BBC pioneers auto-translated TV reports

BBC virtual voiceover tool

The BBC is piloting a service that automatically translates short news packages to provide subtitles and computer-generated narration in different languages.

The “virtual voiceover” tool was developed in-house by the broadcaster’s News Labs division.

All content will still have to be checked and edited by bilingual journalists before transmission.

One expert suggested the move would benefit the public.

“We’re all used to online language services, but voiceover translation for video has been stuck in the past,” said Ian Maude, from the media consultancy Enders Analysis.

“This is one step closer to the Babel fish universal translator from [BBC comedy science-fiction series] the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Audiences already have several free-to-use tools to translate online news articles, including Google Translate and Bing Translator.

Skype is also testing a service that translates video chats between two speakers in near-real time.

But until now, there have been few options when it comes to TV reports that have not been converted from one language to another by a human.

Voice tool

Automated voices

The BBC’s Japanese-language news service is the first to adopt the new technology, and the plan is to roll it out to the Russian Service in January.

Other languages, including Spanish, are planned for later in 2016 – but this will depend on the unit involved securing enough funds when its budget is refreshed in April.

“Technology like this means we can bring more of our international journalism to more people,” said the BBC’s digital development director James Montgomery.

A demonstration of the tool in action has been posted to YouTube.

At present, the technology does not involve speech recognition, so a journalist still needs to provide a script before the process can start.

Russian Service

Once the computer has translated the text, the journalist makes the necessary tweaks and then chooses from a selection of synthetic voices.

The chosen one is then used to replace the original English voiceover.

The government recently announced extra funds to enhance the BBC’s international digital, TV and radio services.

However, as a whole the organisation is facing sizeable cuts.

The shift towards an automated process may therefore fuel concerns the tech could be used to help cut jobs.

But a source in the BBC suggested the intention was instead to free up reporters to do more journalism rather than administrative tasks.

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