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I’ve started with a contradiction in terms – and no, this post isn’t about subtitling song lyrics – that would be far too obvious.

No, my theme tonight is quiz shows, namely two shows currently broadcast consecutively on BBC2 on Monday nights – University Challenge and Only Connect. Both programmes contain music rounds in which connections must be made: in University Challenge it might be identifying three works by the same composer, or three works premiered in the same year, that kind of thing. Sometimes, though, the questions are more akin to those in Only Connect – identifying a common thread in song titles or similar questions.

The subtitling ethos can vary, however. In University Challenge the music subtitles tend to be reasonably descriptive, without giving too much away: typical subtitles might be along the lines of ‘lively piano music’, ‘soft, slow, dreamy music’, ‘choral singing’, which at least tell you something about the qualities of the music being played. Sometimes they might name the genre, which is perhaps a bit less helpful for deaf people if you have never heard said genre: ‘ragtime jazz’ or ‘Baroque music’ being examples.

I think this is a fairly helpful, if perforce rather brief, approach in that the subtitles are tailored to the programme’s context: after all, the contestants are being asked to identify the music so they will be struck by these qualities (and having been exposed to various genres and artistes, they’ll be able to narrow them down from those qualities). It’s something akin to ‘cultural equivalence’ in translation – giving deaf viewers a flavour of the question being posed to hearing contestants.

On Only Connect tonight it must have been the only time deaf viewers were able to work out the connection before the contestants! It was a different approach entirely, because the subs named each work, so once the second one went up, I could see what the connection was (they all had the word flower in the title).

I couldn’t work out whether this was “allowing” me to cheat as a reasonable adjustment because I certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify these works as I just don’t have that lifetime’s head repertoire of exposure to music; levelling the playing field, giving me the ability to make connections through the written word instead of through the musical note, for that very reason; or whether it was less helpful because it didn’t actually tell me anything about the nature of the music being played, so I remained one step behind.

In general terms, I do think that descriptive subtitling of music on TV and in films could be a lot better than it is, but it’s also clear that each programme or genre may demand an individual philosophy of subtitling.

What do you think? Part of the fun of these programmes is that they encourage active viewing – you shout out the answer, groan when someone doesn’t get what’s obvious to you, confess yourself flummoxed while some geek with a mathematical brain gets something so arcane you wonder if Jeremy Paxman is even speaking English. Should you get a ‘head start’ or participate, even at one remove, in suspense like everyone else?

Is there another way? Could the subtitles be strung out as long as the music clip is played, rather than a single descriptive or attributive line, or could they be made to pop up on the screen in time to the music itself? Maybe not if it’s presto (very fast)! You could express a crescendo by increasing the size of the font or going from small letters to capitals, and vice versa. Is this intuitive?

Is this next generation subtitling or am I just letting my imagination run riot?

 

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