Academics

Klijah Mitchell stares at his laptop like a detective trying to crack a case. The senior in the Interpretation and Translation program is watching a video of Evon J. Black, ’87 & G-’96, Associate Director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies (CBDS), introducing an interview. His job is to turn her signs into a written English transcript that will be archived along with the video at the D.C. Public Library.

He points to the image of Black bringing her right hand to her cheek. “If I were to follow the words she is signing, that would be ‘listen closely.’ But it’s more than just the words,” says Mitchell, who is also examining Black’s other cues. “Her eyebrows get higher, and she looks so emphatic, she is building up. ‘Listen’ may be fine, but that doesn’t match all of the emotions that she’s showing.”

This is a process that requires plenty of time and expert guidance, which is what students can access at the weekly Translation Lab, held every Friday afternoon in Hall Memorial Building. They take a seat — or check in via Zoom — and then tackle several different translation projects vetted by Dr. Emily Shaw and Dr. Pamela Collins, ’07, G-’11 & PhD ’20, two faculty members from the Interpretation and Translation program.

Several people sit at a curved conference table. They each have a laptop computer open in front of them, but they are looking up and communicating with each other.
Dr. Emily Shaw (far right) and Dr. Pamela Collins (at top left, with her fist near her chin) run a weekly Translation Lab that helps students tackle difficult projects.

Interpretation and Translation students are frequently asked for their help translating or interpreting on campus. But students are still honing their skills and should not be working alone, Collins explains. The Translation Lab creates a space for a collaborative, sandbox approach to translation work where students benefit from the experiences of mentors, instructors, and Deaf language experts.

The Lab has been under development since the COVID pandemic when Shaw partnered with Rafael Treviño and Margie English, both Interpretation and Translation PhD students, to establish an alternative space for students to work on translation skills remotely. “Ordinarily, our students provide in-person interpreting services in low risk settings to satisfy our service learning requirement, but that wasn’t possible when we were all quarantined,” Shaw says. Lab participants process videos from ASL to written English, which gives them the chance to help while earning pro bono hours, a graduation requirement of the program.

This academic year, Collins and Shaw have facilitated projects with several other Gallaudet programs. The video that Mitchell was analyzing is part of “The Power of Preserving the Black Deaf Experience,” which Dr. Jannelle Legg, G-’11, and Dr. Martreece Watson are leading in collaboration with CBDS and the Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center. Funded by Humanities DC, it documents the experiences of former Black students at the Kendall School before and after integration. “We brought this project to the lab because students are still learning how to do this work,” Shaw says. “The goal is for it to be a learning experience that leads to a contribution to the community,” Collins adds.

Collins and Shaw implemented a three-tiered, scaffolded approach to ensure quality. “We let students take the first stab,” Collins explains. “Mentors work closely with them along the process, and then their work is checked by a Deaf language expert. This creates a unique opportunity for students and creates space to invite partners from the larger community.” Collins and Shaw finalize all the drafts before they become publicly available. 

According to students, the support is critical, especially when they are faced with tricky material. Mitchell points out that the man Black is interviewing has a style of signing without much movement. “There are a lot of details that I miss,” he says. “That’s why it’s good to have a team to catch it.” Another issue is that they are discussing the 1960s, and some signs and terminology have changed since then. So Mitchell also needs to decide how to frame that in a written English transcript. He estimates that it takes about two hours to complete 15 minutes of footage.

“I don’t think people appreciate how long it takes to do a good translation,” notes Shaw, as she supervises Kate Rehagen, a third-year graduate student. Rehagen is now painstakingly translating an ASL interview collected as a part of the project “O5S5: Documenting the Experiences of the ASL Communities in the Time of COVID-19” led by Dr. Julie Hochgesang, ’07 & PhD ’14, a professor from Linguistics. For this project, students input English translations into Elan, a video annotation software program, so future users will be able to search the videos for information. The translations will also be rendered as closed captions once the videos are shared publicly.

“When I look back at my Gallaudet experience, this is one of the memories that will stand out. It really takes a village,” says Frank Biggs, a first-year graduate student. And it feels good to have played a part in something that will continue to help researchers even after the students graduate, Rehagen adds. “To be able to have an impact on Gallaudet’s campus will be one of my proudest moments in this program,” she says.

Collins says that getting a chance to use their developing skills helps students fall in love with translation. It is rewarding to watch students invest time toward their development — it helps them realize how tough it can be, but it also forces them to work collaboratively. They share tools, techniques, tricks, and plenty of snacks. “We love watching students grow through this process,” she adds.

Spending this extra time together helps them learn more about each other. Biggs was impressed that fellow grad student Sonya Balenton, whose father worked at the post office, knew so much about sorting the mail, which was the topic of one of the interviews. “That’s ELK — extra linguistic knowledge,” he says.

Through the experience, they discover what they are capable of. Stephanie Roche, the Interpretation and Translation program support specialist, was excited to be invited to join the Lab and has worked tirelessly to understand the material. (“Her notes have notes,” Collins jokes.) “It has really made me think about the overall picture and not just rush to make a translation,” Roche says.

“We’re very happy you’re here,” Shaw tells her.

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