Woman translates text into Braille

March 30, 1999

Braille scanningBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Working in a small room at the Marshall Street School, Mary Smith turns words into tiny bumps.

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The 61-year-old instructional assistant translates text into Braille. She also enlarges books for students with poor eyesight.

Smith can scan pages into her computer, convert the letters with a special program and print them out. The paper emerges from the Juliet Brailler impressed with patterns of raised dots.

The job is harder than it sounds, because one mistake can change a word. Braille is a unique writing system because it is tactile - meant to be read by touch. The alphabet uses combinations of six dots known as "cells."


"You can easily miss a comma or a period," said Smith.

Different documents require different formats. Smith recently translated an Oscar Wilde play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," for a sophomore.

Because plays are written in dialogue, each line is offset to introduce the character. Math problems often require a form of Braille for numbers known as the Nemeth code, Smith said.

Dialect or archaic language also presents a challenge. Smith said the Sophocles play "Oedipus Rex" was hard to translate. She has worked on a variety of books, from "Dr. Seuss ABC" to "Charlotte's Web."

Smith also serves as a kind of librarian for the vision department of Washington County schools. She has a database of more than 600 titles and borrows books from the resource center at Maryland School for the Blind.

If a book is unavailable, it is sometimes easier for the school system to buy it. For example, the textbook "Prentice Hall Middle School Mathematics" is 576 pages. The purchased copy is 28 volumes of Braille.

Smith said the vision department serves about 58 people, from infants to teenagers. Of those, 30 qualify as legally blind, meaning their vision is less than 20/200 in the better eye with correction or they have a restricted field of vision. Three are blind.

Smith is one of four instructional assistants who can translate text into Braille. The other three work directly with the students, making worksheets or whatever teachers require.

She began working for the school system in 1965. She came to Marshall Street in 1969 and worked with students there for more than 20 years.

She started enlarging books for the vision department six years ago. She took a summer course in Braille and began translating.

At first, she used a manual machine called a Perkins Brailler, typing in each letter using a combination of long keys. "It was slow and time-consuming," she said.

The addition of a scanner, computer and Juliet Brailler speeded up the process. "It's made our lives so much better," said Bonnie Greenwald, a vision teacher. "We can produce short books in a very short time."

Greenwald said Smith is the hub of the vision department. "I can go to her with any needs and we brainstorm," she said. "She's just a wealth of resources and helpfulness."

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