Weer Not Bad Spelerz
by Patty White, RPR-CM of Caption Colorado
This article placed on this web site with permission from the author.
Whether you are a new caption/realtime viewer or someone who has been using captioning and realtime for many years, as you watch it, the thought may cross your mind that the captioner/realtimer either (a) is from a foreign country and has little facility in spelling or (b) is a lazy typist who can't spell or get it right. Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all court reporters who undertake a captioning/realtiming career are some of the best, most motivated, ambitious and highly skilled from the court reporting profession.
Captioning/realtime (C/RT) is a translation; much as Spanish is translated into English, a stenographer, with the aid of a computer, translates steno into English. Steno machines are what we use to write on and capture the spoken word, in a code, of sorts, called stenography, writing by sounds, and often writing several words in one stroke, a brief stroke, which is what gives us the speed to keep up with most speakers. Many C/RTers can write at speeds in excess of 260 words per minute. Attached to our steno machine is a cable that runs to a computer. Loaded into the computer is software that captures that steno stream, reads it, then throws it up against a steno -> English dictionary to try to find a match for that steno. As it finds a match, it translates it into English, which is what you see on your screen.
Sounds like a little hocus-pocus and magic, and in many ways, it is! But like all things, magic doesn't always work, or it works with unexpected and, often, unwanted results. A C/RTer builds their dictionary over many years, has to receive extensive training and continuing education on differentiating on words that sound alike, like hear/here, sea/see, their/there/they're, and thousands of others like them. None of those words can be written in steno the same way, and each of them must have an entry in our steno -> English dictionary for a match to be made and the proper word to appear on your screen. As you might imagine, with the thousands of words in the English language, it's almost impossible for a C/RTer to have every word entered in that dictionary, much less every possible derivative of each word. When you see something roll across the screen that looks like complete gibberish, that is what is known to us as an untranslate. Our dictionary just couldn't find a match and translated it just as we write it on our machine. So something that appeared as "DWIS" should be the word "device." If the computer couldn't find the correct match and spelling in the dictionary, it translates the keys that we depress.....D, W, I, S. However, on a steno machine, in reality, the keys that we depress in one stroke to write that word are TKWEUS. Totally confused? Well, wait, more confusion ahead!
Something else you will see from time to time are words that make no sense in the context of the sentence, and you may be wondering whether our IQ gets out of single digits or that we just don't understand the English language and are making poor choices for a word substitute. As an example, if someone said the word "trellis," and I wrote it and it wasn't in my dictionary, it very well could translate "tremendously is." That's because I would write it in two strokes, TREL/IS. TREL is a brief form for the word "tremendously." Once I put those two strokes together in my dictionary, it will forever after translate as "trellis." Provided, of course, I write it the same way every time and don't accidentally hit another key or leave out a key or I'm not writing too fast and don't get my hands off the keyboard from the first stroke fast enough and both of those strokes wind up in one stroke, or... well, there's just a multitude of ways to screw up.
Word boundary problems are something else you'll encounter while watching C/RTing. To use an example of "target," and "plantar," if someone were to use the phrase, "They plan targets all over the nation." in my dictionary resides an entry for the word "plantar," and the two strokes for that word, not surprisingly, are PLAN/TAR. So the computer, doing it's normal gyrations, finds a match for "plantar" in the above-referenced sentence, so what would come across your screen would be "They plantar gets all over the nation." Looks silly, doesn't it? Let's be honest, it looks ridiculous. The good news is..... once I put those three strokes in my dictionary PLAN/TAR/GET as "plan target," you won't have to see that particular bit of ridiculousness from me again!
One other common thing you may see happens with proper names. If Mr. Russo were referred to, the C/RTer may opt to shorten his name, try and stroke it and hope for the best, or fingerspell it. Fingerspelling is where the C/RTer strokes each letter in the name, much like is done on a regular typewriter, so the name appears intact. Difficult to do with rapid speakers. If that name were written out in steno, it would most likely translate as "reduce so" instead of "Russo," the reason being that it would be stroked on the steno machine as RUS/SO, and RUS is a common brief form for captioners for "reduce." So if that name comes up many times, it may be shortened or a pronoun "He" substituted rather than confuse you with the words "reduce so" appearing over and over again. Once I get the name Russo in my dictionary as a definition of the strokes RUS/SO, then that name will forever after translate!!! The bad news is, if someone says, "They will try to reduce so much of the budget" will very likely translate as "They will try to Russo much of the budget." Another example of a name is "Gonzalez." If the captioner did not have that name in their dictionary, it may translate as "gon is alles," or "gon is a less," or "gons alles." Why? Because that name can be divided in many places, and it is very, very hard to remember from word to word precisely where you would break the word when writing in phonetics, and if you break it in a different place than what is in your dictionary, it won't translate properly. And those are a couple of examples of easy surnames. Attempting to stenographically write a name like Igor Dostembroskovitz feels pretty much like professional suicide.
Is this more than you ever wanted to know about steno writing? Other times, what you will see that is unreadable are plain old-fashioned mistakes. C/RTers often have to write in excess of 260 words per minute, and that makes it almost impossible to write perfectly. We do try, but often fall short. Think of when you type on the typewriter as fast as possible; the faster you go, the more mistakes you make. Sometimes we just get our fingers on the wrong keys or drag in an extra key, which causes the stroke not to be read by the computer properly. There are times when we just don't understand the person speaking very clearly, sometimes mishear a word they say, sometimes our fingers are puffy and sluggish (I never eat pizza anymore, the salt in it just makes my fingers look like Kielbasas and write about like a Kielbasa would write too), and sometimes we're just having a really bad day.... in other words, we're human. But we're also all learning. We get better and learn and perfect our skills, much like ASL interpreters do, not being the best we'll ever be our first day or week or month or six months on the job. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact. As in all performance jobs, rookies aren't so hot for a while, but they want and need a chance too. As C/RTing grows and expands, as I think we all hope it does, more and more court reporters will need to be trained as C/RTers and there will be more rookies doing it. When you look at C/RTing, a person who has been C/RTing for several years will give you a whole lot better product than a C/RTer who has only been at it a month or two or six.
Having the technical expertise of a grapefruit, I'm going to attempt to explain some of the technical glitches that can occur in captioning transmission on your television set and hope my more learned colleagues do not shoot me at dawn if I get it wrong. We send captioning to a TV station via modem and phone lines, and at the station it is then placed on line 21 of the video picture. Line 21 is very fragile. If the reception on your TV is not crystal clear, you may get garbled characters in your captions, missing letters or words. Another thing that can happen is (we attribute this to gremlins) the modem will just dump our connection with the station. We monitor our modems regularly, but the process of dialing back into the station can take some little bit of time, depending on the problem.
We love this technology and the work we do and hope you find it useful. Any comments are more than welcome, along with your questions. As with all technology that is developing and evolving, we're trying to work out the bugs as we go along so what you see is as close to the spoken word as possible, and we're always grateful when told we did a good job!
On behalf of captioners and realtimers everywhere, we thank you for your patience, your interest, and your kindness.