Without me, you would not know what they were saying. I am their voice, their interpreter, their first line of communication, their conduit. Without me, all would be silence.
At least, that’s what I used to tell myself. I was doing a public service; I was acting for the greater good. I was involved – if only in a small way – in Art with a capital ‘A’. It made the days more bearable, as I sat, hunched over my desk, isolated from my colleagues in clunky and less-than-clean headphones, listening to conversations I could never join in, the only words I was allowed the words that I typed. These days I often wonder. That’s why I rebelled.
When I tell people I am a subtitler, they usually don’t know what I mean. After a slightly puzzled pause, their first guess is always that jerky, unruly stream of words spooling out under the news, complete with its stuttering and comedy typos. But no, that is not me. You may not believe it, but that work is done by highly skilled and highly paid stenographers (you might laugh at the typos, but it’s a far harder job than you think). Many of them work part-time and remotely: I know of stenos based in cottages in the wilds of Scotland or the Lakes, logging on to a central server at set times throughout the day for the bursts of misery or excitement that make up the news broadcasts. I often think that must be an odd life, though in my experience, stenos are often odd people. Then again, who am I to talk?
Still, even that skill set is fading: stenos are expensive and in short supply, so now the work is often done by some poor soul locked in a booth in the bowels of some non-descript building, repeating the words on screen to a computer that has been painstakingly programmed to recognise their voice, hoping against hope that it gets the words right.
But me, I’m no good under pressure. Instead, I work on the films and the TV shows you watch; your quiz shows and reality programmes, your soaps, your serials, your comedies and your dramas. I am the person turned to by the deaf, the elderly, the mother trying to watch TV over the heads of squalling children, the couple who can’t understand the rapid fire dialogue and inner city accents of that American cop show they’ve been told to worship. I am the one who has shown you the wonder of foreign lands: of languid French affairs of the heart, of depressed detectives probing the Scandinavian dark, of Asian ultraviolence and beauty. Without me, your world would be smaller. And this is the thanks I get? Is it any wonder I chose to strike back?
It used to be a skill, this work. Valued and rewarded, even as we worked in cramped offices or chilly industrial estates, shipping our painstakingly produced bounty to the broadcasters and DVD companies profiting from our wares. But your ignorance and greed have diminished it, even as your appetite and need for it increase. I’ve stopped telling people what I do, now. I got sick of the questions: “Don’t you just type what people say?” (No. You try it and see how far you get. You can’t type fast enough, and the screen would be so filled with words you wouldn’t see faces). “Do you speak loads of languages?” (No. If I spoke ‘loads’ of languages, surely I’d have a better job than this? We use native speaker translators: our skill is polishing and tidying their words, pinning the subtitles to the speaker, the shot, you that you know what they are saying and when.) “Why do you make so many mistakes?” Ah, now that is the proper question…
There used to be a lot of us. It was careful work, done to strict guidelines, checked and re-checked by people who would query a comma or a word out of place. There were teams of us, and we thought nothing of spending hours on one programme, a day or more on a film, making sure that when you saw it, it was the truest version you could find.
Then came technology and progress and the great god of modernisation. Of ‘rationalisation’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘synergies’ – all words that, when you translate them, can be reduced to one syllable: ‘cuts’. To getting more work for less money, to paying fewer people to do the same job, to use a computer where a person could be. If it meant that standards slipped a little, did it matter? Why aim for good, when adequate is cheaper? Why not pay someone in South Africa or India to do the basics, then ship the files back home for finishing so you can claim it’s still done in the UK and get the plaudits for your employment practices? They may not get the jokes and the references, those people who have never set foot in the East End or Manchester or Glasgow, they may edit out the nuance and render in broad strokes, but the viewer will never know what they’re missing anyway, so what difference does it make? This, after all, is progress.
So now our numbers are depleted. Companies have closed, been bought out, stripped back to the basics. In my office there used to be 12 of us, now there are 5. We work 10 hour shifts staring at a screen: listen, type, pause; rewind, check, edit; listen, check again. It may not be working down a mine, I know that, but it’s tricky and time consuming. Even with the loosening of standards, it’s slow work, and we can’t afford the flash new software being bought by the big boys, the things that will put us out of business in the end. But I find there are advantages. Everything used to be checked and rechecked; no word went out unviewed. Now it is only a sample, a smattering, a fraction of the output – and now I go to work in the cracks.
So this is my reward, and my penance. I make things up. I change them. I started on a small scale: seeing if I could put jokes into subtitles – song titles, catchphrases, that sort of thing. Not quite making them wrong, just making my day more interesting. Something that could easily be a mishear, a dropped sentence now and then – enough that if I got a complaint, if someone actually checked, I could put it down to carelessness or fatigue. But now I am more clever in the ways I tilt your world.
Have you never watched something where the words have suddenly jarred? Someone speaks out of character, a plot point vanishes, the conversation you are following doesn’t seem to match what is happening on screen? That is my small rebellion. I like to imagine you puzzled, disconcerted; perhaps even mirroring my own day – rewind, check, rewind again. Did he really say that? Is that really what is happening? What the hell is going on here? Because this is how I feel in real life most of the time.
It is a subtle undermining, I know. You may never have read a subtitle in your life; you may not even know of my existence, or the existence of my kind – my subversion may never touch upon you. My work may only be seen by a fraction of people, and noticed by even fewer, but when you are losing a war – the war against our skills, our livelihood – then every tiny battle must be made a triumph. I like to think it’s something: a sole fist raised against a world that wants everything cost price. And it’s been seen, I know that, by others in my line. We are a small community, after all, and getting smaller all the time – we know each other, we know the work. Someone at my office saw what I had done, when roped into checking it – our full-time quality control role having long since been ‘streamlined’ away – and instead of reporting me, joined in with my campaign. And perhaps, after a few drinks too many at a consolatory drinks session in the pub (someone else leaving, their job disappeared) we told some others, who went on to tell yet more. Yes, we are a small community, us wordsmiths, but we are connected, even spread out as we are, even those stenos stationed in remote cottages and the speakers stuck in basements. We talk, we have always talked, and even more so now that we know we are under siege. Slowly our message has spread. The clients, who never read anything but the bottom line, have never noticed, but others have. Perhaps you have. Perhaps you haven’t realised. Perhaps you shouldn’t believe everything you read.