Monday, May 05, 2008

A Bad President Under a Crowd

Not long ago, I was somewhere that had several flat-screen televisions lining the walls. The volume on the tvs was off, but programs were playing anyway, and closed-captioning was used so those watching could know what was being said.

I know that closed-captioning, unlike subtitling, is generally in real-time, but I was still surprised by the number of mistakes -- there were errors in nearly every sentence. Some were really odd, though many were clearly based on phonetic confusions. Sometimes a caption was corrected, but usually the viewer was left to puzzle it out (and to giggle, as in my case).

Here are a few of the wrong captions I recall:

“This sets a bad president” instead of “This sets a bad precedent”
“Now things are under a crowd” instead of “Now things are under a cloud”
“This is about award” instead of “This is about a war”

Bad closed-captioning and bad subtitling can definitely set a bad president.


Eric Dickens said...

I had to consult my old friend Wiki to find out what "closed captioning" was, and I wasn't aware at all of the live usage.

But whatever the technology, the message is only as good as the translator. And these captioners, like interpreters, must surely suffer more from stress than those people who translate a poem, put it in a drawer for a month, then bring it out to alter a comma on line eight.

But my first question when seeing B.J.'s comments here is: was this work being done by a native-speaker, or are they cutting costs by farming out the work to a distant country, where the likelihood of a non-native-speaker doing the instant translation is greater?

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Eric! Closed captioning is common to see on tv (not that I watch tv anyway, since I don't own one!), but I wonder if it is perhaps a US term.
Anyway, that is a great question, and one I do not have the answer to. I'd imagine in some cases it could very well be that the work is done by a non-native, or perhaps by someone with a drastically different dialect (a speaker of Indian English rather than standard British English, for example). But probably not in all the cases.

Best wishes,