VITAC’s Amy Bowlen on WNYC’s The Takeaway


It’s a Presidential election year, and that means a lot of things here at VITAC. Scheduling captioning coverage for breaking Primary election results, countless hours spent preparing caption dictionaries and spelling confirmation lists, and captioning the long debates on several different networks.

How in the world does anyone decipher and comprehend dialogue when the speakers are shouting over each other in a debate? It’s a difficult task for anyone, but what about when it’s your job to do so?

Our Manager of Realtime Captioner Training, Amy Bowlen, was asked about her experiences with debate captioning on WNYC’s NPR show, The Takeaway with John Hockenberry last Thursday, ahead of the Republican Primary debates on FOX News that evening.

Our captioners certainly have to be on their toes at all times! You can listen to Amy’s entire interview here, or read the transcript below.

You can also catch Amy on Twitter on Thursday, March 10th at 12:00 PM EST for a live Q&A session. She’ll answer anything about captioning, and beginning a captioning career, as VITAC is currently hiring realtime captioners. Participants can use the hashtag #AskAmy.

Transcript from “Say What? Meet the Person Who Puts Captions to the Presidential Debate” – The Takeaway with John Hockenberry: 

>> JOHN: Pity the American people trying to make any sense of this…

>> Excuse me.  He called me a liar and interrupted the whole time.

>> You’ll have a chance.  Gentlemen.

>> JOHN: But, hey, any American can just turn down the sound or change the channel.  What if you had to sit there?  What if it was your job to get every word down exactly as spoken?  Oh, and one more thing — You have to do it in real time.  Amy Bowlen is a veteran in the captions business, and she knows rudeness — like this 1992 Democratic debate between Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton.

>> I was shocked by it because I don’t think someone in government should be funding —

>> Governor Brown — Governor Clinton, you were poking your finger at him.

>> Well —

>> It’s your turn, Governor Clinton.  Go ahead.

>> Jerry comes here with his family wealth and his $1,500…

>> JOHN: Amy Bowlen is a manager of captioner training and is a captioner herself at VITAC, the country’s biggest captioning firm, that has captioned many debates this cycle, including the last G.O.P.  debate in Houston and tonight’s Republican debate in Detroit.  She joins me now.  Welcome, Amy.

>> AMY: Thank you, John.

>> JOHN: You know, there’s a lot of talk in America about the decline of civil discourse.  It occurs to me that the decline of civil discourse has had a very direct impact on your life.

>> AMY: I would agree.  [ Chuckles ]

>> JOHN: When did you begin to notice that your job was getting harder?

>> AMY: You know, that really has changed over the years.  I’ve been captioning for 26 years, and the decorum, there was more a typical format where people listened to somebody, let them finish the end of their sentence and, you know, the normal discussion, but over the years, it’s changed.  People talk faster, they’re more eager to get their thoughts out before somebody else finishes, and with the debates, you add the factor that it’s timed, so there’s only so many minutes or so much time for each person to respond, so they’re talking quicker, but what’s surprising is that other people are interjecting while they’re talking.

>> JOHN: The cable shows, I imagine, were the first indicator that this was going to get harder and harder as time went on.

>> AMY: In my experience, that’s what I noticed, because there’s more competition.  If you’ve got three or four cable stations with 24-hour news and they’re trying to keep your attention, they’re moving quickly, there’s always live breaking news.  There may be an interview on one topic and then they quickly jump to the other topic, so there’s not an hour dedicated to one topic.  It might be three minutes with a guest, and then completely different topic, and then they’re breaking in with more live breaking news.  So I feel like, definitely, as the cable channels expanded and there were more and more of those and more competition, it did change the nature of what we’re writing.

>> JOHN: Well, let’s remind you and take you back — and maybe this wasn’t one that you captioned personally, but I know you remember moments like this.  This was the Houston debate on February 25th.

>> Go ahead.  [ Laughter ]

>> My name is — my name is —

>> I promise you, Donald, there’s nothing about you that makes anyone nervous.

>> You’re losing so badly —

>> People are actually watching this at home.

>> You don’t know what’s happening.

>> Gentlemen, gentlemen.

>> Wolf, I’m going to ask that my time not be deducted when he’s yelling at me.

>> You got to stop this.

>> Time is up.  Gentlemen.

>> Come on, Wolf, take control.

>> Okay, now —

>> The latest debate —

>> Hold on.  I get my answer.  He doesn’t get to yell at me the whole time.

>> I want to move on.  These are the rules.

>> Excuse me! He called — He called me a liar and interrupted the whole time.  Am I allowed to talk?  Do I not get a response?  Do I not get a response?

>> You should move on.

>> You’ll get plenty of response, so stand by.

>> My name was mentioned.

>> I want to talk — I want to talk about ISIS right now.

>> JOHN: 33 seconds, Amy.

>> AMY: John, you’re making me sweat here.  My palms are getting sweaty all over again.

>> JOHN: I’m weeping for you.

>> AMY: [ Laughs ] That’s — That’s a really challenging situation.  The truth of the matter is, we really can only write one speaker at a time, so, honestly, there’s not a captioner out there that could have written every single one of those words from every single different speaker.  There are some times when if you really just cannot even discern one individual person speaking, you would have to put up maybe a parenthetical that said “overlapping speakers,” but we try as hard as we can to be as near verbatim as possible.  That is a really challenging situation right there.  [ Chuckles ]

>> JOHN: I mean, do you ever have the temptation to just write “unintelligible”?  I’m sure you have a key that says “unintelligible,” right?

>> AMY: Actually, we’re very careful not to ever kind of insert our judgment or any of our opinion, so if we have to put up a parenthetical, it would be something like “overlapping speakers” or maybe “inaudible.”  We’d never write “unintelligible.”  We just wouldn’t do that.

>> JOHN: So, when you listen to that bickering between Trump and Rubio and Carson and Cruz and Kasich and Wolf Blitzer of CNN, there’s someone somewhere in a living room in front of a captioner machine who is not only sweating, but possibly just coming apart at the seams?

>> AMY: Possibly crying, right?

>> JOHN: Yeah.

>> AMY: Yes, they’re in their home office, and they’re very intent.  Sometimes you don’t even realize it when it’s happening.  When it’s over, it’s kind of a big sigh of relief, but you’re so intent on listening and writing that you don’t really let it affect you.

>> JOHN: Are your hands sore?

>> AMY: You know what?  Your hands can get tired.  It’s very fast.  Sometimes we’re writing up to maybe 300 words a minute, so to do that for a sustained period of time is exhausting — not just your hands, your shoulders, your body gets tense because you’re nervous, and the faster it gets, the more you tense up.

>> JOHN: And after that February 25th debate, I mean, you needed a shower.

>> AMY: [ Laughs ]

>> JOHN: My goodness.  I mean, this isn’t just for hearing-impaired.  Closed captioning is an important communication tool for people who are watching in all kinds of environments.  They should speak better so that your job is easier so that more people can hear what’s going on, right?

>> AMY: True.  In reality, even people who aren’t looking at the captions, who are just listening, can’t probably make a lot out of what’s being said with everybody talking over top of one another, but it would be nice if there was some decorum in a setting like that so that we could have our captions be perfect and have them be absolutely verbatim, but there’s no way for us to control that.

>> JOHN: What are the rules, finally, before we go?  You have a certain amount of time to get it right and a certain ability to correct if you make an error before it actually goes on the screen?  Explain.

>> AMY: We are writing on our steno machine, and it’s translating immediately — what we call real time — and then data that is being transmitted either through a phone line or an I.P.  connection to an encoding device in that network control room.  So our translation happens, and we have about a second to fix a stroke before it would go out.  There’s no one editing behind us.  It’s all live, it’s all real time.  So if we make a mistake, the audience gets to see that mistake.  We never think they’re funny, but sometimes our audience thinks the mistakes are funny.

>> JOHN: But that’s a pretty high-pressure environment even when people are speaking politely.

>> AMY: It’s a very high-pressure environment.  We want to get it right every time.

>> JOHN: Well, I have to say, Trump, Rubio, Carson, Cruz, Kasich, and Wolf Blitzer all owe you folks a lunch or — I don’t know — a bottle of Ambien.  You know, something — tea at a nice restaurant or something.

>> AMY: Wouldn’t that be nice?  [ Chuckles ]

>> JOHN: Amy, thanks so much.

>> AMY: Thank you, John.

>> JOHN: Amy Bowlen is a manager of captioner training and a veteran captioner herself at VITAC.

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