July 15, 2010

Truth via Captions: "What's Under Their Kilts?"

Greetings. A few weeks ago in Why Web Video Captioning Is So Important, I mused on the importance of captioning to Web videos, and emphasized why YouTube users should take advantage of various YouTube captioning tools (automated and manual) to create the best possible experience for their viewers.

What I didn't discuss then was a more basic issue -- how the ways that videos are captioned (or dubbed) can fundamentally alter how they are interpreted, even to the extent of completely changing intended meanings.

This was brought home to me very recently when I watched a broadcast copy of a film I had not viewed for many years, the delightful 1966 movie King of Hearts (Le Roi de Cur). [Trailer]

Set near the end of World War I, the characters in the three involved armies each speak in their native languages. This creates a complicated dubbing/captioning scenario, since typically any audience would want at least two of the three languages translated.

Language translations are less than an exact science of course, especially when idiomatic phrases are involved. (That said, automated translation techniques, such as Google Translate, have become extremely useful indeed, and will only get better with time.)

When I first saw King of Hearts decades ago it was in a fully-dubbed form without subtitles, and used fake accents to try indicate which language the characters were speaking at any given moment. This led to specific plot elements that never quite made sense to me at the time.

Captioned versions of videos and films have -- in my opinion -- generally done a better job, though timing requirements in manually-captioned cases can sometimes result in "text simplifications" that might leave out words or entire phrases.

In the YouTube context, captions also open the ability to perform automated translations based on the captions themselves -- obviously of immense benefit.

But here's an interesting question -- what happens when captions (or dubbing) are used to fundamentally alter dialogue in a film, perhaps as a form of subtle censorship or worse?

Both dubbing and captions carry this risk, but the risk with dubbing seems far higher, since the underlying original dialogue tracks will not be heard for comparison by native speakers of the language.

Automated captions will virtually always be trustworthy in this sense. While there may be a significant error rate in automatic captions (especially in the presence of background noise or music), deliberate alteration of meaning is highly unlikely, and the original audio is still immediately available for comparison.

I haven't revealed "what's under their kilts" yet. The reference -- and the relationship to this entire discussion -- comes from a short segment of dialogue in King of Hearts itself that was the trigger for my pondering this topic today.

In a particular captioned scene (the actors are speaking French at this point), a number of Scottish soldiers are dancing a jig. A character in the film asks her companion, "What's under their kilts?" To which the companion -- after taking a quick peek -- replies, "Nothing!" Leading to the response from another character, "You mean everything!" A rather cute turn of phrase.

But when I saw this scene a couple of evenings ago, I couldn't remember ever having heard the "Everything!" response before. In fact, I recalled -- from many years ago -- an entirely different and rather odd line of dialogue entirely.

I dug out an old tape and discovered that I was correct. The ancient dubbed King of Hearts version in my collection had the character replying to the question, "What's under their kilts?" with the response I remembered: "Petticoats!" (making the following line, "You mean everything!" completely nonsensical).

Since this was a dub job, I couldn't hear the original French dialogue, and I can't effectively lip-read French (or any other language, for that matter).

I'll admit that a rather ham-fisted attempt at film sanitizing may not be a big deal in the scheme of things -- but it had me fooled for many years.

Still, these issues -- particularly the key potential to verify captions by inspection of the original audio -- may be particularly important (for example) in the context of sound bites with political ramifications, where unscrupulous parties might try to post materials with falsified translations aimed at particular target audiences.

While one might hope that Internet access to underlying source materials and references would tend to reduce such risks, the plain truth is that many persons will simply accept what they see or hear the first time around and never think to go digging on the Net for verification.

Just a little something to consider, especially if you're ever inclined to doubt the ever-growing importance of captions in our increasingly video-centric world.


Posted by Lauren at July 15, 2010 01:08 PM | Permalink
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