One day in 2000 I was offered a very cool job recommended for people who had a knowledge of linguistics and experience playing the piano. It involved using machine shorthand to create closed captioning transcripts for television programs. Since I love TV and anything involving language, I was immediately intrigued and didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.
Piano playing experience was considered an asset because machine shorthand involves typing syllables instead of single letters, so you end up pressing multiple keys at a time, kind of like piano chords. All this was done on the type of steno machine that court reporters use.
I worked as a closed captionist for eight years, and it was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. One of my favourite memories was the time I got to caption nearly every episode of Magnum, P.I. I became so hooked on that show, I started to beg the scheduler to continue sending me episodes as long as she could. Amused at my enthusiasm, the staff sent me a special Magnum, P.I. t-shirt to commemorate my fandom.
As a captionist, I was required to transcribe all the dialogue and sound effects in a program. Since I wanted people to have a great television viewing experience whether they could hear or not, I was very careful to transcribe the dialogue accurately, and I strove to put as much detail into the sound effect descriptions as possible. In essence, my mission was to paint sound with words.
Describing sound effects was very challenging sometimes, especially when I had never thought about a particular sound before. Once when I was captioning Lawrence of Arabia, I frantically searched for information that could tell me what sound a camel makes. I think I settled on the word “groan,” but it was such an unusual noise, it probably needed a whole new term of its own.
Laughter was also fun to caption because people don’t just laugh – they chuckle, giggle, snicker, guffaw… and the list goes on and on. There were many different ways I could use words to paint human voices and ambient noise.
As I reminisce about my career, I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to work as a closed captionist. During those years I learned how to listen better, to notice details in speech and sound, and to appreciate the importance of communicating dialogue and sound effects to those who can’t hear them. I hope I did a good job so that they were able to enjoy Magnum, P.I. as much as I did.