation volume into 24 official languages. The panel felt that the budget would be forthcoming if there was sufficient political will at the top.

Deaf MEPs and accessibility
Dr Robert Adam revealed that there are two deaf MEPs - one from Hungary and the other from Belgium. They have equality of access. The UN Convention makes reference to a sign language requirement and the two deaf MEPs have access to sign interpreters in the European Parliament Chamber.

The current situation was likened to the well-known British sitcom "Yes, Minister" with everyone working from a different hymn sheet. There needs to be equality in the treatment of spoken and sign languages.

Notable "absentees"
The panel also noted that not all Member States have agreed to the 2011 requirements. Many countries are behind Britain in its approach to accessibility. For example, I was surprised to hear that a country like the Netherlands, normally considered to be so forward-thinking, has not signed up (even more surprising given the high visibility of Dutch speakers in the European Commission's leadership today). Norway and the United States were also notable "absentees".

It was felt that the EU is not being proactive enough about accessibility. Greater efforts need to be made to automate the process. Dr Jorge Díaz-Cintas commented that in the United States they are making advances in machine translation for audiovisual translation. Only English and Spanish versions are produced there. The EU is struggling to meet requirements for a far greater number of official languages with an outdated and inadequate software.  There is a big disconnect between requirements and staff knowledge, experience and expertise with film and technology.

In conclusion, the panel stressed three points:

1. Draw attention to the legal basis for accessibility in the UN Convention
2. Strategy - Is there one? How can it be targeted to increase accessible services?
3. Positive note - 10 years ago there was no web content, today DGT is trying to make greater use of video.

The EU needs to offer a "best example" approach to accessibility and spread the word to Member States and globally.

Karen Andrews, content writer
Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is
an entrepreneurial
French to English
translator, editor,
content writer and
marketing consultant. 

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