Charlie's Subtitle Diary
16th November 2008
There are two types of subtitles: pre-recorded and live. It's here I must confess that my adulation is reserved for only one of them: the pre-recorded variety.
As the name suggests, pre-recorded subtitles are carefully compiled before a programme is shown, and later appear with perfect timing, 'in sync' with the words spoken on screen. You see these on TV dramas, comedies and films.
However, I have mixed feelings about live subtitles, which are created on the fly, as a live programme airs, with no rehearsals. You would see this on live TV shows such as news, sport and event television like Strictly Come Dancing.
I wouldn't want live subtitles to disappear, since they make important shows accessible. But to explain my difficulties further, they appear in a very different way to the pre-recorded variety. Sentences scroll, or crawl, onto the screen word by word, often with a frustrating delay of a few seconds after being spoken. Pre-recorded subtitles just get flashed up.
But here's the crux, and the point of this article. As they're created at speed, mistakes regularly creep in to the text that appears on TV. At times this is annoying - when you miss the meaning of a sentence. On the other hand, there's the phenomenon of mistakes being unwittingly hilarious, changing the meaning of what's being said for comedic effect.
To highlight this, I spent a week on the sofa (oh, the hardship) noting the errors I saw. What follows is a diary of my week in front of the box. First, though, here's a video of some of my 'favourite mistakes':
Wednesday 5th November
The subtitles go awry for ten minutes on Sky News' Live at Five. First, Barack Obama is called "a President ball", which should have read "a President for all". Then he's shown telling America that tonight is "Iran said", rather than "your answer". Finally, Sarah Palin wishes Obama "well", which comes up as "wealth".
Breaking from the news, I turn to Blue Peter (BBC One) where presenter Andy Akinwolere says "That's a good one". The subtitle comes up with "Gnat's a good one" instead.
At 7.00pm, I am impressed by the subtitles on Channel 4 News, until I see "Atlanta" transformed into "alapbt ya".
Thursday 6th November
At 11.00pm, Sky News Tonight tells me that "Six tax payers are bailing out the banks", which I think is very generous indeed.
Friday 7th November
In the evening, I struggle to enjoy Have I Got News For You (BBC One), thanks to subtitled jokes that arrive with a two second delay. This is compounded when the Democrats become "the Daily Mailcrats", while Paul Merton's "rings of Saturn" become "rings of satin". In contrast, Newsnight Review (BBC Two) gets a five-star rating from me.
Saturday 8th November
At 1.30pm I tune in to the half-time analysis on Live Ford Football Special (Sky Sports 1). I'm just in time to see Graeme Souness remarking on the rainy weather that "as a player, these are the conditions you want a plane". A water plane, perhaps.
The X Factor - The Result (ITV1) is very well subtitled for a music show, but blots its copy book when "still reeling" becomes "steel reeling".
I return to football on Match of the Day (BBC One) in time to see the players "mock the fact that tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday". Then Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna is fouled "by a zebra", rather than by Manchester United's Patrice Evra. Fortunately the zebra escapes a yellow card.
Sunday 9th November
Monday 10th November
Inside Sport (BBC One) features an interview with footballer Michael Essien where he describes his mother as a "pill yar behind me" (the correct word was "pillar"), before declaring how he loves to play for "begana" (which should read "Ghana"). Meanwhile, on Sky News Tonight, "gesture" becomes "Jets je".
Tuesday 11th November
Both James and Cherry were keen to emphasise the skill of the subtitlers they work with, while admitting that mistakes are impossible to eradicate because of the challenges of live broadcast. James told me: "Live subtitling always has errors - it is impossible to get 100% accuracy over any length of time". Meanwhile, Cherry admitted that stenography is "98-99% accurate", which means that 1-2% of screen time features mistakes.
There was a bright side: Cherry explained that technology may in future "be able to recognise the speech within a broadcast, making subtitling automatic", but that these advances are a few years away.
It seems that the hilarious mistakes in live subtitling will be around for some time yet, leaving the deaf audience with a choice. We can either get frustrated when they appear, or accept them as part of an imperfect form, having a good laugh the next time a "zebra" tackles a footballer ...
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