The Independent Television Commission (ITC), a regulatory body overseeing certain television channels in the United Kingdom, has produced guidelines for captioning (the U.K. term is “subtitling”), sign language, and audio description on British television.
The guidelines are available on the Web:
A note about words: For unknown reasons, our dear British friends insist on using the word “subtitling” to mean “captioning” (titles in the same language as the audio). A “caption,” to the British, is any other kind of onscreen textual graphic, like the written name of a news announcer.
A “subtitle,” in British vernacular, can also apply to a title in a translated language. It is thus impossible to distinguish between captions and subtitles in the British argot: They’re both “subtitles.” In British English, it becomes possible to subtitle a subtitled program, and also possible to subtitle a captioned program, in any of a hundred conceivable languages.
Clear as mud, isn’t it?
This terminology is objectively inferior to what we use in Canada and needs to die a quick death. I’m not all that interested in encouraging this kind of confusion, so “subtitle” in the U.K. documents will always be changed to “caption” in these comments.
For reference, the preferred terminology is:
Research note: The Guidelines mention a couple of research studies:
The overlay technique:
Subtle nuances of phrasing are difficult to deal with effectively, but special techniques can be used, for example:
No... No... But that isn’t what I asked for.
A more powerful effect is achieved by the “overlay” technique. This involves, for instance, turning the above example into two [captions], by first displaying No... and then adding the second part of the utterance after the pause and without deleting the No.... This dynamic method of simulating speech timing and phrasing can be very effective, but should be reserved for time and space emergencies because multiple overlays can result in jerky presentation and clogged screens.
Music styles: Good advice here. Twit captioners don’t bother to tell you anything about the music playing in a scene. Canadians are particularly inept at this. Infuriatingly so, in fact. Our dear British confreres say:
Provision of an occasional [caption] for mood music, if it is significant to the plot, can be very effective:
# FRENCH PROVINCIAL MUSIC
Such [captions] should be used only sparingly. Occasionally, consecutive scenes are enacted in pitch darkness, and scene changes are signalled entirely by changes of incidental music. In such cases, if time permits, the [captioner] should use [captions] such as:
# LIVELY DANCE BAND MUSIC
Then, when the tempo of music changes dramatically, it is followed by:
# MOVES INTO SLOW DANCE MUSIC
Thereby deaf viewers are made aware of the scene change.
[S]entences should be segmented at natural linguistic breaks such that each [caption] forms an integrated linguistic unit. Thus, segmentation at clause boundaries is to be preferred. For example:
When I jumped on the bus...
...I saw the man who had taken the basket from the old lady.
It may be possible to break a long sentence into two or more separate sentences and to display them as consecutive [captions], e.g., “We have standing orders, and we have procedures which have been handed down to us over the centuries” becomes:
We have standing orders
They have been handed down to us
over the centuries.
There seems to be a mad, irrational urge to avoid setting a caption that does not encompass an entire sentence. Get over it. Your job is not to rewrite dialogue; it is to render the dialogue.
“Difficult words”: Captioning for children is contentious and absolutely no one anywhere has it down pat. The Guidelines include a lengthy section on editing techniques for kids’ captioning. It is very difficult to make a convincing case for or (especially) against most of the recommendations, except for one:
Difficult words should also be omitted rather than changed.
- Dialogue: First thing we're going to do is make his big, ugly, bad-tempered head.
- Simplified: First we're going to make his big, ugly head.
As the Guidelines later mention, when the purpose of the segment is to introduce a new word, retain it and leave the caption onscreen longer to let kids read and understand it. But in the case above, “bad-tempered” carries more heft and spice than “big” and “ugly.” It’s the first thing you notice about the sentence, and not just because it’s a long word. (A shorter word like “shrivelled” would be just as prominent.) In this example, leave the caption verbatim, with longer reading time.
“Long speechless pauses in programmes can sometimes lead the viewer to wonder whether the teletext system has broken down. It can help in such cases to insert an explanatory caption such as:
No, no, no. You cannot caption silence, unless it is dramatically significant – e.g., Krusty the Klown tells a joke and nobody so much as coughs, let alone laughs. (You’d still rely on a caption in that case only if you could not see the audience.) What you’re dealing with in that example isn’t a pause but a transition in music, hence:
[Theme music plays]
[Romantic music plays]
Gallaudet research showed that deaf viewers preferred a literal explanation of vocal quality along with a typographic change. In this example, we use uppercase for normal speech and notating nonverbal information, but upper- and lowercase for whispering:
I can't talk to you here.
Accordingly, using some kind of oddball colour combination for “robots” or what-have-you is ill-advised. Write it out, as other recommendations in the Guidelines already hold.
See also: Comments on U.K.guidelines on audio description