I get a big thrill from making my work as accurate as I can make it. This means I check my work and then check it again (and again, and again, if necessary). I lost count of how many times I’ve gone over this blog post. One endeavor where this thirst for accuracy is an absolute necessity is braille transcribing. A braille transcriber ensures that a braille book matches the print version as closely as possible so that braille readers can keep up with their print-reading peers. I am currently working toward becoming a certified braille transcriber, and I want to give you a little taste of what I’m learning. The biggest lesson I’ve learned about braille is that small details matter very much.
Braille is a reading and writing system in which embossed dots can be read with the fingertips (although sighted people usually read it with their eyes). Braille characters are formed within units of space called cells. A full braille cell consists of six embossed dots arranged in two parallel columns of three dots each, like this:
Notice that the dots are numbered down each column. Each letter of the alphabet is a different combination of dots. The letter a is dot 1, b is dots 1 and 2, c is dots 1 and 4, etc. Braille in its most basic form is done letter by letter, plus punctuation and indicator symbols. However, there are only 25 lines on each braille page, and typically 40 cells per line. With these constraints, braille books always end up being much longer and bulkier than print books. So, to save space and to make reading easier, contractions were developed. Braille contractions can represent whole words, groups of letters, or both, and they occupy either one or two braille cells. The same braille character can be used in multiple braille contractions, so you need to look at what surrounds it to know what it means in a particular instance. Braille started to feel magical for me when I started learning the contractions. I’ll show you some examples of how changing one small thing can change what a character means in braille.
Take a look at the picture above. The braille character for the lowercase letter k is dots 1 and 3. If you put dot 6 in the preceding cell, it becomes an uppercase k. If an uppercase or lowercase k is by itself, it represents the whole word “knowledge.” If there’s a dot 5 immediately before it, it represents the letters “know” (which can be used for a whole word or part of a word). And, finally, if you have a letter k by itself and you don’t want it to be read as the word “knowledge,” you need to put dots 5 and 6 in the cell before it. (Side note: I love that the first letter of my first name stands for “knowledge” in braille).
The letter w has a couple more possibilities than the letter k. Check this out:Standing alone, the letter w is the whole word “will.” With dots 4 and 5 preceding it, it is the letters “word.” With dots 4, 5, and 6 before it, it becomes “world,” and with dot 5 it becomes “work.” If I forget part of a contraction or use the wrong contraction when I’m transcribing, the text will be misread and make less sense. It would be unusual for someone to say they’re on top of the word, but there are definitely times when we feel like we’re on top of the world. See how small details truly make a difference?
There are 64 possible combinations of the six dots in a braille cell (63 different braille characters, plus the space with no dots present). You’ve already seen how the meaning of a braille character can change based on what’s in front of it, but in some cases the meaning changes based on the placement of the character. For example, dot 2 is the comma, but if dot 2 appears in the middle of a word, it is the letters “ea.” Similarly, dots 2 and 3 is the semicolon, but if it is standing alone and not next to any punctuation, it is the whole word “be,” and it can also be the letters “be” if those letters are the first syllable of a word, as in “believe.” Because many braille characters have multiple uses, it is essential to understand the context of what you are transcribing and proofread your work very carefully to see if you have brailled things correctly. Brailling things incorrectly can result in misspellings and general confusion for the reader.
Another fun thing I’ve discovered about braille is that it is perfectly acceptable to skip letters when brailling certain words. For example, “gd” is “good,” “qk” is “quick,” “sd” is “said, and “brl” is “braille.” There are rules about which words can be shortened, how to shorten them, and when to not shorten them. Like the contractions, the shortforms are a space-saving measure. It turns out that word-shortening goes back much further in history than instant messaging. It’s fun for me to see how many letters I get to skip within each word I braille, and it’s slightly disappointing when it’s not possible to shorten a word via contractions and/or shortforms. Now I can’t imagine going back to brailling anything letter by letter.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the fascinating world of braille. I have much more to learn, including various formatting rules. Not only do the words on the page need to be accurate, but the formatting does too. From what I have shared here, I hope you can see why paying attention to the tiniest of details is so important in braille transcription. If the contractions and shortforms are applied incorrectly, people will be reading either the wrong words or misspelled words, much to their annoyance and confusion. The numerous and specific rules to follow in braille transcription are in place to prevent confusion for the braille reader. Accuracy is so important that if I submit an assignment with five or more errors, I am required to correct them and re-submit the assignment before I can move on in the course. My instructor has told me that “the course requires accuracy and neatness in preference to speed.” I love books and I want everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy them. It’s much harder to enjoy a book that is filled with mistakes. Paying attention to details is always a nice thing to do, but for braille transcribers, it is an absolute necessity.