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Losing something in translation; Closed captioning brings the words on-screen as they are being spoken, and sometimes that spells trouble.


Imagin reading this sentense as its being typed -- befor someone has a chance to look it ovr and corect the grammer and mispellings.

Look familiar somehow? If so, you've probably been watching television with closed captioning, the word-by-word display of what is being said on screen. In programming that features it, typos seem to turn up more often than commercials.

"Theorys" instead of "theories." The errant "e" in "includeing." Or the word "mayor" used to describe a female horse.

Captioning has bloomed since 1993, when all new televisions 13 inches or larger were required to have a built-in closed-caption decoder. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that by 2006, almost every show must be captioned. Couldn't the government agency also make good spelling a requirement?

Actually, it already is, says Steve Joyner, president of Southwest Captioning Service, a Dallas captioning company. "I've had people ask me, 'Don't you all have a spell-checker on that thing?' " he says. "Well, yeah, we do. But it goes a lot deeper than a command of the English language."

Of course, all captioners should be good spellers, says Darlene Parker, a captioning supervisor at the National Captioning Institute in Vienna, Va. The institute was formed in the early 1980s; with 200 employees, it is the largest in the country.

If captioners do make mistakes, she says, it's usually due to the intense pressure of transcribing something live, and to the quirks of the equipment.

All captioners are former court reporters, because the profession's stenographic machine is the only one fast enough to transcribe human speech. A speedy typist on a traditional typewriter keyboard can do 100 words per minute; using court-reporters' shorthand, captioners can do 250 words per minute. Most people speak 200 to 250 words per minute.

Mistakes appear most often on live programs such as news or sports, says Jay Feinberg, marketing director at the National Captioning Institute. "You've got to be able to literally type -- or a better word would be 'write' -- as fast as somebody can talk," says Southwest's Joyner. Captioners usually work at home, furiously typing on a computerized machine that transforms the work into words, which are sent over a phone line to the broadcaster. The entire process takes about three seconds. If the caption is complete gobbledygook, it's an equipment or transmission problem, Joyner says.

Another glitch is when captioners omit or change words. Verbatim is the goal -- but sometimes paraphrasing can't be avoided.

"I remember I was doing a presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale," says Parker. "Reagan said the word 'Armageddon.' I'd been there all of three weeks. I knew it wasn't in my computer's dictionary, which meant I would have to key it, letter by letter. I thought, two Gs, two Ds -- no way I can."

Her solution? Parker instead typed "world destruction" -- a synonym that was close and conveyed the meaning.

"You have to think on your feet," she says, "like a translator."

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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