Interview with Rafaela Lemos: Audio Description for a Translated Book

Sales of audio books have been soaring over the last few years, and yet it is not an area we at World Kid Lit have talked much about. Today we welcome Rafaela Lemos who focused on the translation of a children’s picture book for her dissertaion as part of a Masters Degree in Audiovisual Translation at the University of Roehampton in the UK. World Kid Lit co-editor Claire Storey asked Rafaela a few questions about her project…

World Kid Lit: Rafaela, welcome to the Blog. Could you briefly present your project to us?

RL: Thank you so much for having me! For my dissertation, I decided to adapt the picturebook Mirror by Jeannie Baker into a soundscape audiobook, aiming especially at visually impaired Portuguese children.

Mirror is a picture book with almost no words, and it contains two stories. The left side of each double spread tells the story of a day in the life of an Australian family, mirroring the story on the right side which represents a day in the life of a Moroccan family. When we open the book, we can see both stories simultaneously, and move backward and forward through the pages from left to right and right to left, which really captures the mirroring effect. The reason why the Moroccan side is on the right and the Australian side on the left is to mimic the writing system of each culture: English being read from left to right, and Arabic being read from right to left. The images are beautifully created with real materials, which makes it a very visually stimulating book. I thought that these characteristics provided a great challenge in terms of translation and adapting them into audio.

I researched the thought process behind the creation of the book. With this information and my own interpretation, together with the audio description (AD) guidelines and techniques, I created a story and a script to describe the book for Portuguese children. I also asked my friend who is a foley artist to help me create sound effects to help recreate the pictures in a sound form.

WKL: How did you decide to focus on audio for children’s books and why did you choose this particular book for your project?

RL: I wanted to do something related to children’s entertainment as I find it so creative and a different challenge to translating entertainment aimed at adults. At the same time, I loved learning about AD during my time at Roehampton University. I’ve also become interested in audiobooks in the past couple of years, in particular the production side of it. So, together with one of my tutors we arrived at a solution to combine dubbing and AD for children – all my passions in one project.

As I was working out which book I wanted to work on, a friend of mine recommended Window by Jeannie Baker. When I went to my local bookshop to look for it, I decided to ask for all of the books they had by Jeannie Baker. I ended up purchasing both Window and Mirror, but the moment I looked at Mirror I was just mesmerized by the beautiful pictures and the clever ideas behind it. Mirror is not just a beautiful book, it is a complex collection of images that were created with real materials that combine to tell a story of two completely different cultures. When you open the book, you read two different stories which are mirroring each other in such a clever way. It teaches us that regardless of how different our cultures might be, people carry the same core values and emotions, such as the importance of family and the attachment to traditional customs. Having lived in England for the last 8 years, yet being so attached to my Portuguese culture, the feeling of mirroring two different cultures every day resonates with me.

From a technical aspect, I loved that this project was so challenging, and I am always up for a good translation challenge! I got really excited when I realised that this is a subject that isn’t talked about a lot; I wanted to start a conversation, even if it was just with myself. It was great to explore such a complex book and try to adapt it to an audiobook format in a different language while thinking about visually impaired children and how they could also enjoy this book.

WKL: What are the challenges of creating audio versions of picture books?

RL: As this book doesn’t have many words, the biggest challenge was to create a script that would describe the pictures in an engaging way. Because it tells a story through pictures, this book is open to our individual interpretations despite having a very clear narrative. It was important for me to not just describe the pictures; I wanted to try and bring them to life, so that the target audience could have enough information to have their own interpretation too. I wanted them to feel the textures that the pictures in the book transmit. Of course, pictures and sound are two different media, so adding the foley – the reproduction of everyday sound effects – to the narration really helped achieve these different textures and brought the story to life as I imagined.

The two main strategies used when creating the script were ekphrasis, a verbal description of a visual work of art, and soundpainting, introduced to me by my dissertation supervisor Josélia Neves. Soundpainting is a visual image produced by sound. I believe that together, they can be an alternative form of AD that can allow static art to be “seen”. I truly believe that these two strategies made this project so much more engaging, rather than simply producing a narration/description of the images. Nuno Bento created art with sounds which highlighted each component of the pictures and gave enough information so that the target audience could build their own interpretation whilst having access to the original narrative.

WKL: How is it different creating a normal audio version and creating audio for visually impaired readers? Are there any specific examples you can tell us about?

RL: It’s very different creating an audio for blind and visually impaired readers. Firstly, it is important to be sensitive to the different types of visual impairment. Not all children are born visually impaired, which means that they can have some visual experience with colours, shapes or textures for instance. Furthermore, some children might be visually impaired in one eye, which will give them access to some visual information. This point is important when creating the script as we want to add important information without becoming too patronizing. When researching the thought processes behind the book, I understood that colours were very important to delivering the sense of mirroring from each culture, so it was important to include these to provide enough information to the visually impaired readers. For example, both children are wearing red, which contrasts massively with the background images that depict each child’s individual culture. For instance, the blue skies and blue water, or the pink mountains on the Moroccan side, which are included again on the drawing made by the Australian boy on the last page.

WKL: Your project focussed not only on creating audio for blind and visually impaired readers, but also considered translation within that. Could you tell us how that impacted the choices you made, and could you give us some examples?

RL: I focused on the English to Portuguese language pair during my MA, so I felt that for this project it would make sense to write in Portuguese. In addition, I also wanted to actively think about accessible services in my home country. Because Mirror includes very specific cultural references for both Australia and Morocco, I thought it would be interesting to add an extra challenge of adapting these into the Portuguese culture. For example, there is one page where we can see the Australian family ordering Fish and Chips – a meal that is not that popular in Portugal. Throughout the book we can see the representation of Moroccan culture through the routines of a family, which is also explained by the author on her website. Through different translation and localisation techniques, I tried to translate this information first from images into words and then from one language (English) to another (Portuguese). In addition, writing the script in Portuguese helped me decide which side I should start from, because depending on the culture, we can start reading Mirror from the right or from the left. As the writing system in Portugal runs from the left to right, I thought it would make sense to start this way too when creating the audio. So, on the pilot I created, you’ll hear the Australian side first followed by the Moroccan side.

WKL: As you mention, Mirror can be read either from left to right or right to left. Did this create any specific challenges and how did you convey this in your audio version?

RL: It was challenging to find a way to include so much information (the story, the AD, the sound effects) in a way that would also recreate the reading pattern of each culture. While discussing ideas with my friend Nuno (the foley artist), he mentioned that it could be interesting to have each side of the narration heard in the corresponding ear. So, the solution we came up with was that the narration for the Moroccan Arabic side is much stronger on the right ear (around 80%) whereas on the left side the audio is lower (around 20%) giving room for the soundpainting to complement the story. For the Australian side the narration is stronger on the left side (around 80%) and lower on the right side (around 20%) again, giving room for the soundpainting. I created the following graphic to include in my dissertation commentary, and it illustrates how the audio changes from side to side depending on which culture is being narrated.

WKL: As part of your project, you recorded your own narration. Were there any issues that arose during this phase that you hadn’t considered when you were working on paper?

RL: Initially I had thought about having the narration just on one side for each culture (so 100% in the left ear for the Australian side and 100% in the right ear for the Moroccan side), but listening back it was too distracting and confusing. In addition to this, I encountered the usual challenges that come with the production and post-production workflows, such as having to edit things that did not make so much sense when narrating. For example, in some places, my creativity ran away with me and I added elements to the narration that could have been seen to be my own personal interpretation, or I added information without explaining or describing within the AD context. There was a lot of editing work on the script in order to fit the goal of being an engaging story that was faithful to the original while also including AD techniques for the target audience.

WKL: Thank you, Rafaela, for sharing this fascinating project with us.

Rafaela Lemos,
Credit: @melycrisp

Born and raised in Portugal, Rafaela Lemos has always been a creative mind. She studied arts in school and has forever been a cinema and theatre lover. It was after moving to England in 2015 that her interest in learning different languages grew. In 2016 she began her studies in modern languages at the University of Hull where she learnt Spanish and Mandarin. As part of her degree, Rafaela lived in China and Peru for a year. After completing the Modern Languages BA with First Class Honours, she moved to London where she completed a Masters in Audiovisual Translation from the University of Roehampton. She is currently working as a Localisation Producer for a children’s media entertainment company and as a freelance illustrator and audiovisual translator.

You can find Rafaela on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram

Other useful links:

  • Jeannie Baker’s website
  • The Foley artiost mentioned by Rafaela, Nuno Bento can be found on Instagram or can be contacted by email at nunomb@gmail.com.
  • Rafaela also recommends O Menino dos Dedos Tristes by Josélia Neves, illustrated by Tânia Bailão Lopes which is a Portuguese book with an alternative format offering braille, video, and audio so it can be read by visually impaired and deaf children.