It’s generally accepted that being a ‘word nerd’ is one of the essential ingredients for making a decent captioner. Technically, it’s not necessary to know the etymology of the word ‘rhubarb’ to be able to respeak, but the sheer glee we’re likely to show on uncovering a word’s secret history* shows a basic love of language that really does help us when we’re captioning.
But what about new and made-up words? English is one of the world’s largest languages, and it evolves and develops at a rate that not even the most dedicated word nerd can match. So how do we deal with new terms we can’t identify?
In general, neologisms, jargon and fictional concepts aren’t too difficult to handle when producing pre-recorded captions for TV. Our software makes it easy to skip back through a clip and re-listen to a person’s speech. If we still can’t pick out what someone is saying, leaning on a colleague can help – “can someone come over here and listen to this a sec?” is a regular cry in our offices – as can some creative internet research. Sites like Urban Dictionary and even Twitter are pretty handy for making NBD of tricky new phrases.
It all gets a lot harder when it comes to live captioning. You can’t pause a lecturer during an Ai-Live session, still less a newsreader during a live broadcast, and ask them to repeat what they’ve just said. And even if you do know what a speaker means if they throw in a reference to some weird monster from last night’s Game of Thrones, or if they mention an ‘earworm’ they picked up that morning, chances are that the term will still be too newly-minted for most voice recognition tools. This is when Ai-Live’s edit mode becomes essential. Diving between spoken and written modes, we can frantically type whatever’s being said and avoid the risk of the voice software producing an embarrassing #captionfail.
Thankfully, though, this kind of firefighting is rarely needed. While it’s impossible to predict every potential ad lib and tangent, we are able to prepare for a session with materials kindly supplied beforehand by clients, and/ or our own research. This lets us give our voice models (and ourselves!) a quick education in some interesting new subjects, as well as keeping on fleek with all the newest slang of the day. All of which is also pretty handy for preventing me from throwing a mantrum, I can tell you.
*And in case you’re wondering, ‘rhubarb’ comes from the Latin rheubarbarum, meaning ‘foreign fruit’. This means the word shares its origins with ‘barbarian’ – literally, ‘those from outside Rome’. If you find that half as fascinating as we do, congratulations – you might just be destined for a career in captioning!
Written by Martin Cornwell, Captioner