Addressing the challenges of live subtitles for all

This article is part of a Special Issue on The Social Value of European Research on Media Accessibility.

Internet, audiovisual media and digital technology are transforming our world. Their potential, however, will not be fully realised until they become fully accessible, enabling all citizens to participate in everyday life. Audiovisual translation and media accessibility have become drivers of social inclusion and integration. In the area of subtitling for viewers with hearing loss in particular, a key priority for them is to have access to live content such as news and public events. In this context, a new innovative technique called ‘respeaking’ has consolidated as the preferred method to provide live subtitles around the world. Respeakers listen to the soundtrack of a programme and simultaneously repeat or rephrase what they hear to a speech recognition software that turns these utterances into subtitles. Until now, respeaking has been implemented mostly intralingually, that is, with subtitles in the same language as the event or programme that is being made accessible.

A new challenge has now emerged, as migration streams and the increased multilingual and multicultural composition of societies worldwide have led to a growing demand for accessibility to live audiovisual content and events conducted in a foreign language. It is thus crucial, as has already been highlighted by broadcasters such as the BBC and VRT, as well as political institutions such as the British and Spanish Parliaments, to find professionals who can produce interlingual live subtitles through respeaking, a new discipline that will require translating, subtitling and simultaneous interpreting skills.

ILSA (Interlingual Live Subtitling for Access) is a 3-year project aiming to develop, test and recognise the first training course for interlingual live subtitlers and to create a protocol for the implementation of this new service in three real-life scenarios: television, the classroom and the Parliament. Funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme (2017-1-ES01-KA203-037948), the project started in September 2017 and will last until August 2020. ILSA is led by the GALMA research group of the University of Vigo (Spain) and brings together a consortium made up not only of higher education institutions based in Belgium (University of Antwerp), Poland (University of Warsaw) and Austria (University of Vienna), but also broadcasters (VRT, Belgium) and access service providers (Intro Pr, Poland). This balanced mix of academic and non-academic partners will assure bottom-up trans-sectorial collaboration for the creation of the new professional profile, the training course and the implementation of interlingual live subtitling on television as well as in social and political settings. The curriculum and training materials will be flexible, so that they can be integrated in different learning environments.

ILSA has already produced significant results, including the analysis of the largest survey conducted so far about the training and practice of (intra and interlingual) live subtitling around the world and data from the first experiments assessing the performance of subtitlers and interpreters in interlingual live subtitling. These results are now being used to inform the design and development of the first course on interlingual live subtitling. ILSA has already had a great deal of impact on the universities involved in the project, which are now developing the first courses on intra and/or interlingual live subtitling in their respective countries, and in their countries as a whole, as shown by the collaboration between the University of Warsaw and the Polish Parliament or between the University of Antwerp and the national Belgian broadcaster VRT to train the first cohort of professional interlingual live subtitlers in the country.

At a transcontinental level, the impact is reflected in the development by the ILSA team of the first respeaking course in higher education in Sydney, which has enabled Macquarie University to provide access to university lectures for second language speakers in the country. In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has set up new official live subtitling quality standards whereby all TV programmes in the country must be evaluated with the assessment model devised by the ILSA partners.

We are at a critical juncture on media accessibility: given the growing demand for access to live content in a foreign language, interlingual live subtitling will eventually be produced. What is at stake here is the quality of the product. Only through a research-informed comprehensive training programme such as the one we are proposing will it be possible to ensure that this new service meets the required standards regarding the product and the working conditions of the professionals involved. This is an essential step to guarantee a truly wider access that can include and integrate both deaf and foreign audiences in the audiovisual, educational, political and social life of the countries in which they are living. In this sense, ILSA adopts a broader view to accessibility. The new ILSA provision will benefit not only vulnerable audiences (deaf and hard of hearing viewers, physically/mentally challenged groups, people with special needs and learning disabilities), but also foreign audience migrants, refugees and marginalised groups at risk of exclusion will particularly benefit from the potential offered by interlingual subtitles to facilitate their integration in the cultural environment of their new homeland.

By Pablo Romero-Fresco and Jesús Meiriño
University of Vigo, Spain
Corresponding author: promero(at)

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