by Heba Safwat Alattar
A Brief History of Arabic Audiovisual Translation
Arabic audiovisual translation (AVT) appeared with the emergence of cinema in Egypt back in 1896. Early movies were accompanied by the voice of elmefahematy who would simultaneously interpret the intertitles of silent foreign movies and, later, foreign dialogues. The practice evolved to presenting the first professionally-subtitled feature film Romeo and Juliette translated by Anis Ebeid in 1944. It was phenomenally successful and started a new phase in the practice of film translation in the Arab world. As for dubbing production, the American movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was the first film dubbed in Egypt back in 1936 (Gamal 2007). Later, AVT services spread to other countries in the Arab region and now providers are mainly in Amman, Beirut, Cairo and Dubai (Gamal 2007).
Despite a long history of Arabic AVT, the field has not evolved to meet the needs of Arab deaf and blind audiences. Over 40 years after the earliest SDH and audio description productions in the USA by Media Access Group, media accessibility is still an unrecognized concept on the Arab audiovisual media scene.
For Arab deaf and hard of hearing audiences, sign language is largely used to make media content accessible. However, SDH will not be difficult to promote because of its low cost and uncomplicated production process. In fact, Arabic audiovisual content, particularly online and more specifically commercial videos, is increasingly provided with transcriptions. This can be a way to draw attention to the concept of accessibility and a good step toward producing professional SDH.
Challenges Facing Audio Description Production
On the other hand, accessibility for the blind and the visually impaired is far behind. Audio description (AD) is a time-consuming and costly process (Matamala and Fernandez-Torne 2015). With no binding legislation for Arab media accessibility, choosing to offer audio description will come down to costs and profitability. One of the ways to increase adoption of Arabic AD is to research strategies and technologies that can produce cost-cutting workflows. Translation of recorded AD has proven to serve that purpose (Jankowska, Milc, and Fryer 2017). By using English as pivot language, this would greatly reduce the cost of providing audio descriptions for foreign films. As for describing original Arabic productions, translation is irrelevant and other solutions need to be explored.
One solution that could be helpful is text-to-speech (TTS) technology. Synthetic speech provides an alternative to human-voiced audio descriptions unequalled in terms of production costs (Szarkowska 2011).
This can encourage Arab producers and distributors to invest in the service without being so anxious about revenues. Speaking of Arabic TTS, Arabic pronunciation relies mainly on tashkeel (diacritics) to denote harakat (vowels). In the absence of tashkeel, a wide range of pronunciations for words are possible. However, a number of Arab and non-Arab software companies have made remarkable progress in this area by integrating an automatic tashkeel generator in TTS software. The quality of these programs in voicing Arabic audio descriptions needs to be tested by examining its reception by blind and visually impaired audiences.
On top of that, unfamiliarity with AD is one of the challenges facing its adoption, as audiovisual content accessibility is little known to Arab blind and visually impaired audiences. AD providers should engage with them to promote the concept of accessibility and raise their awareness about their right to an equal viewing experience.
Despite the challenges, the Arabic AD scene is not totally stagnant. In a number of Arab countries, several AD productions have been made for various types of content. For example, the Marrakech International Film Festival was an early AD adopter and audio described participating films in some editions since 2009. In 2015, Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) declared it would be providing AD for some of its shows. In 2018, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information launched a project to audio describe shows broadcasted on Kuwaiti TV. Netflix has also audio described original Arabic titles. This managed to draw attention to the feature and can help promote the service among a large audience that is expected to reach 12.27 million in 13 Arab countries by 2025 (Video on Demand 2020).
Additionally, steps have been taken for producing AD for theatre and museums. In 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture announced that it was providing one of its largest theatres with equipment to make shows accessible to audiences with different disabilities including blindness. Guided by the experience of the Omero Tactile Museum in Italy, in 2019 the Egyptian Museum in Cairo collaborated with the Italian Centre for Archeology in Cairo on a project named Masar Almakfofeen (Route for the Blind). The project made a number of the Museum’s artifacts accessible to blind visitors through prerecorded audio descriptions and panels with descriptions in braille. One of the project team members hopes to apply the experience to all Egyptian museums (Independent Arabia 2019).
The Need for Steps Forward
After 10 years of AD productions, AD remains largely unknown to the majority of Arab audiences. None of these providers have created clear guidelines on how the service should be done. Apart from the AVT MA program at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, no Arab institution offers training in AD and those available are limited to each provider’s internal teams.
Merely claiming leadership in AD production won’t do the service any good. This should be followed by providers collaborating, exchanging expertise and working toward laying down clear standards for AD production. Now is the right time to experiment and draft guidelines that help perfect the practice and move it forward. Without guidelines, audio description will continue to be
an ad hoc practice and no guidance will be given to the work of AD professionals (Gamal 2007).
Gamal, M. 2007. Audiovisual Translation in the Arab World: A Changing Scene. Translation Watch Quarterly, Volume 3, Issue 2.
Matamala, Anna and Fernandez-Torne, Anna. 2015. Text-to-speech vs human-voiced audio descriptions: a reception study in films dubbed into Catalan. The Journal of Specialised Translation, Issue 24.
Jankowska, Anna, Milc, Michal and Fryer, Louise. 2017. Translating audio description scripts… into English. SKASE Journal for Translation and Interpreting.
Szarkowska, Agnieszka. 2011. Text-to-speech audio description: towards wider availability of AD. The Journal of Sepcialised Translation, Issue 15.
Video on Demand. 2020. Middle East and North Africa SVOD Forecasts 2020. Research and Markets. Available at: https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/5144904/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021).
Ibrahim, Mai. 2019. “Masar Khas” Lilmakfofeen Fee Alamothaf Almisry Bilqahirah (“A route special” for the Blind in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). Independent Arabia. Article available at: https://www.independentarabia.com/node/55026/ (Accessed: 15 February 2021).