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Charlie's Subtitle Diary

by Charlie Swinbourne

16th November 2008

Television subtitles are great, particularly for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. But when subtitling is produced for live programmes, some oddities can creep in to what appears on screen. Charlie Swinbourne spends a week on the sofa with the remote control to try and spot a few of the more amusing and bizarre examples - some of which you can see for yourself in his accompanying video.
Charlie Swinbourne, remote control in hand, closely watching the TV subtitles
There are a few things in life that I couldn't live without. My fiancée, for a start. My family and friends, hearing aids ... and subtitles. Did you catch that? Yep, subtitles.
For the uninitiated, subtitles are black lines filled with coloured text that magically appear on my TV screen, allowing me to read everything I don't hear; in other parts of the world they call it 'closed captioning'. Thanks to regulations from the communications watchdog Ofcom, there are now more subtitles on TV than ever before.

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.
Close-up of Charlie's hand pointing the remote control at the TV
The two most common methods for creating live subtitles include speech recognition - where a person speaks clearly into a microphone while listening to the broadcast, with a computer recognising their words - and stenography - where a typist inputs words phonetically onto a keyboard.

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':

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Wednesday 5th November

Today, television news programmes - and the world - wake up to the historic US Presidential election result. The subtitles on the BBC News at One (BBC One) tell me that John McCain is "672 years old". He looks young for his age.

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".
A still from Loose Women, showing the subtitle 'engle Bert humper distinct' instead of 'Engelbert Humperdinck'

Thursday 6th November

Loose Women (ITV1) is subtitled perfectly until a name comes up which must be a subtitler's worst nightmare. "Engelbert Humperdinck" duly appears on screen as "engle Bert humper distinct" (see image above).

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

Daily Politics (BBC Two) tells me about "a sharply focused localical pain", which doesn't sound pleasant. It should read "a sharply focused local campaign". Later, I find nothing wrong with The Paul O'Grady Show on Channel 4.

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

I'm not a racing enthusiast, but I wake up to The Morning Line (Channel 4), where "gloom and doom" becomes a brand new fashion trend - "glam and doom".

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

The subtitler barely puts a foot wrong in The Andrew Marr Show (BBC One) - the job presumably made easier by the show's leisurely Sunday morning pace. Later in the day, ITV1's FA Cup Special shows no sign of subtitling errors. Or zebras.

Monday 10th November

The BBC News at Ten (BBC One) turns "vehicle excise" into "vehicle skies", which might concern the aviation industry. Then "economic growth" becomes "Ek o amic growth", which appears like visual onomatopoeia, fittingly reflecting the current breakdown in the financial system.

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".
A still from GMTV Newshour, showing the subtitle '500 executions' instead of '500 exclusions'

Tuesday 11th November

I wake up bleary eyed at 6.00am for GMTV Newshour (ITV1), just in time to see Penny Smith ask a school headteacher whether "500 executions" means her school is out of control (see image above). I nearly choke on my cornflakes, only to rewind and find that the school does not have a capital punishment policy - "executions" should have read "exclusions". I end my week happily finding little to fault in Five's live phone-in show The Wright Stuff.
With very square eyes after my week in front of the box, I was keen to find out more about why these mistakes happen on air, so I spoke to James Gardner from IMS Media, who provide live subtitling for Sky and Five using a speech recognition method, and Cherry Cole from ITFC, who provide live subtitles for ITV and GMTV's national broadcasts using stenography.

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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