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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNews‘I Am Who I Am, Only with a Magic Wand…’

‘I Am Who I Am, Only with a Magic Wand…’

Oksana Osadchaya, a blind sophomore in the undergraduate philology programme, has developed a version of braille for Old Russian texts. Oksana recently defended her thesis on the subject. Together with her academic advisor Alexey Gippius, Oksana met with the HSE News Service to discuss her work, as well as the opportunities that she has opened up for blind researchers who study texts in Old Russian, Old Slavonic, and Old Church Slavonic.

Braille is a touch-based writing system used by the blind or visually impaired. Louis Braille modified the 12-dot system of Charles Barbier’s ‘night writing’, using only six dots placed on two columns. The dots are punched into the backside of a sheet of paper. Text is written from right to left, after which the page is turned over so the dots can be read from left to right. Thanks to this system, a braille text can be read at the same speed with which written text is read.

Oksana Osadchaya: The first time I thought about braille for Old Russian texts was in the seventh grade when I was preparing for the national Russian Language Olympiad, where in one of the buildings you had to translate an Old Russian text into modern Russian. My teacher helped me prepare by reading the questions to me so I could answer them. The hardest part was with the Old Russian, which was very difficult to understand aurally.

By the 10th grade, I had come up with a few propositions on how to write down certain Old Slavonic symbols, such as the letter yat and the titlo symbol (◌҃), which is a diacritic in the form of a zigzag line used to shorten words and convey quantitative meaning. I discussed my ideas with my friends, but none of us knew enough about Russian, let along Old Slavonic, to think of a systematic solution. I didn’t have access to specialised literature in Naberezhnye Chelny, so the idea gradually fell by the wayside. Plus in the 11th grade, I needed to focus on getting into college. I returned to the idea when I took a class on the history of Russian literature with Alexey Gippius.

Alexey Gippius: Oksana joined our seminar on literature in pre-Petrine Rus’ with a well-formulated objective – to adapt braille in order to write in Old Russian. The braille script is a system of symbols like any other alphabet, and the task was to convert Old Slavonic and Old Russian texts into this system while losing as little information as possible. It is important for a philologist to work with original materials; this is both a professional need and a certain form of pleasure. Of course, Old Russian literature can be read in books with simplified orthography, but Oksana wanted more. She wanted to give blind researchers (linguists, historians, cultural studies experts, and anyone interested in Old Russian culture as a whole) the opportunity to read written Old Russian in its true graphical complexity.

Compared to the modern Russian alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet used in Slavic writing of the middle ages includes special letters that cannot be written using the original system of braille. It was important not only to think of random symbols for certain letters (which had already been done with letters like ‘yat’ in pre-revolutionary braille texts), but it was critical that a holistic system be built to portray the entire set of symbols. Firstly, this system has to be internally sequential with homogeneous symbols being represented in the same way. Secondly, the system has to be easily understood by everyone, even someone who doesn’t know braille. This might include an instructor writing a text so a blind student can read it.

It turned out that the number of individuals interested in this system was more than you might think at first glance

We suggested representing specific letters of Old Russian Cyrillic (yat, fita, large and small yus, etc.) by combining them, first, with letters from the modern Russian alphabet that are more or less related to the Old Russian and, second, with certain technical symbols that are written in the neighbouring cell or cells. For example, the yuses, which initially represented the nasal vowels ‘o’ and ‘e,’ are written as a combination of ‘о_’ and ‘е_,’ while yat, which in the history of the Russian language corresponded with ‘e’ is written as ‘e/,’ fita as ‘ф,’ and so forth. Therefore, in our system a single symbol is written in not one cell, but several. And this does not complicate perception whatsoever – the same ‘multi-celled’ symbols are used in the system of braille to write musical notes. It is interesting that the meaning of nasal vowels in the Glagolitic script, which was created by Constantine Philosoph and is the oldest known Slavic alphabet, is built in the same way. By using this system Oksana is able to read and decipher fragments of Old Slavic Glagolitic gospels, or The Tale of Past Years.

It turned out that the number of individuals interested in this system was more than you might think at first glance. I think it’s very important and dignified, making an Old Russian writing culture available to the blind or visually impaired. This is all thanks to Oksana’s efforts, and we are going to work together to solve the problem as much as possible.

Oksana Osadchaya: I showed my progress to a friend who is also blind and currently a second-year undergraduate student in HSE’s history programme. Next year, he’s actually going to start learning Old Slavonic, and our system will allow him to read the original texts.

Overall, we work very closely with historians. For instance, Dmitriy Dobrowolski, an Associate Professor in the School of History wrote a computer programme that uses our system to transform Old Slavonic texts into braille. Automatic translations are not always ideal, but it handles most tasks well. The workflow is very simple – I open the programme, open an ordinary text in the edit field, click the ‘transform’ button, and the text is printed on a braille printer that the faculty has purchased.

I plan to devote the next few months to preparing an anthology of Old Russian texts in braille and publishing it soon after to get it into circulation and allow people in different cities to go to a braille library, pick up this anthology, and read it.

We also are thinking about using a form of braille to create braille birch bark letters, which were relief-based to begin with since they were created not by putting ink to paper, but by using a sharp tool to scratch the surface of birch bark. We talked with researchers from the Institute of Geography (Russian Academy of Sciences), and Andrei Medvedev, the head of the cartography laboratory, has already used their thermal printer to create visual copies of birch bark writings that can be read by touch.

I would like to change a trend that I think is becoming more and more common: people are opting for audiobooks instead of paper books

I have a lot of ideas. For example, I want to create a manual with a description of icons, their symbolism, and relief images. I might get started on this next year.

Overall, I would like to change a trend that I think is becoming more and more common: people are opting for audiobooks instead of paper books. It’s easier, but I think we lose a lot from this. I am a fan of paper books, and I think they are better perceived and understood. When I was a schoolgirl, I would rewrite certain books (poetry, a textbook on Russian grammar, one of Lidia Charskaya’s children’s books) in braille and send them to an orphanage where visually impaired children study.

I knew ever since the fifth grade that I’d become a philologist. I’ve always had a passion for reading. Even when I was four years old, my mom and I would read on a thick sheet of polystyrene foam, where letters were stencilled in alphabetical order. You could then take the letters out and build words and phrases with them.

But aside from philology, I also enjoy charity work. Each month I participate in charity bake sales – I bake and sell cakes and other sweets, and the money goes to orphanages. The last bake sale was for the School of Mutual Humanity, which helps integrate the handicapped. From my own personal experience I can say how important it is for people to perceive you as ‘normal’; blind people are people too – they just have problems perceiving visual information. At the School of Mutual Humanity, they teach anyone who wants to learn to read braille, understand dactylology, and use different forms of communication. In the future, I’d like to combine my research and charity work.

I decided to go to HSE because a lot of my friends from past Olympiads study in different faculties here. I was not so much influenced by the Olympiads themselves as I was by the people. The tasks were not always well adapted, one example being the need to combine texts with illustrations, which is a little problematic for a blind person. Olympiads always have a lot of smart and interesting individuals who see you as an equal, and this is the feeling I get at HSE. Everyone here looks at me like an ordinary person. Sure, there’s something special about me, but it doesn’t make me better or worse. I am who I am, only with a magic wand.