Respeaking – Interpreting for Subtitles

The research project Respeaking – Interpreting for Subtitles, coordinated by Liisa Tiittula, professor in the German language, is one of the projects at the Faculty of Arts that in 2013 received project funding from the Future Fund for interdisciplinary cooperation between researchers.

In the video below, Tiittula talks in more detail about her research project and discusses the importance of research in the humanities. A summary of the interview is available below the video.

New techniques to promote accessibility

The Respeaking – Interpreting for Subtitles research project focuses on developing new techniques in the field of subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing. Tiittula became interested in the subject about ten years ago when the Finnish Federation of Hard of Hearing contacted her in connection with a study concerned with the intelligibility of print interpreting. Print interpreting means text based on a person’s speech and written in sync with the speaker for the deaf and hard of hearing whose native language is, instead of sign language, Finnish, Swedish or another language. Tiittula studied this subject, which was new even to herself, at the University of Tampere, first with students in a Master’s thesis project, and later in a cooperation project with the discipline of computer science funded by the Academy of Finland.

In the field of audiovisual translation, new important questions are related to accessibility and the targeting of messages at audiences outside the borders of language and culture. Respeaking is related to subtitling television programmes in spoken language. Subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing is intended for those who for some reason are not able to hear or understand speech, for example, due to dialects or unintelligibility. According to a decree passed in 2011, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE must provide subtitles for all programming by 2016, including live broadcasts.

In Finland, print interpreting utilises regular keyboards that print interpreters use to convert speech into writing very quickly. Mistakes cannot be avoided, and the quality of the text is not usually suitable for television. This makes it necessary to acquire new techniques to ensure the functioning of real-time subtitling. The study in question is related to these new techniques. In the case of respeaking, a speaker repeats a text spoken on television in spoken, often somewhat shortened form, after which an automatic speech recognition device will recognise the speech and automatically convert it into writing. The text may have to be revised later and supplemented with extra information, for example, on who is speaking and what kind of background noise is present.

The know-how of researchers of other disciplines at the Faculty, for example, musicologists, researchers in film studies and experts of images and words, is important when discussing which sounds are significant in addition to speech. What is the significance of, for example, music, images or sound effects?

One of the central parties in the project is the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE, since it is legally obligated to subtitle 100% of its programmes. Cooperation is also conducted with several universities, for example, in connection with automatic speech recognition and eye movement research. The Federation of Hard of Hearing is another important partner.

The project received research funding from the Future Fund to begin cooperation between researchers. The project had three objectives: to develop teaching with new techniques, to evaluate and develop subtitling, and to develop the technology. In 2013, when the funding was received, the focus was on seeking partners, planning for the future and learning the technique of respeaking. The project is in the process of becoming an EU-funded project, and research will continue, for example, with focus group interviews. Research funding from the donation funds of the Future Fund was a concrete catalyst for a project that had already been in the planning stages. It was helpful in organising seminars and meetings, as well as in establishing contact with international parties.

Solutions to practical problems

Accessibility is a human rights issue that has been raised in both EU and Finnish legislation. According to Tiittula, the most interesting theoretical questions are specifically based on practical social problems. These problems cannot be solved by one discipline; instead, interdisciplinary cooperation is necessary. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, the research uncovers completely new theoretical solutions. The main issue is how to transfer the same information content between different means of expression, for example, from auditive to visual. More than raising interest in the subject, real solutions are needed.

Since questions regarding accessibility, communications and culture at their core involve issues in the humanities, humanities researchers must take part in finding the answers. The questions are, however, genuinely multidisciplinary, which makes it impossible for any one discipline to work on them alone. A great amount of research is conducted solely on the basis of interest and passion in science, but funds are also required for implementing ideas in the real world, especially for inviting external researchers to Finland and the University of Helsinki.

Tiittula is thankful to the donors for supporting important research that is continuously spreading to new fields. According to Tiittula, it is important to have an opportunity to conduct research from many different starting points, since interesting questions can be found anywhere.