More Than Transcription: Why the Smallest Details Matter

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short sketch “The Replacement,” from his 1962 collection Snapshots, a teacher repeatedly commands his young students to be mindful of the punctuation in their reading passage, interrupting them to point out the presence of a comma, the absence of a period. The goal is to get the students (and, by extension, you the reader) to “pay attention to what you are reading,” “to understand what you are reading.” Whether the teacher is successful is debatable: near the end of the piece, a student reads with exaggerated emphasis on the punctuation but “in a voice as devoid of expression as his classmate’s.”

A recent essay by Benjamin Obler over at Electric Literature got me thinking about that Robbe-Grillet sketch. Descriptively titled “How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV for Good,” the essay details Obler’s experience in the world of caption writing, and how it affected his perceptions of the craft of writing and of television.

I’m not so much interested in Obler’s observations regarding the formulaic nature of television writing—I don’t watch enough scripted programming to have an opinion on it—as I am in his account of the caption writer’s values:

The Caption Writer is some kind type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their—

Writers will be familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s concept of le mot juste: the exact right word for a given situation. The caption writer, in Obler’s account, must strive for what we might call le caractère juste. To convey the audio track of a show through written text, one must fine-tune every aspect of the transcript: where to place a comma, when to use all-caps, how to describe a grunt.

These are not skills that necessarily come easily to a narrative prose writer. Even when a character in a short story or novel is based on a real person, all their qualities are ultimately creations of the author. There is no preexisting character to describe inaccurately. Not so with captioning, which requires an almost intuitive understanding of what the writer is hearing. As Obler puts it:

…all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Obler finds writing to this level of accuracy and precision to be quite a slog, and for good reason: it’s being applied to work that is not his own. Caption writing is socially necessary work, but it’s exhausting and it comes with no recognition (stations often cut away to commercials, Obler notes, before the captioner’s credit has time to load.) Why should he care if Sitcom Dad’s exasperation merits an “ugh” or an “ughhh”? What is Sitcom Dad to him?

But what if Sitcom Dad were his creation? In that case, I feel that the captioner’s commitment to accuracy, while being no less exhausting, would be far more rewarding. There’s a certain joy in rendering on the page what was so clearly heard in the head, in seeing one’s own idea so perfectly realized.

Or, if one prefers to write without a plan, such fine-tuning is a way to discover a voice, landscape, or gesture—or should it be a lilting “a voice, or a landscape, or a gesture,” or a curt “a voice, landscape, gesture”? Play around with it for a bit and you’ll find the answer.

Perhaps that why the teacher’s lesson in “The Replacement” reads like pointless drudgery: the only prize from the precision he demands is fidelity to the text. There’s no discovery in the reading process. There’s no understanding of how history would be different with a comma instead of a period.

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