Live inter-lingual subtitling in the Netherlands

Historical background and current practice

By Thijs de Korte (NOB Cross Media Facilities (NL))



Dopo un breve cenno sulla storia della sottotitolazione inter-linguistica in tempo reale nei Paesi Bassi, l’autore descrive il metodo utilizzato dalla NOB Cross Media Facilities di Hilversum per garantire l’accesso a un maggior numero di telespettatori alle trasmissioni in diretta in lingua straniera. Dopo qualche difficoltà iniziale, NOB ha messo a punto una tecnologia affidabile basata su una breve differita del segnale. Un’équipe composta da un traduttore e un dattilografo produce i sottotitoli che vengono poi inviati manualmente al segnale televisivo. Con questo metodo sono state sottotitolate le dirette di grandi eventi internazionali quali la commemorazione della liberazione di Auschwitz, il discorso di insediamento del presidente americano Bush, conferenze stampa e discorsi relativi alla guerra in Irak, ma anche il sorteggio per la Coppa dei Campioni del 2006.


In this article, the author provides a historical outline of live inter-lingual subtitling in the Netherlands and explains the method used by NOB Cross Media Facilities, Hilversum (the Netherlands) to subtitle live foreign-language broadcasts for greater viewer accessibility. After failing initially, NOB has now developed a technically-reliable working method, based on a slight time delay of the live television signal. This delay allows a team, consisting of a translator and a typist, to make subtitles that are manually added to the signal as it is broadcast. The method has been used successfully for subtitling major international events, such as the commemoration of the Auschwitz liberation, President Bush’s inaugural speech, press conferences and speeches during the Iraqi war, but also the 2006 Champions League draw.

Keywords: dutch tv, live subtitling, media accessibility, simultaneous interpreting, delayed signal, televisione olandese, sottotitolazione in diretta, accessibilità, interpretazione simultanea, differita, interpreting studies

©inTRAlinea & Thijs de Korte (2006).
"Live inter-lingual subtitling in the Netherlands Historical background and current practice"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Respeaking
Edited by: Carlo Eugeni & Gabriele Mack
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

1. Introduction[1]

Urged either by legislation and pressure from lobby groups or by the endeavour to attract as large an audience as possible, broadcasters all over the Western world strive to improve accessibility for their viewers. On an intra-lingual level, they provide subtitling for the deaf and hearing impaired and audio description for the blind and visually impaired. Inter-lingual subtitling and dubbing are used to make broadcasts in foreign languages accessible to the general public. Live programs, especially if in a foreign language, present broadcasters with specific problems that call for a specific approach. This article will explain the method NOB Cross Media Facilities has developed in order to overcome the difficulties of live inter-lingual subtitling.

2. Historical background

2.1 The company NOB Cross Media Facilities

Originally, NOB Cross Media Facilities was part of the Dutch Public Broadcasting System and as such it worked exclusively for Dutch public broadcasters. When it was privatized in the 1980s it was still the only subtitling company in the country, but with the arrival commercial TV stations in the 1990s, the amount of work increased, and so did competition. Other subtitling companies appeared, offering the same services much cheaper. Especially for long-term work such as the subtitling of TV series, movies, etc., the competition was fierce. As a result, NOB’s core activity focused more and more on so-called rushed jobs: current affairs, news programs, sports shows, anything that needed to be translated at the last moment, shortly before broadcast. The ultimate rushed job is, of course, live subtitling. The production of live, on-air translated subtitles (called also live inter-lingual subtitling) is a service NOB has been offering to its clients, both public and commercial broadcasters, since the late 1990s.

2.2 First experiments: The Clinton tapes

In 1999, when US President Clinton was forced to talk in public about his relations with ‘that woman’, as he put it, the Dutch commercial TV station SBS decided to broadcast this presidential testimony - or public penance - live. Live, in this case meaning at the same time it was broadcast in the United States, because in fact the whole testimony was on tape. Still, the broadcast itself was live, and SBS wanted Dutch subtitles. NOB was requested to provide inter-lingual live subtitling. Although NOB had been testing live translating since 1995, this was the first ever live subtitled broadcast. The results were disastrous. Subtitles remained on screen for more than 20 seconds or did not appear at all. Sometimes they would blink during five seconds, while at every blink a letter was added to the subtitle on screen. After this embarrassing moment, both for the President and for NOB, no one in NOB dared mention live subtitling for a long time.

2.3 Towards a new method

And then came 9/11. It would have been a perfect opportunity for live subtitling, but due to the earlier experience with the Clinton tapes, this possibility simply did not cross anybody’s mind. However, ten days later, the Tribute to Heroes memorial was held: a two-hour show with musical performances and spoken tributes to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. And once again, SBS asked NOB to provide live subtitles of the event. Apparently their earlier experience had not put them off completely.

This time, the results were far better than they were for the Clinton tapes. For example, a larger buffer was used, which solved the problem of the blinking subtitles. There were still some technical problems that had to be solved - for instance, only one subtitle could be prepared in advance - but the overall result was satisfactory, especially for SBS that had attracted a far larger audience than the public broadcasting organisation that had transmitted the same event without subtitles.

After this, the NOB management decided to seriously pursue the option of live inter-lingual subtitling. By the end of 2002, a system had been developed that made it possible to translate and subtitle any given TV program within a 30-second timeframe.

3. The method of live subtitling used at NBO[2]

When a Dutch broadcasting organisation now asks NOB’s translation and subtitling department to provide Dutch subtitles for a live foreign-language TV program - e.g. it is announced President Bush is due to give a speech on American TV at a certain time - technically, it takes about one hour to become fully operational. Here is a description of the procedure followed.

3.1 Delayed signal

American TV can be received in the Netherlands via one of the satellite receivers at Media Park, Hilversum. The signal is picked up at NOB’s Master Control Room (MCR). From there it is sent through one of the internal Media Park TV channels which can be viewed in the Translation and Subtitling Department. At the same time, the signal is fed into a special software system - basically, a device that can retain a TV signal and release it a number of seconds later. For live subtitling usually a delay of 20 seconds is used before retransmitting the signal via a TV channel. This delay is crucial to the whole process because in those 20 seconds, the words of the original broadcasting are translated into subtitles which are then added to the signal. The translators in other words work with the real-time signal on the internal channel, and throughout the whole broadcast, they remain 20 seconds ahead of TV viewers.

3.2 Translators, subtitlers, interpreters

For inter-lingual real-time subtitling, NBO uses teams of two professional translators-subtitlers, one acting as an interpreter and one as a typist. Professional translators-subtitlers are preferred to conference interpreters, because NOB does not want every single word of the source languages to be translated: the typist would not be able to keep up, and more importantly, neither would the viewers. By their nature, subtitles must be short, easy-to-read fragments of text - even more so, in live inter-lingual subtitling. A speech would thus be drastically shortened in the Dutch subtitles. Another advantage of using professional subtitlers instead of conference interpreters and professional typists is that they are nearly always in-house, which allows NOB to be on air within one hour, if necessary.

For events as the one described two teams work together, because after ten to fifteen minutes both the translator and the typist get exhausted and run the risk of blacking out. The translators-subtitlers work with a TV showing the live signal, head phones, a PC with subtitling software, two keyboards to switch between typists, and an intercom to confer with the program director in the studio and the subtitle keyer.

3.3 Keyer, play out

All subtitles produced by the translators-subtitlers appear as a list down the right-hand side of the screen. The same list is automatically saved on the server and can be seen and processed by the subtitle keyer, who is at a different location. The keyer adds the titles to the delayed signal just before it goes on air and needs to understand the source language, or team working with someone understanding it. He can see the new subtitles produced by the translators-subtitlers appear at the bottom of the list as he manually pushes the top titles out with the signal, as synchronised as possible, for the viewers at home. He sees both the live signal and the delayed signal and places the right subtitle under the right images with a click of the mouse. The signal is then transmitted to another internal channel, to enable the program director to see the finished product just before it goes on air.

Ultimately, it is the program director who decides which footage goes out live, with or without subtitles. In the studio, he can see both the incoming live signal and the delayed signal with subtitles just before broadcast. Finally, the signal goes through one of the four available play-outs and on to Dutch TV, where viewers can watch President Bush’s subtitled speech. All in all, around eight people at four different locations are involved in a live, subtitled broadcast.

4. Conclusions

Live inter-lingual subtitling has come a long way on Dutch TV since the first efforts with the Clinton tapes. Thanks to the method that was developed, it has definitely become a successful service, both technically and commercially. In the past four years, all kinds of events have been broadcast live, ranging from press conferences and speeches before and during the Iraq war, the American presidential election debates, the memorial service for the 2004 tsunami victims, the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz (quite a challenge, as the languages used were English, Polish, and Hebrew), several royal weddings, to the 2006 Champions’ League draw. There is a market for live subtitling, although it is not requested on a daily basis, but mainly for major international events, where people feel they want to be a witness to history. Subtitling adds to the appeal of live broadcasts, and live, subtitled broadcasts attract more viewers than programs without subtitles. Still, there is some criticism, mainly among translators themselves. Their main concern is that up to 50 percent of the content may get lost in translation. Being allowed only 30 minutes more, they could produce first-rate subtitles with a minimum loss of information.

But obviously, it is the broadcaster who decides, and it is hard to imagine them to go on air with breaking news half an hour later for the sake of having subtitles that are not just good, but perfect. On the other hand, as long as clients are willing to put up with the limitations of live subtitling performed as described above (some loss of content, a 20-second delay and not always perfect synchronisation) live subtitling is here to stay. In the future, there may be some technical changes in the method used, for instance, the options of speech recognition might be explored. But the present system works, and live, inter-lingual subtitling has already proved to be a suitable tool to make important international events accessible to a larger audience.


[1] The present article is an adaptation of the presentation held at the Language and the Media Conference in Berlin October 26, 2006, titled Live Inter-lingual Subtitling, from the Clinton Tapes to the Hungarian Revolution.

[2] The author wishes to acknowledge his sincere gratitude to Corien den Boer for her most valuable contribution to this section of the article.

About the author(s)

Thijs de Korte lavora come traduttore e sottotitolatore alla NOB Cross Media Facilities, Hilversum (Paesi Bassi).

Thijs de Korte is senior translator and subtitler at NOB Cross Media Facilities, Hilversum (The Netherlands).

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Thijs de Korte (2006).
"Live inter-lingual subtitling in the Netherlands Historical background and current practice"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Respeaking
Edited by: Carlo Eugeni & Gabriele Mack
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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