Real-time subtitling in Spain

An overview

By Pilar Orero (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain)



In Spagna finora solo due televisioni trasmettono sia sottotitoli tradizionali, sia sottotitoli in tempo reale: la radiotelevisione pubblica RTVE e la catalana TVC, Il presente articolo fornisce informazioni dettagliate sullo stato dell’arte della sottotitolazione in diretta per non udenti e audiolesi in Spagna (ore di trasmissione, programmi, sistemi usati, ricerca e formazione). Menziona inoltre la norma spagnola UNE 153010 e la recente istitutzione di un Centro nazionale per la sottotitolazione e la videodescrizione (CESyA).


For the present only two TV broadcasters in Spain use both pre-recorded and real-time subtitling: the state-owned RTVE and the National Catalan TVC. This article offers detailed information on the state of the art in Spain in the field of real-time subtitling for the deaf and the hard of hearing (SDH), such as number of hours, programs, tools for subtitling, research and training initiatives. It also discusses the Spanish standard for subtitling and the recent creation of a National Centre for Subtitling and Audio-description.

Keywords: sottotitoli televisivi per i sordi, sottotitolazione in diretta, live subtitling, spanish television, pre-recorded subtitling, subtitling for deaf and hard-of-hearing, media accessibility, accessibilità, cesya

©inTRAlinea & Pilar Orero (2006).
"Real-time subtitling in Spain An overview"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Respeaking
Edited by: Carlo Eugeni & Gabriele Mack
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

1. Introduction

As Eugeni (2006) points out

While some progress has been made by a few researchers in the field of pre-recorded subtitling for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing, nothing consistent has yet been explored in the field of real-time subtitling, and particularly respeaking.

Looking up some online bibliographies within Translation Studies[1] on the subject, indeed no article seems to have been written till now containing the keywords real-time or live subtitling. This lack of academic interest for real-time subtitling clashes with the growing interest shown e.g. by the last International Conference Language and the Media (Berlin, October 2006)[2] where two out of five workshops were specifically on real-time subtitling - one held by Carlo Eugeni (University of Naples Federico II, Italy), and one by Sabine Wahrmann, Head of ARD Text and President of the EBU Teletext Group. In addition, one out of two Panel Discussions was dedicated to live-subtitling as a means for increasing access of the deaf and hearing-impaired to news, sports, information and entertainment. The four panelists - Beatrice Caruso (Swiss Text, Switzerland), Thijs de Korte (NOB Hilversum, The Netherlands), David Padmore (Red Bee Media, UK) and again Sabine Wahrmann - presented various methods in use and discussed the challenges and problems they have to face in their daily work. In addition to this, of two plenary sessions, one was dedicated to tools and technology, where live-subtitling again was one of the major topics, and finally there were two parallel sessions out of four dedicated to real-time subtitling. It thus can be safely said that half of the Media and Languages conference was dedicated to the specific issue of real-time subtitling and to its technology. It is interesting, nevertheless, that in Berlin people dealing with the matter were mainly from the world of industry. This just confirms a common pattern where advance and development takes place in industry and then academia catches up studying the phenomenon.

Users - mainly represented by national and international associations for the deaf and hard of hearing - have been traditionally those responsible for raising awareness, asking for an increase in participation, and stimulating further improvement in the living conditions of their members. While associations have been, and still are, a powerful driving force in the research and development of subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), universities are now slowly getting interested. This was confirmed also by the First International Seminar on Real-Time Subtitling for the Deaf held in November 2006 at the University of Bologna in Forlì. Though in that occasion the number of people from industry was again superior to those from university, it can be said that a shift from associations to industry and to academia is taking place.

Josélia Neves’ 2005 PhD on SDH was the first of many quality projects now underway in many academic institutions. Training subtitlers is another area growing across Europe, and the world. Postgraduate courses (Pereira & Lorenzo 2006) Badia & Matamala forthcoming) such as those held, or to be held, at the Universities of Roehampton (UK), Antwerp (Belgium), Bologna (Italy), and Barcelona (Spain), are some of the many training enterprises taking place at academic level aiming at excellence and quality, since they are associated to research and latest technologies.

2. Real-time subtitling

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) Report on Access Services differentiates three methods of creating subtitles: prepared subtitling, semi-live subtitling (also known as as-live subtitling), and live subtitling. It is crucial here to make clear especially the differences between the last two methods. According to the report, semi-live subtitling, the usual way to subtitle live opera, theatre, TV news, etc., is

used for live programmes which are heavily scripted and have pre-recorded inserts. The subtitler creates a list of subtitles, without time-codes, and during transmission cues these manually in sync with the programme. [...] There are three kinds of live subtitler: a stenographer who writes phonetic shorthand at a special keyboard, a velotypist who types words at a special keyboard, and a respeaker who uses speech recognition to generate subtitles (EBU 2004: 10).

EBU also makes a comparison between the simultaneous interpreter and the live subtitler:

The live subtitler seeks to understand the context of the programme in advance. Then on transmission he creates the subtitles in real-time (2004: 10).

This of course means that there is some manipulation with the text. The subtitler does not transcribe the text verbatim, but modifies it taking away all conversational markers and giving it a syntactic order and correct grammar. EBU also proposes two distinctions within the process of subtitle editing:

Consideration should be given as to whether to edit the subtitle before transmitting it. Some broadcasters opt for full real-time subtitling, where any editing takes place as the subtitles are created, others introduce an editing process between capturing the text and transmission (2004: 10).

This process of subtitle editing gives rise to a short delay in the production and broadcasting of subtitles, and for this reason EBU points out that it should be limited to occasions when there is insufficient time to prepare subtitles using other methods, and be displayed either word-by-word or as block text[3].

3. Real-time subtitling in Spain

Of the many Spanish TV stations both in the public and in the private sector, only two offer real-time subtitles: the state owned Televisión Española (RTVE), and the Catalan government owned Televisió de Catalunya (TVC), which is part of the CCRTV (Corporació Catalana de Radio Televisió).

3.1 RTVE

The Report on media accessibility issued by the Consell de l’Audiovisual de Catalunya (González 2004) states that subtitling on RTVE grew from 50 hours in 1997 to more than 1.000 hours in 2000. Before 2004, real-time subtitling was used only for the weekend news bulletin Telediario Primera Edición (González 2004: 114). In 2004, the teletext department in RTVE designed a software programme which allowed subtitling in real-time through teletext. At the general election of 12th March 2004 polling data were broadcast with live subtitles at the same time as data were released from the Home Office (González 2004: 115). Servicios, a TV magazine, also offers real-time subtitles broadcast through teletext with information on traffic in the main Spanish roads gathered in different blocks: mountains, road-works, road blocks, traffic and weather.

The RTVE teletext department also designed an application to offer real-time subtitling for football pool signs. The results of basket and ski competitions, F1, etc.

Starting from 2004, RTVE has been offering subtitles in real-time with the following news programmes (by now on average 13 hours per week):

- Telediario Primera Edición (news from Monday to Friday, 15:00);
- Telediario Segunda Edición(evening news from Monday to Friday, 21:00);
- Telediario Fin de Semana (weekend news on Saturdays and Sundays, both at 15:00 and 21:00);
- La 2 Noticias (news from Monday to Friday, 21:50);
as well as for some special programmes such as the state of the nation debate, or recently, the Pope’s visit to Valencia (Spain).

Subtitling in real-time relies on a voice-recognition technology; the programme used is IBM’s Via Voice, yet only the news delivered by the national or foreign correspondents or other live speeches, such as a politician talking after an event or meeting, are actually subtitled in real-time. The rest of the news have semi-live subtitles prepared from the text read by the news presenter from the autocue.

3.2 TV3

The first specific subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing in Spain were broadcast in 1990 by the national Catalan television channel TV3, a few months before the state owned RTVE did the same. The programmes with subtitles were[4]:

- Telenotícies migdia (news, from Monday to Sunday);
- Telenotícies vespre (evening news, from Monday to Sunday);
- Info-k (news for children, from Monday to Friday);
- Trenta minuts (a current affairs programme);
- Entre línies (investigative journalism);
- Àgora (in depth thematic interviews, live subtitling only on Mondays);

as well as some football matches and some sessions of Parliament and interviews with politicians. Soon TV3 will start subtitling also La nit al dia (evening news, from Monday to Thursday).

Among these, two programmes (Trenta minuts and Entre línies) actually have semi-live subtitles. As the production of these programmes is finished just before they go on air, leaving no time for postproduction, subtitles are broadcast in real-time, even though they are prepared in advance. As with RTVE, the rest of news bulletins are semi-live subtitled with pre-recorded subtitles from the text read by the news presenter from the autocue.

The only two programmes which at present are 100% subtitled in real-time are football matches and Àgora (cf. Figure 1).

Figura 1: Architettura di Voice Subtitle

Figura 1: Architettura di Voice Subtitle
Figure 1: Two screens from the programme Ágora with three-line real-time subtitles[5]

The R&D department of TV3 developed their own technology to provide real-time subtitles (cf. Figure 2). The system allows multiplexing of five operators with QWERTY keyboards, and uses a sort of ‘traffic light’ to organize their workflow: when the screen shows the green light, the operator types what he hears through the headphones; when the red light appears, he stops writing.

Figura 1: Architettura di Voice Subtitle
Figure 2: Real-time subtitling multiplexing five operators with QWERTY. (©Rosa Vallverdú[6])

This system was developed for the following reasons:

- mistakes caused by stenotyping proved difficult to disambiguate for the viewer;
- training stenotype subtitlers is a long and complex process;
- not enough trained specialist were available in the market;
- there is no stenotype keyboard for Catalan language.

In 2005, TV3 broadcast all together 710 hours of semi-live subtitling (though some of these hours were actually produced in real-time), and 160 hours of genuine live subtitling (with no previous preparation). For the time being, and until the start of the new programme La nit al dia mentioned above, there are ninety minutes in real-time (Àgora) and some 17 hours semi-live subtitling per week.

4. Research

Recently the private channel Antena 3 Televisión has started a joint research project aiming at the development of a software programme for real-time subtitling of newscasts through automatic speech recognition[7]. The project known as RVASD[8] (Reconocimiento de Voz Adaptado para Subtitulación en Directo) is carried out by a consortium of four partners: Vicomtech (a technology centre and coordinator of the project), Audiotext Media S.L. (a consultant specialized on subtitling), Asociación de Personas Sordas de Guipúzcoa (ASG; Deaf People’s Association of Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country) and Antena 3 Televisión S.A.

The project focuses on speaker-independent speech recognition, avoiding the need to (re)train the software for every single speaker, as it is the case with most existing commercial speech recognition software products. The prototype will be based on a comprehensive newscasts database with names of persons, cities, acronyms of political parties and other organizations, etc. Further challenges are auto-punctuation and synchrony of subtitles and speech.

5. Firms offering live subtitling in Spain

In Spain the only two firms to offer subtitling services for live events are MQD (using stenotype) and AICE (using QWERTY keyboard and LED display). During the Barcelona 2004 Forum of Cultures, some of the live events were made accessible to the hearing impaired by audio description, sign language and subtitling produced with the latter technique.

In Figure 3, two LED subtitle displays can be seen at the top right and left corners of the stage, while Figure 4 shows a subtitler in action.

Figura 1: Architettura di Voice Subtitle
Figure 3: The Barcelona Forum 2004 (©Josélia Neves[9])

Figura 1: Architettura di Voice Subtitle
Figure 4: Real-time subtitling at the Barcelona Forum 2004 (©Josélia Neves)

6. A National Standard for Subtitling

The Spanish National Standard UNE 153010 entitled “Subtitulado para personas sordas y personas con discapacidad auditiva. Subtitulado a través del teletexto” (Subtitling for deaf people and the hard of hearing. Subtitling through teletext) was published by the Spanish Association for Standardisation and Certification (AENOR) in September 2003. This standard, established as a professional code of best practices, is the result of the many requests by deaf people asking for unified criteria for SDH using teletext within the different TV channels. The working group entrusted with the drafting process was formed by the numerous Spanish associations for the deaf (FIAPAS, ONCE, CNSE, AICE) as well as representatives of TV channels, subtitling companies and subtitle professionals[10]. This standard does not mention subtitles for real-time subtitling.

7. Centro Español de Subtitulado y Audiodescripción (CESyA)

In November 2005, the Real Patronato sobre la Discapacidad[11], CERMI[12] and the University Carlos III de Madrid signed a joint agreement for the creation of the Spanish Centre for Subtitling and Audio description (CESyA). This public institution is dedicated, among other things, to promoting SDH and audio description for disabled people and, in general, to encouraging all mechanisms that favour accessibility in the Spanish audiovisual arena. It helps all audiovisual accessibility stakeholders converge and serves as a link for dialogue. The associations representing people with disabilities, the content production/distribution industry, the exhibitors/broadcasters, the consumer electronic industry and the regulator of the audiovisual and accessibility sectors will find in CESyA a reference for the effective implementation of accessibility in audiovisual media (Ruiz 2006).

One of the main objectives of CESyA is the creation and management of a database service which will be permanently updated and available to people involved in the audiovisual and accessibility arena. Its digitalized documents, mainly reviews of subtitled and audio-described audiovisual works, will be accessible on the Internet. The aim of this activity is to gather and reference all subtitled and audio described productions in order to encourage the exchange of materials and to boost the market for subtitling, audio description and other assistive services (Ruiz et al. 2006).

The centre will also promote the concept of universal accessibility in the audiovisual industry, and hopefully the latter will raise awareness in the population as a whole. Caring for quality is an essential principle, and public acknowledgment of a work well done can both encourage industry and boost investment in corporate social responsibility. Besides identifying the best quality products, publicity is needed to ensure a wide dissemination of the concept to generate an accessibility culture among stakeholders and public opinion. CESyA will also be a pioneer observatory of international research and standardisation in subtitling and audio description.

8. Conclusions

Real-time subtitling is already an answer to the growing needs for media accessibility. Though some research in this field has already led to important technical solutions, much further research is needed in order to improve quality and results, which are already impressive. Real-time subtitling is an affordable solution both in terms of time and of money, and it is a necessary step towards accessible audiovisual media which will give equal opportunities and rights to people with hearing disabilities. Even though real-time subtitling does not – apart from a few exceptions - follow the features of SDH regarding colours, context information, and speaker identification, it does offer at last some written information to those who cannot follow the soundtrack of a TV broadcasting. The momentum which seems to have at present real-time subtitling both in industry and in academia should yield interesting results and offer new solutions much needed for improving media accessibility.


Asociación Española de Estandarización y Certificación (AENOR). (2003). Subtitulado para personas sordas y personas con discapacidad auditiva. Subtitulado a través del teletexto. UNE 153010.

Badia, T. Matamala, A. (forthcoming). “La docencia en accesibilidad en los medios”. Trans, Special Issue on Media Accessibility.

Eugeni, C. (2006). “Live Subtitling. How to respeak and for which audience? Theory and practice”. Workshop delivered at the International Conference Language and the Media. Berlin, 25th October 2006. [url=][/url] Retrieved on 29th december 2006.

European Broadcasting Union (EBU). (2004). EBU Report on Access Services. EBU Technical-Information 144-2004.

González Somovilla, M. ed. (2004). RTVE. Informe 2004 sobre el cumplimiento de la función de servicio público. RTVE: Madrid.

Neves, J. (2005). Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling for the Deaf and the Hard-of-Hearing, PhD thesis. School of Arts, Roehampton University, University of Surrey.

Pereira, A. M. Lorenzo, L. (2006). “La investigación y formación en accesibilidad dentro del ámbito de la traducción audiovisual”. Gonzalo García, C. Hernúñez, P. Libro homenaje a Valentín García Yebra. Madrid: Arco Libros. 649-658.

Ruiz, B. et al. (2006). “El centro Español de Subtitulado y Audiodescripción: estrategias para fomentar la accesibilidad a los medios audiovisuales en España”. Ferreira, A. et al. (eds.) IV Congreso Iberoamericano Sobre Tecnologías de Apoyo para la Discapacidad. Vol. 2, Vitoria (Brasil): Iberdiscap. 161-165.


[1] BITRA (Bibliografía de Interpretación y Traducción) from Alicante University (Spain) [url=][/url]
St Jerome’s Translation Studies Abstracts online [url=][/url]
Benjamins’ Translation Studies Bibliography [url=][/url]

[2] [url=][/url]

[3]  Even though EBU points out that research shows that both methods are “accepted by approximately equal proportions of viewers” (2004: 10).

[4]  For this information the author would like to express her gratitude to Rosa Vallverdú and the subtitling Department of TV3.

[5]  The author thanks Eduard Bartoll for these pictures.

[6]  The author thanks Rosa Vallverdú for the permission to use this picture.

[7]  The author thanks Patricia Ruíz Heredia from the subtitling department of Antena 3 and Michael Obach from Vicomtech for the information regarding this research project.

[8]  For further information,
cf. [url=][/url]

[9]  The author thanks Josélia Neves for the permission to use this and the following picture.

[10] A critical analysis of this standard is provided in Pereira and Lorenzo (2005 or 2006?).

[11] The Real Patronato sobre la Discapacidad is an autonomous organization of the General State Administration dependent on the Ministry for Work and Social Affairs and, among other things, it promotes the prevention of deficiencies, rehabilitation and social inclusion and equal opportunities.

[12] CERMI (Spanish Confederation of representatives of the disabled) is the representative organization that unites all Spanish Associations of People with disabilities.

About the author(s)

Pilar Orero holds an MA in Translation from the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (Spain) and a PhD from UMIST (UK). She is the coordinator of the post-graduate course on Audiovisual Translation On-line. She also works as a translator for voice-over for TV channels such as BBC North, Granada TV, and TV2 (Spain).

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

©inTRAlinea & Pilar Orero (2006).
"Real-time subtitling in Spain An overview"
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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