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Issues of Bad Captions and Subtitles

It is important for deaf and hard of hearing people to access information via not just captions, but good quality captions – just as it is important for people with normal hearing to access information via good quality audio.

The article, Dancing on Ice angers deaf viewers with “bizarre” subtitles, discusses the issue of quality captions (“subtitles” is a term used in UK for “captions”) shown on British TV. It may be funny for a regular viewer to watch bad captions, but it is frustrating for those who have little or no access to audio and depend on accurate captions to get full access to information. Also, some errors may turn to be colorful language that is not appropriate for the younger audience to read.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

  • “The programme has attracted an audience of more than 7million but deaf viewers are outraged by nonsensical wording claiming ‘blasphemous’ routines ‘walk straight in the fridge’.”
  • “Campaigns officer Ian Noon at the NDCS said: ‘Shoddy subtitling shows that broadcasters are not making access for deaf viewers a priority.'”
  • “Mr Noon added: ‘Deaf young people all too frequently find that the subtitles for their favourite shows are riddled with mistakes and hugely out of sync with speech. There’s no excuse for poor subtitles like this – even on live programmes. But ITV is not the only channel guilty of bizarre and confusing subtitles. Through basic planning such as involving the subtitler in rehearsals and sharing scripts and plans in advance, broadcasters could dramatically improve live television for deaf viewers.'”
  • “The BBC came under fire last October from groups for the hard of hearing for its increasing number of bizarre gaffes, which have included calling the Labour leader ‘Ed Miller Band’ and the Church of England leader the ‘arch bitch’ of Canterbury.”
  • “During the Queen Mother’s funeral, a solemn call for silence became ‘we will now have a moment’s violence’.”
  • “Groups for the deaf and hard of hearing have admitted they receive regular complaints about the issue and called on broadcasters to monitor the ‘quality of their subtitling’ and reduce mistakes’.”

Another article, BBC’s mangled subtitles anger viewers, explains the reason for bad captions is that TV stations such as BBC use more voice writers that use speech recognition to re-speak what they hear than stenographers. The problem with using speech recognition is that it is less accurate than using a steno machine.

Mirabai Knight, a NYC-based professional CART writer, explains in her article, Voice Versus CART, the difference in quality between using speech recognition and stenographic technology to provide real time captioning:

“The human hand is generally a more accurate instrument than the human voice for swift, repetitive motions, which are precisely the sorts of signals a computer needs to receive in order to deliver consistent output. This is why, despite the wide availability of voice recognition software and the relative scarcity and cost of stenographic technology, the majority of realtime court reporters and CART providers working today are stenographers. Realtime verbatim voice writing is tremendously difficult to achieve; consequently, it’s rare to find a voice writer capable of providing the level of service that qualified CART providers take for granted.”

Mirabai’s article is very informative, and I would highly recommend to read it to better understand why using speech recognition is not sufficient for good quality real time captioning.

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