Changing Text: Part II — Expletives

Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

 

Expletives may have different treatments based on house styles, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

Swear words in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style to represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice.

I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle and my opinion here), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

 

[Note that the incorrect caption in the image above should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative. Spelling and punctuation fails…]

If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at info@reelwords.ca. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.

 

 

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Changing Text: Part I — Opera Surtitles

Long shot colour photo of an opera production with a seafaring theme as a set and English surtitles projected above the stageImage not credited on original source: https://www.sdopera.org/experience/supertitles

I’ve commented elsewhere about the responsibilities of the captioner or subtitler, which include the best practice of not changing the film’s text.* Our personal feelings about content, as far as producing or editing the content is concerned, are irrelevant. (If something is truly offensive, you can turn down the project, just as we do in book editing.) I recently participated in a survey of subtitlers about emotional reactions to content we are working on; it is a legitimate consideration. However, assuming we are content to work on the file, the captioner or subtitler (or book editor) may not change the content. We are not the creators of the work.

I saw the HD Live Met presentation in the cinema of the fabulous opera Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès. Although it is in English, surtitles** are provided, which is common for most major opera companies. With the exception of one title which might have caused confusion with an appositive due to the accompanying live shot, they were excellent. Until the climax of this dystopian nightmare story. There, in terror, and also in the last lines of the opera, the characters are singing a prayer: Libera me de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat, which translates to “Deliver me from eternal death and let eternal light shine.” The use of the Latin is intentional and very moving because these words are excerpts from the Catholic Office of the Dead text. (If you know the movie or the opera, you’ll understand why these are used.) To my amazement, the Latin was not only not projected in the surtitles, it was replaced with the English as the Latin was being sung. This is unacceptable captioning (or surtitling).

While it is possible that the surtitle writer felt they were being “helpful” by providing the English, they shouldn’t have.

First, they changed Adès’s and librettist Tom Cairns’s work fundamentally. They did not write that part in English for a reason. So, right off the bat, they made an editorial decision about an artist’s work. (If Adès or Cairns directed them to do so, I would happily stand corrected, but I doubt this very much. If the Metropolitan Opera directed it, I would disagree with that decision.) Captioners do not have the right to change art text: their responsibility is to make the piece as it stands accessible. A caption editor would know to retain the original text.

Another reason this is not best practice is that it makes an editorial assumption about the audience: that they are not culturally savvy enough to know what these words mean, even if they aren’t Catholic. It would be deemed fairly common knowledge in the humanities audience to at least have a sense what that Latin excerpt was about, even if they couldn’t translate it word for word. So the surtitler decided who they were dealing with. (Again, if the Met directed them to do it—well, my words would then be directed at them.) The composer knows who he will reach with the Latin, and he knows how best to do it in that scene: with the atmospheric layer of using Latin. He does not dumb down his librettist’s text for the audience.

Opera is attracting more young people these days, so some might argue that Millennials just don’t have that common knowledge, but that too is insulting and presumptive. The surtitler may not assume: that’s not their job.

The other thing that is wrong about this involves the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing community. Did you know that some deaf people do go to and love the opera? My deafened friend loves opera: she said as long as the voices are big enough and surtitles are provided, she can attend and enjoy live opera and HD broadcasts. So the surtitler assumed it wouldn’t matter if the English were used (even if they did know deaf folks can go to the opera), and that is the type of trope the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing community too often faces: they don’t matter. This is akin to the attitude of Ill tell you later or Why cant you just enjoy the beat? which I have tweeted about. If they are in the audience, they have the right to access the artistic work as it was created by the artist. It is not the surtitler’s right to even assume they won’t be in attendance, never mind that best practices wouldn’t apply to them. They cannot change an aspect of art because they figure an attendee won’t know anyway.

A final note about surtitles: there are various technological choices available, such as the old PowerPoint way still used by some, and current surtitling software. These products can force certain style decisions for the surtitler. Also, some theatre and opera companies take divergent theoretical views of how far translations or same-language titles are to go. I belong to the more prescriptive school, obviously, and disapprove of summarization. However, there are times in opera when very repetitious text, such as in arias, may be omitted and understood as such, or when multi-part sections must be flexibly handled. Straightforward English libretti do not fall into these specialized areas of captioning skills.

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Newsflash: The Deaf Are Not Intellectually Disabled

Especially for a government-published "educational" graphic about accessibility!

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The Responsibilities of the Captioner

Scene from a modern-set opera with surtitles projected above the stage

 

I’ve commented elsewhere about the responsibilities of the captioner or subtitler, which include the best practice of not changing the film’s text.* Our personal feelings about content, as far as producing or editing the content is concerned, are irrelevant. (If something is truly offensive, you can turn down the project, just as we do in book editing.) I recently participated in a survey of subtitlers about emotional reactions to content we are working on, so it is a thing. However, assuming we are content to work on the file, the captioner or subtitler (or book editor) may not change the content. We are not the creators of the work.

I have two examples to discuss: translating and expletives.

I saw the HD Live Met presentation in the cinema of the fabulous opera Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès. Although it is sung in English, surtitles** are provided, which is common for most major opera companies. With the exception of one title which might have caused confusion with an appositive due to the accompanying live shot, they were excellent. Until the climax of this dystopian nightmare story. There and in the last lines of the opera, in their characters’ terror the cast are singing a prayer: Libera me de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat, which translates to Deliver me from eternal death and let eternal light shine. The use of the Latin is intentional and very moving, because these words are excerpts from the Catholic Office of the Dead text. (If you know the movie or the opera, you’ll understand why these are used.) To my amazement, the Latin was not only not projected in the surtitles, it was replaced with the English as the Latin was being sung. This is unacceptable captioning.

While it is possible that the surtitle writer felt they were being “helpful” by providing the English, they shouldn’t have. First, they changed Adès’s and librettist Tom Cairns’s work fundamentally. They did not write that part in English for a reason. So, right off the bat, they made an editorial decision about an artist’s work. (If Adès or Cairns directed them to do so, I would happily stand corrected, but I doubt this very much. If the Met directed it, I would disagree with that decision.)

Captioners do not have the right to change art text: their responsibility is to make the piece as it stands accessible.

A caption editor (or book editor) knows to retain the original text.

Another reason this is not best practice is that it makes an editorial assumption about the audience: that they are not culturally savvy enough to know what these words mean, even if they aren’t Catholic. It would be deemed fairly common knowledge in the arts and literature audience to at least have a sense what the Latin was about, even if they couldn’t translate it word for word. So the surtitler decided who they were dealing with. (Again, if the Metropolitan Opera directed them to do it—well, my words would then be directed at them.) The composer knows who he will reach with the Latin and he knows how to best do it in that scene: with the atmospheric layer of using Latin. He does not dumb his libretto down for the audience.

Opera is attracting more young people these days, so some might argue that Millennials just don’t have that common knowledge, but that too is insulting and presumptive. The surtitler may not assume: that’s not their job.

The other thing that is wrong about this involves the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing community. Did you know that some deaf people do go to and love the opera? My deafened friend loves opera: she said as long as the voices are big enough and surtitles are provided, she can attend and enjoy live opera and HD broadcasts. So the surtitler assumed it wouldn’t matter if the English were used (even if they did know deaf folks can go to the opera), and that is the type of trope the D/d/HoH community too often faces: they don’t matter. This is akin to the attitude of Ill tell you later or Why cant you just enjoy the beat? which I have tweeted about. If they are in the audience, they have the right to access the artistic work as it was created by the artist. It is not the surtitler’s right to even assume they won’t be in attendance, never mind that best practices wouldn’t apply to them. They cannot change an aspect of art because they figure an attendee won’t know anyway.

One final note about surtitles: there are various technological choices available, such as the old PowerPoint way, still used by some, and current surtitling software. These products can force certain style decisions for the surtitler. Also, some theatre and opera companies take divergent theoretical views of how far translations or same-language titles are to go. I belong to the more prescriptive school, obviously, and disapprove of general summarization.

Expletives in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

It is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice. I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

As Ada in Peaky Blinders (Season 1, Episode 2) says:Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

NB this incorrect caption should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative.

 

 

If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at info@reelwords.ca. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.

 

 

 

*Expletives may have different treatment, based on house style, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

**The word surtitles is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company, where the practice and technology was developed. [Yay, Canada!] The general term is supertitles, but as most readers will be familiar with surtitles, I’ve used that in this article.

 

Re: top photo: Image not credited on original source https://www.sdopera.org/experience/supertitles

Bottom photo is a screenshot from the Peaky Blinders series as presented on Netflix.

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“Captions Connect People”: Personalizing the Call for No More Craptions!

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.

Guest Post by Chelsea MacLeod

Do you find craptions funny? Think closed captioning is only for “a few deaf people”? Read what one woman has to say about captions and why they need to be clear and accurate. The changes in her hearing may not be obvious to outsiders, but she depends on captions to engage in the wider world. And although her attitude is positive, she and the other perhaps 10% of North Americans who are hard of hearing or deaf still struggle with alienation, isolation, and missing out on art, culture and communication. Here is Chelsea MacLeod’s story. In the last section, I’ve highlighted her feelings. As an advocate for excellence in closed captioning and subtitling, I’m baffled as to why the Canadian government has failed to enforce the high standards that are legislated and why it has only paid lip service to the deaf/Deaf/hard of hearing. Calls for better quality have been made for 30 years! Accessibility through excellent captions is not an expensive frill: it’s a right that can be addressed and planned for in the post-production budget.

 

If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating.

I began to notice a significant change in my physicality and level of hearing in 1996.

I was at an Edmonton Oiler playoff hockey game. We were sitting in the nosebleeds, two rows from the very top. In Edmonton, hockey is extremely popular—it is like the life blood of the city—and the home team was winning. Describing the crowd as wild is a gross understatement. The whole place was electric, in a way that was beyond merely sound. It was an intensely energetic experience, in that I realized I was feeling sound in addition to hearing it. (This is difficult to explain, but I believe this was the beginning of an almost heightened sensory awareness.)

Each time they scored, the noise in the arena was literally deafening. I remember a pop or some kind of release occurring in my right ear over the course of the game, but I didn’t think too much of it. By the time it was over, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I could barely walk out of the arena on my own.

I had no idea what was happening to me. I spent the rest of the night and the next day unable to get off the couch. My whole world was spinning. I couldn’t really ground myself to determine what was up or down. This was my first experience with vertigo and the symptoms of Ménières disease, although I wasn’t aware of it as such at that time.

After a few days, the physical sensations passed, and I went on to normal life. I had periods of experiencing the vertigo off and on again, but I chalked it up to a heavy school and work schedule and simply tried to get more rest to mitigate the symptoms. In short, I was a graduate student with a part-time teaching schedule and various odd jobs, and I was living on coffee and convenient foods. In retrospect, I can safely say my nervous system was completely shot.

Fast forward, almost ten years later. In 2003, I gave birth my daughter. It was a joyous occasion despite a difficult labour and an emergency C-section. Again, I suppose my entire physical system was stretched to the limit. I developed a bad infection in the hospital and required large doses of antibiotics. My recovery period was slow and steady, but I had Chloe, and we just spent our days together getting to know each other with feedings and regular nap times.

Pretty early on, I realized that if I was sleeping on my left side, I wasn’t able to hear her when she was crying. I began a series of testing at a Rehabilitative Hospital in Edmonton where they not only tested my hearing levels but also my balance, coordination, etc.

The diagnosis was Ménières disease. I had 20% hearing ability in my right ear. My left ear also showed some damage, but it was relatively minor. 

At the time, they presented a few options I could pursue that required more antibiotics and invasive surgery. I declined and opted to see what I could do to treat the symptoms naturally. I began an acupuncture and herbal-medicine protocol. I did not notice any changes to my hearing levels, but I did begin to see the effects of addressing certain aspects of my nervous system by way of meditation, diet, and increased relaxation. This seemed to keep the Ménières at bay, but if it got really bad, there was nothing I could do but surrender to it, lie down, and be with my body until the symptoms subsided.

In terms of hearing loss, this is when I began a process of learning to adapt and manage the changes to my hearing levels. I began to lip read pretty naturally. I would turn my head to position my left ear to a speaker or to any sound. I began to listen to music with headphones to direct the sound more effectively. I also began to use closed captions when watching anything. If there were no captions, chances were I wouldn’t be able to watch it. This included going to movies.

During this time, I contemplated hearing aids but felt like I was managing all right without them, and so I decided against it.

Funnily enough, at Christmas 2013, my dad made me promise that I would get some hearing aids. It had always really bothered him that I wasn’t able to hear fully. I put it off for a while and then felt badly that I was not honouring my promise to him, and I booked an appointment at the Canadian Hearing Society. I went in for another round of testing, and it was revealed that I had progressively lost more hearing in my good ear.

I signed up for a pair of hearing aids immediately and, needless to say, they opened up the world to me. I really have my father to thank, as he was the catalyst. Incidentally, the sensory input of sound was so profound to my system that it took almost a full month until I was able to wear the hearing aids all day long. It was like I had to go in stages in order to condition my ears to all the sounds they were able to hear again.

One day in 2015, my partner and I were downtown at rush hour, standing on the sidewalk. I started to feel my balance go; I got shaky and began to hear electrical currents all around me. It was like I was hearing sound emitting from street lights and the air itself. By the time we were in a taxi, I could barely hear anything. My hearing aids could not keep up. It coincided with another Ménières episode, and I thought my hearing might return if I rested. However, after 24 hours, there was no change. I booked in to my audiologist immediately for more testing and to amplify my hearing aids. Without my hearing aids, I was pretty much stone cold deaf. But even with them, I could barely manage daily life.

Also during this time, I saw more doctors, naturopaths, and herbalists. I even underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatment because I had read that, for acute hearing loss, high amounts oxygen could restore hearing loss if it was done right away, as soon as possible after the traumatic event.

The hearing tests revealed that my left ear had less than 20% hearing ability. My right ear had also decreased slightly in ability, but it was now my dominant ear. I remember thinking of the irony of all those years I had referred to my right ear as my bad ear. Now it’s my good ear. From then on, I made a commitment to myself to refrain from talking about my body negatively in any way. I just decided both my ears were good and that they were doing the best they could. 

About a year after that, I began to notice I had become quite isolated, as meeting up with people, socially in restaurants or anywhere it was even slightly noisy, was pretty much out of the question. I think I didn’t notice it so much because I am blessed with a really supportive family and I have a busy and full life. All the same, I felt a need to connect with others and to be comfortable with who I was becoming without feeling shy or like I couldn’t keep up with conversation.

That’s the main reason I wanted to take up ASL. I felt like cultivating a community that was not hearing dependent—where I could communicate freely with others and learn to express myself in a visual way.

As I have progressively lost the sense of hearing, visual communication has heightened and taken precedence. And this brings me to the crucial role of closed captioning in my ability to experience the world around me. I use captioning on every type of media I can. If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating. Captions are my way of accessing vital information, art, culture and entertainment.

 

Captions that can’t keep up or that are garbled or inaccurate don’t serve anyone.

 

 

They not only distort the story or message that is being conveyed but also alienate anyone who requires them to receive information. This includes not just words but also sound experiences like laughter or a doorbell chime.

Sensitivity to captioning is the same as having sensitivity to written or oral language. How it is intended to be received by an audience is as important as translation, in order to accurately communicate anything from feelings and ideas to concepts and current events. Captions connect people. They engage a sense of belonging to the wider world and, when done well, captions have the potential to inspire a variety of interests and curiosities, not only those of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

 

While I’ve had hearing issues (Ménières disease, hyperacusis, and tinnitus) for about 30 years and do a fair bit of lip reading in noisy environments, I wanted to share the emotional and practical impacts of craptions and captions on someone with more hearing loss than me. I met Chelsea at the Canadian Hearing Society where we study ASL, and I'm grateful to her for being willing to share her story as a guest post for Reel Words.

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