I’ll say it again. Subtitlers of mainstream television really need to up their game. The delays, the out-of-sync subtitles, the spelling mistakes, the lack of focus in what to correct – multiple corrections of a minor error increasing the time lag while completely out-of-context captions are allowed to stand – are all major issues. But it seems that no-one has actually sat down and thought: is what we are doing actually providing equal access? Why is subtitling an afterthought instead of an integral part of the production planning?
Last night’s broadcast on BBC Two (23.04.2016) of RSC Live’s Shakespeare 400 celebration was a case in point. The time lags and missing subtitles were horrendously frustrating – even if it was a live performance, his texts have been around for 400 years, come on people, it’s not hard to pre-load Shakespeare’s texts. You don’t even need to go to a specialist bookshop – any PC will do, plenty of authoritative texts online.
The Hamlet sketch was brilliant but only because my CI could supply the missing words of the text, as each actor came on and gave their version of Hamlet’s opener to his soliloquy: To be or not to be, that is the question . . . The subtitling was painful. It wasn’t hard to repeat that line over and over again but the subtitler was failing to supply it as often as needed, and usually with a serious time lag. As for the apparent ad-libs – hopeless. As the camera pulled back to show Dame Judi Dench coming on and delivering her lines, so I couldn’t even lipread her, all I could discern with my ear was that they were asking her what she was doing there, followed by a roar of laughter from the audience. Several interminable seconds later I found out that she’d come on saying she was “Hamlet the Dame”. But, by that time, the next actor was on, and I was laughing on my own.
I quickly worked out though, that each actor was giving the emphasis to a different word but the subtitles weren’t keeping up. It was clearly scripted, so someone should have briefed the captioner, so that the texts could not only have been pre-loaded, but also tweaked to suit. As actor followed actor, so they placed the emphasis one word along in the line.
An elegant subtitling solution to signpost to the deaf audience that the stress was falling on a different syllable each time would have been to capitalise accordingly: TO be or not to be . . . To BE or not to be . . . right through to . . . that is the QUESTION.
Deaf people are as intellectually curious and want to participate in national cultural events as much as anybody else. How disappointing to leave us out of a shared celebration of the Bard for want of a little forethought.
And it’s not just events like this. Every single year without fail the subtitles for Rule Britannia on the Last Night of the Proms are abysmal. It’s a core part of the programme, the words are easily available, and surely can be pre-loaded from available texts.
Descriptive subtitling likewise is absolutely dire and in this day and age surely the technology exists to make, for example, the atmosphere of background music more meaningful to a deaf audience. Don’t just type “pulsing electronic music”. Make the word “pulsing” flash on and off with the tempo of the music to at least give an idea of what “pulsing” is and the speed the music is being played at.
Our access to the imaginative world is being denied through a lack of imagination and unwillingness to push the boundaries.