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Author: Rossella D'Arcangelo
May 21, 2012, 1:00 p.m.
from the website Resocontinforma:

 

Ms. Francesca Marchionne

 

1 - First of all, we would like to know more about Francesca Marchionne: what can you tell us about yourself?


 I graduated in Foreign Languages for International Cooperation and Communication with a thesis on interlingual respeaking from French into Italian. I became more and more interested in this discipline because I saw that the application of the skills I acquired during my studies has a huge potential in fostering social inclusion. Considering the crisis we are experiencing, I decided to step up to the plate and look for a way to realize all the ideas some of the founders of the Association and I had, which no one so far has had the strength or the courage to follow through in such difficult times as these. In 2008 I became a member of the Association TDM 2000, based in Cagliari, with which I have repeatedly cooperated, sometimes remotely, especially as to the search for call for bids and the planning. This experience allowed me to realize that our ideas could come true thanks to European funds and other financing opportunities. This is why Carlo Eugeni, Tiziana Trapani, Antonella Ferraiuolo, Natascia Innamorati and I, spurred and supported by TDM 2000 itself, decided to found onA.I.R..

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2 - How did the idea of onA.I.R. come into being and why did you choose this name? But above all: what is onA.I.R.?


 onA.I.R. is the International Association on Respeaking. Its goal is to bring together everyone who is interested, on various grounds, in respeaking, such as respeakers, professional editors, would-be respeakers, researchers, users with normal hearing and with hearing impairments, report writers, subtitlers, teachers, etc. The name was born years ago and underwent various, though minimal, changes. The acronym, together with the English preposition “on”, creates a play on word evoking television or radio broadcasting, which is the most prestigious setting in which the live work of a respeaker can take place. The association was founded after a series of ideas had been presented to companies working in this sector, none of which had turned to reality. In the end we looked at each other and said: why don’t we make them come true ourselves? The first of these ideas is radio subtitling, which is materializing in these days with the project OltreSuoni. onA.I.R. strongly supports the cause of full accessibility to information and of the breaking-down of communication barriers. This applies to people with hearing impairments, but also to people who face other obstacles, such as learning or language-related difficulties. We do not offer charity and are not moved by pity: our association aims at a future in which anyone can decide independently and freely if they want to use some kind of support, and which one, in their daily life.

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3 - I know that at first you had to face serious logistic problems due to a huge amount of work which is not usual for a new association. Did you and the other founding partners expect it when you set up the association? 

 

 The problems concerned various aspects. A new association having no immediate projects and goals should indeed face none of our early problems. The idea of the project OltreSuoni, however, was conceived before the founding of the association; after onA.I.R. came into being, we were in a hurry to set up a website, create the documentation for the new members, establish contacts and partnerships for this project and organize a conference; all this while following the bureaucratic and administrative aspects, which is a lot for someone who is just starting in the world of associations. We expected an amount of effort proportional to the importance of this project and to the founding of an association from scratch, but we certainly did not expect such success and publicity. The workload increased, the first members arrived immediately, together with the first interviews and the first meetings with people who wanted to cooperate with us. Thank goodness, gratifications increased as well: all we have done so far and are still doing is already bearing fruits and I am proud to say that they are excellent!

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4 - Tell us something about “OltreSuoni” and about how a radio can reach the deaf. It’s a real challenge, as there is no visual support.

 

 The project OltreSuoni is rooted in an idea of Prof. Carlo Eugeni and in my contacts with the Association TDM 2000. The people at TDM were looking for an innovative idea for their web-radio RadioXCaso and our paths crossed in the desire to launch this project, which we are working on together. In short, it is the production through respeaking of real-time Italian subtitles for some of the programs of RadioXCaso; we will then test the effectiveness of radio subtitling as to the accessibility to the broadcasted contents both for people with hearing impairments and for foreigners, we will compare these data to the level of understanding of Italian people with normal hearing, but not to the actual semantic content of the original text. The reason is that it is necessary to compare one performance to another one, which in this case is the performance of the users to which the web-radio is directed, i.e. the hearing Italian audience. This comparison tells us much more about the effectiveness of subtitles than a mere comparison to the communication potential of the original text would. Subtitles thus yield a double result: the breaking down of the most relevant communication barrier for people with hearing impairments, i.e. the impossibility to listen to the radio, as well as a larger inclusion of foreigners with language problems into the society in which they live. We are not talking about simple songs here, but about real radio programs tackling various subjects, such as sport, active citizenship, music, politics, etc. The contents broadcasted live and subtitled in real-time will enable everybody to access the same information, albeit through different channels, and to communicate freely, immediately and independently with the other users thanks to a chat and a discussion forum, with no sensorial or language barrier. The programs will be conceived, directed and respoken by young people who have just started working and who can thus help those who, for various reasons, are excluded from certain social occasions. This satisfies a double need: the need to help the young enter the job market, thus decreasing unemployment, and the need to bring forth a larger social inclusion. The principle of active citizenship is based on the participation in the social life of one’s community, on expressing one’s opinion and on being able to discuss it. If not everyone is granted access to the information in which current debates are rooted, this equals the passive acceptance of the marginalisation of these persons. We are not talking about subtitling national television, but about a small reality which could spread through the whole world over the internet. We hope this project sets an example, so that one day the most important Italian web-radios will decide to equip themselves to grant everybody access to their contents. As to the practical access for the deaf, subtitles realized via respeaking will be displayed only a few seconds after the relevant audio. The interface of the website www.radioxcaso.it will be designed to display subtitles depending on the needs of the end users. Specifically, the sponsorship of the National Deaf Association of the province Cagliari will ensure complete support as to all aspects related to the best possible access for the receivers. In practical terms there will of course be a visual support to display the subtitles, although the challenge of real-time subtitling will still have to be met. At this point, we are not too afraid, though.

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5 - Are you satisfied with onA.I.R. so far? How many members does it currently have, what do you ask from your members and, above all, what do you expect from them?


 As mentioned earlier, the huge amount of work was accompanied by some gratifications, first and foremost the enthusiasm of the executive committee of the ENS (National Deaf Association) of Cagliari for all our initiatives. We are very happy with the progress made by the association and hope it will keep being on the right track. We observed immediate and unexpected enthusiasm from our members, the technological partners and other organizations working with us, such as TDM 2000. It is not easy to obtain full willingness to cooperate, because everyone is obviously busy and such engagements have priority over voluntary work, but I must say that there has never been lack of helpfulness when members or partners were not otherwise engaged. At the moment we have 40 members, many of whom cooperate actively in various fields. There are respeakers and editors as well as stenotypists, subtitlers, translators, interpreters and many people who contribute their experience and lend us a hand in various ways. What we ask for is some of their free time to further develop our ideas and reach the goals stated in our statute. onA.I.R. is not made up only of its executive committee, every member should consider the association as their own creation and be proud of what we have achieved so far. This is what I expect from them: involvement, sharing and a constant flow of new ideas so that we can move forward.

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 6 - What is the most ambitious project you want to realize with and for onA.I.R.?


 The ultimate goal of onA.I.R., as I explained earlier, is to grant everybody and in every circumstance equal opportunities to access information and to interact within the society in which they live. In this perspective, and considering the fact that ours is a non-profit association, the most ambitious project is doubtless the involvement as well as the active and free support of as many people as possible in order to promote the cause of full accessibility and social inclusion. Only by spreading our ideas and by “infecting” other people with our enthusiasm along the way will it be possible to make a change. What looks so strange today – i.e. reading a radio – will hopefully become normal in the future; for this to happen we need everybody’s help: people with normal hearing, deaf people, Italians, foreigners. As to actual projects, right now we are focussing on our first project, OltreSuoni, which will see some of us on active duty for six months. We have already held a press conference which was generally met with huge interest. The project will see not only respeakers and live editors involved, but also researchers and educators, foreign and Italian volunteers, with normal hearing and deaf, radio hosts and authors. I am not saying that onA.I.R. will cling to OltreSuoni and forget the rest. Many ideas are rushing through our heads, waiting only to be turned into projects, but for now we prefer to move one step at a time, to learn what we still don’t know about this world and only then plunge into the next adventure with revived enthusiasm.

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7 - Do you think that traditional verbalization and recording methods such as keyboard and stenotyping run the risk of being overshadowed by respeaking or do they still need to cooperate with each other? If yes, for how long?


 Respeaking is a writing technique, like stenotyping and typewriting. Like stenotyping, but not like typewriting, it is a quick writing technique. Having said this, it is self-evident that, in any case where there is no need for quick writing, such as expert evidences, minutes or reports which do not need to be handed in immediately, the three techniques compete against each other. The winning technique will be the most flexible and economic one; for expert evidences it is doubtlessly typewriting, as they require extreme accuracy at the level of phonemes and not only of single words. Another relevant point is the profitability of the process, especially for records and minutes. As far as I know they do not require phonemic accuracy, only lexical, which is why a quick writing technique is preferable, as more can be produced in a shorter time. From this point of view, stenotyping and respeaking are competing techniques. Again, the most flexible, accurate and economic one will prevail. Speech recognition software has become so accurate that the transcription is almost flawless, with only minimal mistakes which are easily spotted, thanks, among other things, to the automatic alignment with the speech offered by such software. Respeaking does not require sound-proofing anymore, as the stenomasks insulate the microphone. The only discriminating factor between stenotyping and respeaking remains their economic nature and the latter is undoubtedly more profitable. This said, I think that stenotypists have nothing to fear, because what is paid for is not the technique, but the end product. And the end product is guaranteed in both cases and within the agreed deadlines. Problems would of course arise if a company manager established two different compensations for respeakers and stenotypists. It is commonly believed that respeakers only need little training. It is not entirely false, because a respeaker “only” repeats what the speaker says. Some people achieved amazing results with just a few hours of training. In most cases, however, respeakers need to undergo a targeted training and to practise continuously by themselves in order to increase their dictating speed and to be able to work in real time. To be successful and well-paid, a respeaker needs a lot of practice and skills not everybody possesses, as is the case with stenotypists. One day there will probably be neither stenotyping courses nor stenotypes any longer. The existing ones, though, have professional skills which are not easily substituted. No one criticizes the use of one technique or the other, only the end result matters, although some customers specifically request one technique – usually stenotyping, probably because of past negative experiences with improvised respeakers, – some request both techniques in order to compare them in some research or to rekindle competition and some want to promote the development of new technologies, in favour of respeaking.

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8 - What advice would you give to a layman in this field who wants to approach this new real-time writing method? And what skills are necessary to become a good respeaker? Does onA.I.R. provide professional training courses?

 

 Yes, onA.I.R. can provide respeaking courses. Obviously we need the right opportunity to do so. We therefore urge our members to get together in groups or to ask the private and public sector for funds. The first advice for those who want to approach respeaking is to get rid of the corporative frame of mind shaping part of the debate in this field. Once this is done, knowing how respeaking works is enough to understand how useful a tool it can be. For instance, stenotypists who can respeak can resort to this technique when their hands are too tired to generate good transcriptions. As to the skills needed to become a good respeaker, I’d like to stress what Carlo Eugeni has already stated in this regard:

 

1) phonetic skills, so that the software can easily recognize the speech;

2) psycho-cognitive skills in order to be able to simultaneously listen, understand and productively dictate the transcript to the computer for both pre-recorded and real-time subtitles; 

3) editorial skills in order to anticipate subsequent corrections;

4) genre-oriented skills in order to be efficient and encounter no problems in the transcription process.

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9 - And finally, although it might be too early to tell, given the young age of the association: what were your biggest gratification and your biggest disappointment so far?


It is never too early! Thanks to the contagious enthusiasm of some members and to the free cooperation of technological partners, I am proud to say that, two months after its foundation, the Association can already boast 40 members, an ongoing original project, three innovative projects to be realized, some partnerships with other associations and companies, agreements with the offices for internships and traineeships of some universities, two radio interviews, various articles about our project OltreSuoni, an academic paper which will soon be published and the participation in some large international conferences. We should also add criticism, disputes and debates. I would say that my biggest gratification is the Association’s development and its newly acquired fame, both positive and negative. It means that onA.I.R. exists and is well-known at national level. The only disappointment so far is due to our inability to do more than what we already do day after day. But we are equipping ourselves for this, as well.  


Resocontinforma thanks Ms. Francesca Marchionne, President of onA.I.R., for her helpfulness and for the interesting answers which will hopefully represent a starting point to further investigate the themes at hand.

Translation by Cristina Tabbia 

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