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Volume 4(1) ~ May 2012

ISSN # 2150-5772 – This article is the intellectual property of the authors and CIT. If you wish to use this article in your teaching or in another format, please credit the authors and the CIT International Journal of Interpreter Education.

A Translation Studies Approach to Glossing Using ELAN

Judith Collins
School of Modern Languages & Cultures, Durham University
Granville Tate & Paul Hann
Professional Interpreters – members of Institute of Translation and Interpreting
Correspondence to:

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A careful study of translation and its components is the “missing link” in interpreter education. (Patrie, 2001, p. 3)

Patrie modeled an early translation approach to be incorporated in interpreter education (specifically with regard to developing spoken-English-to-sign-language translation skills and abilities). It was an approach clearly focussing on aspects of the translation process, breaking it down cognitively and sequentially. Other educators support a similar approach, for example, Davies (2000) and Winston and Monikowski (2005).
The place of translation in interpreting is clearly described by Metzger et al. (2004).The authors use Goffman’s (1981) production format, with its distinctions of animator, author, and principal to describe the relationship between a speaker (or signer) and an utterance. Metzger et al. are able to use the model in ways that draw attention to, and emphasize, the place of translation in interpreting:

The interpreter not only is the animator of relayed utterances but also serves as the author of target language utterances. That is, the interpreter makes decisions regarding the lexical, morphological, and syntactic form of the relayed utterances when translating them into the target language. (pp. 119–120)

Translation studies (TS) can assist in developing and enhancing the skills and creative abilities of individuals in their translation/interpreting practice. The first two authors of this paper developed experience of a translation approach through the application of functionalist theory to the translation of primary school assessments (see Tate, Collins, & Tymms 2003). TS at Durham University (England) have developed from 2005 with the previous postgraduate diploma for beginner interpreters—for both native and second-language British Sign Language (BSL) users. The current MA in translation studies incorporates the BSL<>English Translation/Interpreting Strand. It aims to develop students’ theoretical and practical experience and competency in translating/interpreting in both directions. Interpreting per se is taught in separate modules.
As BSL and other signed languages do not have generally used written forms, students of translation/interpreting will need to learn a basic competence in glossing to aid the ability to translate and for teachers’ ongoing formative assessments. Students therefore need to learn some basic conventions of glossing a signed language. The use of glossing may also assist the development of meta-level competencies in the cultural and cognitive spheres.
For teachers and students, glossing is a way of making easily available linguistic and pragmatic understanding of the source text and students’ reasoning in the development of a final translation. A problem with regard to video texts of languages that are signed and without a written form has been the difficulty of repeatedly inspecting the video text and linking this with written forms of commentary such as annotation and glosses. Until recently, this has proved to be discouraging for practical education purposes for anything but short BSL texts. Repeatedly scanning and reviewing video texts is much easier with digital video software. However, methods of easily aligning video frames with written text has not been widely available until more recently, as written comments also need to be quickly and easily linked to a point on the video text timeline.
It is now possible to link the signed video text timeline to the written text as it is typed, making both available on screen at the same time. Software is now widely available that enables, with much improved ease, the ability to examine and repeatedly reexamine video texts along with the facility to input quickly and easily time-aligned written comments about a video text. One such freely available open source software is ELAN. Linguists, including signed language linguists, use the software for analyzing interaction, communication and for language documentation. ELAN is also a valuable tool for TS and for the education of signed language translators and interpreters. It is a tool enabling glossing to be used in a practical way by students of TS for preparation of longer target texts and as part of assessment evidence by educators.

Glossing Approach for Translation Studies

As signed languages do not have written forms, learning how to gloss a signed language is desirable as it offers educators and assessors objective evidence to identify source-language comprehension in the intermediate step toward a final translation.

Much of our thinking remains in our minds, where it is not exposed to review. The very process of putting thoughts to paper forces clarification; seeing them on paper (or on the computer screen) facilitates our own evaluation and receiving comments from peers or teachers provides further help. (McKeachie, 2002, pp. 170–171)

Generally speaking, a gloss is an explanatory comment or note added to the text of a book. It also refers to a kind of explanation (thought not a translation) of a foreign or strange word that needs explanation.
We have mentioned how glossing may be used as a step to developing a final translation. However, as we show below, the direction of the translation can affect the way glossing is used. When English is the target language then English words are used singly or in combination and sometimes in combination with special grammatical indications to comment and describe the source text. We refer to Wilcox and Wilcox (2000) for a description:

Glossing is the practice of writing a morpheme-by-morpheme “translation” using English words. Glosses indicate what the individual parts of the native word mean. Glosses do not provide a true translation, which would instead use appropriate English ways of saying “the same thing.” For example, German Es geht mir gut may be glossed as “It goes to-me good” (the hyphenated gloss “to-me” indicates that it refers to a single word in the original). A true English translation of this expression would be something like “I’m doing fine.” (Wilcox & Wilcox, 2000, p. 20).

TS at Durham University expects students to develop competence in glossing for meaning (at the morphemic level, providing semantic and syntactic information) but with less focus on phonological production, variation, and phonetic differences. This is glossing as a heuristic for specific TS aims of developing one-off translations. TS students are taught this way of glossing as a step in developing a final translation that offers tangible indications of their decisions leading toward their translation. A gloss can show understanding of meaning in context (e.g. daughter), helping to focus students on semantics and syntax (meaning and function) and pragmatics. The use of glossing in conjunction with categorization tags (e.g. “FS” for “fingerspelling”) or for sign formational information (in this case, “DD”) is less useful from this perspective.

ELAN as a Glossing Tool for Translation Studies

ELAN, open-source annotation software (available for download from has become an invaluable tool for helping students use glosses to develop one-off translations. ELAN is designed to handle video texts for analysis of signed languages and gestural communication and spoken communication. It allows for the precise time alignment of annotations with the corresponding video sources on multiple user-specifiable tiers (see below). The software is being used by sign language linguists to develop corpora of Australian Sign Language (Auslan), Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT; see Johnston & Crasborn, 2006) and BSL (see Schembri,  2008). The project is also developing and promoting a standardized way of documenting, or annotating, the video texts of signed languages (Johnston, 2011). The aim is to develop a specific set of conventions—an annotating system—to document corpora of signed languages, which will function as searchable databases. (See Johnston, 2011, for an explanation of the aim of developing standardized annotating system). The annotation system is particularly concerned with the way sign form is annotated in standardized ways for categorization and searchability of a large database of many texts.
TS needs a way to annotate sign languages to create static forms of text for considered one-off translations. We want to promote a way that TS can also use ELAN or similar software for glossing and developing a translation. TS can use ELAN for glossing meaning in the more traditional, and less standardized way than that proposed from a sign linguistics perspective (the precise annotation of sign form and categorization is less important for TS purposes). We have developed our own template of four tiers. One tier is used for the student gloss. A second tier is for the final translation, which we refer to as the free translation. A third tier is for commentary notes, and a fourth tier is for additional literal notes (as an extra notes space if any examples are given by a student).
Our aim is for students to produce final translations in the target language. ELAN software allows the use of time-matched tiers, which can be used to create a gloss tier matched with a free translation tier. The latter can be the basis of assessment and examination marking. The gloss tier is to give a firm basis upon which to form and demonstrate free translation judgements. The free translation is one part of examination marks as students are also examined by an accompanying written “commentary,” an essay about the translation (about the source text, translation decisions, and connections with theories of translation). Using ELAN will enable the “preparatory commentary” to be created as a separate tier where comments are easily aligned to the relevant video frames. The comments in this section are then used to help create the separate conventional essay version for marking.

Annotation in Linguistics and in Translation Studies,

Just as ELAN may be used in different ways for different purposes, so glossing may be used in different ways with different purposes. The purpose of using ELAN for TS modules is for teaching and assessing translation decisions, not for creating a database for research aims or an easily searchable database that categorizes and catalogs.  Durham TS encourages glossing at the morpheme-to-morpheme level, paying less attention to phonological considerations (e.g., of sign variation). Glossing is for practical use for one-off translations for teachers and students, as opposed to longer term “language documentation.” (The language documentation project is promoting specific ways of annotation that are unnecessary and may be unhelpful for TS.)
As BSL does not have a written language format, the TS glossing model we use is either (a) for a static form of the BSL source text for more easily stepping in to the written or spoken English free translation or (b) as a prepared script for the BSL target text (see explanation below). We teach this use of glossing as it enables TS students to develop a translation as well as demonstration of their reasoning behind the translation.
Annotation may be used in different ways for different aims. Documentation and annotation are not neutral terminology; the way these terms are used can imply different theoretical directions. For example, the Annotation Guidelines (Johnston, 2011) being developed for documentation of signed languages refer to signs as fully or partially lexical. In Johnston’s linguistic theory, depicting and pointing signs are designated as “partly lexical” signs, to be annotated with the tags “DS” and “PS.” However, other signed language theoreticians and researchers use the terms “classifiers” and “indexicals.” From a cognitive linguist’s perspective these signs have a different lexical status (e.g., see Taub, 2001, pp. 39-40, 62, 225). Other researchers have used the term “productive lexicon” for those items that the Guidelines term partially lexical to include both classifiers and indexicals. These debates within sign linguistics overlap with difficulties in finding ways to label sign language lexemes, grammatical functions, and formational features in the goal of creating a searchable database and for future research and development of theory.
For TS, the issues are not ones of deciding between any particular theoretical perspectives or of needing to be too concerned with how to use annotation for archiving and searching or finding statistical evidence for linguistics theory. All of these are important and may affect translations and translators, but TS does not encompass or espouse any one particular linguistics perspective. Indeed, TS is much broader than linguistics, often referred to as an inter- or multidisciplinary field (Munday, 2008). The findings of linguistics will, of course, be used whenever they can illuminate or help translational practices. The use of tags such as DS and PS are unnecessary for the practice of one-off translations. The need of a generic tag such as “FS” (to indicate a relationship with fingerspelling) is also unlikely to be useful.
An English approximation of meaning for a sign—the gloss—is useful in a similar way for both language documentation and for TS. However, the fact that, for example, the sign formation for daughter, DD, may be historically related to fingerspelling and therefore indicates a form of borrowing is less useful or necessary for developing a translation. It may possibly be useful in some cases, as a teacher check of understanding and differentiation from other lexical items. There are conventionalized (lexicalized) BSL signs originally based on single or double initialized signs or partial fingerspelling that fluent, native users may or may not regard as “borrowing.” The status of signs, like the status of spoken words, changes with time and use; “borrowed” is a concept that changes and disappears over time. The salient point for TS is that the annotation, the gloss, functions as a way to indicate a static form of the meaning and therefore does not need any indication of the sign formation as a step to producing a free translation.
The use of # is becoming a standard for indicating a fingerspelled sign (e.g., #BSL to indicate b-s-l). However, it is possibly more useful for TS for developing a translation when English is the source text to use the hash mark to easily indicate a word that is to be fingerspelled in the target BSL free translation. Therefore translation direction influences the way annotation/glossing is to be used by students/translators.
A very useful suggestion for TS from the Annotation Guidelines is of indicating cross-cultural gestures in a BSL original. This has teaching and learning implications for TS. Gestures, which can be culturally shared or idiosyncratic, occur commonly in speech and during signed discourse. The Guidelines explain how the gloss should describe meaning of the gesture rather than form (e.g., g:how-stupid-of-me not g:hit-palm-on-forehead). However, for TS aims, if the source is spoken English, accompanied by a similar gesture, the gloss functions as a script for student’s target BSL free translation production and could usefully be of the original gestural form.
Meaning in signed languages is also encoded in the form of role-shift structure. Johnston describes this as follows:

Role shift is used to indicate that part of a text is presented from the point of view of a particular participant. The participant referred to may be the signer himself or herself at some time other than the present (e.g., if the signer is relating a story about a past event in which he or she were involved), or some other person. (Johnston, 2011, p. 33)

The Annotation Guidelines suggest using the annotation tag RS: followed by the name of the person or entity marked by the shift or enactment. From a TS teaching perspective, the RS annotation tag could also be useful for students to indicate at the beginning and end of each period of role shift. Student glossing of role-shift would indicate evidence of understanding, provide possible teaching points, and aid the development of a target text.
The identification of chunks of meaning from utterances is also important for translation (see Sutton-Spence & Woll, 1999; Fenlon, Denmark, Campbell, & Woll, 2007). Students could use the convention // to mark meaning chunk or “sentence” boundaries or use ELAN’s timeline function (a small section of timeline for a chunk of text) to indicate meaning chunk boundaries.
It is teachers who must be relied on, as experienced bilinguals, for their knowledge with reference to the variety of dictionary entries and digital resources that have been and are developing. The BSL corpus project will add to this knowledge. Even so, fluent, knowledgeable, experienced teachers (with all their differing biases and values and attitudes to language use) will still be central for translator/interpreter education.

TS Teaching and Assessment Approach: English–BSL

A recent study (Wurm, 2010) places English-to-BSL as a hybrid of prototypical translation and interpreting practice and positions translation as social practice, with the individual’s background as central to that practice.

As my findings suggest, influenced by their social experiences, the [translation] event is shaped by the agents’ familiarity with and attitudes toward particular communicational practices . . . regarding the translation as social practice allows us to distance ourselves from a reductive understanding. . . . This research thus suggests that it is a TP’s individualised, socially embedded history that directs a TE. (Wurm, 2010, pp. 206–207)

TS is the academic environment that provides a structured approach and fosters a wide knowledge and understanding of translation theories and practices to support the development of professional rigor important to both translation and interpreting as social practices.
Durham University adapted Patrie’s (2001) approach of bringing translation theory to bear on English-to-BSL for its postgraduate diploma for beginner interpreters both native and second language BSL users. As a way of grounding this as translation rather than interpreting, we used written English texts instead of spoken English source texts (focussing on translation from written English ensures also that BSL “A” language deaf students are integrated into modules). In other words, we had fixed source texts in the way of traditional translation but students produced a final target text (BSL) in a different medium signed to video, which relies heavily on memory for the rendition of even short chunks. Even short utterances need to be rehearsed and kept in memory for production and recording (cf. Wurm, 2010).
With BSL-to-English translation we were able to develop a way to use ELAN with students in which the source text, gloss version, and target text are all included in the same file. However English-to-BSL posed different technical problems. The target text video (BSL) needs to be created step by step through editing (joining filmed sections), as a separate file from ELAN. We thus adapted our use of ELAN to the hybrid nature of English-to-BSL as translation/interpreting. For the TS English-to-BSL project module, the English source text (ST) is given as a movie file in ELAN as, for example, a documentary with subtitles. (The English source could be either written or audio or movie text.) Students then submit for marking the complete BSL target text (TT) movie along with the original separate ELAN file that includes their glossing of the TT.

Horses for Courses

Out of this comes a view of glossing in terms of signed languages that is tailored to different contexts and aims. As we have stated, linguistics has its particular aims for standardization of annotation for documentation of signed languages as outlined by Johnson in the Annotation Guidelines (see Johnston, 2011). Linguistics aims are also to document phonemic/phonetic detail and for large database interrogation. TS’s uses of glossing are for teaching and learning as part of the broader applied inter- and multidisciplinary field of signed language translation/interpreting, audiences, contexts and aims being inextricable and essential.
Translation studies wants to use glossing as commentary/annotation in two ways linked to the direction of translation. The glossing may need to be either close to the BSL ST or close to the pre-planned production of the BSL TT (see Figure 1). In terms of translation theories both could be seen as a strategy of being as literal as possible except that the glossing is understood as commentary/annotation rather than as a form of translation.  The TT will influence the literal (commentary/annotation) form of glossing. When the ST is BSL and English is the TT, then glossing for meaning aims to create a static version of the source for fast reference to develop a final translation in English.  When English is the ST and BSL is the TT, then glossing for meaning aims to create a static, visible version of the target as a script for instruction of what and how to produce the TT final translation in BSL. In the latter case, the target is being created in the mind of the student translator and through rehearsal but externalized and fixed in the gloss. It may change after reviewing filming of a chunk or section.
The gloss of the target BSL (the production script) may indicate an English source text word to be included by fingerspelling in the target text. A simple hash mark next to the gloss word may indicate this clearly for the translator’s production, or the word may be typed in small case to differentiate from other glosses and indicate the fingerspelling.
When the source text is BSL, there are decisions for translators that are often related to fingerspelling. The text may include established lexical terms that are formationally related to fingerspelling (e.g., #gov or #GG) which, for commentary/annotation may, for audience reasons, need to be linguistically represented (as is the case for this article), whereas a gloss for meaning is fully adequate for the student/translator, for the student, and for the educator/assessor. In the example in parentheses, the hash marks, the handshape notation, and the partial English spelling are unnecessary for the TS student or the educator/assessor. The gloss government would be sufficient.
A further example, provided above, relates to cross-cultural gestures. When the source text is BSL and the chosen translational strategy calls for it, the meaning needs to be indicated in the gloss (how-stupid-of-me). When the source text is English, the form of the gesture is needed in the gloss-as-script if it is to be included in the BSL target to be produced (g:hit-palm-on-forehead).

Figure 1: Direction of translation
Direction of Translation


We have outlined how glossing may be utilized from a pedagogical perspective for BSL<>English one-off translations: for teaching and learning translation and for the practice of translation. We have also explained, with examples, how TS for signed languages uses glossing with different aims from that of sign linguistics.
For translation of longer texts to be a realistic part of initial interpreter education and practice, it requires a means to repeatedly inspect the video of a signed ST and a means of producing a signed TT that is less reliant on memory. The ability to repeatedly inspect the video text and link this with written forms of commentary such as annotation and glosses is now possible with much improved ease due to the wide availability of software.
Translation studies is interested in using glossing when the signed language is either the ST or TT. The direction of translation influences whether glossing is to be used to produce a static version of the ST or as a script for the TT. As a static version of the source signed language, glossing avails the translator student a form of the source that is less reliant on memory, enabling deliberation about TT options. As a script for the target signed language, glossing offers visual direction and instruction for production.
Translation studies programs that include signed languages can now offer modules that lead to a wider range of qualifications: translation between signed languages, translation between spoken and signed languages, and translation as part of the foundation for initial interpreter education.


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