The beauty of BSL translation

At Alarum Productions we were lucky enough to secure an emergency grant in 2020 to help us through a difficult time, when the pandemic curtailed plans to stage live performances. One of the many facets of our Arts Council bid was to look at ways of making our work more accessible. We decided to commission RAW to add BSL (British Sign Language) translation and subtitles to one of our videos, and the one we chose is a performance of my poem Histrionic Water, filmed at Debdale Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal.

When I first approached Alex from RAW he wrote back: ‘There’s some very strong, visual English language and I’ll need a bit of time to work out the best signs’. Then when the edited film arrived, I was taken aback by how much the expressive movements of the signer, Gary, added to the meaning behind the poem. I was mesmerised and feel privileged now to have this new dimension to one of my pieces. I asked if RAW would be happy to share an insight into the whole process, and what came back is fascinating:

Process of filming the BSL translation by Real Arts Workshops (RAW)

Alex Vann from Real Arts Workshops (RAW) was delighted to get the call from Heather Wastie from Alarum Productions, to add British Sign Language and subtitles to the film of her wonderful poem ‘Histrionic Water’.

Alex is hearing and signs to level 6. He sometimes does communication support work in education and has previously added BSL to films and live performances. However, when it came to this project he asked his partner, in business and in life, Gary O’Dowd, to do the signing. This is because the words of the poem are so expressive and visual that it made sense for a native Deaf BSL user to perform the poem.

Most people who have studied BSL will quickly learn that it isn’t just about doing things with your hands and arms. Rather, it uses the whole body to communicate – facial expressions in particular – and it was felt that a Deaf signer would convey this with maximum authenticity.

When it came to translating ‘Histrionic Water’, it was vital to Alex and Gary that a Deaf audience would understand what it meant. It wouldn’t do just to translate the English straight into hand gestures, like other forms of communication – Makaton and Sign Supported English for example. It had to go further and tell the story and almost act it so that a Deaf audience would understand not just the words but the meaning. Alex and Gary worked on translating the poem on paper first, and Gary practiced and practiced until the poem flowed.

Filming was problematic because Gary obviously can’t hear the poem so Alex had to use hand signals and pointing to sections of the poem off camera. Even then – trying to match the timing of the spoken word was near impossible. So they shot it in small sections, in front of a greenscreen, and Alex had the unenviable task of ‘stitching’ the pieces together in video editing software to match the film of the poem. There are some fades between the signed sections because one thing BSL must do is flow – and not jump from one sign to another.

Initial feedback from Deaf audiences is very encouraging:

“What a beautiful poem: powerful too. I’m intrigued to take a walk on the canal.”

“Wow, brilliant BSL translation, You ought to join ‘See Hear’ on TV!”

“Brilliant, fantastic translation. Love it.”

“Love it. Very impressed.”

“Very awesome, wow.”

“Fantastic”

Alex Vann from RAW said: “We love working in collaborations with other organisations and artists so when Heather got in touch about this project we were very excited. One of our key values as a business is inclusion so making a film Deaf accessible is right up our street. We hope Heather’s film is a huge success and that we get to work together again in future.”

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Thank you RAW! To watch the finished film, click here: Histrionic Water