Changing Text: Part I — Opera Surtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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