I recently had a conversation with another subtitling professional about a particular Netflix “rule.” Many companies that aren’t even Netflix’s Preferred Vendors use the streaming service’s online guides for subtitling and captioning (or SDH: subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) whether their client has stipulated it or not. There’s some erroneous thought that the timed-text guide is some kind of definitive subtitling (and captioning) resource, when in fact it is inconsistent and incredibly insubstantial. In his article From old tricks to Netflix: How local are interlingual subtitling norms for streamed television? in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Audiovisual Translation, veteran AVT scholar Jan Pedersen presents his findings about the various languages’ Netflix guides, which he objectively describes as “work[s] in progress” (pg. 16).
My interlocutor maintained that Netflix doesn’t allow for repetition of subtitles, and I maintained that was a guideline that often had to be disregarded. She said her clients insisted on that; I said mine (and I) insisted on common sense and contextual consideration.
First we had a minor discussion about the differences between stuttering and stammering in speech, in editing, and thus in subtitling. But the main focus was whether a person greeting a large group with many Hellos should be captioned with more than one Hello. The Netflix guide says:
Do not subtitle words or phrases repeated more than once by the same speaker.
If the repeated word or phrase is said twice in a row, time subtitle to the audio but translate only once.
Now, supposing an onscreen child is being a pest, hounding an adult, but other dialogue also needs to be subtitled, then it’s understandable to indicate that (perhaps with [child continues interrupting]) but not repeating their line. Time and other factors may well preclude repeating. But, generally, repetition is plot-pertinent, moving the action or characterization or mood along; writers don’t include it to be annoying. In order to present complete content (and because time was not a factor in our example), viewers using subtitles or captions have the right to know that the character is personally greeting as many people in the crowd as he can: it indicates his level of engagement with them. To subtitle him as saying Hello once not only suggests he says it once and then ignores the rest of the group—while he is facing away from the camera but the audio repeats his greeting—it conveys inaccurate narrative, particularly to the nonhearing viewer. This is audist and inaccessible: bad subtitling practice and ethics.
In frustration, I said that being pedantic like that meant that we should caption Santa Claus as saying Ho! rather than Ho! Ho! Ho! She conceded that “I suppose that particular case would be treated differently.”
But overall she wasn’t having it. Her bottom line was satisfying her customers’ needs by sticking to the rules and getting paid, repeat business.
My bottom line is serving the subtitle/caption user by educating the client—if it’s even needed. I’ve never had a client question repetitions that were contextually correct, race back to section II.16, and refuse to pay me. They appreciate the feedback notes in my returned file. That’s how I communicate with subtitling and publishing clients: I share the rationale I’ve employed based on my expertise in editing and suggest they use my edit. If they want to stet for whatever reason, that’s their choice, but they rarely disagree.
Eventually, I wound up our discussion by suggesting we might agree to disagree, and we both very politely agreed to do so.
But this is the kind of issue in subtitling and captioning practice today that irks me. Rule-sticklerism trumps complete access to clear communication. The inconsistencies Pedersen reported from his research confirm my ongoing opinion that Netflix (and people following their and similar guides) do not understand the nuances of English and how language needs to be treated in subtitling. His discussion points out their abbreviated and less detailed guidelines (for various languages’ timed-text guides). He correctly suggests:
...The great similarity among the TTSGs shows that Netflix is basically rebooting subtitling norms, by prescribing the use of the same norms across the board (albeit with local language examples) and then gradually adapting them to local norms via updates… When there was suddenly a huge and urgent need for subtitling into many languages, it was probably too time-consuming to research local norms… This must have prompted the use of the one-size-fits-all solution of norms, influenced by DVD norms, which could then be modified as you go along, so to speak. Here, new norms are imposing a one-size-fits-all system, which is then adjusted post hoc. (pg. 17)
So, let’s look at some examples that prove that repetition of dialogue is necessary and others that were not well handled.
Episode 3 of Deadwind seems to ignore its own rule:
So does season 1 episode 5 of The Kominsky Method, when Arkin’s character walks through his office to welcomes from several employees:
And in episode 9:
The Dinner does the same:
It doesn’t seem like Netflix has a total hate-on for repetitions. Or else their QA people are asleep at the wheel.
Let’s look at this rule when it was pedantically applied by a well-meaning vendor but then two episodes later was wisely disregarded. (This is an argument for using the same subtitler for a series or at the very least creating and using a show bible.)
When, in episode 6, Arnau marries the bridezilla, she is subtitled—incorrectly. A good translator should know or at least confirm meaning: to pledge one’s troth is to promise marriage or get engaged, not to wed.
But when it’s his turn to return the ersatz wedding vow, he is uncaptioned. Note that in the dub, he repeats “With this ring, I thee wed” but neither version is provided. Of course it’s “twice in a row,” but that’s the presentation of the ceremony in the show, and withholding his vow is absolutely ridiculous.
Why is it withheld? Because “rule” II.16 says not to. [Insert eyeroll.]
In episode 8, when he gets to marry the Nice Girl, he again is subtitled wrong for “I thee wed” (and their order in making the vows is reversed):
And she promises likewise, even though it’s the same line.
So, what’s the big deal in the first instance? We get it, right? It should be obvious from the video… That’s not the point. First, it gives the subtitler (or vendor/contractor/client/whoever) the power to decide that a major event in the story should not be conveyed with completeness to the viewer—and I believe that ethically that’s not in their purview to do. It is pedantry of the worst sort, and I don’t regularly see Netflix as using a whole lot of language knowledge or common sense, so no surprise. But most importantly, it yanks the viewer out the narrative so that they are no longer fully immersed in the plot. They’re no longer fully immersed in the story, but wondering, Wait—what? Why isn’t he talking? Is there something wrong with the stream? No, his mouth is moving… I guess he said the same vow, coz we can see it’s the wedding, but…
I would argue that subtitling/captioning ethics demand that we convey to a viewer using timed text what a non–caption user is getting: the whole cultural content, uncensored and correct, whenever possible. The politics of deciding who gets to “hear” what, based on blind rule-following, is ableist.
These are the kinds of issues that need to be considered in media-production programs that cover accessibility: usability is the icing on the accessibility cake. We need to teach these nuances to students and current professionals. Otherwise, subtitles and captions are just lip service to our present and forthcoming legislation, never mind our supposedly more inclusive world.
Santa photo source:
photo from https://www.decaturdaily.com/life/letters-to-santa-claus/article_4eb4842a-b5fc-522f-8fc6-e783b448d55c.html
After the #a11yTO 2018 Conference, another participant reminded me about a story. I’m only now getting around to addressing it. I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics and the role of the captioner lately—something that will be covered in my caption editing course syllabus.
The #a11y said there was a story about miscaptioning in the episode about Skyler Jay on Queer Eye. Perhaps you read about Karamo Brown talking to Netflix about the need for better-quality captioning and it seemingly getting some traction (even though Nyle DiMarco, Marlee Matlin and a ton of other people have been complaining forever). Anyway, as per Jay, it sounds like the captioning was either autogenerated or done by a nonprofessional because there were egregious captioning errors, spelling mistakes—the usual CC issues because caption editing is not embraced (or understood) by Netflix.
We probably can’t know for sure whether the significant error was done out of ignorance or not, but let’s consider the erroneous use of transgendered instead of transgender in a caption about Jay simply as an idea. I’m not interested in the facts of the matter here, because I’m just looking at the ethos behind it, not discussing the actual incident. But let’s assume for the purpose of our discussion that it was either done knowingly but the CCer didn’t care, or that it was done out of a lack of awareness of LGBTQ issues and the feelings around trans vocabulary in general.
There are a bunch of reasons why the outcry about the use of transgendered was unacceptable. Let’s take a look at some of them from a captioning perspective.
First of all, in such a case, it could happen that the TV personality did use the wrong word themselves—either because they weren’t familiar with their subject (see the article about Jay feeling he was educating some of the hosts) OR because the script was wrong. Even if it was technically unscripted, shows have outlines about what’ll be covered, and it could be that the writer or a producer wrote it in wrong, as transgendered. I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve worked on where they send the script and it’s full of grammatical and vocabulary errors. Some screenwriters and documentary writers need their work edited, just like authors of books. I often have to fix vocabulary (if a word is misspelled; it doesn’t affect the pronunciation, so captioning can be verbatim but corrected); but if the production didn’t use a script editor (who actually copy edits, too), wrong words often make it into shows and movies. Take my teasing about Game of Thronesand the incorrect use of the accusative, with the hashtag #WhomDoesntMakeItMedieval:
Anyway, mistakes can wriggle in that are not the captioner’s error nor the actor’s or narrator’s. The code of conduct (boththe official one and more nebulous ones) for captioners and subtitlers require that captions be presented as spoken. Filler like um and uh don’t need to be included, unless they are germane to the content and context, but generally it is supposed to be carried out verbatim. That means we cannot correct the speaker’s grammar. Some reasons are:
1. Don’t Be a Jerk. The role of the captioner is to do your job as expected, and correcting people is not in its purview.
3. Check the show/series/film bible. They should be addressing house style there, and it is necessary that we adhere to style guides. Sometimes that can make us die inside a little bit (I’ve seen some god-awful and downright incorrect guides). If for whatever reason the person who hired you says they want xyz word—even if it’s wrong and you can’t convince them otherwise—you must do what you were paid to do: deliver the product they want.
Now, if the issue, like in our transgender/ed example, is so egregious or offensive to you that you can’t live with doing what your client wants, then you might seriously consider abandoning the project. We all need to pay the bills, but we also need to work ethically, and sometimes standing up for our or society’s values costs us.
4. Desired corrections like this are better queried than made. We shouldn’t adopt the Better to ask forgiveness than permission rule in captioning. It is not our right to mess around; true issues should be brought up with the client before the file is returned. You’re not there to throw the show or the people involved under the bus. As many professions insist: introduce no harm in your work.
5. Finally, introducing and correcting errors both carry with them a degree of politics and subjectivity. It’s not the place of the captioner to get involved with the content by judging it (inadvertently or not). Like an oral language interpreter or a telephone, your job is to convey the material. Save your commentary for your social media accounts.
If you are a thoughtful person and want to avoid being ignorant (which just means not knowing, not that you’re an ignoramus), do some research! Ask, read, search, consult, query: a lot of my time in editing is spent doing factchecking or research. Yes, you’re under a timeline and probably not paid to do more, but you can either do a good job and learn something along the way at a minor cost to you, or you can dig your heels in and only work for the defined scope and say That’s not my job. I’ve made peanuts loads of times because I won’t compromise: I always do the extra work. And if you don’t care for your own edification or standing up for what’s right, do it for the others in our profession. Most of us work extremely hard and consider captioning a vocation. We should all work in line with our standards.
Do we have an updated and localized code of conduct as captioners? This came up in a CCers’ forum recently, and it didn’t seem anyone knew of one (for any country), although all thought it important.
But you don’t need a hard-copy values statement to work from. Most professions uphold the pursuit of knowledge, integrity, honesty, and social consciousness as pillars of the job. If you’re in captioning with no sense of this calling, you might want to rethink your career choice. We’re here to help not only the Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing but lots of different people who need or desire to use captions.
So back to the transgender/transgendered error. If it occurred with connection to any of the above, we’ve learned something. But ultimately, as a show not requiring live captioning, there was no excuse for the error. The show should have used a caption editor who would review the caption file for mechanical and other offensive errors before it was sent out. ButNetflix and a bunch of other VODS I revieweddon’t yet see the need for caption editing, and whether it was Queer Eye’s postproduction contractors who captioned and made the error or Netflix that didn’t review and correct it at the spot QC stage (did you know a lot of their review is random and only a tiny portion of the shows?) or at least during full review, it happened. And not only was it an egregious error, which in an editor’s hands would have been caught and addressed, it hurt some people. It was offensive. And that’s introducing harm.
When we speak or write, we make mistakes. Wejust can’t see our own mechanical errors or our other blind spots, habits, or prejudices. I always have to flag captioners and authors about issues of sensitivity: they’re not jerks, they just have their own way of seeing the world, and it’s an editor’s job to identify and broach possible landmines and save them embarrassment upon release. None of us are stupid; it’s just difficult to see without the help of another’s review.
And since captioners are in the business of facilitating accessibility, inclusion, and human rights, we’d do well to work conscientiously and consciously. We’re not hired to just bang out a caption file. We are contracted to be an agent of communication for someone who needs captions. Put a face to that Caption User Out There, and bear them in mind as you provide your service.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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,
Thank you again.
But would it be possible to implement a search function so that we can look for films with CCs rather than clicking through every possible movie and theatre to see if they have captions/assistance? I think I will also have to approach cinemaclocktoronto.com about considering adding a search feature, since most of us look for movies online in one place, not at the discrete sites of cinema corporations.
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.
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??
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.
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.
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 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.
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/
Especially for a government-published "educational" graphic about accessibility!
While I appreciate the need for clear, plain language in public communication generally, it seems like the Deaf/deaf/HoH poster repeatedly discourages long, complex or complicated text, as well as menu and layout complexity, which the physical/motor disabilities version, for instance, does not. The targeted audience has hearing issues, not cognitive problems. Also, they have not bothered to research that non-hearing people use captions, which are not subtitles. Perhaps a rethink is in order? And an apology?
This kind of ignorance needs to be addressed with education and advocacy, including about the use and need for captioning. Will you help by sharing this?
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 email@example.com. 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.
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 areunavailable, I usually pass on participating.
I began to notice a significant change in my physicality and level of hearing in 1996.
I was at an Edmonton Oiler playoff hockey game. We were sitting in the nosebleeds, two rows from the very top. In Edmonton, hockey is extremely popular—it is like the life blood of the city—and the home team was winning. Describing the crowd as wild is a gross understatement. The whole place was electric, in a way that was beyond merely sound. It was an intensely energetic experience, in that I realized I was feeling sound in addition to hearing it. (This is difficult to explain, but I believe this was the beginning of an almost heightened sensory awareness.)
Each time they scored, the noise in the arena was literally deafening. I remember a pop or some kind of release occurring in my right ear over the course of the game, but I didn’t think too much of it. By the time it was over, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I could barely walk out of the arena on my own.
I had no idea what was happening to me. I spent the rest of the night and the next day unable to get off the couch. My whole world was spinning. I couldn’t really ground myself to determine what was up or down. This was my first experience with vertigo and the symptoms of Ménières disease, although I wasn’t aware of it as such at that time.
After a few days, the physical sensations passed, and I went on to normal life. I had periods of experiencing the vertigo off and on again, but I chalked it up to a heavy school and work schedule and simply tried to get more rest to mitigate the symptoms. In short, I was a graduate student with a part-time teaching schedule and various odd jobs, and I was living on coffee and convenient foods. In retrospect, I can safely say my nervous system was completely shot.
Fast forward, almost ten years later. In 2003, I gave birth my daughter. It was a joyous occasion despite a difficult labour and an emergency C-section. Again, I suppose my entire physical system was stretched to the limit. I developed a bad infection in the hospital and required large doses of antibiotics. My recovery period was slow and steady, but I had Chloe, and we just spent our days together getting to know each other with feedings and regular nap times.
Pretty early on, I realized that if I was sleeping on my left side, I wasn’t able to hear her when she was crying. I began a series of testing at a Rehabilitative Hospital in Edmonton where they not only tested my hearing levels but also my balance, coordination, etc.
The diagnosis was Ménières disease. I had 20% hearing ability in my right ear. My left ear also showed some damage, but it was relatively minor.
At the time, they presented a few options I could pursue that required more antibiotics and invasive surgery. I declined and opted to see what I could do to treat the symptoms naturally. I began an acupuncture and herbal-medicine protocol. I did not notice any changes to my hearing levels, but I did begin to see the effects of addressing certain aspects of my nervous system by way of meditation, diet, and increased relaxation. This seemed to keep the Ménières at bay, but if it got really bad, there was nothing I could do but surrender to it, lie down, and be with my body until the symptoms subsided.
In terms of hearing loss, this is when I began a process of learning to adapt and manage the changes to my hearing levels. I began to lip read pretty naturally. I would turn my head to position my left ear to a speaker or to any sound. I began to listen to music with headphones to direct the sound more effectively. I also began to use closed captions when watching anything. If there were no captions, chances were I wouldn’t be able to watch it. This included going to movies.
During this time, I contemplated hearing aids but felt like I was managing all right without them, and so I decided against it.
Funnily enough, at Christmas 2013, my dad made me promise that I would get some hearing aids. It had always really bothered him that I wasn’t able to hear fully. I put it off for a while and then felt badly that I was not honouring my promise to him, and I booked an appointment at the Canadian Hearing Society. I went in for another round of testing, and it was revealed that I had progressively lost more hearing in my good ear.
I signed up for a pair of hearing aids immediately and, needless to say, they opened up the world to me. I really have my father to thank, as he was the catalyst. Incidentally, the sensory input of sound was so profound to my system that it took almost a full month until I was able to wear the hearing aids all day long. It was like I had to go in stages in order to condition my ears to all the sounds they were able to hear again.
One day in 2015, my partner and I were downtown at rush hour, standing on the sidewalk. I started to feel my balance go; I got shaky and began to hear electrical currents all around me. It was like I was hearing sound emitting from street lights and the air itself. By the time we were in a taxi, I could barely hear anything. My hearing aids could not keep up. It coincided with another Ménières episode, and I thought my hearing might return if I rested. However, after 24 hours, there was no change. I booked in to my audiologist immediately for more testing and to amplify my hearing aids. Without my hearing aids, I was pretty much stone cold deaf. But even with them, I could barely manage daily life.
Also during this time, I saw more doctors, naturopaths, and herbalists. I even underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatment because I had read that, for acute hearing loss, high amounts oxygen could restore hearing loss if it was done right away, as soon as possible after the traumatic event.
The hearing tests revealed that my left ear had less than 20% hearing ability. My right ear had also decreased slightly in ability, but it was now my dominant ear. I remember thinking of the irony of all those years I had referred to my right ear as my bad ear. Now it’s my good ear. From then on, I made a commitment to myself to refrain from talking about my body negatively in any way. I just decided both my ears were good and that they were doing the best they could.
About a year after that, I began to notice I had become quite isolated, as meeting up with people, socially in restaurants or anywhere it was even slightly noisy, was pretty much out of the question. I think I didn’t notice it so much because I am blessed with a really supportive family and I have a busy and full life. All the same, I felt a need to connect with others and to be comfortable with who I was becoming without feeling shy or like I couldn’t keep up with conversation.
That’s the main reason I wanted to take up ASL. I felt like cultivating a community that was not hearing dependent—where I could communicate freely with others and learn to express myself in a visual way.
As I have progressively lost the sense of hearing, visual communication has heightened and taken precedence. And this brings me to the crucial role of closed captioning in my ability to experience the world around me. I use captioning on every type of media I can. If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating. Captions are my way of accessing vital information, art, culture and entertainment.
Captions that can’t keep up or that are garbled or inaccurate don’t serve anyone.
They not only distort the story or message that is being conveyed but also alienate anyone who requires them to receive information. This includes not just words but also sound experiences like laughter or a doorbell chime.
Sensitivity to captioning is the same as having sensitivity to written or oral language. How it is intended to be received by an audience is as important as translation, in order to accurately communicate anything from feelings and ideas to concepts and current events. Captions connect people. They engage a sense of belonging to the wider world and, when done well, captions have the potential to inspire a variety of interests and curiosities, not only those of the deaf and hard of hearing community.
While I’ve had hearing issues (Ménières disease, hyperacusis, and tinnitus) for about 30 years and do a fair bit of lip reading in noisy environments, I wanted to share the emotional and practical impacts of craptions and captions on someone with more hearing loss than me. I met Chelsea at the Canadian Hearing Society where we study ASL, and I'm grateful to her for being willing to share her story as a guest post for Reel Words.
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.)
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
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.