Captioning Ethics: Introduce No Harm

Skylar Jay being dressed for Queen Eye on the left, closeup of him wearing a backwards green baseball cap on the right


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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 (both the 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.

2.    You’d better be sure you’re correct. Unless you’re an experienced, trained and professional copy editor, you’d do well to think twice about inserting what you “know.” And no, having a degree in English does not make you qualified.

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. But Netflix and a bunch of other VODS I reviewed don’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. We just 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.

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[Reading Sounds]: Interview with Sean Zdenek

Cover of Sean Zdenek's book: Reading Sounds: Closed Captioned Media and Popular Media. It is an inverted image with a blue and cloudy sky on the bottom half and paved road on the top.



VW: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Sean! I’m excited to have the opportunity to ask you more about your book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture. I think we agree on a lot of issues about captioning, but your book made me think about some of them differently and, in some cases, more deeply.

For instance, I liked your succinct five guidelines for thinking through the question of significance (pg.123):

1. Captions should support the emotional arc of a text.

2. A sound is significant if it contributes to the purpose of the scene.

3. Caption space is precious. It should never be wasted on superfluous sounds that may confuse viewers or diminish their sense of identification with the protagonist(s).

4. Sounds in the background do not necessarily need to be captioned, even if they are loud.

5. Every caption should honor and respect the narrative. While a narrative does not have one correct reading, it does have a sequence and arc that must be nourished. [All emphases by VW.]

And I think the echo effect you created for the captions from The Three Musketeers (see still image below of captions in a poisoning scene) honoured those points. Actually, I’m going to write an article later about creative captioning which I meant to do before now, and I polled some D/deaf and hearing followers on social media about it (separate polls). Now I’m kind of glad I didn’t get around to that post before reading your book, which made me see them in a more positive light. But more on that in another article!

Video clip of a musketeer collapsed on the floor with a caption that says, Well, just so you don't leave empty-handed, with the text repeated 3 times and overlapping, reflecting his experience of being poisoned

Copyright Sean Zdenek. Do not reproduce.

You may have seen my interview with Tessa Dwyer about her book, Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation, and I was interested to see a political discussion in your book, too: linguistic imperialism, or the idea that “only English matters” (pg.271). Jon Christian’s outing of Netflix a few years ago started off a more frequent public discussion about captions on VODs and in broadcasting; more recently we’ve had Karamo Brown’s calling out Netflix on Twitter about wanting intralingual verbatim captioning and that got some coverage recently. What’s your POV on what’s happening to the online discussion these days around captioning?

SZ:  As you’ll recall, it wasn’t too long ago—circa 2010—when Hulu and Netflix were scrambling to offer any captioning at all on their streaming content. The National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit, which was settled in 2012 when Netflix “agreed to caption all of its shows by the year 2014” (Mullin 2012). Around the same time, Hulu was only captioning about 5 percent of its online programming. I wrote a blog post in 2009 to call attention to the small percentage of captioned programs on Hulu and to show my support for what would become the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” (CVAA), signed into law by President Obama in 2010. The CVAA “requires video programming that is closed captioned on TV to be closed captioned when distributed on the Internet (does not cover programs shown only on the Internet).”

Autocaptioning, which Google debuted in 2009, is an important part of the history of online captioning, too. It has received some well-deserved criticism over the years but also, more recently, some praise as it continues to improve and evolve. (See Rikki Poynter’s 2018 blog post, Are automatic captions on YouTube getting better?) No doubt the ubiquity of autocaptioning on YouTube, despite (or because of) its limitations, has been crucial in shaping the public’s understanding of good and bad captioning.  

Today, digital captioning is having its viral moment, finally. The best example: Nyle DiMarco wrote a series of tweets in February 2018 following a bad experience with movie theater captioning. His story was picked up by a number of news outlets and written up as an op-ed for Teen Vogue. Other popular writers and bloggers, including Ace Ratcliff and Rikki Poynter, have called attention to access barriers and problems with captioning.

VW: Yes, I was interviewed on CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning show about open captioning [transcript here], and the conversation began with the host talking about Nyle’s tweets: his reach was international!

SZ: What we’re seeing with these stories, I think, is the power of social media to elevate to viral status the needs of people who require quality captioning. We’re seeing captioning break into the mainstream in ways it hasn’t before. Popular personalities (celebrities, models, YouTube bloggers) are driving compelling stories that seem tailor-made for viral media.

The online landscape has changed radically in the last decade too. Video rules the web. By 2021, according to Cisco’s projections, most internet traffic—from 80 to 90 percent—will be video, “up from 73 percent in 2016” (Cisco 2017). Netflix alone is responsible for more than one-third of all internet traffic in North America (Luckerson 2015). A decade ago, online captioning was a technical problem to be solved. Today, viewers demand quality captioning and lean on the power of social media to call out instances of poor captioning.  

VW: I’ve shared with you that my in-house captioning experience was eye-opening on several levels. In Canada, even with the upcoming AODA in Ontario, the on-paper standards are basically moot, and as you say, it does seem like CCs are provided to “placate government requirements” (pg.xv) and that they’re seen as “mandatory…as a condition” (pg.80) of broadcasting. Even in accessible projects, captions do indeed seem to be added on at the end “after the real work has been completed” (pg.291). There’s only one full post-secondary study program in accessible media production in Canada, at Mohawk College, that addresses captioning, although I see other schools starting to pick up the idea. You mention hoping CCs will be addressed in the scholarly realm more frequently and seriously. What’s the state of captioning studies as a discipline or even a program in the US? Because, as you say, there is a lot of power and responsibility in the hands of captioners (pg.53), but that’s pretty scary when production isn’t regulated and the craft isn’t even fully taught!

SZ: Academic interest in captioning continues to grow, especially in the humanities. I think the biggest hurdle, from the humanities side, is that captioning has usually been viewed as purely technical or objective, a useful skill or trade but not a complex array of theories or deeper questions of meaning and user experiences. When I refer to caption studies, I intend to link the study of captioning to other humanistic pursuits in writing studies, sound studies, graphic design, art, accessibility, universal design, rhetoric, and more. In fact, I would argue that captioning unites these disparate areas and offers the perfect laboratory for studying questions of digital access across multiple fields of inquiry. A small number of scholars in my own fields of rhetoric and professional writing have taken up the subject of captioning, often in the name of disability studies, which has grown into a vibrant, interdisciplinary research program.

The term caption studies is performative: it doesn’t really exist (yet), but I was hoping to bring it into being in the act of naming it. In my opinion, we need a label that reflects the complexity of the subject itself, one that also aligns with the humanistic inquiry that is at the heart of other studies (e.g. sound studies, gender studies, science studies, etc.). Names matter, of course, which is why I prefer captioner to captionist: the latter sounds too much like typist or transcriptionist (with connotations of direct copying), while the former sounds like (or invokes) writer (with all the agency and creativity that being a writer entails).    

VW: Exactly where I’m at with caption and subtitle editing! I’m trying to raise awareness that just as books don’t just get published as written and editors are integral to the publishing process, so to must caption editing be part of production. Someone summarized my work the other day as “fixing typos,” and I was quick to point out that editing is not just proofreading. It’s a craft, science, and art rolled into one that I’m trying to shed light on because until now it’s been ignored, or at least underserved by so-called quality control. I often make about 150 edits to 60 runtime minutes captioned by a professional captioner or subtitler, not because they aren’t good at their job, but because they’re like book authors and my making the text more clear and correct for the user’s full immersion in the content is a separate skill set. Most of the captioners and subtitlers I work with get this and thank me for what I bring to the edited timed text. Sounds like we both have an opportunity to show the academic and lay worlds that captioning is a humanistic study, as you say, and the holistic, performative aspect goes way beyond avoiding the popular #CraptionFails we see posted online.

SZ: I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course called Web Access for All this semester. It covers several topics, one of which is captioning. As far as I know, it’s the first and only course of its kind at my university. It complements other courses and programs in interactive media, professional writing, and disability studies. But by no means is caption studies a formal program of study in higher education. One way to get there, I think, is to fold the study of captioning into courses on digital access or multimedia design, and then fold those courses into disability studies minors.

Academics and practitioners also need to work together. I’m fascinated by the important work that captioners do but have never worked as a professional captioner. I’ve interviewed captioners but have never observed captioners at work. A full-bodied program of study would support collaborations among multidisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners from academia and industry. Workplace studies of captioners are vital if we want to call attention to the forms of labor and creativity that captioners provide.

VW: They’re also vital to demonstrate to captioning houses, departments and companies that how they’re supposedly training people doesn’t work. It’s not just about being a fast typist, and you can’t be a good captioner with baptism by fire. It’s got to be taught—as in pedagogy—with a view that goes beyond having a facility with subtitling software functionalities. Like writing and editing courses.

You correctly discuss how producers don’t work with captioners (pg.77) and that there’s a disconnect between producers and captioners (pg.290). My experience is that we’re definitely an add-on and that the only feedback is about frames and other technical elements. Whether subtitles or captions, I really think production houses just don’t understand the nuances of captioning (see above) and are just concerned with getting out quick and cheap CCs to meet requirements. It’s kind of depressing sometimes! Do you have more you can add about this that didn’t make it into your book?

SZ: For me, the problem was summarized nicely in an email I received in 2012 from a professional captioner as I was beginning to work on my book. Her email (which I posted anonymously on my blog with her permission) was full of provocative claims:

  • The main factor that drives quality captioning is what clients are willing to pay for it.
  • Most clients see captioning as that mandatory last step that has to get done as a condition of their materials going on air.
  • The vast majority of clients do not care what the captioning looks like, as long as it gets done in time for the stations to receive their captioned masters.
  • Clients will often choose to go to cheaper captioning houses who promise to get their feature film captioned in a day.
  • When a captioning company charges low prices on high volumes of work, it’s because they hire lots of people at low wages. [All emphases by VW.]

It’s hard to imagine a collection of more depressing claims for captioning advocates. I’d be curious to get your take on them. It’s also difficult for me to imagine a harder problem to solve in caption studies.

VW: This is my experience completely, and I see it echoed on closed social media groups for captioners everyday. I also hired one of those cute-kitty-typing-ad captioning services to double check the reality. I sent in a one-minute video and the caption file came back inaccurate!

That’s largely why I’m turning to the nudge paradigm with an initiative that will be announced shortly. I just don’t think that 30 years of demands for accessibility has worked: there’s some progress in quantity but not quality. I think it needs to start with a change of view and attitude in filmmakers, since they’re where everything starts. But more on that later…

SZ: Carefully and creatively subtitled films do give me some hope. The English subtitles in Night Watch, for example, were produced under the director’s supervision. As I wrote about the film in a blog post:

In an unusual move, director Timur Bekmambetov “insisted on subtitling [Night Watch] and took charge of the design process himself,” as opposed to having the Russian speech dubbed into English or leaving the subtitling process to an outside company (Rawsthorn 2007). He adopted an innovative approach: “We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story” (Rosenberg 2007).

Several subtitles in this movie are painstakingly integrated into the aesthetic of the film. They reinforce meaning and mood by blending form and content. Meaning is expressed not only through the words but how they are visually designed (color, movement, dimensionality, transformation). When objects temporarily cover or block the subtitles, we are reminded that the subtitles are part of the scene itself (instead of an add-on or afterthought).

VW: This makes me teary-eyed…

SZ: Night Watch inspired me to explore non-traditional forms of captioning. My experiments with color, icons, typography, and effects were intended to be disruptive and controversial. But I think we need to push against conventions that are limiting and constraining. I published seventeen of my experiments as an online journal article entitled “Designing Captions: Disruptive Experiments with Typography, Color, Icons, and Effects.”

VW: Dear readers, the fact that you’re reading this interview means that you will find “Designing Captions” fascinating. And Sean, I’ll have to check out Night Watch! Whenever I see a show or film with excellent captioning, I always get on my social media soapbox and sing their praises. It’s so rare that filmmakers a) get it or b) care.

As that captioner said to you, in terms of value, “quality is what clients are willing to pay for it” (pg.80) which, depending on the genre or product type, is next to nothing. That was my experience in-house—most of my training cohort quit because it wasn’t a livable or predictable wage, more suited to students wanting part-time work who could drop everything and show up last minute (we stayed in touch and discussed our takes on it). Even now, I get inquiries about rates from filmmakers who’ve been told that they need captions in order to submit their projects for consideration in film festivals, and they balk at professional (not exorbitant) rates. I’m always banging the drum about filmmakers needing to plan for this minuscule percentage of their overall budget so that it’s not an unexpected submission issue… Aside from educating the content producers and production houses, how else do you think we can create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions (not just “good enough” ones) and the potential increase in distribution and profits by making them accessible to another 10+ per cent of the population (D/deaf/HoH/other folks who need accessibility)? My upcoming initiative aside, that is.


 It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism.


SZ: You’re asking the hardest question of all. Advocates and organizations have worked tirelessly on behalf of individuals who need quality captioning. So many of us care deeply about captioning. It does feel, at times, as though the message isn’t breaking through.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism. Movies are made for people who can hear and see—it’s as simple as that. Stories about inaccessible, or accessible but not usable, movie theater captions remind us that movie producers are not really thinking about the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They are satisfying legal requirements and, in most cases, doing the bare minimum at a fraction of the movie’s budget. Captions come last because, to be frank, the needs of people with disabilities have historically come last (or not at all).

VW: Which is why I’ve been handwriting letters to directors and producers for quite a while now to ask them to be more engaged in the production and use of captions so that more people can watch their films; just because captions are made for bigger films doesn’t mean they’re well done, and usually the caption files are shelved because the cinemas claim no demand for them. So far, no one has replied, which is really depressing.

SZ: How do we “create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions”? I think we need to continue to write about and advocate for quality captioning from our diverse positions of expertise, as you have obviously been doing. Teachers can do their part in training new generations of accessibility-minded producers and consumers. As an educator, I teach my students about captioning and place accessibility at the center of digital design. I also advocate for digital inclusion on my campus. Promoting accessibility is one way for academics to speak to people outside of their narrow scholarly fields who will go on to work in many industries (including the entertainment industry).

VW: I agree. I write about it and I’m seeing an uptick in people in more countries, like Tweeters @deafieblogger, @lifeanddeafpost, @Limping_Chicken, as well as advocacy groups I’m a member of or in touch with, like CCAC and DC Deaf Moviegoers. I did write a speculative piece about how one day we’ll look back at this time of ridiculous exclusivity; I hope you and I are eventually proven right that advocacy will change the landscape.

Even in my work with my clients (who clearly do care about quality as they pay me to edit them, not just review them for typos), the attempt to keep things consistent within a series with a bible I’ll create for the captioners and implementation of extended style guidelines (I model mine on CMoS, too, (pg.161, 162) can still get ignored if I don’t advocate for change with explanations as to how it aids the users.

Even the oft-recommended resources are “lite” in scope and imperfect. (The Captioning Key, for instance, has at least one self-contradictory error that I can recall off the top of my head.) Do you agree with my position that, after 30 years, it’s time for an overhaul of outdated bits and pieces (language has changed since the 80s!) and for the creation of a robust and standardized “CMoS for captioning”?

SZ: Yes, I agree completely. The publicly available captioning style guides need work. I reviewed four style manuals for my book. It was challenging to try to reconcile and justify the differences among them. But more importantly, it wasn’t clear to me why some of the guidelines existed at all. Guidelines are usually offered up as facts with little justification in terms of usability and users’ preferences. For example, guidelines for styling speaker identifiers are conflicting. Do we put parentheses around names and place them on their own line? Or do we set names in all caps and use colons (which is standard in DVD captioning)? Why should we choose one or the other—the style guides are silent on this question. WGBH’s Media Access Group suggests styling speaker identifiers in all caps, but then presents an opposite example:

The Media Access Group’s convention is to show IDs in uppercase, rendered in Roman and set off with a colon. Parentheses or brackets may also be considered. For example, a bottom-center caption with an ID might look like this:

Guidelines like this one not only need to be corrected (so the example supports the guideline) but reconsidered entirely. A “robust and standardized” style manual would need to be deeply informed by user studies (focus groups, surveys, eye tracking) and theories of reading, typography, design, and perception.

A related issue is that captioning itself is often assumed to be simple—a matter of transcribing (narrowly defined) or copying down what people are saying. The online DIY tools are built for speed to allow users to quickly transcribe speech. But these tools can reinforce the idea that style manuals are not needed because captioning is straightforward.   

VW: This brings to mind the guy who called me “simplistic” in response to my article, “Good Enough” Captions Aren’t. He was all about the tools, speed, and ease of application, and I think he felt threatened by the position I take.

I couldn’t agree more with your comments about who makes a good captioner. Just as book editors (my other hat) must be well-read, well-educated, and professionally trained in editing best practices, I think captioners do need to be mature individuals with a wide knowledge base and extensive cultural literacy (pgs. 22, 73, 221, 235). I was recently asked why I had sent back an edit to an experienced subtitler with a particular sentence put into quotation marks; in the narration, it was an unattributed quote, but because the person wasn’t of the age or background to at least twig that something had a different register and perhaps should be investigated, it had gone over their head. I’m not blaming them, but it just highlights the need for a certain type or age of person from the workforce—or at least, it validates my insistence that captions and subtitles need an editor. But sadly, typing speed and facility with software are what create the poor results from freelance-marketplace lowballers who are willing to transcribe for pennies. Aside from style standardization and formalization of training, how will we be able to create an understanding that captioning is a skilled profession requiring education (and perhaps accreditation) and to get away from untrained people banging out craptions?

SZ: You’ve raised another excellent question. I don’t have any easy answers. I think we can continue to chip away at people’s expectations and assumptions about captioning (and about access more broadly). Above, I mentioned educating the public, both formally (in our classrooms) and informally (through blog posts, social media, interactions with clients). I am hopeful that our college courses—even when they are not focused on training captioners or even captioning per se—can create lifelong advocates for digital inclusion. More students than ever are being introduced to digital accessibility and universal design. My hope is that they will take their knowledge into their future workplaces and teach others about the value and importance of video access for all.


 I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several have told me that they will “never look at captions the same way again.”


We can also continue to research captions and user experiences to disrupt the status quo. With Reading Sounds, I set out to show that captioning is much more complex, rhetorical, subjective, creative, and interesting than we have typically assumed. I had in mind a diverse audience (not just scholars in my own fields) because I hoped that the book’s message might resonate with students, film fans, and others who may not be connected directly to captioning. In other words, I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several people have told me after reading my book or attending one of my presentations that they will “never look at captions the same way again.” If we can find ways to get this message into the minds of more people, including movie producers, perhaps we can chip away at the assumption that the subject couldn’t possibly be rich enough to support a book-length treatment, that captioning is not a profession but a simple skill, that captioning only benefits a few people, and so on.

VW: That’s why I wanted to spotlight your book with an interview. It is not only accessible but fascinating and thought-provoking reading for anyone, not just academia. I think I’ve told you that if I ever get to teach a course in caption editing, it’s going to be required reading.

The feedback from the caption users you surveyed did not surprise me. They struggled with having to rethink content in bad captions (pg.67) and expressed a need and appreciation for excellent captions (pg.71), which reflects my articles and guest writers’ experiences. You’re open about your son being deaf and your subsequent interest in captions; I now rely on them due to the hearing conditions that affect my hearing. Do you think, with seemingly international pressure to legislate accessibility (despite my letters to Hollywood!), that all the different types of caption users, but especially the D/deaf/HoH, will ever see true access—and by that I mean high-quality captioning? It’s been three decades already with increased application but stagnant quality. What’s it going to take til craptions are basically a thing of the past?

SZ: The number of people who need or want quality captioning only seems to be increasing as the population ages. In an era of streaming global media, more people are reading movies as well. Netflix has introduced more viewers to the pleasures and challenges of watching foreign movies with subtitles and/or with dubbed speech. (Whereas dubbing is well-known to European audiences, it is not common in the US.) Media globalization is helping to normalize words on the screen for US audiences. 

Universal design has also produced powerful arguments in favor of quality captioning for all. We know the claims and contexts so well by now that they’ve become stereotypes: watching TV in a noisy bar, studying a video lecture in a quiet library (without headphones), learning to read a first language (child) or a second language (adult), and on and on. Even nonhumans rely on captions: Google uses caption data to index the content of videos on YouTube, “but only if you upload your own professional captions. If you use the auto-generated captions that YouTube provides, they won’t be indexed because the quality tends to be very poor” (Dillman 2017). Another reason why autocaptioning is insufficient!

These developments do not eliminate craptions, but they do make captions and subtitles more visible, needed, and expected. As more users encounter and demand quality captions in more contexts, the calls for quality captioning will hopefully become more frequent and persuasive.

VW: There are so many topics you covered that I don’t think are considered even by current advocates: captioned irony; treatment of silences; nonspeech information; continue captions. And I learned a new term: captioned modulation (pg.200). Thank you for such a broad introduction to captioning theory and practice. I hope by the time your next book comes out (😉), rhetoric will have moved out of accessibility-focused circles and into the mainstream as a career option to fill a need and is given more than lip service. I’d love nothing more than to not have material for [intensifies], [indistinct conversations], and [music] craption memes!


Head shot of Dr. Sean Zdenek in a blue shirt, dark glasses, outside with snow behind him; he is smiling broadly

Sean Zdenek is associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. His research interests include web accessibility, disability studies, sound studies, and rhetorical theory and criticism. Prior to joining the Department of English in 2017, Dr. Zdenek was a faculty member at Texas Tech University for fourteen years, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses on a range of subjects. Dr. Zdenek's book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press), received the 2017 best book award in technical or scientific communication from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs).


#a11yTO Conf conference logo in blue and white



Vanessa will be speaking October 15–16 at #a11yTOConf on caption editing for accessibility. The title of her presentation is [dog barking in distance].

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The Responsibilities of the Captioner

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


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

I have two examples to discuss: translating and expletives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at 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

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

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“Good Enough” Captions Aren’t

I recently watched an amateur video about DIY captions. The fellow who made it was earnest, trying to make it easy for the average person to create captions, and I'm sure he meant well. But then he said that although they wouldn't be perfect, they'd be "good enough."

Granted, he was referring to fansubbing movies (which is a topic for another time), but I get the sense that this is a common attitude of the hearing world towards captioning for the accessibility purposes. Would blue and purple traffic lights be good enough? How about food with just a bit of salmonella? I know I wouldn't want to buy a tire with a slow leak.

Captions are used by the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing (Deaf/HoH), second-language learners, university students as study aids, people in sound-sensitive environments, and many other folks.

Many countries, provinces and states have legislated that media must provide video material that is accessible and that captioning be of excellent quality. It's not optional. But very rarely do I see closed captions that meet the required standards.*

Some producers of video rely on automated captioning services or, if they have "the budget for it," a closed-captioning provider. But the latter do not have trained professionals copy editing the files and/or they often don't understand the specialized editing required to meet the accessibility standards needed for users. Anybody can transcribe audio. But caption text has to be rendered readable by humans in 2-second chunks. And by readable, I mean comprehensible so that the entire video context is taken in with ease and appreciation for the content. But that's not what’s getting churned out. (See my opinion about video-on-demand services here.)

I'm tired of "good enough." I'm frustrated by reading about craptions being doled out to the Deaf/HoH. I'm fed up with empty promises about the delivery of accessibility.

When are the Deaf/HoH going to get the quality of captioning they're legally (and morally) entitled to? Why is "good enough" the status quo?

I've written many articles and posts about why captions and subtitles require not just proofreading but copy editing, just as the printed word does. (You can read them here to learn more about the nuts and bolts.) But I'm increasingly interested in making some noise about cranking up the demand for #NoMoreCraptions! As someone who appreciates closed captions (and may later need them more), I am no longer willing to let this slide.

“Captioning should not look like throwing magnetic letters on a fridge.”**

And yet, that's what the CC setting on our screens usually generates because (seemingly) providers don't think the Deaf/HoH are worth the expense of creating high-quality, copy-edited captions. Like other areas being bandaided because of a lack of enforcement or true dedication to creating accessibility (e.g. the wonderful but shamefully needed food banks, Stopgap Foundation, etc.), unedited captions are generally of such poor quality that they're useless and watching TV, movies, etc. is often given up on.** And saying there isn't money for quality captioning comes from an outlook of discrimination.

It's also uninformed. Budgeting for this aspect of production and distribution does not have to be expensive. If absolutely necessary, fine—use automated captioning in some form of AVR (automatic voice recognition). But then turn the rough copy over to a professional to be perfected. It's like writers who say they can't afford any professional editing or proofreading but then complain that no one bought their book: if its content isn't edited properly, readers aren't going to want to slog through it.

Until governments enforce the standards they've promised on paper so that the digital files are accompanied by high-quality captioning, they're short-changing the Deaf/HoH of their right to a huge part of full engagement in modern cultural content.

I'm not. . .er. . .crapping on the DIYer per se. I'm saying his comment is exemplary of the attitude society has towards people needing captioning: if you're not a hearing person, you can just make do with good enough. (And that's audism.)




*Canada's 2016 CRTC policy can be found here.

**Unattributed comments from CRTC 2008 Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities.

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