What do captioners do?
When we captioners tell people what we do for a living, we’re almost guaranteed to be asked one of two questions: “What on earth is that?” or “So does that mean you can type really quickly?”
If you’re reading this, perhaps because you’re interested in a career in captioning, chances are you have a broad idea of what the job involves. But if not, it can be summarised as this: a captioner transcribes speech in live and pre-recorded TV shows, and also at ‘real-life’ events like work meetings or university lectures, in order to provide access to the spoken word for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
However, you might not be aware that captioning doesn’t actually require us to be lightning-quick typists – at least not always.
How are captions made?
It’s true that a proportion of captions are produced by stenographers (or palantypists, as they’re also known), which you may be familiar with from courtroom or parliamentary settings – they’re the highly-skilled individuals who sit at the side capturing everything that’s being said with a specially-adapted keyboard that allows them to produce whole words with single strokes. But these days most captioners (also known as subtitlers – there’s a lot of jargon in this industry!) are instead trained as ‘respeakers’ (see?). A respeaker listens to an audio feed from the TV show or live event and then repeats what they hear into voice recognition software, complete with punctuation, grammar, and any number of formatting instructions; their computer then ‘translates’ this into the text you see on screen. For pre-recorded material (aka closed captioning – more jargon), captioners have time to go back and tidy up the text, correcting any mistakes before it reaches the viewer. For live captioning, we have no such luxury and have to be sure our voice models, i.e. our software’s vocabulary, are up to date with any new or technical terms that enter the language.
(As an aside, another question captioners get very used to fielding is “Why are there so many mistakes?” The short answer is that voice recognition software is very impressive and is improving all the time, but it’s still no match for the variety and rate of change in actual human language. This means that, in live settings at least, it’s impossible to capture everything that’s said with 100% accuracy 100% of the time.)
Does that all sound hard to picture? Here’s what it looks like in action.
What is captioning like as a career?
By now it’ll be pretty clear that captioning is a fairly niche profession – but it’s also an endlessly interesting and rewarding one. I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade, and in that time I’ve never once woken up and thought “I really can’t face work today.” No matter what kind of output I’m covering, be it a game show, workplace meeting or university lecture, each task throws up a unique set of linguistic and technical challenges, and it’s extremely satisfying to think that in overcoming them I’m helping to provide accessibility support to people who might have lacked it otherwise. As such, it’s a career I’d highly recommend to anyone who’s interested.
That said, there are some things to bear in mind before replying to that job ad.
What does it take to be a captioner?
As the slightly obscure nature of captioning would suggest, it’s not for everyone. For instance, it’s thought that only one-in-three people have a natural aptitude for respeaking. (A great way to test whether you’re one of them is to give it a go at home along with the TV or radio…although be prepared for some puzzled looks from your family or housemates if you forget to tell them beforehand what you’re up to.) You’ll also need to be okay with the idea of working alone, for the most part – after all, the majority of the talking you’ll do each day is into a computer. Many captioners work from home, myself included, so you’ll need to be comfortable with your own company.
On the other hand, many of the skills you need to be a good captioner are transferrable from other industries, so don’t let a lack of direct experience discourage you from applying to any vacancies you spot. Although it can be a solitary role, it’s vital that captioners have a strong sense of teamwork. Usually, several of us will be assigned to cover a single task, especially when it comes to pre-recorded TV shows, and we’re all equally responsible for the quality and timeliness of the work we produce. It’s also a great career choice for reliable types, and especially for freakishly punctual ones, because it’s no use showing up for work at 8:28am if the session you’re booked to cover started at 8:25am – and live captioning sessions are indeed timed that precisely.
But perhaps the most fundamental quality you’ll need is a love of language. Captioners come from a huge range of personal and professional backgrounds, we occupy all points on the age spectrum, and our personalities are as varied as society itself. But we all know the difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’ and we can’t bear to let a misused apostrophe go uncorrected. So if you feel the same, captioning could well be the job for you. Good luck!
Written by Martin Cornwell, Ai-Media Captioner
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