The approximately 200 million words subtitled live every year on BBC channels? The captions that are now generated for almost 100% programmes? They’re crafted by an army of subtitlers, people with one of the weirdest – and most challenging – jobs in TV.
Okay then, so how’s subtitling actually done?
Live TV shows – and a lot of pre-recorded ones too, especially the ones that get edited close to their broadcast time like Have I Got News for You – get their captions through a technique called ‘respeaking’.
It's basically what you’re thinking: as the likes of newsreaders and presenters talk on TV, one of the designated 200 English-speaking subtitlers from across the globe will sit in front of a microphone repeating whatever’s said on air.
Doing this means a clear voice, free of any background noise, can be processed by specialised audio recognition software that generates captions on the screen. It’s a hybrid system – one that relies on a computer and subtitler.
So, if Matt Baker says “Hello and welcome to The One Show” amongst a backdrop of applause, there'll be a single subtitler somewhere clearly repeating “Hello and welcome to The One Show” into a microphone. And, without the noise of the clapping, the computer can produce the caption “Hello and welcome to The One Show” on screen. Simple, right?
But here’s the thing: there’s more to subtitling than repeating Matt Baker. You’ve got to repeat what Alex Jones says. And John Sergeant. And, well, everyone on screen. That means you talk a lot: while the normal person will speak roughly 10,000 words a day, at their normal work rate a subtitler will fire that off in a couple of hours.
Luckily, they’re not asked to speak for two hours straight. Or even one. Subtitlers are restricted to respeaking a maximum of 15 minutes at a time. They work 900 seconds on, 900 seconds off.
And no, this isn't through laziness. From the technical to the bizarre, subtitlers have to pull off a plethora of duties – all at the same time. And this mountain of multitasking forms a job so mentally-taxing that any budding subtitler has to work for six months simply to reach trainee standard – after which they could easily fail their recruitment exam, as one in three do.
So, why do people flunk? Well, judge for yourself and imagine this: let’s say you’ve been fast-tracked through the subtitling training academy and been plonked in front of a microphone for your first live shift.
The first programme you've been assigned to: this edition of The One Show…
Here’s everything you need to manage – simultaneously and with a few percent margin of error – during the next 15 minutes.
Good luck. You’re going to need it.
Repeat everything like a machine
Remember when we said you have to talk clearly when respeaking? Well, your version of speaking clearly is different to what your voice recognition software considers clear. In fact, to get 100% accuracy, you’re basically going to need to talk like a computer.
“You really have to modify your voice,” explains subtitling trainer Calum Davidson, an expert captioner of eight years. “Every word needs to be clipped and you need to stress every syllable. Plus, you’ve got to space out every word. But then at the same time, you have to say everything quickly too.”
The result? Some very Microsoft Sam-style speech (check out Davidson’s expert respeaking example above) and some painful side effects at the end of the day: “You often go home with a very sore face. You’re speaking so much and in such an unnatural way for what adds up to hours,” says Davidson.
Put in the Punctuation
Nope, the voice recognition software isn’t going to add the full stops and question marks automatically: that’s on you. And the fastest way of putting them in? Say them. That means if, for instance, The One Show’s Alex Jones says, “can we at least have our theme tune?” then you will literally have to say “can we at least have our theme tune question mark”.
Just a warning: after a long shift, this vocal tic might hang around longer than you’d like, according to Davidson: “After shifts often some of the re-speakers might go down the pub and literally say ‘Do you want a pint question mark’."
Probably best wait for somebody else to get the drinks in then.
Hear the homophones
They’re. Their. There. Not words that voice recognition software can easily tell apart. So, how do you get them captioned?
Although your computer will normally recognise “there”, you’ll have to use “they are” instead of “they’re”. And “their”? You need to program a voice shortcut (more on that below) or use a replacement word that's as close to the verbatim as possible. And all that could get tricky if there are more ‘their’s or ‘there’s in a short period, especially if they’re in short succession.
In other words, you'd have a nightmare subtitling that last paragraph.
Change the colour
Being a fresh subtitling graduate you’ve probably seen that subtitles change their hue to indicate a change of speaker. And the person in charge of this change is – you guessed it – you.
Mercifully, this bit is easy to pick up: while respeaking you’ll have a small keyboard to hand with a line of four coloured buttons – white, yellow, cyan and green. Press one of these and the text will change to the corresponding colour. Easy.
Just remember: the main speaker or presenter’s captions should appear in white (that’s the easiest colour to read on a black background) with the next three colours assigned to other speakers.
And if there are more than four people in a conversation? You go through the sequence of colours again, remembering which is allocated to each person. Providing you're not asked to subtitle a Blazin' Squad reunion interview, you should be fine.
Shift the subtitles around the screen
Turn on the TV right now, throw on the subtitles and the chances are they’ll be firing around the bottom of the screen. But, this isn’t always the best place for captions.