Friday, September 07, 2001

Close The Captions

For a person who struggles with English, I can conceive of no harder job than being a simultaneous translator. You have to not only understand the intricacies of another tongue, but also the nuances, the biases, the slang, even the inside jokes of a second culture. And on top of it all, you have to make split second decisions as to how to convert those into another language, itself loaded with all of its own baggage.

The good news is that when you do your job, there are precious few who can catch your errors. By the very nature of the beast, people are listening to you because they can't understand the original speaker. As such, no one will know if you substitute "meal" for "breakfast" or "car" for "sedan." Of course, accuracy is important... you don't want to be translating "war" for "peace."

As long as you get the sense right, you've done your job, and no one will ever know otherwise. I was once interviewing a Japanese gentleman through a translator. I asked her to ask him if he was comfortable with the ground rules, and could we begin? She rattled off a stream of rapid fire Japanese that took 15 seconds or better. He listened, then responded in multiple sentences for an equal amount of time. She then turned to me and uttered a single word: "Shoot." It was obvious that this was no literal translation, but I nonetheless got the idea that we were ready to go.

There is, however, one venue where the discrepancy can be a bit more transparent. Through the miracle of modern science, most new televisions include a feature that enables them to display captions for what is being said on the screen. An outgrowth of the Americans with Disabilities law that went into effect a few years ago, the idea is permit people with hearing problems to enjoy the same bad programs that those of us with perfect hearing do.

For most shows that are created ahead of time, the producers send their programs to a service that matches up the text of the script with the spoken dialogue. Where necessary, they make judicious cuts or trims to enable the scrolling words to stay more or less in sync with what's being said on screen. They even indicate other sounds that help to better capture the sense of the action: laughter, doorbells, music and the like.

Generally, the text scrolls up a moment or two after the spoken word. As such, it is useful not only for those who are heard of hearing, but also for those who are perhaps not as familiar with the culture being portrayed. One friend reports that he kicks on the captioning feature when they're watching a cop show filled with street lingo. That way they get a second chance to translate "Yo, he dissin' the hood, man, speakin' jive like that" -like comments into English, and don't have to ask "What'd he say?" quite so often.

But unfortunately, sometimes the final finishing of the sound mix isn't reflected in the text. In "Ally McBeal," popular music is often inserted over characters talking, helping to illustrate their thoughts. The actors know this, and so just babble away, assuming their dialogue will be removed. Aurally, yes; but not always in the text version. In one episode, the song "You Belong to Me" welled up and the voices faded away. But viewers who kicked on their caption option saw this exchange between Ally and Billy.

Billy: "Conversations with dead wife. Not a problem. Yacht, could be."

Ally: "I have three experts to say that short term memory loss is not necessarily a cause of, um... dementia."

Billy: "What about the time he stole a loaf of bread?"

Ally: "He just saw Les Miserables?"

While "music playing" should have been the text, this is far more entertaining.

Now, with most of the shows we watch, the conversion from speech to text is accomplished ahead of time... offline, if you will. So in those cases, there is plenty of time to catch mistakes and smooth out any rough edges. Unfortunately, that is not the case for events which are live. For news, sports, awards shows, it is left to the speed and comprehension level of the typist to keep up with the action. And just as in any situation that requires hundreds of split section decisions to be made in real time... from driving to playing baseball to day trading stocks... occasional mistakes are made.

During the last Olympics from Sydney, for example, viewers who had the sound turned down but the caption turned on would have seen Team USA standing on the floor of the gymnastics pavilion chanting... according to the text... "USE! USE! USE!" You might ask, use what? Well, turn up the sound, and you would have heard "USA! USA! USA!" That makes mores sense, doesn't it?

Or had you stuck around for the swimming competition, you might have heard the commentators talking about the various competitors. They were speaking of the skill levels and training regimes of the different national teams. But viewers who had switched on their captioning feature might have wondered why they were referring not to the swimmers from Hungary, but about the "Hung Aryan swimmers." Hmmmm. Voices those unspoken thoughts we all have about those skintight suits.

And then there's the corporate presentation where the chairman of the board addressed his troops. Beamed out via satellite to all employees far and wide, the opening music rolled, the titles flew in, and a beaming executive strode to the podium to begin his speech. But those watching with the closed caption button pushed in might have been just a bit insulted when the first words out of his mouth scrolled down the screen: "Good morning ladies and jerks, and hoppy new jears to you all."

Hoppy new jears, indeed. Call it instantaneous or concurrent or simultaneous. But any way you look at, sometimes speed may not kill, but you could die laughing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford considers himself fluent in one language... barely. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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