Bilingualism on Live Television: a Captioner’s Perspective

By: VITAC
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As most of us are already well aware thanks to TV, social media, and the dinner table, the election season for most Americans is one of interest, excitement, hope, and sometimes frustration. For a closed captioning company, it is no different, except there is the added pressure of overlapping speakers in debates, political commentators vying for their three second talking point, and most recently, rapid transition between languages in national speeches.

VITAC Captions Speeches That Transition Between English and Spanish at the DNC

This year’s Democratic National Convention brings an interesting challenge for those behind the steno machines. The democratic candidate for Vice President, Tim Kaine, is fluent in Spanish and has made multiple speeches thus far flipping between that and his first language, English.  In addition, on the first night of the DNC on Monday, multiple speakers also spoke Spanish and English in their addresses. They transitioned between one and the other seamlessly without much warning of transition. Some of the times, the speaker spoke in Spanish and translated their phrases into English as well. Other times, the Spanish was standalone, and there was no accompanying translation.

For the folks here at VITAC and those across the captioning industry that are responsible for accurate coverage of these events, the bilingualism presents a unique challenge. A caption industry veteran, Carol Studenmund, took to social media to address this very subject:

We reached out for comment and approval, and she said, “I was surprised by how many people thought someone would just peer over my shoulder and whisper in my ear and translate whatever was being said or ask “’why don’t we just have Spanish translators type it in?'”

A stenocaptioner is either trained in English or Spanish.   Even if one knows both theories, it is not possible to switch on the fly to another language during events that are captioned liveWe went to the source and asked some of our own realtime experts how they would handle the situation. Our realtime trainer, Karla Ray, confirmed Carol’s guess in her post and said that this issue had recently come up in reference to the current political events! She said they have told their captioners that “when Senator Tim Kaine starts speaking Spanish, use [Speaking Spanish ] when switching from English to Spanish in the same sentence or middle of speeches.” The approach allows for a captioner to quickly address what is being said and maintain accuracy during the event.

This is not the first time the National Convention stage has been an outlet for bilingualism. This article from NPR written during the 2012 convention highlights both party’s use of the two languages to accommodate the constantly shifting cultural landscape in America.

As the convention continues, and the campaign trail heats up in light of the approaching Election Day in November, it will be interesting to watch how the use of these two languages plays a role in both parties. We know that we, as well as our captioners, will be watching with interest, a smidge of anxiousness, and hyper-focused attention. Wish us all luck!

By: Tori Trimm