Test the quality of subtitles and invite audience feedback
The best way to assess the quality of subtitles is to run user tests with non-native speakers in the intended target audience. Tests should aim to assess all important characteristics, including readability, comprehensibility, accuracy, completeness, timing and suitability for the programme content and audience.
Broadcasters can also provide a way for viewers to give feedback on quality issues by providing a telephone number that will accept both voice calls and texts along with other quick access channels such as email and twitter.
Subtitles for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (called ‘captions’ in north america and australasia) are used to convey speech and other important programme sounds in the form of text.
Some of the guidelines in this section also apply to interlingual subtitles. For example, the guidelines concerning reading speeds. These are repeated in the section on language translations, together with other guidelines specific to that service.
Subtitles are vitally important for the full understanding and enjoyment of television programmes by people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Television is an audiovisual medium and the audio aspect is often as important or more important than the visual aspect. A simple experiment shows this. For a single evening, watch your normal television programmes with the sound turned off. The next evening, watch with the sound on but the picture off. Depending on the types of programmes, you may find that muting the sound removed far more information than turning off the picture. In particular, for news, current affairs, interviews and chat shows, almost all of the information is contained in the spoken words. This may also be true for many dramas, movies and documentaries. This illustrates the importance of subtitles.
As well as benefiting people with hearing loss, subtitles can improve children’s reading levels, improve language understanding for speakers of foreign languages and allow people in public places, such as waiting rooms, airports, bars and gyms, to understand television programmes.
Good subtitling requires great skill in balancing different considerations. It is not simply a matter of transcribing the spoken dialogue accurately into text. The maximum rate at which words can be spoken far exceeds the rate that a written transcript can be read. It may therefore not be feasible to provide a full transcription. But it is still necessary to give the equivalent meaning, so some careful editing may be required. It is not only the speech that needs to be conveyed. Subtitles may also need to convey tones of voice, non-speech utterances, background noises, music and incidental sounds, plus information about the sounds, such as which person or direction they are coming from. Balancing the need to subtitle all relevant audio content with the need to allow adequate reading time is an art. The bbc online subtitling editorial guidelines give an idea of the flexibility required of subtitlers:
Good subtitling is a complex balancing act ... It
will never be possible to apply all of the guidelines all of the time, because
in many situations they will be mutually exclusive... Different types of
content, different items within an av clip, and even different sections within
an item, will require different subtitling approaches. bbc
online subtitling editorial
Live subtitling involves still more complication. A good introduction to live subtitling and the limitations of the technologies used is given by the bbc see hear programme - how subtitles are made. The programme discusses the problems that viewers often have with subtitles, particularly live subtitles. Problems such as delays, misspellings, missing information and not having enough time to both read the subtitles and watch the action on screen. The programme shows how live subtitles are created using the respeaking method and gives insights into why it is difficult to avoid all of these problems.
Sources of information used for the guidelines on subtitles for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
As stated in the overall introduction to the guidelines, these recommendations are largely the result of a compilation and restructuring of information contained in existing resources. The key resources used for this section were:
- ITC guidelines on standards for subtitling
- BBC online subtitling editorial guidelines v1.1
- Captioning key website
- The outputs of the dtv4all project
- Peter Olaf looms’ three part series on access services for the EBU technical review
These and other subtitling resources are referenced in the bibliography.