Live subtitling errors on TV are something deaf people have had to grow very used to.
They turn live news or sports programmes into a frustrating guessing game. Way back in 2008, I wrote this diary of a week watching TV to show how many mistakes crop up on screen, and I’m sad to report that subtitles haven’t improved in that time. (To get an idea of just how many errors there are, take a look at this site dedicated to subtitling mistakes.)
But if there is an upside, it’s that every now and then hilarious mistakes crop up.
Back in January, I spotted one such gem on BBC Breakfast. During an item about breeding pigs, a roving reporter explained to the presenter that pigs “love to nibble anything that comes into the shed, like our wellies”. Unfortunately, the subtitles came up as pigs “love to nibble anything that comes into the shed, like our willies” instead. After bring uploaded to Twitter, it even made it into the Guardian.
Last week, the issue came up again, with both the Telegraph and The Mail having a lot of fun (along with doing a bit of ahem, borrowing from yours truly) featuring subtitling errors like the Archbishop of Canterbury being called ‘the arch bitch of Canterbury’ and Ed Milliband being called ‘Ed Miller Band.’ The topic also made it onto the extended version of Have I Got News For You on Sunday.
Interestingly, both articles laid the blame for the subtitling errors at the door of the BBC.
No doubt, the BBC, as a public broadcaster, should be seen to uphold the highest standards when it comes to subtitles, but most deaf people will tell you that mistakes are not limited to Auntie’s shows. They happen on whatever channel live shows are being broadcast on (check out ITV News, Channel Four News or Sky News, and you’ll get the idea).
Additionally, subtitles across the broadcasters (the BBC included) aren’t created in-house. They’re provided by a handful of companies who tender to provide the work for different channels. Companies like Red Bee Media, IMS Media and ITFC, several of whom I spoke to when I wrote my subtitle diary.
The bigger issue is the method by which subtitles are created.
They’re made either by a stenographer typing what’s been said onto a phonetic keyboard as they listen to a show, or by speech recognition, where dialogue is repeated more clearly into a microphone during a programme, with a computer automatically recognising the words.
It’s speech recognition that seems to lead to the most mistakes, as the computer throws up words that sound similar to the right one. ‘Bitch’ instead of Bishop, and so on.
So aiming complaints at the BBC is to be missing the point. What would have been more useful for deaf people would have been for those papers to take a detailed look at subtitle providers and discover which companies (irrespective of channel or broadcaster) provide the most accurate live subtitles. Or look at which method, of stenography or voice recognition, was the most accurate, and to what degree.
That would have helped deaf people out, and in turn held those companies to account.
But it also would have taken up a lot of time and effort. And potential headlines like ‘Deaf viewers complain about standard of random company you’ve never heard of’s live subtitles’ wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy as simply blaming the BBC.
Update: A stenographer wrote this comment on my Facebook wall:
THANK YOU CHARLIE! If I read another “live subtitlers are lazy feckless arses who can’t spell”-type article I think I’ll scream! The problems are inherent in the system: use of respeakers, low pay which means stenographers are not attracted to this type of work unless they have to work at home for personal reasons, and a lack of information for live subititlers which means that when I sit down to subtitle a programme, I know as much about it as the viewing public! No people, we don’t get scripts! But at its most basic, this is the point: live subtitles are produced by people, and people make mistakes. If I had written an absolutely perfect hour, which included the error “Ed Miller Band”, would people still talk about it? Probably. There is no better way of making live subtitles at the moment, so accept the limitations, laugh at the errors and look forward to the future.