Live Subtitling: From the Premier League to Pope Francis

19th March 2013

Most subtitles are good. Some subtitles can be, shall we say, confusing. But all live subtitlers have unbelievable tekkers!

If you don’t quite understand the above paragraph, I don’t blame you, not least because the last word’s obviously made up. In the live subtitling department at Sky, however, it’s instantly recognisable as a bowdlerised reference to Saturday morning football chat show, Soccer AM . It’s also a quick example of the particular perils of live respeaking . We have to ensure that our spectacled friend in the clip doesn’t seem to be saying “teak tars”, “take cars” or “tacky stars”. Overcoming that particular obstacle, in fact, takes minimal organisation, but there are sterner tests out there.

Red Bee Media’s live subtitling for Sky’s channels is provided by a team of specialists. We are lean, mean, respeaking machines and there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ day. We’re used to working on wildly disparate programming, adjusting from snooker to WWE, before finishing with Sky News’ Jeff Randall Live. The advantage of this is that we develop a style that can be tailored to each section of output, and become more adept at calmly overcoming unexpected problems. As Gary Player (supposedly) said, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”. A cool head comes in handy when, say, an unknown wunderkind mysteriously appears off the bench for Harlequins and runs in two tries before you’ve worked out his name.

This combination of general technique and specific expertise means that, while we can’t always perfectly reflect the sonic experience, we always try to give the subtitle user the essence of it, as we extrapolate the essentials to minimise confusion. I think there’s an aesthetic, as well as professional, satisfaction in stripping away the incidental cacophony of Soccer Saturday, extracting from it only the key information on the latest goals and chances. In addition, we can recognise areas where it’s impossible to cut corners. Recently, those of us who were new to live-subtitling natural disasters learned that the software invariably transmits hurricane as “horror came”. It has to be taught not to be such a drama queen before one can attempt any scheduled news output. On the whole, we can translate almost anything into some form of subtitle, with only the odd exception …

Skilled as we are, however, we also need great support. Dynamic glossaries of news stories and all the live sports we cover are an invaluable resource for preparation. After all, have you seen how many players there are in an NFL team? We have helped develop software that allows us to store, correct and manually retransmit live work where possible. This not only improves the overall quality of subtitles, but it gives our voices a rest. It can be very welcome in a day which may also feature Prime Minister’s Questions and the speedway Grand Final.

Of course, the days – and nights – are long and, as you’ve probably guessed by now, any number of things can go wrong, and quite often do. But, as others have said , it is very rewarding to know you’re providing a vital service. The work also has its perks, particularly for the avid sports fan. Everyone has developed their own form of silent celebration when subtitling their team scoring; mine is waving my arms around like mad, but I’m sure I’ve seen a seated hula dance or two. Even a night shift can become the only place to be, if you happen to be the one helping to commemorate Andy Murray’s first major!

Chloe Gallagher , Subtitler

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