The Challenges of Subtitling Live Sport
If our athletes make it look easy, subtitling live sport isn’t always such a smooth process.
Subtitle viewers deserve the same level of information and atmosphere as those watching with full audio. Providing the service these viewers rightfully demand presents subtitlers with some unique challenges. Here are some of them:
Live subtitlers listen to an audio feed that reaches us a couple of seconds earlier than it appears through ordinary TV sets. This little head start allows us to produce text that transmits at more or less the same time as the sound appears for viewers at home.
I say ‘more or less’: there is always a slight delay in getting live subtitles out, due to the convoluted route the information has to take from studio to subtitle suite to air . On many types of broadcast this isn’t a problem, but with sport it can be, because the action may have moved on or even ended by the time the text appears on screen.
It’s not ideal to have a subtitle saying “Farah’s looking strong coming onto the final straight” if he’s already doing the Mobot by the time it airs. We try to prevent such irrelevances by editing a bit more heavily during live sport, leaving out spoken information that is self-evident for the viewer (for example, who has possession of the ball during a footy match) while keeping in anything more substantial, especially if it adds to the ‘flavour’ of what’s going on (“Mo Farah is the Olympic champion, and what a race it was!”).
Preparation… or a lack of
The BBC broadcast the 2012 Olympics live over two channels for around 14 hours per day on each, often flitting between different sports at a moment’s notice depending on where action was unfolding most excitingly.
Our team of live subtitlers was prepping for the Games several weeks before it started.But as well rehearsed for these events as we try to be, there are times when we’re caught on the hop. The unpredictability of sport is its greatest joy, but if our voice models don’t contain information for, say, the Men’s Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling quarter-finals, it can be hard to subtitle when a channel cuts to it unexpectedly. Thankfully, editing or paraphrasing commentators’ speech is again useful here, allowing us to give a relatively faithful account of what’s happening – even if we’re not 100% sure ourselves!
As any live subtitle viewer will know, mistakes are inevitable. Fortunately our software does seem to have a sense of humour about what it mishears.
For instance, during the Games, my own computer decided that Japanese footballer Kensuke Nagai was “showing no sign of tigers”, which will have been a relief to his opponents. Meanwhile in the tennis, Serena Williams’ reaction to being hit with a stray ball was to “pick up the first brews of the match.” Clearly the Games had instilled in her the British wisdom that a cup of tea solves everything…
What do you think of subtitled sports coverage? Let me know in the comments below.
Martin Cornwell, Subtitler
This post is part of our on-going blog series on access services