An article in the Radio Times by David Blunkett, MP, discussing the poor quality of both subtitling and, more relevant to him personally, dubbing, started me thinking; it’s an interesting piece but he doesn’t actually tackle the reasons behind the problems, so I thought I would have a go at tackling them here.
A recent report by Ofcom has highlighted the continuing poor quality of live subtitling on many UK TV sites, including a weather forecast stating ‘They would be a few more mist and fox patches’ and ‘see engle Bert humper distinct’. However, they also don’t tackle in their consultation notice is why these problems occur.
The notice suggests broadcasters should report on the quality of their subtitling, rather than just the quantity as they do now, which they hope will incentivise them to improve. However, like everybody else in this current economic climate, broadcasters are making cuts, and one of the cuts they’ve made is to rid themselves of real people (stenographers) doing subtitling and outsource to companies who are using speech recognition programmes. The problem? These programmes are just not able to work to this level.
Such software can only be trained to, and recognize, one voice. Consequently people are employed (on low wages as a rule) to listen to live broadcasts and ‘respeak’ into a microphone. Even if they respeak with perfect accuracy, the software still won’t always pick things up correctly. This is partly simply because it’s not perfect and partly because colloquial English frequently doesn’t fit into the grammar rules that it’s been ‘taught’. There is an interesting article by Deaf Journalist Charlie Swinbourne.
I suppose if the outsourcing companies are paid per programme or minute or whatever, and the broadcasters are happy they’ve met their Ofcom obligations on quantity of subtitling, regardless of quality, things aren’t going to improve. So let’s hope the Ofcom initiative comes off and stenographers get their jobs back. (I’m well aware of how many people have been made redundant from subtitling jobs because over the last few years I’ve had very frequent requests for work from stenographers looking to move into standard transcription! (But please don’t apply at the moment – we’re fully staffed!)