The hardest work at tonight’s presidential debate? Type subtitles for Biden and Trump


MarketWatch photo illustration / Getty Images / iStockphoto


No one is more thrilled with the addition of a mute button to tonight’s debate than closed captioners.

These fleet-fingered stenographers are unsung heroes of American politics, tasked with making sense of the candidates’ verbal jousting and volcanic interruptions in real time.

“And it’s not easy,” captioner Susan Hahaj, 58, told MarketWatch.

Although she can transcribe at speeds as fast as 300 words per minute, presidential debates can push the boundaries of comprehension, said Hahaj, who captioned one of the 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. .

“We can only type what we can understand,” she said. “If you can’t understand what they’re saying because they’re talking to each other, then neither can we.”

So what does a captioner do when what is supposed to be oratorical tennis looks more like a tinnitus attack?

Captioner Susan Hahaj at work.

Photo courtesy of Susan Hahaj

“Sometimes you end up going there with the loudest voice,” Hahaj said. “If a person is speaking and they are interrupted, you try to capture what they were saying while glancing at what the switch is focused on and capture that as well.”

“Other times,” she added, “you just type in ‘indistinguishable’. “

Trained as a court reporter, Hahaj has worked for the past 18 years as an independent contractor for closed captioning. The company manages subtitles for everything from nightly national news broadcasts to sporting events.

Hahaj said she feels a great responsibility to the millions of viewers who trust the captions. As speakers go on, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are much easier to transcribe than experts who use esoteric language, or sports commentators who turn shorthand into an Olympic sprint.

“They’re both easy,” she says of the candidates. “Trump doesn’t use an extended vocabulary and repeats himself.” What about Biden, who struggled with a stutter for much of his life? “Sometimes you use hyphens or write the ‘uh’ other times – it’s kind of a personal preference, how much of that is needed to get what they’re saying.”

A mute button probably can’t fix U.S. politics, but it will make captioning easier, Hahaj said.

“Much easier, really, but they’ll only be able to use it for certain periods of time – so it’ll probably end up being a nightmare anyway.”

Hahaj will not caption tonight’s debate. In fact, she won’t even look at him.

“No, I’m going to do a San Francisco city council meeting,” she said. “They are just as heated.”

Read on: Tonight’s presidential debate looks like Trump’s faint hope lounge, analysts say


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