When Captions Have a Mind of Their Own….

Redmond J. Barnett, Secretary of WMA and Head of the Exhibits Dept., Washington State History Museum

By Redmond J. Barnett

Remember the old story about early machine language translation – where the English “out of sight, out of mind” became the Russian “invisible and insane”?

Something similar happened at the general session of the American Association of Museums annual meeting in Houston.  The speeches were captioned on a large screen, with the words appearing in capitals one to three seconds after they were spoken.  Almost every word came through correctly, and few errors changed the sense (although the keynoter might have been surprised to learn that he does not work at the Rose Center but at the “rows center”).  On balance, the captions worked superbly.

Click for more pix from AAM 2011

But not always.  A few changes suggested that the software had a rather devious mind of its own.  “Scientist” became “sign activity,” as if the software accepted a postmodern constructivist view that science does not find truth in the world but constructs a culturally determined structure of words.  And the software evidently believes that museum directors manipulate their boards of trustees.  How else to account for these changes from word to caption in a museum director’s speech?:

“Leadership role” became “leadership control”

“The board of directors was mollified” became “the board of directors was modified.”

“My beloved trustees” became “my bluffed trustees”

No wonder at one point the human operator added the word “sorry” to one of the captions.  The audience applauded – perhaps to the speaker’s surprise.

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