When Switzerland joined the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in 2014, the country took on the obligation of offering services to allow people with disabilities to interact with society at large.
Among those services are some of the mainstays of the localization industry, including subtitles and captions (also known as “intralingual subtitles”).
For a sense of scale, SWISS TXT has a staff of nearly 300, with about 120 employees working specifically on accessibility; of the company’s approximate annual turnover of CHF 64m (USD 70m), about 20% is dedicated to accessibility.
The target groups for accessibility services include the visually impaired, who benefit from audio descriptions of what is happening on-screen, and those with mental disabilities, who are offered content in simplified language.
Those who are deaf and hard of hearing may use subtitles and/or captions, but may prefer sign language interpretation; others, such as those who were deafened later in life, read well and do use subtitles and captions, in addition to trying to read lips.
SWISS TXT is unique, Linder explained, in that it both supplies and buys subtitles and captions.
Linder explained that when it comes to sign language interpreting, SWISS TXT mainly works with deaf people who sign and read, rather than with interpreters for whom sign language is not their first language.
“They are creating glosses from subtitles to create sign language.” Linder said. “Glosses are the written form of sign language. Sign language is a full-fledged language in which even complex content can be conveyed.”
The (Possible) AI Advantage
Linder described SWISS TXT as a historically more traditional company now exploring AI and other technology.
“All television programs, especially public media services, are under financial pressure,” Linder explained. “And this means that the use of AI for us is absolutely crucial in the future.”
But it will be up to humans to decide how and when to use AI. In 2022, the station produced 16,500 hours of content in three languages on seven channels. About 37% of this programming was fictional content, such as films and series. In Linder’s experience, it is still “very difficult to offer them with the use of AI.”
Live programs and news or current events are also difficult, he added, “because mistakes can have severe consequences.” Still, SWISS TXT is already experimenting with automatic speech recognition (ASR) for some late-night programming.
“SWISS TXT has implemented a fully automated subtitling solution in Italian for late night programs two years ago. That was too early – I hope not too many people watched it!” Linder joked. “We are working hard on a better AI-supported solution which will be available soon.”
SWISS TXT currently offers transcripts for certain events for companies that want them, including parliaments and corporate clients.
AI could be particularly helpful in creating subtitles, as well as simple language, “because AI really helps to make a text easier,” Linder said.
Adding onto subtitles with automatic speech synthesis could also be useful for audio description. Sign language, on the other hand, still requires a lot of effort; the goal would be automatic glossing polished with post-editing.
From Research to ‘Regularly Scheduled Programming’
SWISS TXT is also involved in two projects to continue developing AI for broadcasting. The first, the EU-funded EASIER Project, is also called Intelligent Sign Language Translation. In partnership with the University of Surrey, the project aims to create a sign language interpreter from text.
The second, the IICT Project, is a collaboration with three Swiss universities, including the University of Zurich. The scope of this project is greater and addresses different problems such as the use of simplified language.
Speaking to the importance of accessibility for public broadcasters, Linder took stock of how far the field has come so far.
“When I started 16 years ago, I immediately understood that for the people in charge […] the expenses for subtitling were a nuisance,” he said. “But this has really changed because the people in charge have understood that there is a public value.”
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