[Pre-video intro: When you’re starting out as a hearing person learning ASL, there is a wealth of info available but it can be hard to sift through it all and find the most helpful. Sure, loads of people get into Switched at Birth and new signers love This Close, but picking up a few signs from shows is not the same as having resources that are pedagogically sound, meaning they’ll actually help you learn and retain material. The rest is up to you. You’ll have to practise and review regularly, or it’s not going to stick.
I’m a <cough> mature learner which means I have to do way more review than my 20- and 30-something classmates. Unlike some of them, my hearing is not imminently disappearing, although it was checked and determined to have some loss on top my Ménières disease, tinnitus and hyperacusis. I use captions and find I’m needing them more and more. But even those in my classes who are hard of hearing or have CIs or hearing aids need to do the homework, review and look for additional resources.]
Video on YouTube on my Reel Words | No More Craptions! channel. Images included in the video are not reproduced here.
[Video transcript: I’ve spent the last year exploring some ASL learning resources and would like to share my impressions. I’m not endorsing any, just giving my personal reactions as a hearing learner. I also am not saying they are all correct or perfect; be aware that like any language, there are regionalisms to sign language, even within one (like ASL), and as a newbie I am no expert. I’ll talk about apps, websites, books and meetings.
One caveat though: BSL is VERY different from ASL, so watch the source of resources. I can’t understand BSL, but I do watch films on BSL Zone as part of cultural studies, though.
Start with finding a class offered by a local association or approved, certified course. As someone pointed out to me, you never want to learn from a hearing person, just as it’s best not to learn any other language from someone who doesn’t have it as their mother tongue. I’m in my third level of one at the same place of instruction, where the curriculum is Signing Naturally by Dawn Sign Press.
Signing Naturally is a course widely used in classroom settings, and it uses multiple learning styles. The workbook includes CDs which cover learning material, vocab review and extensive supplementary material, such as elements of storytelling, which is particularly important to Deaf culture.
I like the fact that even in parts published 10 years ago, it’s LGBTQ friendly, it includes racial diversity in its actor casting, and the material is usable and real: no "See Spot run" equivalents. The stuff I learn is what I actually need when I interact in Deaf social situations (more on that later). I haven’t seen any disability diversity, ironically*, in the casting, but I’m only partway through Book 2, so perhaps that comes up later. The second book is better in that vocab review is appended to the end of each lesson rather than each unit, which is easier to study with. It uses photos of the actors with superimposed directional arrows and other non-manual markers, and these are clearly visible in the videos. Vocabulary is presented in a non-glossed way, which is in keeping with ASL pedagogy, so that you aren’t looking up word-for-word equivalents. This may seem like a drawback to newbies, but trust me, it makes perfect sense once you as a hearing student get going and learn more about the language and culture. So, with no traditional vocab lists, I have a lot of paper clips and stickies for stuff I need to review more often. The only problem with the curriculum I have encountered is that the textbook needs copy editing and a professionally produced index, and I don’t say that as an editor/indexer (which I am) but because I find it hard to access some information as a student.
Another wonderful part of the course is their inclusion of profiles of prominent Deaf people and reproductions of art by Deaf artists. Both are key to broadening the hearing person’s learning about Deaf culture. They also discuss communication and etiquette, which is also invaluable.
Finally, the course has a website with corresponding video libraries, so if I’m not home, I can practice some vocab, for instance, while I have some time to kill. It only has a one-month free trial before you have to pay around $15US for access to the videos, but once you’ve paid, you have access for good: so while I am now in the video library for Book 2, I still have access to those for Book 1, which helps me review. Also, I was having trouble loading videos on my iPhone’s default Safari, but they advised me to try accessing via Chrome on my phone, which worked, and I appreciated the quick and useful customer service.
I can’t comment on other curriculums. I did ask for access to a review copy of one of the “Green Books” by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely out of Gallaudet University but didn’t hear back. I got the impression they are used for more “serious” students of ASL, such as those going through for eventual training in ASL interpretation at the post-secondary level, rather than Signing Naturally, which seems more directed at non-professional goals, although Dawn Sign Press does also offer the Effective Interpreting Series by Carol J. Patrie, for professional ends.
Another curriculum option for the determined and self-disciplined student is Lifeprint or “ASLU” by Dr. Bill Vicars, available online for free (incredibly), although course completion can only be recognized by certified schools using it. This was started, it seems, as a labour of love by Dr. Bill and is well known as a great resource, both as a course and for its dictionary functions. His classes are posted online to follow along with the online lesson plans, and he has seemingly endless video resources which have been updated over the years. He does have a Donate button, there is a separate site for fingerspelling practice, and he and his wife, Belinda G. Vicars, are indefatigable admins for a lively, helpful and engaging Facebook page.
I use Lifeprint for the weeks between my course’s terms. I learn extra signs and information, and I reinforce what I have learned. You can learn more about ASLU here and check out his homepage for the shocking number of resources available. His presentation of hand shape and non-manual markers suits my learning style to a T. Dr. Bill discusses similarities in signs, provides hyperlinked cross-references, and his sharing of nuances of Deaf culture are invaluable to hearing people. Considering he and Belinda are both faculty at California State U at Sacramento, they’re dedicated contributors to the free online fabric of ASL resources.
If you’re not looking for official learning yet and just want to dip your toe in the water, there are a gajillion resources online to let you check out ASL and see whether it’s something you might be prepared to commit to learning.
Who doesn’t love Marlee Matlin? She has an app called Marlee Signs—a tiny bit outdated IMHO. (Am I a horrible person for saying that?) There’s competition in app world, and I’m afraid this one didn’t keep me using it. Like many, it comes with a basic starter pack and adds others for about $2–3. It also has a Baby Signs package. Who knows? Maybe it’s right up your alley. Definitely worth a look.
A definitely sexier and hipper app is, appropriately, The ASL App by Ink and Salt LLC. Lots of people are drawn to it as a starting point for good reason. Aside from including people well known in both the Deaf and hearing cultures, such as Nyle DiMarco, the app comes with about 6 free packs or $9.99US will get you everything, including updates. I snapped it up. The reason this is so useful is that it includes truly useful content. Although my curriculum teaches beer and wine, it doesn’t include how to sign wasted, selfie or stalker, for instance, or a bunch of social media terms that come up in real conversation. It’s great for current colloquialisms to get you by, but a dictionary resource or course it is not.
They also have ASL with Carebears, Speak2Sign (which looks like a B2B training resource) and the ever-fun Nyle’s Stickers for iMessaging, which gives good bang for the $1.39. The thumbnail for the latter is a cartoon, but the app is augmented video: it’s even better than it looks. I’d love to see it available for Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram, too. They created Cardzilla, too, discussed later. You can learn more on their various social media platforms also.
I suck at fingerspelling (doing and reading), so I needed an app! I like Spell by Wit Dot Media. Word lengths and speeds increase with success, and what is very helpful to me is that the hand shapes change direction: you will not always be signing with someone dead-centre to you, so you have to learn to recognize fingerspelling from different angles. The app is clear and simple.
I’m not great at some numbers, either, such as ordinals, ages, or year dates, and I’ve included a... decent info from 1 to 100 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6r8HDsBMk1E.
I and a bunch of other people were looking for an app from which you could insert handshapes for alphabet letters into various social media, so Signily looked promising. Save your $1.39. It doesn’t work, even when you allow its access on your phone’s keyboard options as per their troubleshooting. We’re all ticked! If you know of another one that works, please share!
I hate, hate, hate using the phone and, by extension, Skype, Zoom and Facetime. But a Deaf friend recommended the app Glide, which I confess I haven’t forced myself to use to contact her yet. It looks like they’re also developing CMRA, “the camera for Apple Watch,” fyi/if you’re into that sort of thing!
Speaking of chatting with Deaf folks, I attend social coffees where D/deaf, HoH and ASL-fluent hearing people go to chat/keep up their language skills, and they are very gracious about welcoming people like me with my kindergarten ASL. There, as in class, it’s “voice off,” meaning you don’t speak vocally both as a courtesy and to encourage language development. But there are times when you just don’t have the sign vocab and can’t fingerspell an entire paragraph or question, so people often use their phones to type out messages. The ASL App folks created Cardzilla, which is insanely useful in its simplicity. Instead of opening Notes and getting tiny print, it starts out with really large letters (which even I don’t need my glasses for) and conversation is easily passed back and forth. With swipes you can see your history, faves, share via Airdrop, shake to clear, and it will resize automatically if you want a long text extract to fit on one screen. Love it. Apply your saved Signily $1.39 to buying Cardzilla!
Another godsend in the reference line is Signing Savvy. There are soooo many resources available, but this seems to be a very reliable one. I’ve even seen my teachers check a few things on it. They have a good website, which is perhaps best known for the Word of the Day that is available on social media and/or daily email notifications. With each WOTD is a corresponding sentence using it in context, again with real-life sentences, not stupid examples. The BEST part of SS, like The ASL App, is the turtle function! You can slow the video down and watch it slowly for as many times as you need to, until you can parse and reproduce the sign! It can be set to as slow as ¼ speed or as fast as 2x, and you can print out the frames. There is a personal dictionary function you can create, the videos can be enlarged, there are variations presented, they have hand shape/NMM/facial grammar/movement descriptions (my greatest requirement) and a memory aid (ditto). Generally there is the same guy doing the WOTD and the same woman doing the sentences, so you aren’t distracted by changing presenters and individualisms. It’s consistent and the dictionary search function is excellent. The catch? The online free version is okay, but all these features are available and augmented by paying for a subscription. I saved 64% by signing up for a 3-year subscription for $129.95 US ($167CAN) which sounds like a lot but works out to 15 cents/day! Getting the membership and extra functions (I’ve only mentioned a few) was a no-brainer. I note they also have a new Chat service where you get 30 mins for $20US with a Deaf expert (credentials provided on the site), which is on par with tutoring fees where I live.
Finally, I want to cover an old-school resource: a bound and printed paper book: The Canadian Dictionary of ASL by the University of Alberta Press. Now, before you roll your eyes, there are many advantages to using a nonscreen resource like a printed dictionary, including the ability to be fortuitously distracted by nearby information, rather than having to search intentionally for it electronically. This 840-page book has over 8700 signs relevant to ASL—as it is used in Canada. This is hugely important because, just as no language course can cover all regionalisms, my textbook often presents American signs that we then have to unlearn and then learn the Canadian version.
The dictionary, by Carole Sue Bailey and Kathy Dolby, is well laid out. For instance, the front endpapers give quick access to alphabet and numbers, while the back ones review basic handshapes (not the same as letters; these are some of the building blocks of signing). The extensive front matter includes almost a hundred pages on numbers, time concepts, geographical place names and pronouns, before the entries proper begin. Line drawings are clean and clear, and even fingerspelled entries are presented. Like any good dictionary, different meanings get their own entries but I like that even these have discrete presentations, so a verb and an adjective are clearly divided for instance. Same-signs, alternates, and discrete cultural applications are often given. So signs for pee (sorry, that’s just what I flipped to!) are divided into general, women’s/girls’, men’s/boys’ and animals’ entries! This is a rich language!
But I wondered, having been published in 2002, how up to date it was, so I decided to look for some newer words. Internet is in there. So is email and spreadsheet. Even the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (English language) 2nd ed. is as old as 2006, and with the internet, language changes too quickly to afford updates in Canadian [word lists] in our publishing climate.
What’s important is that I can look up toque, Saskatoon, parliament, toonie, and slow—both the Atlantic and more westerly signs for it!
I hope the opinions about these resources help. If you know of other excellent ones, feel free to share on Twitter, Facebook and my website. I’m generally searchable as Reel Words Subtitle and Caption Editing.
* NB: I do not subscribe to the medical model of deafness, so my comment about a video not having disability diversity is not about "being handicapped" but rather that the Deaf community encourages Deaf talent, and I thought this awareness might extend to using actors with additional accessibility barriers to being hired in acting.
I often can’t hear sound effects in shows and movies, so I use captions so as not to miss anything. Because I mostly use Netflix to stream (I don’t have a TV; I sometimes rent/borrow DVDs), I was curious to know how other VODs (video on demand [streaming] services) fared in the application of and care taken with subtitles and captions. It’s not just the D/deaf/hard of hearing who use captions for same-language film and video, and access to global programming is making good subtitling a must more than ever.
This is my survey of captions and subtitles on some common VODs. As in my survey of cinema access for the D/deaf in Toronto, when I contacted these companies about problems I was transparent, with Reel Words info in the email signature. I also approached this as an everyday user. Where necessary, I paid out of pocket to get the services. I’ve assigned a star rating system for overall application and treatment of captions/subtitles.
D/deaf people who sign have the right not to have their hands and arms restrained because it prevents them from communicating. What I discovered is that these providers might as well be blindfolding the D/deaf/hard of hearing. They can’t see the content that isn’t provided for them.
Google Play ★
I had heard that The Silent Child (2017) was on Google Play for $2.99, and I obviously wanted to see it for the storyline and use of ASL. It turned out the film could only be placed on a wish list for when it was made available on Google Play in the future. YouTube Movies says it is not available there.
I searched for some free movies and tripped upon the sociologically fascinating (although perhaps not intentionally…)The Creators, made “in conjunction with YouTube” and boy, did that ever show!
It was a sort of advertorial documentary about young YouTube phenoms in the UK making their living through that platform, all with different…talents. Here are two I’d never heard of, Niki and Sammy, branded online as NikiNSammy. Not quite sure what their talent was aside from having sprung from the same egg, but let’s focus on the captions as they were used throughout the doc. Here’s an example of YouTube’s idea of accessibility:
NikiNSammy’s captions were split, both left-aligned (which is not helpful for twins…) and these two titles containing 36 characters was only up for one second. Now, the most current Netflix guideline is 20 characters per second. While it was a UK-filmed short doc, the spelling used was both British and American. The worst offence was that it seemed they really did use YouTube automatic captioning because there were constant errors, such as captioning react for interact and real for raw. The caption bands jumped all over the screen, as if placed for the cool factor—with absolutely no understanding of what captions (CCs) are intended for. A professional titler was not employed, and no QC person could have reviewed it. Clearly the producers didn’t give a hoot about accessibility. Thoroughly appalled at Google/YouTube.
Amazon Prime Video ★★
The Silent Child wasn’t listed on amazon.ca’s Prime Video.
So I decided to take the 30-day free trial to watch another example and promptly cancelled to avoid the $79CAD/yr fee.
I decided to go with Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010), a choice influenced rather arbitrarily by my recent participation at an axe-, knife- and archery-target place. I wasn’t sure if the captions used were made for this stream or were from a previous production and distribution. As is common, the captioner was not credited.
The font was crisp white on black below the screen or with a shaded dark band for a top line placed above that on the film. But there were great inconsistencies: [ALL SCREAMING] vs only [CHEERING] when all were cheering; poor and inconsistently styled offscreen speaker IDs; poor choices in deciding on the most relevant sound effects, such as dogs barking but not men yelling in attacks or falling off walls; the King of France (should be king if not using a personal name); Jimmy boy as a name (should be Jimmy-boy or Jimmy Boy). In short, the usual problems that I see constantly on Netflix. Visually accessible but not textually accessible, which is a huge part of the game! As I often comment, unedited titles cause reader stumbles, which cause the user to lose concentration and thus comprehension.
Here, two and a half thousand should have been used, but space was tight; however, space could have been made by forcing an earlier and split title. Not great, but Russell Crowe did not say “twenty-five hundred.”
Good points: the ability to rewind OR fast forward by 10 seconds, and three subtitle format options (the fourth was black on black…).
Netflix’s captions and subtitles were the raison d’être for this survey. I was curious to know if other VODs were as ineffective and disregarding of Deaf/HoH needs as Netflix. (You can read a lot about my feelings on Netflix on my website on the blog tab and see various #CraptionFails on the Gallery of Fails tab.) No point in repeating it all here, but suffice it to say that despite (or perhaps because of) having the monopoly on VOD, this machine has grown too big to have serious quality control of captions and subtitles. The failure of the Hermes Test, the lack of qualified QC (“Master-Level Quality Control”) editors, and the low pay leave it just a step above YouTube craptions. Really and inconsistently poor. I’ve only had about four or five examples in my portfolio of well-done captions with this provider. See my website and blog posts for many illustrated examples of the problems and how they should have been avoided.
Sundance Now 1/2★*
This check started with a series of emails to customer service because I couldn’t find the CC/ST button on the interface for some movies I wanted to review. Also, the overall platform is clumsy and annoying to navigate; the only good point is the ability to rewind 10 seconds but—unlike Amazon Prime—there’s no option to fast forward by increments.
The customer service rep kept insisting they were there if only I would use a supporting device and look in the right place, but they weren’t. His final email said in part: “I checked Off the Rails and Julia, and unfortunately we don’t have captions available on those two titles right now—- [sic] while the majority of our content is now captioned, we’re still working on updating our catalog.” Now this may be true. I didn’t check all of their catalogue. But my random selections of movies did not have captions.
Incidentally, I used the search box to find films with the keyword deaf and was provided with 13 suggestions on death content.
The usual problems with missing words, wrong words (Yeah for Yes) and letters, speaker IDs, punctuation. Overall it was very sluggish. Read: inaccessible. Note these captions, all of which lagged, from Broken Flowers (2005) with a terrible line break.
The worst part was that, no, I didn’t read all 17 pages of the Terms and Conditions. I had stopped at the part that says [sic]: “7 day free trial, you can cancel anytime” which, due to the lack of copy editing, I read as you had seven days free and you could cancel anytime. NOPE. $59.00 down the tube. You can “cancel” your subscription but you’re free to watch for the rest of the year. In other words, you’ve cancelled a renewal next year. The only reason I’m not freaking out about the $60 is that I thought This Close, even at six episodes (and six “discussions” post-watch) was worth the money, especially if season two comes out within my subscription year.
So overall, the captions were terrible. But here’s the thing: for This Close, they were flawless. Not only that, they dealt with a bilingual show creatively and effectively. This show saved them from getting no stars.
Sub-survey: This Close as an example of captioning as it should be.
Here the captions are placed according to the speaker:
White letters and, in fact, a different font are used for the ASL translation, and white on dark grey bands is for the oral dialogue. This is particularly helpful if you’re like me and following both sets of captions, listening to the hearing speaker and trying to follow the ASL or watching the fictional ASL interpreter sign and interpret! It was actually doable with this thoughtful crafting.
And when they do have to include an offscreen line, it’s correctly IDed and formatted to the side.
And sidebar, I loved this scene where Michael’s hands are restrained as he is removed from a plane, and Kate says they can’t do that to a deaf person:
So, really clear, almost always perfect renditions of the audio (except for the odd Yes for Yeah). Although, I’m not sure what’s up with the three lines, especially when they are so short. Perhaps to ensure the titles are large enough to be visible for low-vision users, since Sundance Now doesn’t allow viewers different caption-display options?
This tells me one thing. VODs basically don’t care about Deaf/HoH access unless the executive producers (and guest stars like Nyle DiMarco in this case) of the show are Deaf and get the need! So, yay them, but that’s a fairly easy win, and boo Sundance overall.
Back to the show’s “Now The Discussion” segments. These featured cool young people sitting around a lovely studio drinking beer and chatting about the previous episode. Thankfully they had a Deaf/HoH participant in one I watched, and they also interviewed Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman after the last one. BUT but but: they applied post-production dubbing of an interpreter to overlay on the signers’ speech, rather than using the real-time interpretation they’d have had to facilitate the convo with the hearing people. So it struck me as a bit disingenuous: a bit like sim com, trying to create a false syncopation or an aversion to causing unwanted pauses in group dialogue while the signers’ words were finished being interpreted. Ew. As if waiting for a Deaf/HoH person to be orally interpreted was a problem or awkward. This struck me as ironically ableist/audist.
Also, these chats allowed expletives to be kept in the audio track but then captioned them with two hyphens, which is not only bad practice but also reinforces that the Deaf/HoH audience is not deserving of full and correct content. When characters swore/used vulgarisms in the show, the f-bombs etc. are shown fully spelled out. I thought this was another unfortunate dichotomy that spoke volumes.
As for the show itself, who doesn’t appreciate it when #DeafTalent is used, such as RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy? And the occasional use of loud static and other noises to obscure dialogue reinforces the challenges faced by some deaf people, in case we hearies get complacent in our viewing.
*So This Close gets ★★★★1/2 but Sundance Now itself gets only a half star.
Hulu (star rating not applicable, but see Reel Words home page image)
I’ve wanted to watch The Handmaid’s Tale since the get-go, as it is one of my favourite books. This time I did check the 17-page Terms which do allow for cancellation at any time, for reelz… I wanted to sign up for the $7.99 Limited Commercial plan ($11.99 for no commercials: isn’t that the flipping point of VOD—no commercials?)
I had trouble signing up due to not having a US zip code but a support chat told me “Our services are actually not available outside of the US unless you're a US military member living on base. Would you happen to fall in this category?”
Okay, over to:
CRAVE TV ★★★
Sub-survey: THE HANDMAID’S TALE
I went with the $7.99 monthly after 30-day free trial because I really, really wanted to see the show and didn’t mind paying for month two if I didn’t get through it all. (Who was I kidding? I binged it!)
Sidebar: as I’m sure you know, this was filmed in Toronto and around/near the GTA, so if you’re interested, here are links to the locations details.
If you go to my website home page, you’ll see a screenshot from Hulu from a trailer for the show. I discovered that they hadn’t done anything to address the issues of captioning since it was bought by Crave, and here are some of the more problematic captions as they appeared in Episode 1.
The Handmaid’s Tale has some parts of captioning done right, but then there are the usual inconsistencies that creep in. Sometimes [indistinct radio chatter] is heard and captioned as a very important part of setting and mood for the show, but at other times it is not captioned when clearly heard and significant. This does not provide full and complete access. And that’s supposed to be a standard in this country, but it is not enforced.
The show starts with a bang, with sirens blaring before the first visible frame, but [SIRENS BLARING] only shows for one second (nonstandard practice) and does not continue with the action, even though this is important to set up the mood and story.
This show is often based on the unshared thoughts of the heroine, Offred, and what she does dare to utter aloud. But these are not differentiated. (That’s Captioning 101, by the way.) In this scene, she was mocking another character internally but vocally answered Yes to her.
Below, a character who is losing it says I want my mom. and is comforted by Offred with a gentle Okay. We can barely see this dark scene, so a caption-dependent person might well be confused by the lack of speaker ID.
Netflix’s style guide determines that vulgarisms are to be spelled out (see my discussion of this around the 45-second mark on my Craption Eyerolls series on YouTube), and the same problem arises here. I’m not sure if the captioner wasn’t savvy or was applying their own personal values to not using the spelling cum. Either way, QC should have caught this. Crave certainly lets the f-bombs drop in captions, so I don’t think it was an issue of conservatism.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a new-order society which has retro values. Church bells toll frequently, driven by plot and mood. But I kind of think using thrice is a bit over the top. Since it’s not the first time that church bells toll in the episode, space could have been saved by shortening the subject thus: Bells tolling three times. We would get that they are church bells from episode history, context and connotation.
Sometimes, captions are moved up to avoid covering a speaker’s mouth to make it clear that the person on screen is the speaker. But here Offred is not speaking; Aunt Lydia’s words should be italicized both as offscreen and over an amplification system. It also just looks weird.
Just as we need to see the speaker’s mouth moving, we need to watch Offred’s eyes carefully, as they reflect so much of what she may not say aloud. The cinematography in the series includes a lot of close-ups, particularly of Offred, to make us feel sympatico with her. Here, she is appalled by the speech, but we’re distracted by the titles actually touching her eyes proper rather than pondering her reaction. I talk about the need to facilitate audience immersion, rather than distract, frequently on my website. Breaking or preventing that immersion is one of the main ways to fail the caption or subtitle user, and it’s a key focus in my posts. This scene was made less evocative by careless captioning. And again, this show has been bought and the captions could have been improved by the new provider, but they either didn’t check or didn’t care.
I really dislike the way VODs treat music, songs and lyrics. The presentations are not helpful, the rules don’t make sense, and they’re inconsistent. And they need to change.
Here, for clarity, I would have styled the caption like this:
[♫ You Don’t Own Me ♫ by Lesley Gore]
It’s obvious that it’s playing—by the fact that the caption is there—and it’s obviously a title of a song, as indicated by the addition of customary musical notes. Had the house style not been to use ALL CAPS for sound effects, styling this like I have would have made the text clearer as a title, too.
And now, the pièce de résistance, the type of reason this show is on my home page:
Every musical caption has these—what I can only guess are Unicode cut-and-paste issues. This says We don’t care enough about accessibility to create acceptable captioning for our users.
And this is the crux of the matter. Communication is a right, and bad communication is a breach of that right.
As people in the cultural-content and entertainment industry, people who use captions and subtitles (basically everyone at some point or another) are our everything. The reason we have jobs. The reason we will always have work. And if there is one theme that is prevalent on my website, it is that the audience deserves better, and we should be ashamed of delivering less than excellent. Sure, human errors happen. We do our best. But when we deliver a product at subpar quality because it doesn’t matter to us personally or we are ignorant of issues of accessibility, we fail our fellow viewers.
I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I noted this Gamasutra post for its candour, and it reminds me to try my best to make my work accessible:
“I never have forgot the feeling of of depriving someone of an experience just because I didn't think to add a button”
Ian Holstead, Ubisoft
By providing craptions, VODs are preventing all but primarily D/deaf/hard of hearing viewers from accessing content—analogously blindfolding them.
I think we can do better than an average of 1.7★ out of ★★★★★ in caption and subtitle content on VODs. Industry standards are 95–98% accuracy, and in these five services I have found a 34% rate of success.
Please share this widely. And please leave a comment about your experiences in other countries.
Coming soon: Apps for ASL Learners; Creative Applications of Captions and Subtitles: Yay or Nay?
Would it really kill us hearing folks to go to the movies with open captions?
No one complains about sidewalk curb ramps or the bumpy yellow warning strips at TTC** subway stations: they’re just…there. We don’t tell folks in wheelchairs or scooters to use regular-height curbs and in the evenings only, or folks who are blind they will have safety during rush hours only. Then why the flip are we insisting that captioned movies (the few that are provided with captions) will be shown only on certain days, schedules and cinema screens?
I propose that we caption all movies and make them available at all times.
Now, before you whip out your I-hate-subtitled-foreign-films argument or your I’m-a-details-person rhetoric about how captions will block your view of the mise-en-scène, just grab a handful of popcorn and hear me out.
Humans don’t tend to love change. But generally, we do adapt. That’s why images like this are amusing:
We think, Wow, I can’t believe I used to put up with that! It’s ugly, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inefficient, and not everyone can use that thing effectively.
Eventually, we can barely remember what life was like before a new, improved version and, usually, we even realize that the old way wasn’t that great after all.
That is what would happen with open captions on movies. (Open captions are those that don’t leave the screen—you can’t decide to “close” them and watch video/TV/movies without. They’re ever-present.) We would become so used them that we wouldn't even remember what it was like not to have them. Non-users would tune them out; users would enjoy content more easily.
Not only would about 10% more of the population be able to go to the movies, individuals could broaden their social horizons by being able to attend a film with D/deaf or hard of hearing friends. As I mentioned in a recent article, I couldn’t attend a movie with more than two deaf friends due to the undersupply of assistive equipment (never mind captions). My more cynical side doesn’t understand why movie producers and cinema mega corps aren’t embracing this—aren’t they supposed to want higher box-office takings?
When surtitles*** were introduced to the opera world (by a Canadian company, by the way), people went bonkers. Opera would be ruined, the companies wailed. Opera had to be kept pure, cried the audiences. Guess what happened. More people started going. And most of them were young people. I LOVE surtitles and find they have enriched my opera experience. And if I lose interest or there’s a repetitive text being sung, I just look away. They’re placed in opera houses in such a way so that they don’t distract the disinterested eye but are quickly adjusted to when used. I don’t have to use or pay attention to them if I don’t want to.
But wait! you may interject, you can skip reading boring repeats in opera, but you can’t skip dialogue in a movie or you’ll be lost! Aha! rejoin I. Welcome to the world of the D/deaf and hard of hearing: the dialogue is integral to film. You’re aiding my argument.
And if you’re going to tell me your eye never leaves the multiplex screen for 92 minutes and you have taken in every object in a film, you must have a photographic memory. Most of us aren’t taking in the whole scene—in fact only about 12% of it (Sorry, directors!)—and research suggests that subtitles (and presumably captions) improve the visual experience of film or TV content. Or we look down when we drop popcorn, check our phone for the time, note the green or red exit sign, look at the couple two rows down who won’t stop talking, etc. We already are distracted. If anything, the research suggests, captions will hold our attention to the visual, not adversely affect it.
Also, captions and subtitles that have been edited should be of such a standard that we stop noticing that we’re reading them. So even if our eye does drift to them, they’ll allow us to be fully immersed in the storyline.
We have scent-free institutions for those with allergies. We have Braille on bathroom doors and other public signs. We allow service animals into restaurants. We keep peanuts out of schools. We’re starting to provide alternative-experience concerts for people on the autism spectrum. Do we have a fit about these accommodations? No. They have become part of the public fabric. Those who benefit from them, use them. Those who don’t, ignore them. So why the radio silence about open captions for movies? It’s like it’s not even up for discussion.
If you are such a purist cinephile who must see a “clean” version of a director’s oeuvre, buy the DVD with the director’s cut. (God knows it’ll be out soon enough.)
Or, even better, why don’t you invent some disposable eye gear like 3D glasses that will block out caption boxes at the bottom of screens? Or maybe a big tool, that looks like ET, to stick in your cupholder that will project the virgin film to your sightline alone? Oh…you…wait—why should you be put out so much when you’re just trying to see a movie?
That’s an interesting question, now, isn’t it?
* flickr.com, Grannies Kitchen, "Vintage Vegetable Peeler"
**TTC is the Toronto Transit Commission, which encompasses subways, buses, and LRT and hooks into regional traffic options.
***Surtitles is a trademarked version of supertitles, but as few people seem to know the latter term, I am referring to the former for clarity.
Patricia MacDonald is one of a few editorial colleagues with a story to share about hearing. Hers is honest and hopeful. I'm taking her words to heart as I go to get my hearing retested later this month.
She also touches on how she uses closed captioning, reminding us that not all users are totally deaf or "hearies" using captions for other reasons.
I can’t remember when I started noticing my hearing loss. I was probably in my late 20s. I do know the exact moment I couldn’t deny any longer that it was a problem: when I couldn’t hear everything my brother was saying as he was delivering my father’s eulogy. What a thing to miss.
But still I didn’t get my hearing checked. I knew I needed hearing aids, but I didn’t want to wear them. Hearing aids are for old people, I thought. Everyone will notice them. So I struggled on for another few years, constantly frustrated when I caught only bits of conversations, wondering what I had missed when others around me were laughing at something I hadn’t heard. My husband bought me a cheap little device that amplified sound, and I used that a lot, especially when I was watching TV. It worked great but could only do so much. I was still missing out on a lot in real life.
I did eventually get my hearing tested, and the results were as expected: significant hearing loss in both ears. The culprit? Otosclerosis. Basically there was a hardening of the bones in my middle ear, and they were unable to vibrate properly in order to conduct sound. The good news? I was a perfect candidate for hearing aids. The bad news? I was a perfect candidate for hearing aids. I still didn’t want them, and it was at least another year before I finally went for a fitting.
The catalyst was an editing conference I attended in Ottawa in 2012. The sessions were fine because I had my trusty sound booster with me; socializing, however, was a different story. One-on-one interaction was okay for the most part, but put me around a table in a noisy restaurant and I was lost. I still ended up having a wonderful time, but it was a wake-up call. I needed to do something.
So I took the leap and got two hearing aids. And suddenly I could hear all that I was missing—and it was a lot, trust me. I was very grateful for this new lease on life, although I was extremely self-conscious for the first little while, the first couple of years, even. To this day I’m still a little self-conscious. But I can hear better, and that’s really all that matters.
Hearing aids aren’t the perfect solution, though. I often have trouble hearing on the phone and when I’m in a crowded room. I still miss some things.
Closed captioning has become a good friend, especially when I’m watching a show with fast dialogue or accents.
So there’s still frustration. But I can function almost normally again. And I must say that when I “take my ears out” at night, I welcome the quiet and enjoy a good sleep. It’s not all bad. :^)
It’s taken a while, but I’ve come to terms with my hearing loss—I have a disability that fortunately I was able to correct. I just wish I had done it years earlier. I wish I had heard all of my dad’s eulogy. But I was thinking about how I would look instead of how I could hear. If you have hearing loss and are hesitant about trying hearing aids, for whatever reason, I urge you to give them a shot. It will change your life for the better.
Patricia MacDonald is a freelance copyeditor in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, specializing in sports books and memoirs, guides for athletes and coaches, and textbooks for physical education and kinesiology students.
She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of P. MacDonald.
In December 2017, I contacted the main corporate and some independent film venues in Toronto to canvass their provision of access to hearing assistance for the *Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. Cinemas are only able to provide captions when production companies include the files. But who has what capabilities?
Before you scroll away because you “don’t know any deaf people,” consider this: you may think you don’t, but a lot of people don’t advertise their deafness because a) it doesn’t define them and b) it’s frustrating to keep explaining it repeatedly to hearing people. Also, hearing folks do use captions: English language learners; people needing cognitive support with visual reinforcement; watching shows with heavily accented or audio-obscured speakers; and in noisy places or where the volume is off or problematic. To read about my personal experience using assistive tech in a cinema, read this article. But here’s my experience accessing information about captioning and hearing-assistive devices in eight Toronto cinemas and chains.
In my online contact attempts, my website-linked business name was in my email signature (providing transparency), and I asked only the following of each recipient:
I've looked at your accessibility page, and I'm writing to get up-to-date information about the availability of listening assistance at your cinema[s], be it open captions or assistive technologies. I'm in Toronto. Can the Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing attend movies with full access? Do I just show up and any showing will just have assistance available?
Here are the fascinating results of my inquiries.
Not surprisingly for a large corporation, I was assigned a ticket to my inquiry and received an automated reply. It said:
- Please type your reply above this line -##
If an individual reads my email, they'll see I've reviewed the website and am requesting up to date information—i.e., has anything about availability changed?, etc.
I'd appreciate a non-automated reply.
Thank you for contacting Cineplex.
All of our theatre locations have the capability to present shows with Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. Ultimately we rely on the film distributors to provide our theatres with the appropriate files for each film so our guests can enjoy these services; because of this there can sometimes be a film without these features offered. You can always check the availability of these services by searching film showtimes online and if you see (CC/DS) underneath the film format your show will have Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. (see example below)
If you need more information on what each device does see the links below.
When you go to your local theatre simply request either device from the box office and the staff will be happy to set it up for your show.
If you have anymore questions please let me know.
Have a great day!
Cineplex Guest Services
I thought the “there can sometimes be a film without these features offered” was gilding the lily a bit. I also felt the DS info indicated that they were copy-and-pasting and not writing back specifically with my question in mind. I wrote back,
I will happily share your feedback with the IT team in the hopes they can add that functionality. Please note you can search individual theatres and their showtimes at the bottom of each of those links I sent you.
Have a great day!
Cineplex Guest Services
Hm. I think a chat with Powers That Be about searches and increased access would be fruitful...if only I could reach them.
Image: grainger via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlton_Cinemas_Toronto.jpg
The much-loved local Carlton and its related cinemas have demonstrated commitment to accessibility for audiences and employees, which I have respected greatly. Plus, their staff are outstanding in their customer service, and their reply reflected some of that.
We have a few locations with assistive listening devices, however we often experience technical difficulties with them which is why they aren’t advertised. We also have a few locations that play open caption films on certain days/ show times.
I will forward your email on to our Carlton and Market Square locations as they are our DT [downtown] Toronto locations and would have a better idea as to what they actually have.
And further follow up, since I’d mentioned me needing to bring this up with cinemaclocktoronto.com:
Our Carlton location have headphones that amplify sounds but no open caption.
Our Market Square location has assistive listening devices but have expressed that they don’t work very well. They do however have 1 open caption movie a week (see screenshot on how it would appear). They are the ones that say OC. The upcoming week they are playing The Greatest Showman and the following week is Star Wars.
Cinema clock is a third party website so unfortunately we cannot control how they display content.
Hope that helps!
Customer service first prize to Imagine! They already show one captioned movie a week—not what I’d call fully accessible but certainly open and willing to improve. They admitted their lackluster customer feedback and communicated that openly to me. They were also the first company to reply—the same day I emailed and a week before the other replies began to trickle in. Small chain, bigger heart?
Jackman Hall, AGO
I received this reply:
Thank you for your email.
At the moment Jackman Hall Theatre is not equipped with open captions options or assistive technologies. We are able to transmit, however do not have the devices in house. It would be up to the client to provide the film with captions built into the film as well as provide any devices or hardware. We are working towards upgrading our venue in order to be more inclusive. At this time we not able to assist with deaf, deafened or hard of hearing patrons with full access unless the film is subtitle or a client provides the assistive devices/hardware.
Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or concerns.
I found this interesting considering that it is in the AGO, which is 33% government funded, and that the AGO Transformation, which included the renovation of Jackman Hall, was completed in 2008. The $276 million project couldn’t throw in some hardware then or since??
TIFF Bell Lightbox
Bell TIFF Lightbox’s reply was interesting in several ways.
Thank you for your email and interest in attending films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Hearing Assist (which raises the volume for visitors with slight to moderate hearing impairment) is available for all of our screenings as it is provided by our theatre.
The availability of Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio is dependant [sic] on the copy provided to us by the distributor. If we have films that come with Closed Captioning or Descriptive Audio we will display that information on our Website.
Please refer to the example below. (SUB = Subtitle, CC = Closed Captioning, DS = Descriptive Sound, TBLB 3 = Cinema #3)
When you arrive at the cinema please inform Box Office staff that you require additional equipment and the staff will be happy to assist you with the set-up and procedure.
Hope this information helps.
They said Hearing Assist was used as an amplifier but a phone call confirmed the brand was Listen, so this doesn’t seem to be updated info as requested.
Note, too, the use of the term “hearing impairment,” which is interesting terminology from a charity purporting to be “committed to a strategy that works to remove barriers to interacting with our programming” (TIFF, 2016: http://humber.ca/makingaccessiblemedia/modules/03/09.html). The echo I experienced was still a barrier. And being non-hearing is not considered an “impairment” or disability by the so-called afflicted or disabled. (http://cad.ca/issues-positions/statistics-on-deaf-canadians/)
I’ll also add here that during December, as a TIFF member, I received nine donation-dunning emails between the 13th and 31st, with clickbait-worthy subject lines like “You’re on my mind” pleading for access to our thoughts about connection and access to members’ wishes. I am seriously considering cancelling my membership. It will be dependent on the response I get when I email them. If they’re really serious about “want[ing] to know what you think,” they may bite.
I wrote back asking about a search function for CCed films.
We are glad to hear the information was helpful.
At this time we do not offer a feature on our website like the one you have described but I have passed your email on to the department that handles the website for consideration when planning future updates and features. In the mean time [sic] clicking through the various films is the only way to see the information regarding Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio.
Both in email and in person, I was readily informed that Call Me by My Name has CCs. This is incorrect, and I suspect a lot of venues and services, perhaps unwittingly, plug such films as accessible to the non-hearing: that film’s dialogue includes three languages, which are subtitled for marketability; it is not accessible in that it was intentionally released with non-hearing audiences in mind—that is captioning.
The old Bloor Cinema seems to be typically at the mercy of producers’ inclusion (or not) of caption files. I suspect most documentarians are making their films on low budgets; however, some are backed by humanitarian organizations, and you’d think their mores would support full accessibility. (Perhaps some PhD student can do some research into how many docs are captioned…) And, frankly, I’m surprised when the theatre was renovated, some funds weren’t allocated for assistive equipment like CaptiView. Surely some doc files are captioned?
Thanks for your question!
Firstly, for each screening we can provide head phones that allow the viewer to increase their own listening volume independently.
For more specific hearing aid devices, such as closed captioning, the most up-to-date information would be available at our Box Office, per screening; each documentary comes with/without its own set of closed captioning and hard of hearing accessibilities.
The best option would be to call our box office the week your preferred documentary is showing and ask for the accessibility options on that specific film.
I hope this helps.
Being a very small enterprise, understandably they wrote back
We currently do not have assisted listening devices available at our theatre, But we are working on it.
So sorry for the inconvenience... We will make it a priority to attain these devices during the new year and you will be contacted promptly once we have acquired a few.
Thank you for your interest,
Note the apology and plan of action. Good sign! I’ve made a note to check back with them.
Through several emails, I learned that the Royal generally does not offer access to deaf-assistive technology but does, interestingly, have two series events that feature access vehicles: Drunk Feminist Films and Screen Queens, the former having hired ASL interpretation in the past due to a small Deaf community being involved. The other reason for provided captions is that events have live comedy commentary over top of the movie through microphones, thus captions allow people to listen to the comedians talk about the movie while also watching the movie. But with general programming, like all cinemas, they are stuck with only being able to provide captioning when it is provided by movie producers.
Cinema Clock https://www.cinemaclock.com/ont/toronto
I also emailed this clearinghouse of movie listings to see if the search function could not be tweaked to include a way to find only those movies with CCs.
The email envelope icon on their home page does not work, so I went to their Contact Us link on the More tab and filled out an online form there. After three weeks, I have not heard back from them.
I’m going to assume that we have it relatively good in Toronto and that access to assistance for deaf moviegoers is generally sketchy or non-existent in most smaller Canadian cities and towns. If you know otherwise, please share information in the Comments.
If you're interested in accessing more caption options (i.e. for any time slot, not just the cinema's dead day), have a polite chat with or send an informative email to the management. Eventually, feedback will work its way up the corporate ladder and maybe—one day—access to movies for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing will no longer be considered an extra cost or frill. It'll just be going to the movies.
...and Why I’m Not Going to Shut Up about It
I recently had my first experiences using hearing assistance technology (and I use the word technology with something of an eyeroll) at two movie theatres in Toronto. Here's why filmmakers have got to start putting accessibility functions and services into their budgets. The cinemas can't project captions that aren't there.
At the first cinema, I was lent a Listen personal amplifier device with disposable earbuds in exchange for my driver’s license as collateral.
I was rather excited because I was seeing Interstellar, and I knew from previous viewings at home and in the cinema that Matthew McConnaughey’s voice is very difficult to hear in that movie. I thought this would help me hear more of his lines.
With the Listen brand amplifier (smaller than handheld transistor radios and thicker than a cellphone), there was a belt clip. That’s great if you’re wearing something with a waistband. Also, a little red light is visible, which I suspect may be annoying to seat neighbours, and I’m not sure there’s necessarily enough earbud-wire length to turn it upside down in your cupholder or to wear it upside down on your belt to not distract them periperhally.
If you know Interstellar, you’ll know that Hans Zimmer’s awesome soundtrack blasts through much of it—and I mean blasts, to the point of the seats and walls shaking in a non-IMAX movie: organ-lover’s delight! So, every time the action and mood was ramping up, I had to whip the earbuds out (I ended up using my own, as the provided ones were cheap) or have my eardrums practically split. Fine: hazard of the film, and amplification was not needed at that point. However, what was so disappointing was that all the hearing receiver did was create an annoying echo due to a delay in transmission, sort of like echos in cell calls or the overseas long-distance calls of yesteryear on landlines. Now I was hearing Matthew utter his tortured feelings in duplicated mumbling. I gave up on the “assistance” halfway through. This is a device retailing for about $250US or $400CA, so it’s no cheapie, and still the results were less than stellar…
How can an echo assist hearing? Do more current or more expensive models avoid this problem? Leave a comment below if you have other experiences. I retrieved my ID without comment, as I didn’t feel the box-office staff would be very invested in my feedback. They’re 20something with normal hearing, after all.
My second experience was using CaptiView in a cinema; I did call ahead to make sure one would be available. Not only was it available, it was at the tickettaker’s booth, ready to go, and she knew how to set it up: good start! It conked out during previews “battery very low!!” and the manager said it was because it had just been used in a previous showing, so that indicates to me that perhaps several more are needed on hand to provide access while spent ones are recharged. Nevertheless he had another immediately available. Interestingly, they did not ask for ID or any security for the device: not that I’d want to walk out with one, but I was still pleasantly surprised not to be treated like a potential thief.
Complicating this experience was the flawed subtitles in the movie I saw when a foreign lanugage was translated, so I had two layers of imperfect access to negotiate in my attempt to be fully immersed in the story. In general, the CaptiView worked okay. But:
- As I’ve pointed out before, you have to place it in your cupholder, so that leave no cupholder for your pop, which is a problem if you also have popcorn to eat.
- Twice the device popped out of the cupholder and fell to the ground: you need to really shove it down prior to the show!
- The green type was a good size and clear, except when it didn’t show! Some captions were missing—as in entire or partial sentences never came up and the subsequent lines were on the second or third lines of the device, so I don’t know if that meant the problem was in the CaptiView or the digital file, but it happened about a dozen times.
- I felt like I was restricted to a corner of the back row: the green light is distracting to other audience members. What if I had arrived late to a filled auditorium? Would I have to ask a bunch of people to move or would they have to put up with it?
- Only the main feature was guaranteed to be captioned. In fact, as noted above, one trailer was captioned on the device. All the other movies that could have attracted the Deaf/hoh audience did not. (I’m assuming the Red Sparrows film itself is accessible and not just the trailer.) And all the pre-film promotional chatter, games, quizzes, interviews, etc. were not accessible. What—only hearing people want to know celebrity news and movie hype?
- What if a bunch of my D/deaf friends and I wanted to go to a movie? We couldn’t go spontaneously (what cinema is going to be able to guarantee six recharged devices always available?) or perhaps at all even if notice was given to a smaller company that might not have that many CaptiViews. So, in essence, we’re still facing a lack of or inadequate access. We’re still not able to participate fully in cultural content in the same way hearing folks are. Would it be okay if wheelchair ramps were only available 10% of the time?
In general, the experience wasn’t a disaster, but I certainly wasn’t enthralled with this option. Between my eyes constantly changing focus from short- to long-range, stumbling and losing story immersion when captions were missing, and missing a lot of the movie’s visual impact with the device as a distraction, I definitely did not engage with the film the way I normally would. In short, the CaptiView is sometimes available, but not always conducive to full cultural engagement, and that is a half-baked experience, not full access.
In December 2017, Charlie Swinbourne (UK journalist and Limping Chicken blogger about all things Deaf) started a poll to have UK cinemas dedicate one screen per multiplex to captioned movies. This was prompted after a fiasco of inaccessibility at the opening of The Last Jedi, where Deaf/deaf folks were treated shamefully. As of early January, he had 23,000 signatures and had spoken to cinema executives about relevant issues.
This coincided with the investigation I was carrying out over the pond, which I have tweeted about, and I have been engaging in similar conversations with execs of the cinema corps I have access to in Toronto: Cineplex, Lantern/Imagine, TIFF, Hal Jackman (formerly Cinématheque at the AGO), the Revue, the Royal, and Hot Docs (formerly the Bloor Cinema). I emailed each via general contact emails to start and asked what availability they had for Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing moviegoers. The responses—some seemingly canned, some more invested—are here.
I’ve had conversations with some of these same execs to see if I can’t do some educating about hearing loss, advocating for better accessibility, and asking for meaningful follow through. Some have indicated a willingness to implement more if more products were provided with caption files. The general public tends to blame the cinemas, but they can’t project captions that aren’t on the film file. It’s the movie producers who need to step up.
I also canvassed some small film producers who are making films on (their own) shoestring budgets. Again, there is willingness to caption but not available financial resources.
This investigation has convinced me that if there is to be greater access, it must begin with the major film producers—the ones with the financial ability and the cultural clout to make it the norm to include caption-accessible prints amongst their distributions. I bet if a close relative of one of the big wigs were deaf, they’d have captions all over their product, including trailers (of which I only saw one file on CaptiView for the upcoming Red Sparrows by 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment).
Finally, I don’t know why the government has paid only lip service to the large Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing communities, considering how many there are in Canada (most Western countries use the estimate of 10% of the population as having some form of hearing loss or problems). Accessibility to content for the Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing has been in the supposed forefront of accessibility changes for 30 years (really spurred on by the advent of VCRs in the 80s), but not much has changed. Currently, there's a survey about live captioning in Canadian TV, but this is duplication. The CRTC did a survey about captioning 10 years ago, and the requirement to provide captions (with various exceptions) is not enforced. You can read about its status here; while you can complain about bad captions, the independent ombudsman they promised in 2015 is still slated for the future. They've done standards policies, surveys, focus groups and pilot projects (2008, 2012, 2015). Where's the improvement? They don't seem to understand the nuances of captioning, reading, and how textual editing affects user experience. You can have the fastest captioners in the world produce CCs, but "quality control" needs to be two-stepped: technical and editorial. The latter is not taught or enforced. I know because I worked as a captioner. (I did offer to help set up a vocational school so that effective language training would be offered—in Canada, anyway. But crickets.)
VODS like Netflix* have continued to do the poorest job, just enough to stay out of regulatory trouble it seems, but my educational portfolio of hundreds of caption fails proves that the non-hearing are completely underserviced in all public services with captioning. Based on the attempts I’ve made to educate and offer improvement, the interest and will just isn’t there. And I’m not going to shut up about it until people needing excellent captioning in all aspects of life start seeing improvement to access, and therefore participation in Canadian life.
I’ve also written about 2017 being touted as the year of the deaf in the movies. Here’s what I thought about The Shape of Water, Wonderstruck and all the hype about D/deaf folks in film.
*I really don’t have a hate-on for Netflix alone; it’s just the system I have and use, not having a TV. But I do have ill regard for them: their attempts to service the non-hearing are terrible and nowhere near meet their advertised standards. This is because their system of hiring “Preferred Vendors” promotes unqualified bottom-feeders in many cases. (Not all—I have subtitling colleagues who are professional translators and titlers who are NPVs, but they are the exception to the rule.) If you’d like to send me screenshots of caption or subtitle fails from other sources, please do (firstname.lastname@example.org): I’ll add them to my portfolio of fails and fixes.
For information on booking teaching and speaking engagements, see that tab on my website.
Top image: from amazon.com
Bottom image: by author
A couple of movies with ASL and people go crazy, saying the tide has turned for Deaf/deaf actors and filmmakers. Um—not necessarily. Here’s a new-year look back at the hype and some re-examined perspective.
I loved Wonderstruck on a bunch of levels. Millicent Simmonds certainly appears to have an acting career ahead of her, but there was a lot of blowback about Julianne Moore having been cast to play a Deaf woman. The movement for equality in Hollywood often makes the point that mainstream actors should not be cast to play folks with various differences in terms of realism, employment for overlooked talent, and plain ol’ decency. Not being Deaf or deaf, I don’t feel qualified to comment on Moore’s casting or portrayal: I was too busy trying to watch the ASL by her and Tom Noonan, being a new student of signing myself.
I feel like the movie would have made more of a statement had it been distributed with open (always on) captions. It took some risks with a lot of other artistic choices but didn’t inherently provide access to all viewers and include the D/deaf/HoH except by half-assed access in some theatres with some assistance (in other words, the status quo). A petition about this went virtually nowhere.
I binged on the Call the Midwife series, which did use a deaf actress in Season 4, Episode 8. I can’t comment much as she learned BSL for her role and I am only familiar with ASL. But I can’t believe no one has batted an eye at IMDb’s plot outline being about “a deaf-and-dumb woman”! Have we just backslid several decades? Holy moly—send their PR department a cheat sheet on current acceptable vocabulary choices!
I went to The Shape of Water knowing I wasn’t really into director Guillermo del Toro, but my friend was curious and I wanted to see the ASL by Sally Hawkins. Again, not being D/deaf, I can’t really judge her skill. However, I was uncomfortable with the implied sim com. Simultaneous communication—signing and speaking English at the same time—is generally considered oppressive and disrespectful of the Deaf community and signing as a bona fide lanugage. In the movie, there are moments when Hawkins is signing and Richard Jenkins’s character is translating into English for himself, but the signs were syllabically aligned with sign movements, so the number of signs matched the number of words. This was factually incorrect interpretation, and it bugged me that a production decision was (seemingly) made to “make it equal” for the hearing audience to supposedly access the ASL. We made the signing inclusive by ironically captioning it for the hearing to access, but didn’t make the entire movie open-captioned for the deaf to access (again). That kind of inequality and ingrained exclusion makes me really annoyed. I don’t expect every screening of every film to be OCed, but one about a signer could surely have made a statement of inclusion like this, couldn’t it? Particularly since the main theme was otherness...
Some time ago, I wrote about The Tribe or Plemya (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014), an uncaptioned and unsubtitled Ukrainian sign-language film with no spoken dialogue, which was made all the more affecting by not making it accessible to the hearing with captions: it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve seen. If we want to get all warm and fuzzy about deafness entering mainstream pop culture, we need to back the production and embrace the release of art like this: made with and for (and preferably by) those being portrayed.
ABC’s Switched at Birth (exposed more broadly by Netflix) apparently drove tons of people to go sign up for ASL across North America. Once the complexity and demands of this beautiful and challenging language were encountered in the classroom, though, I wonder how many stuck it out? Marlee Matlin made sign language sexy to cinema, and her advocacy over the decades has improved attitudes towards the Deaf. ASL advocate and model Nyle DiMarco certainly turns heads "despite" being Deaf, and The ASL App has upped the cool factor. But let’s not get carried away and create a sanctimonious narrative that the movies are all over deafness and sign language. If there were sustained interest and true access, I wouldn’t be writing op eds about the need for excellence in captioning and the right to cultural access for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. In fact, there wouldn’t be any commentary about #DeafTalent: it would just be there, amidst the rest of the hearing world’s projects.
Top image: http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/2017/07/19/shape-water-trailer-sally-hawkins-meets-underwater-creature-guillermo-del-toros-latest/
Second image: www.vice.com
Captions and subtitles need "bibles" just like theatre pieces or movie productions. Like their literal iterations, these collections of information are guides for all the relevant players on how to present content so that it's clear, correct, and, most of all, consistent.
When I was a captioner, some shows had 'em and some didn't. Worst was when we had to consult fan wikis for character name spellings, backstory, etc. VODS, shows, and movies need bibles templated and used, if they're going to commit to full accessibility for all users.*
Depending on where the captioner or subtitler is, there are differences in how they would normally write as a layman and how they would do their work. A Canadian captioning a show from and about the States would defer to American dictionary spellings and definitions and standard writing style guides, plus the client's house style guide. But an American subtitling an import series from Scandinavia would be wise to not only adhere to the client's wishes and that country's standard guides but also recommend other applications based on show content and branding, audience composition and an eye to future distribution potential.
Show bibles vary from artform to artform. It may well develop to have set and costume notes and samples, helpful visual ephemera, guidelines on authorized style guides, character details, notes on directorial changes and edits (updated), and all of this should be backed up—at least twice. Hard copies might also be wise should the internetalypse happen midproduction.
Here's an example of what Netflix's much (self-)touted subtitling policies did not address or succeed at (or this wouldn't have happened).
Peaky Blinders, Season 4, Episode 5 (accessed December 2017). In one scene, Cockney Jewish character Alfie Solomons is saying Good boy but the caption says Goodbye. Perhaps the non-native captioner (or one without British background or dialectic familiarity) should not be the titler for dialogue if they can't understand the accent, let alone understand that Goodbye wouldn't even make sense in the context if that were the audio. It causes errors and (although apparently not here) extra costs in QC corrections.
Image: cropped screenshot accessed Netflix, Peaky Blinders, December 31, 2017.
If a show bible is not extant or available, a good editor will do some research and preferably some subsequent consultation. The latter should be done by the most qualified expert in their professional network: moms with English degrees don't count. Having established some form of NDA, the editor should present their problem and its context, their research, and a suggested edit to the consultant. Confirmation or correction should lead to a fix, and either way the edit should be flagged with a justified query or note to the managing editor. Time is tight on titling projects, but there's no excuse for guessing. I have a time limit on how long I'll do my own research before turning to an expert; if I can't get the ME a recommended edit, I'll pass on my recommendations for next steps.
This example also points out the pitfalls of having blinders on about vendors. Perhaps your regular multilingual translator in Europe is multitalented, but this show would have required a titler who had ties to or experience with people in London and Birmingham, for instance.
Another problem with this scene was when, in the same episode,
Alfie Solomons was captioned as speaking Italian when in fact he was speaking Yiddish...
...but the captioner didn't have enough linguistic background to tell the difference between gutteral and romance language phonemes. (Note that although different, captions and subtitles are sometimes needed in the same product. Read more here.) The titler should have consulted someone (or perhaps shouldn't have been contracted in the first place). I have a whole discrete presentation I can give about foreign language subtitling inconsistencies within Netflix captions; see the Engagements tab to book similar lessons and discussions.
So a bible, shared with the captioner, would have been available to tell them that Alfie Solomons is a Jew from the East End, living in Birmingham, with the common interruptor of the area's "yeah" and that he has no known connections to the Italian language. These are two instances where Netflix would have been saved embarrassment from YGWYPF vendors. If they aren't embarrassed, simply in terms of access to content for the deaf they should be.
Bibles can be simple, and they don't have to be pretty. But they do need to be complete, proactive, shared and USED.
*Read here about who should be using captions and/or subtitles (and sometimes both); it's not just a "deaf problem."
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 email@example.com. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.
Image 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 I’ll tell you later or Why can’t 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.
Especially for a government-published "educational" graphic about accessibility!
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 I’ll tell you later or Why can’t 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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently watched an amateur video about DIY captions. The fellow who made it was earnest, trying to make it easy for the average person to create captions, and I'm sure he meant well. But then he said that although they wouldn't be perfect, they'd be "good enough."
Granted, he was referring to fansubbing movies (which is a topic for another time), but I get the sense that this is a common attitude of the hearing world towards captioning for the accessibility purposes. Would blue and purple traffic lights be good enough? How about food with just a bit of salmonella? I know I wouldn't want to buy a tire with a slow leak.
Captions are used by the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing (Deaf/HoH), second-language learners, university students as study aids, people in sound-sensitive environments, and many other folks.
Many countries, provinces and states have legislated that media must provide video material that is accessible and that captioning be of excellent quality. It's not optional. But very rarely do I see closed captions that meet the required standards.*
Some producers of video rely on automated captioning services or, if they have "the budget for it," a closed-captioning provider. But the latter do not have trained professionals copy editing the files and/or they often don't understand the specialized editing required to meet the accessibility standards needed for users. Anybody can transcribe audio. But caption text has to be rendered readable by humans in 2-second chunks. And by readable, I mean comprehensible so that the entire video context is taken in with ease and appreciation for the content. But that's not what’s getting churned out. (See my opinion about video-on-demand services here.)
I'm tired of "good enough." I'm frustrated by reading about craptions being doled out to the Deaf/HoH. I'm fed up with empty promises about the delivery of accessibility.
When are the Deaf/HoH going to get the quality of captioning they're legally (and morally) entitled to? Why is "good enough" the status quo?
I've written many articles and posts about why captions and subtitles require not just proofreading but copy editing, just as the printed word does. (You can read them here to learn more about the nuts and bolts.) But I'm increasingly interested in making some noise about cranking up the demand for #NoMoreCraptions! As someone who appreciates closed captions (and may later need them more), I am no longer willing to let this slide.
“Captioning should not look like throwing magnetic letters on a fridge.”**
And yet, that's what the CC setting on our screens usually generates because (seemingly) providers don't think the Deaf/HoH are worth the expense of creating high-quality, copy-edited captions. Like other areas being bandaided because of a lack of enforcement or true dedication to creating accessibility (e.g. the wonderful but shamefully needed food banks, Stopgap Foundation, etc.), unedited captions are generally of such poor quality that they're useless and watching TV, movies, etc. is often given up on.** And saying there isn't money for quality captioning comes from an outlook of discrimination.
It's also uninformed. Budgeting for this aspect of production and distribution does not have to be expensive. If absolutely necessary, fine—use automated captioning in some form of AVR (automatic voice recognition). But then turn the rough copy over to a professional to be perfected. It's like writers who say they can't afford any professional editing or proofreading but then complain that no one bought their book: if its content isn't edited properly, readers aren't going to want to slog through it.
Until governments enforce the standards they've promised on paper so that the digital files are accompanied by high-quality captioning, they're short-changing the Deaf/HoH of their right to a huge part of full engagement in modern cultural content.
I'm not. . .er. . .crapping on the DIYer per se. I'm saying his comment is exemplary of the attitude society has towards people needing captioning: if you're not a hearing person, you can just make do with good enough. (And that's audism.)
*Canada's 2016 CRTC policy can be found here.
**Unattributed comments from CRTC 2008 Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities.
I'm sharing this good news as posted. I worked at these theatres (as did my dad as projectionist) with Dawn and Dan's father Peter.
City grants Mt. Pleasant theatre heritage status
Davisville landmarks opened in the ’20s and continue to show films today
Councillor Josh Matlow stands outside Mount Pleasant Theatre
The Regent Theatre and Mount Pleasant Theatre have both been a prominent part of Davisville village since the 1920s. Now, thanks to a motion put forward by councillor Josh Matlow of Ward 22, St. Paul’s, both buildings will stay that way. The two theatres were granted heritage status by the Toronto and East York Community Council in May.
“These movie houses are iconic institutions in our Midtown neighbourhood,” said Matlow. “When you come to the Davisville village, they stand out. They tell you where you are and give you a sense of identity and a story in the community. This is clearly linked to the architectural and cultural story of our community.”
The designation comes at an important time as several historic buildings in Midtown have been torn down in recent years, including the century-old Bank of Montreal building at Yonge Street and Roselawn Avenue and the Stollerys building at Yonge and Bloor Street.
Mount Pleasant Theatre, at 675 Mt Pleasant Rd., opened in 1926 and is one of Toronto’s oldest surviving movie theatres.
Regent Theatre, at 551 Mount Pleasant Rd., opened in 1927 as the Belsize Theatre. The marquee on the building facade and the architectural styling of the building represent the work of architect Murray Brown, who was well-known for designing movie theatres across Canada.
Both theatres are currently owned by Dawn and Dan Sorokolit. While a heritage designation is widely considered an honour that ensures a building will remain a part of Toronto’s history, it’s possible the theatres’ owners might not be happy about the designation. Moving forward, any plans to demolish or build overtop of either property will be subject to further approval from Heritage Preservation Services.
Post City reached out to the owners about the designation, however neither was available for comment.
“The theatres really are important to the landscape and the streetscape along Mount Pleasant Road.… They were both built at a time when the city was really expanding northward,” said Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming at Heritage Toronto. “They really are touchstones in a way that hearkens back to that period of change.”
Although community theatres across Toronto have largely been replaced by big multiplexes, like the Scotiabank Theatre, Mount Pleasant and Regent theatres both continue to show films today.
Netflix introduced a subtitling test called Hermes to vet potential vendors. Here's how it's inadequate and why not much is going to change.
- The announcement on the Netflix blog is rife with errors that need copy editing. That should be our first red flag.
- The comments following that post indicate that the test system itself is full of bugs; potential vendors ("Fulfillment Partners") can't access or proceed with parts of the text. (Ironically, one says the videos won't load.) Second red flag.
- The queries to Netflix from would-be test takers have not been replied to. Vendors might do well to take that as an indication of how they'd be treated if they were signed on to translate titles... While they invite contact via email, posting answers would be a more expeditious way of sharing info other folks would be needing.
- It refers to the importance of ensuring quality, but it contains writing not worthy of a communications professional. Aside from the errors mentioned above, there are scare quotes, which indicates to me that quality is not in fact ensured.
- It's copyrighted 2016 but was posted at the end of March 2017. This tells me that better meeting subscribers' viewing needs are not a priority, and that change in this area will be very slow.
I don't have a particular hate-on for Netflix: I'm sure most (S)VOD entities are streaming international shows with substandard subtitles. But it's the subscription I have and, as a professional, I can confidently report that the quality and consistency of title delivery is all over the map. (See a mini-gallery here of the hundreds of error examples I have on file.) They need subtitle editing, and they're going at it back-asswards. They could continue to use current vendors and have the files edited as tweaks. No need to re-invent the wheel. And that new wheel is going to raise your subscription price.
They're big on tech innovation (e.g. here), but if basic spelling and grammar errors prevent comprehension, it's sort of useless. Reminds me of the joke cartoon of the caveman who invented square wheels for his cart.
Here's an example. It's not huge, but it's telling. Netflix house style apparently allows for the use of "alright" in its subtitle translations. That spelling is recognized as a nonstandard alternate but is not the recommended or preferred spelling in Canadian, American or British dictionaries. If non-English shows and films are to be streamed in what is commonly called "world English" and usually defers to UK preferences, why are they condoning a second-choice, nonstandard—I'd go so far as to say colloquial or popular—spelling for a common idiom? Standard spellings and conventions are taught and used for good reason, and there is no contextual reason to use variations in most cases. It's sloppy, and it shows a disregard for viewers who use titles for many different reasons.
What bothers me about the providers and the regulation makers is that improvements to subtitles and captions are moving at a snail's pace. In Canada, a report issued in 2008 revealed useful—and at times poignant—data and commentary on the state of accessible telecommunications and, while much has been done on paper,
people with disabilities are still not treated with the respect (via access) that other Canadians enjoy.
From what I see in industry sources and reporting, it's not much better elsewhere.
And if you'd like to watch video programming made in other countries, you'd better resign yourself to subtitling that does not facilitate your immersion into the story. See my case for subtitle editing here.
Craptions is a lighthearted word, but the bureaucracies and corporate attitudes preventing us from having (long overdue) accessibility and seamless enjoyment of mainstream culture is no laughing matter.
If you have experiences with poor subtitles and captions, please share them in the comment section.
Get Noticed for the Right Reasons
You've invested a lot of time, money and heart into making your film, show or video. You have big plans for distribution—whether it's worldwide or just to corporate headquarters. You can't afford to become one of those online memes because of errors.
Reel Words is the only subtitle editing company providing quality control for flawless English text because it's the only one with extensive editorial and titling experience behind it. Translators and transcribers are terrific at their craft but, like authors of books, they're not trained to review text for correctness, consistency and clarity.
Don't settle for error-ridden automated titles. Impress distributors or stakeholders with professional-looking, accurate subtitles or captions, and enjoy rave reviews from audiences by fulfilling the growing demand for No More Craptions!
Fuzzy on the difference between subtitles and captions? We tend to use the terms fairly interchangeably, lumping them into some vague notions about "boring films" and closed captions on TV "for the deaf." But they are distinct animals, and here I'll share some straightforward info about the two, why the distinction matters, and why they're necessary.
Let's start chronologically, with subtitles. Before talkie films, silent films relied on cards with text shown for several frames, to insert dialogue or other information relevant to the story. Later (see the links provided under History to fill jump ahead), subtitles were introduced so that audiences of foreign films to translated the actors' words. Although helping hearing people understand the language, subtitles are also used in teaching scenarios, as visual reinforcement of the audio aids language acquisition.
Subtitles tend to be at the bottom centre of the screen (although that convention is changing in some productions), they can be turned off (they can be "closed"), and they never mention the onscreen audio language, although they may when another language is used in the action. They often are not used if the audio is considered common knowledge or if the word sounds the same in the translated language (e.g. a lot of languages use some form of the word "cool" or "okay"). Subtitled films can subsequently be captioned. You'll see why below.
Captions are intended for the Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing, people with a variety of hearing issues (such as the ones I outlined in the here), and in situations that aid the hearing audience: noisy spaces or places where the sound has been turned off. They can be closed (optional) or open (embedded in the video). Sometimes their position moves to indicate who is speaking or that name can be explicitly shown, such as [VANESSA:] or >> TV anchor. They are usually in the same language as the audio and provide all utterances, tone of voice, atmospheric sounds or other effects. They can be added to subtitled work if this latter information needs to be conveyed for the CC audience.
The commonality is that both are often poorly written, or lack lustre at best. Many countries now have laws and regulations in effect to require that film productions and TV shows are distributed and broadcast with content that communicates with almost perfect verbatim accuracy and correct syntax, presentation, etc. That's where we come in.
Communication is a right, not a privilege.
In my work experience, subtitlers are professional translators and titlers who, despite their advanced training and skills, are hired at very low rates and with unreasonable turnarounds. It's no surprise, then, that they are too rushed to create a perfect file or that less trained people are awarded files. Unfortunately, subtitles are not considered important, seemingly something to slap on the end product to say it was done, without considering how their level of quality affects the viewer's immersion in the film. Which is counterproductive to critical and popular success, isn't it?
Closed captions are created with the same attitude (again, in my experience; others might have had better luck): captioners are typically not paid a living wage, and the speed at which they have to process material before broadcast encourages errors in spelling, grammar and written style. [However, house styles and extenuating circumstances in the material can force those shifts and they are then not errors.] Often they are hired largely based on keyboarding speed, and writing and editing training is erroneously considered irrelevant. When I captioned, the employees processing several shows or movies per day had no time or knowledge to be able to apply the editing I do, and the quality assurance supervisors were in the same boat.
So, while their form and function can be quite different, subtitles and captions both require editing. Google "caption errors" and the images that show up readily prove my point. No one is offering the editing Reel Words is, despite the very real need. And it's a shame because it is disrespectful of viewers who require the accessibility to fully participate in current culture and it ruins the enjoyment of audiences who love foreign films. Basically, the current state of affairs in subtitling and captioning is unacceptably abysmal.
The goal of all film storytellers is to keep their audiences completely immersed in the content; once attention is sidelined by errors, the flow is lost while the brain struggles to figure out what was (not) communicated and to keep up with the subsequent titles.
Our view is that we all deserve better—whether we are hearing or non-hearing. We expect outstanding CGI reults and online variety, but captions and subtitles are ignored. Part of the ethos of Reel Words is to advocate for actual improvement in standards, not just on the books. No More Craptions! may be lighthearted in tone, but the rallying cry is serious in vision.
Closed captions used to be considered a frill, and now they are required. Together, let's demand improvements in quality. If you are a producer, you can start by having your subtitle or caption file edited.
Photo source: frankieleon, let's compare apples and oranges, May 3, 2009 on Flickr.com
You might think subtitles and captions are compartmentalized in one or two business niches like foreign films and TV shows watched by people with hearing loss. But there are many places captions and subtitles are needed, and if you produce any of the following, you need to have them edited properly for consistency, correctness, and clarity if you want your target audience to benefit from them.
Before you scroll away because you "don’t know any deaf people," consider this: you may think you don't, but a lot of people don't advertise their deafness because a) it doesn't define them, and b) it's frustrating to keep explaining it over and over to hearing people.
Here are some examples of products and users for where there's a need for a final edit for audience immersion and comprehension:
- hearing and deaf friends who want to see a movie together
- English language learners
- people needing cognitive support with visual reinforcement cues
- shows with heavily accented or audio-obscured speakers
- folks in noisy or quiet places or where the volume is off or problematic
- company profile videos
- corporate promos and demos
- automatically craptioned YouTube videos
- educational and training videos
- supertitles for live performances, such as opera or bilingual theatre
- projection of lyrics for sing-along events, movies or congregational worship
- TV pitches and pilots
- conference recordings
- DIY videos
- online tutorials
- captioned programming requiring localization (i.e. using the correct conventions for another country's standard English)
- presentations and pre-written talks
- institutional video archives
- reported speech on TV shows (e.g. quoting a speaker on a news report)
- museum or art exhibits
- retrofitting outdated visual materials (especially in light of new legislation in many areas which directs content to be fully accessible)
The beauty of subtitle editing is that you aren't adding a large expense to your budget: the larger outlay is already done (translation and/or transcription), so you're only paying for an edit of your current product, which will be recouped by higher sales from satisfied customers and, by extension, word of mouth. It's an affordable add-on that increases product value, adheres to accessibility rights, and gives you an edge over competitors. You stand to win when others in the marketplace are generating social media memes for their uncaught errors in the current grammar-vigilante atmosphere. It's not true that the public doesn't care about spelling and grammar: they judge reliability and credibility by professionally presented products and copy and, if they're comparison shopping, they're bound to choose the company that communicates flawlessly.
The window from the small dark room into the large dark room had a sill depth of about eight inches, or so I remember it. I would perch on the high metal stool—but carefully because there was no back—and peer as far into the view port as I could with my knees pressed against the wall. I was six, and I was watching Oliver! from the projection booth at the Mt. Pleasant Theatre in Toronto. I was riveted but terrified of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes: it was the first murder I had ever encountered. But I knew I was safe because my dad was the projectionist, and he was beside me.
Our family trade was film projection, although Wells Bros. Amusements had started out as a general entertainment venture in 1908, Carol C. Wells (pictured right) and brother Sam I. Wells being about 20 years old. Soon, they had a travelling Wild West Show that went from the CNE on to the fair circuit in southern Ontario. That same year, they had the idea to expand upon the wildly popular motion-picture industry by having a travelling motion-picture show and, with the purchase of a projector and portable booth, the family trade was born. My grandfather was responsible for creating safer booths that became the provincial occupational standard, so that the heat and chemical dangers of projection were lessened. Their letterhead explains the work their partnership undertook. Fortunately, a written account of their business remains.
Later, my dad, his brothers Howard and Gordon, his brother-in-law Richard, my cousin Charles and his son Andrew took up the apprenticeship of movie projection. My cousin and his son, like so many others, lost their work to technological developments, namely the digitization of film projection.
But I spent my childhood in movie theatres: initially in the booths, later working at the candy bars of the Crest and Mt. Pleasant Theatres on Mt. Pleasant Rd. in Toronto. I loved this job because I got to see free movies, and I was welcome to free popcorn and pop: Orange Crush and buttered corn for me, in those days. Sometimes my boss, theatre-owner Peter Sorok, would give me stills or posters once the movie was finished its run: my Chariots of Fire poster was a prized possession for many years. If I haunted the theatres my relatives were working in, I’d always get a pass for myself and a friend. It was a pretty sweet perk.
I had a polyester smock that zipped up and had pockets—I think it was red, with white trim—that I wore behind the candy bar. My friend Cameron, an usher, often had to help me out at intermission between double bills: the restrictive area behind the popcorn and pop machines often lent itself to us blushing, trying to jockey around each other and serve dozens (hundreds?) of customers ASAP.
In between candy-bar rushes, we would sweep the carpet or refill supplies or check the neatness of the bathrooms. Usually, if I were working without an usher, I would sit on one of the lobby chairs and do my Latin homework under the cast iron, Italianate wall sconces. The best part about the theatre then, either as a viewer or candy bar girl, was that you could smoke there. The last six rows of the mezzanine and the balcony were smoking areas! You’d just throw your butt on the floor, and the usher would sweep it up later. Amazing!
I saw iconic movies there: Apocalypse Now; The Rose; Chariots of Fire. I probably saw some flops. But I could watch them over and over, to my heart’s content.
When I got older, I was allowed to start working the box office at the Crest; in 1980, this involved some cash in a drawer and a hand-torn ticket.
I remember some patrons. There was one man who underestimated the arc of the large, glass entrance door and its force when swung open, and he was knocked to the ground by it, his nose broken and bleeding like crazy. He said he had been so excited to get there just on time that he didn’t really watch what he was doing.
There was a lady who would come for weekend double bills and only order a small plain popcorn at intermission—in those days, probably about a 12 ounce container: she told us she had lost over a hundred pounds, and that was her one cheat that she allowed herself in celebration and as part of her diet maintenance.
It was there that I learned that newspaper and vinegar were excellent materials for cleaning windows without streaks.
And it was to be the last job I had that would not charge me income tax. I think my little brown pay envelope contained earnings at a rate of about $2.35/hr by the time I left. I would walk the mile and a half home in my cool leather clogs and boho clothes, feeling independent and excited by film. If my dad was the projectionist that night, I wouldn’t stay til the end of the movie for a ride home, but I would’ve had a lift to the theatre as we started at the same time.
Nowadays, I go to the movies in three different ways. My number one choice is always the local, independent cinema, because they don’t tend to play the kinds of movies that require pre-show games, noise and flashing lights like the big chains offer. Sometimes I fork out for the Varsity VIP: the seats are roomy and the price usually discourages audience types who text or talk through the movie. Finally, I go to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for more "serious" film experiences. Those soundproof auditoriums do wonders. But always, I go at least a half hour early to be the first in to get the end seat of the back row. If I can’t do that, I won’t go. At home, I don't have TV, but I watch Netflix on my computer.
Recently at TIFF, I looked up into the lit projection booth where there were aluminum ducts and other unfamiliar machinery parts visible. I also spotted a computer screen. If my dad were still alive, he wouldn’t know how to run a movie today.
But sitting in the booth with him was like magic. He’d spool film onto reels, prepare the jump, fire up the second projector, and start rewinding the played reel for the next show. He taught me how to assess a good jump at the cue dot.
I know most nights he would drink coffee and read novels during down times, but I think he did this second job (on top of telecine at CBC) because he had drunk the movie Kool-Aid, too. He’d grown up in an era of motion picture madness and in a family that ate, drank and breathed "show business."
I didn’t go into film studies or production or theatre management. I would have made a great continuity girl, I’ve been told. My mother-in-law has won Geminis for her movie-costume designs. Somehow my connection has remained fairly common: a movie lover who experiences the medium on large screens, on DVD or online. But I do feel an affinity for the whole area of movies and cinemas, both as art and as social gauge.
Mostly, though, I treasure my memories of peering through the view port into the auditorium. It was a sacred space to me, and it planted a seed that grew into my love of the movies.
~ FIN ~
Epilogue: For an update on the Mt. Pleasant and Regent (Crest) Theatres, click here to read some good news!
The explosion of access to international shows and films from independent filmmakers and from (S)VOD* suppliers like Netflix provides viewers with diverse and exciting choices. Many series and movies are outstanding. Except in one area.
If you hope to reach viewers around the globe, your production’s subtitles or captions must communicate flawlessly, and currently many are failing miserably.
You only have about 2 seconds per title to enable the viewer to absorb the content, so it needs to be picture-perfect.
What does picture-perfect mean in subtitling? It requires quality-control editing to catch more potential problem areas than you’d think. Recently, I did a survey of pitfalls in the final episode of a foreign TV series I’d been watching on Netflix. During that one episode, I documented 84 discrete errors—meaning 84 usage errors, not repeated occurrences like “hte” or even the possible multiple errors within one word or phrase.
At that rate, the reader stumbles due to incorrect subtitles about every 30 seconds and loses concentration on the dialogue.
By the time the brain has sorted out the discrepancy or compensated for misunderstanding, another title has flown by. Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.
The problems I found in the show I surveyed involved not just typos but also errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, timing, capitalization, speaker identification and, most often, idiomatic usage.** Never mind missing titles or titling a character’s use of the English “Okay.” with “alright”. [Can you identify the 5 errors there?] A subtitle editor would catch and fix those.
Why does this happen? It’s probably not the subtitler’s/captioner’s fault. They work under extremely tight deadlines. Good translation takes time. The technology is intricate. And they are usually not briefed to copy edit—nor should they be: translation and copy editing for film are totally different skill sets.
Many shows are titled by people contracted to do the freelance work by companies that, frankly, want output quantity rather than quality. But if you’re working with a professional subtitler and translator, such as those affiliated with SUBTLE, the international Subtitlers’ Association (full disclosure: I’m a member), you are likely dealing with a highly trained and invested individual contractor or small company. Just like writers who need copy editors and proofreaders, as the filmmaker you may wish to hire a collaborative team: the translator/subtitler and the subtitle editor to check for idiomatic correctness. Did you know that “English” in print and film is edited by country? Editing English texts from Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia requires education and experience in working with those countries’ conventions. Like all types of editing, to edit titles for film you need more than experience helping your friends with their resumes or teaching English for 20 years. You need formal training and ongoing professional development because “the rules” are always changing.
“Native speakers only” is not an adequate qualification requirement for captioning.
Subtitle editing is affordable because the subtitler has done the bulk of the work; the editing just cleans up the titles with a fresh pair of eyes and ensures that your long and expensive project is professional and truly accessible.
The goal of subtitles and captions is to communicate while making viewers forget they are reading titles. Good titling is as important as movie soundtracks: they should enhance the experience while being unnoticeable in the moment.
*(Subscription) Video on Demand
"Facilitate viewer immersion" (and all grammatical variations of it) is a copyrighted phrase. © Vanessa Wells, 2017.
Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008, Flickr.com
You might wonder what a subtitle editor is, since many companies already offer subtitle translations. Those like my colleagues in SUBTLE (Subtitlers' Association) produce professional results—yay! But frankly, subtitling companies are hanging out their shingles despite lacking one important component: editing skills. (Not technical video editors: that's a different area.) I realized this when I worked in captioning and saw how the products needed editing. It's like expecting authors to turn out perfect books without manuscript editing: not good.
Subtitles cannot be flawless or even excellent without editing, and they require a trained, professional editor who is also knowledgeable about captioning and subtitling, translation, foreign languages, linguistics and the conventions of different kinds of English. Otherwise, the results are unsatisfactory: even if you aren't reading them critically, imperfect subtitles are distracting.
Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.
A subtitle editor checks, adjusts and polishes the text so that it is clear, consistent and correct.
Did you try to solve the challenge I included in a recent post? After seeing 84 discrete subtitle errors in one episode of a show on Netflix, I posted one example and suggested that there were 5 errors in it and asked if you could find them. The subtitle read:
for a non-English-speaking character saying
In fact, I'd even argue that there are 6 errors in that one word. (Email me if you think you can figure out the problems in that example.) But that word distracted me, and I didn't even have my editor's cap on—I was just chilling with a show on the weekend. Not the end of the world, granted; but my reading brain stumbled, and that caused me to pause, which caused me to miss the next title, which made me lose the thread of the dialogue, and I had to rewind. (This is especially problematic if you're watching a show that is info-heavy, such as a mystery or crime thriller.)
While providers like Netflix are rolling out new services to try and produce better subtitle translations, they're still missing this essential step in the process. No reputable book publisher would release a book without editing or proofreading done. But more on that in a future article.
So if you watch shows and films to relax and to rest your weary brain and you don't want to have to think while you're doing it (isn't that the point of recreational viewing?), you should be demanding this level of production from providers. Part of your monthly subscription fee or movie charges goes to subtitling, so you might as well get good product for your money. Would you want to buy a new book that hadn't been edited? No, but we constantly do because it's considered too costly by a lot of publishers now. If you expect your can of paint to be sold with a handle attached or fruit not to be sold when it's moldy, why are you settling for second rate in your entertainment? Rise up, good people, and demand excellence! It doesn't look like online viewing is going away anytime soon, but if we continue to accept second-best quality, we'll soon be given third.
Clear communication is not a frill, it's a basic requirement.
To see the areas of both work and play which need excellence in captioning and subtitling, see my post, Who Needs Subtitle Editing?
Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008, Flickr.com
Here is the Hindi version of the subtitle edit post from this week:
कनाडा में फिल्मकारों के लिए मुफ़्त फ़िल्म सबटाइटल सम्पादन का मौका
क्या आप कनाडा में रह रहे एक फिल्मकार हैं? क्या आपके पास अंग्रेज़ी के अतिरिक्त किसी दूसरी भाषा में बनी फ़िल्म है? आप अपनी फ़िल्म की रिलीज़ के पहले उसके कैप्शंस या सबटाइटलों के अनुवाद का मुफ़्त सम्पादन जीत सकते हैं!
19 अप्रैल 2017 को मनाए जाने वाले नेशनल कैनेडियन फ़िल्म डे 150 (NCFD 150) #CanFilmDay के उपलक्ष्य में को वेल्स रीड एडिटिंग द्वारा 25 अप्रैल की शाम को एक लकी ड्रा का आयोजन किया जा रहा है (रैंडम पिकर द्वारा, अधिकतम 1000 प्रविष्टियाँ). विजेता को एक फ़िल्म के अंग्रेज़ी सबटाइटलों की मुफ़्त प्रूफरीडिंग, सम्पादन और भाषागत शुद्धता की जाँच की सुविधा दी जाएगी.
ड्रा में भाग लेने के लिए आपको कनाडा का नागरिक होना ज़रूरी नहीं है, लेकिन यह आवश्यक है कि आपकी आयु 18 साल या उस से अधिक हो और आप कनाडा में अपने वर्तमान पते और काम/सेल्फ़ एम्प्लॉयमेंट/फ़िल्म स्टडीज़/अमेचर फ़िल्म निर्माण का सबूत दें. फ़िल्म की लम्बाई दो घंटे से से अधिक नहीं होनी चाहिए, हालाँकि 120 फ़िल्म मिनट से अधिक का काम हमारी सामान्य दरों पर पूरा किया जा सकता है; इस स्थिति में भुगतान पहले से तय और अग्रिम होगा. समय की गिनती पहले फ्रेम से शुरू होगी, चाहे वह क्रेडिट टाइटल/विजुअल हों. काम के पूरा होने की तारीख़ सम्पादक और विजेता द्वारा तय की जाएगी. सबटाइटल अंग्रेज़ी भाषा में ही होने चाहिए, और आपको यह तय करना होगा कि कैनेडियन, अमेरिकन, ब्रिटिश और ऑस्ट्रेलियन में से किस पद्धति की अंग्रेज़ी का प्रयोग किया जाएगा (आप जिस बाज़ार में अपनी फ़िल्म ले जाना चाहते हैं, उसके अनुसार). इस ड्रा के पुरस्कार के रूप में दी गई सेवा में सम्पादन का काम टेक्स्ट डॉक्यूमेंट या स्क्रीनशॉट के पीडीएफ़ में मार्क-अप के साथ या संपादक और विजेता द्वारा तय किये गए अन्य किसी तरीके से होगा. सम्पादित सबटाइटल को वीडियो फ़ाइल या टाइटलिंग सोफ्ट्वेयर में एम्बेड करना इस पुरस्कार का हिस्सा नहीं है. फ़िल्म के क्रेडिट्स में '"Subtitle Editing by Wells Read Editing" शामिल किया जाएगा.
भाग लेने के लिए @vwellseditor को संबोधित करते हुए #CanFilmDay #SubtitleEditDraw हैशटैग के साथ ट्वीट करें.
I would like to thank editorial colleagues Shruti Nagar for translating this post and the related tweet and Vivek Kumar for his additional help.
Are you a filmmaker in Canada? Do you have a film made in a language other than English? You could win a subtitle edit of your transcribed captions or translated subtitles before your film’s release!
In celebration of National Canadian Film Day 150 (NCFD 150) #CanFilmDay on April 19, 2017, Wells Read Editing will hold a draw (via Random Picker, maximum 1000 entries) on April 26 for entries received by (re-)tweet with the hashtags #CanFilmDay #SubtitleEditDraw by 11:59pm EST on April 25. One winner will have one film’s English subtitles proofread, edited and checked for idiomatic correctness for FREE; two alternates will be generated by the software in case the winner cannot accept the prize.
Entrants do not have to be Canadian citizens but must be 18 years of age or older and able to provide current proof of residence, work/self-employment/film studies/amateur film making in Canada. Film length is not to exceed two hours, although work past 120 film minutes may be completed at regular fees; payment to be arranged and paid in advance; minutes begin with opening frame even if they are credit titles/visuals. Date of work fulfillment to be determined between editor and winner. Language of subtitles must be English, and Canadian, American, British or Australian conventions can be specified (depending on your intended market). For this draw’s prize, editing will not be embedded in the titling software or video file and will be completed by text document, screenshot PDFs with mark up or another mutually agreed-upon manner. Film credits will include reference to “Subtitle Editing by Wells Read Editing.”
To enter, tweet #CanFilmDay #SubtitleEditDraw to @vwellseditor
~ FIN ~
It happened again.
I was watching a foreign film with subtitles. They were very well done: the English was correct, the titles themselves were very readable, and the subtitling did not distract from the content—which is one of the key requirements of successful titling.
But, as I am wont to do, I stayed and read the credits. [Insert car-brakes-screeching sound effect.]
“Filmed on Loaction”
I wasn’t obsessively looking for errors. I wasn’t putting on my Holier Than Thou grammar hat. But this jumped out at me, all the way to the back row of the theatre.
Granted: errors in subtitling or end credits are not the end of the world. They don’t make it a horrible cinematic experience. And mistakes slip by. But doesn’t the visual text of the project you’ve slaved over for months or years warrant a professional once-over? Doesn’t it deserve to have all its elements treated with regard for correctness and excellence? Shouldn’t the film have a great shot at international marketability and good critical reception?
If you skip the proofreading of your film’s text, you may be sending a message to your audience that they’re not worth considering: it’s only the end credits, right?
If you skip the proofreading of the subtitles, you may be sending a message to foreign distributors that their audiences aren’t as important as your original-language audience was to you: it’s just a secondary market, so no big deal.
This is not about being too uptight, too nit-picky, too pedantic. You wouldn’t distribute your film with sloppy sound editing or jump cuts. You probably have someone (or plural, if you’re lucky) either exclusively handling or at least keeping an eye on prop and costume continuity. You want to create a beautiful, whole and masterly film. So you can’t afford to leave the most in-their-face part of the film half-addressed for your audience. If you do, you’re—perhaps only subconsciously—conveying an attitude that says that film can be dumbed down for the masses and that the bums-in-seats don’t care about writing and language or their experience with your art.
If your production budget is over $5000, you need to have an editor review the text or at least a proofreader look at it with fresh eyes. (Your mum/husband/BFF won’t do because there are things to consider that they aren’t trained to look for.) For as little as the price of a couple of first-release DVDs, you can have your post-production text in a workplace-training video reviewed (word count depending, of course). For the price you’d plunk down for a new cellphone, you can have your short documentary proofread.
All the social media shares of signs with bad spelling, grammar and punctuation are an indicator of the appetite people have for mocking errors. If you don’t want your work turned into a derisory meme that gets more coverage than the original piece, you need to consider this often-overlooked aspect of post-production.
Just as THX reminds us that “the audience is listening,” it would be wise to remember that it is reading, too.
This is the first of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The others will address inadequate translations and poor word choices in subtitles. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors’ Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers’ Association.
Very generally, subtitles are used in film and TV for translating foreign or indistinct speech and closed captions are for providing the hearing-impaired viewer with the audio information they are missing. As I said in the first article of this series, subtitling must not distract from the film experience, so titles or captions both require judicious choice of wording.
There are many variables involved in subtitling that aren’t evident when we watch a subtitled foreign film or closed-captioned TV show. As in many areas, projects are usually not adhering to their projected timeline, and titlers (like book proofreaders) are at the end of the process; read: rush job with no rush-job fees. Subtitling and captioning have many spatial and temporal requirements; some are based on government standards, others on average reading rates, on industry-wide conventions, and so on. Pop-ons and roll-ups use different production models. And cost is affected by companies using international roster or tender systems for finding the most cost-effective labour market they can. So it’s not always fair to complain about subtitle quality but, reasons or excuses aside, they do get noticed and it does matter.
The reason [Sadly go-karts] is lamentable is that there is a finesse to captioning and subtitling in knowing what needs to be written and when. Paul Aaron (above) is neither saying that he is sadly go-karting, nor is that a sound that must be replicated for the viewer: it’s a visual, and it’s self-evident.
Let’s look at some other problematic subtitles and captions.
I’m sure you can discern the utter uselessness of this one:
Or this one:
But what about this one?
It is sort of funny, and it does the trick. But “sissy” is a subjective description, and it’s likely a localized idiom that may not communicate to people of all ages or all cultures. An editor should have flagged this caption as problematic because it could put up a potential barrier between the medium and some viewers.
Here’s an easy one:
It’s obvious, it’s visual, and anger itself is not a missed sound.
And here’s one for the “intensity” sub-genre of bad captions:
You can’t steal intensely; you can only steal with intense emotions. Even then, this is not a word or sound to be communicated aurally.
Just as you can’t loudly imply cannibalism:
You could perhaps convey that there is a loud gnawing sound, but if it’s cannibalistic eating, that’s either known to the viewer or will be, but cannibalism is not inherently aural, nor is implication loud.
Here’s another inaccurate one that a caption editor would have re-written:
I saw this episode of Orange Is the New Black, and Piper is not urinating forcefully, as if she were straining with a kidney stone; she had been desperate to go for hours and was finally allowed to but only with a male guard present. A more accurate title would have said [Urgent stream of urine]. That’s a sound and that fills in the missing information more correctly. Her face conveys her disgust.
This isn’t the worst caption in the world:
But in best practices, it might have been better to write something like “Expresses indecision” (if that were the case; I don’t know the scene) because the “I don’t know” sound is a culturally differentiated mannerism.
There are others which can be trickier, however.
[Not as good as drugs]? I don’t recall this Breaking Bad scene. But the square brackets indicate Paul Aaron is not speaking those words; perhaps he is otherwise communicating that the food he is accepting is not as satisfying as a drug high. We don’t know what is not as good as drugs (we can only assume from the visual cue that it is food) and again it’s not a sound that needs captioning. If he were eating but really wanted drugs, a correct caption might be [Grunts resignedly].
My final example is not from a subtitle or caption but could easily be. A fellow editor told of a South African correspondent who was talking about a "toot" which, to her, meant a drink. My colleague commented that "toot" means something very different to us in North America (and she didn’t mean a cute car-horn sound). This demonstrates the need to have an editor review the text for idioms appropriate for the intended market. Sometimes idioms must be retained to convey cultural richness and idiosyncrasies in the story, but it is important to have someone who is aware of potential stumbling blocks (and riotous audience laughter) and who is capable of supplying synonyms that will still work with the film. The Harry Potter books were Americanized for this continent’s market (and some would argue unnecessarily), but there are times when professional copy editing of the subtitles can prevent gaffes, offence or derision and—ultimately—loss of post-distribution revenue.
Subtitlers and captioners have to work at unbelievable speeds and too often with insultingly low pay. It's not always their fault if the titles we see are poor or just plain wrong. But a subtitling editor can check the work with a lot less hassle than your production team would have going back down the pipeline to get the errors dealt with. Then, when your film is received with popular and critical acclaim, you can pop that bottle of bubbly and have a toot to celebrate!
This is the second of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The first addressed proofreading as a basic component to post-production and the final one will deal with inadequate translations. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors' Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers' Association.
The balance of the photos used in this post were retrieved on July 7, 2016 from here.
Parts I and II discussed the need for filmmakers to incorporate proofreading and copy editing respectively into their post-production plans. I also wrote about some of the technical difficulties titlers and captioners face, including time and space, which are connected to fonts and the languages themselves. For instance, French text is typically 20% longer than English, so if titling for an English-to-French film, you'd have to take all of these things into consideration to keep the titling up to speed with the English actors' speech.
In this final piece, I'll discuss issues of translation for subtitles, and you'll note complicating crossover problems. I picked a random foreign film to examine its subtitles' translation. (I'm not going to name the film because my aim is not to shame anyone making mistakes, for reasons outlined in Part II). I'll simply outline typical problems I found in it.
First some good points: the translator used slang such as "gonna" appropriately, based on character. They correctly ignored a lot of background chatter that was intended to establish setting elements and that was not integral to the plot or action. For the most part, idioms were correctly used. I bristled a little at the choice of US over UK/World English spelling but, looking at the secondary releases, I see that it had greater American than European distribution, so fair enough. (Although I still believe that World English is preferable because it prevents reader stumbling for more viewers worldwide.)
As in any copy editing job, there are stylistic choices decided on by the higher-ups which must be respected. Just as in editing an author's book, you can't hijack their style and have it your way, unless you can demonstrate your concerns about potential problems the reader may encounter and provide workable solutions. So this film used some editing choices in the subtitles that I found a bit clunky for continuity, such as capitalizing a new phrase following an ellipsis from another frame, when I would have used less distracting commas and lower-case letters, as it befitted the grammar. I found my eye jumping to the upper case and wondering if I'd lost the train of conversation from the last title. However, this is a grey area.
But my encounters with inconsistencies, treatments of numbers, expressions and, most egregiously, omitted titles were problematic.
Aside from the above regarding caps following ellipses, there were too many inconsistencies in punctuation treatment. Numerous clauses and sentences were incorrectly elided, either with too many or incorrectly placed commas, so that some sequences of subtitles should have been self-contained sentences and some should have been restricted to fewer clauses. Good writing in the script was misrepresented as long strings of spoken clauses.This sloppiness loses the reader, whose focus is returned to concentrating on the subtitles rather than absorbing their content subconsciously.
The treatment of numbers may seem like a picky topic, but it's not. Generally, editing conventions are to write out numbers between zero and nine or ten and to use numerals for 11 and above. Even if this had not been the stylistic choice, the jumping around was very distracting. I saw "2," "1st," "6-7 years" and, worst, "five minutes" and "15 minutes" and "30 minutes." In their contexts, those first three examples should have been written as "two," "first," and "six to seven years." Yes, the last three follow the above convention but a good editor knows when to break the rules to maintain reading flow. The scene involved counting off time being wasted by a character, so for better flow, I would have recommended using "5 minutes" to match the latter two time references.
Another translation and copy editing issue was around "n" and "N" plus a numeral: viewers were expected to know that "n55" and (inconsistently) "N55" meant number 55 or #55 as used in street addresses. This kind of error shows lack of consideration for the audience: it assumes a worldliness in all filmgoers, that they will know cultural references for all countries.
Here is another example of culturally differentiated mannerisms not being served by the subtitles. A character said she was going for—and made a going-to-sleep gesture, putting her head to the side on her joined hands under her ear. This is a gesture that is not culturally exclusive and probably is understood by most of the world as meaning "going to sleep." But in this case the subtitle was not left out and inserted "A nap!" (which is both incorrectly capped and punctuated); this is poor titling because she did not say "a nap" verbally, she only gesturally conveyed it.
One expression missed the mark. "It's a bit tradesman's entrance" should have been "It's a bit of a tradesman's entrance" or, because the point was to emphasize the slang and the distaste of the speaker, "It's a bit of a tradesman's entrance" (since italics would work better than single quotes inside double in titles). Not a horrendous problem, but I was stopped momentarily by it.
The choice to omit subtitles for some words was very unwise. One example was when a foreign word on a sign, key to a sub-plot, was left untranslated. It should be assumed that filmgoers are not all bilingual or multilingual and, even if they are, that the film's original language might not be one of theirs (and English itself might be a learned tongue). This type of error excludes some viewers and affects their experience with the film.
The other omission was frequent: completely non-existent subtitles for foreign words that were proper names for objects—and inconsistently! The post-production team and translator should have discussed and decided on the treatment of these names, applied the usage consistently and, again, not made assumptions about the viewers and what is general knowledge, especially when it applied to another language and a very particular niche of work. Equally annoying was when they allowed a spoken English word mid-phrase to have no subtitle, because it was assumed the English viewer knew what it meant. But when you have an actor saying it with an accent and when you drop a subtitle off, that creates reading and film-watching stumbles. Here is a fictional example of what I'm referring to:
Yes, it was on the
Was it? I didn't see that.
The words "BBC News" were omitted because they were spoken in English. But that is egregiously poor subtitling practice. The constant omissions were very distracting from the film experience, which is antithetical to subtitling and captioning.
It is rare to have perfect subtitles in a full-length feature, but the above examples illustrate some of the problems a subtitle editor can find by reviewing the text before distribution. The key is to allocate budget and time for this step in post-production. Film cannot engage foreign viewers if their absorption is interrupted, and being engrossed in a film is the audience's primary desire. Subtitling excellence is part of the value which filmmakers owe them.
This is the final of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The first addressed proofreading as a basic component to post-production and the second looked at editing poorly worded subtitles and captions. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors' Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers' Association.
The photo above is from The Tribe, a movie which was made all the better for not using subtitles. Read my review of it in the second entry of this blog post.