Deafness and the Movies in 2017: Sanctimonious Narratives?

 

Sally Hawkins signing "egg" to offscreen monster in the dim laboratory in The Shape of Water

 

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.

Four boys lead a smaller one by the ear down a dimly lit institutional hallway; a still from the movie The Tribe.

 

ABC’s Switched at Birth (exposed more broadly by Netflix) apparently drove tons of people to go sign up for ASL across North America. Once the complexity and demands of this beautiful and challenging language were encountered in the classroom, though, I wonder how many stuck it out? Marlee Matlin made sign language sexy to cinema, and her advocacy over the decades has improved attitudes towards the Deaf. ASL advocate and model Nyle DiMarco certainly turns heads "despite" being Deaf, and The ASL App has upped the cool factor. But let’s not get carried away and create a sanctimonious narrative that the movies are all over deafness and sign language. If there were sustained interest and true access, I wouldn’t be writing op eds about the need for excellence in captioning and the right to cultural access for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. In fact, there wouldn’t be any commentary about #DeafTalent: it would just be there, amidst the rest of the hearing world’s projects.

 

 

Top image: http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/2017/07/19/shape-water-trailer-sally-hawkins-meets-underwater-creature-guillermo-del-toros-latest/

Second image: www.vice.com

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Subtitle First Aid, Part I

It happened again.

I was watching a foreign film with subtitles. They were very well done: the English was correct, the titles themselves were very readable, and the subtitling did not distract from the content—which is one of the key requirements of successful titling.

But, as I am wont to do, I stayed and read the credits. [Insert car-brakes-screeching sound effect.]

“Filmed on Loaction”

I wasn’t obsessively looking for errors. I wasn’t putting on my Holier Than Thou grammar hat. But this jumped out at me, all the way to the back row of the theatre.

Granted: errors in subtitling or end credits are not the end of the world. They don’t make it a horrible cinematic experience. And mistakes slip by. But doesn’t the visual text of the project you’ve slaved over for months or years warrant a professional once-over? Doesn’t it deserve to have all its elements treated with regard for correctness and excellence? Shouldn’t the film have a great shot at international marketability and good critical reception?

If you skip the proofreading of your film’s text, you may be sending a message to your audience that they’re not worth considering: it’s only the end credits, right?

If you skip the proofreading of the subtitles, you may be sending a message to foreign distributors that their audiences aren’t as important as your original-language audience was to you: it’s just a secondary market, so no big deal.

This is not about being too uptight, too nit-picky, too pedantic. You wouldn’t distribute your film with sloppy sound editing or jump cuts. You probably have someone (or plural, if you’re lucky) either exclusively handling or at least keeping an eye on prop and costume continuity. You want to create a beautiful, whole and masterly film. So you can’t afford to leave the most in-their-face part of the film half-addressed for your audience. If you do, you’re—perhaps only subconsciously—conveying an attitude that says that film can be dumbed down for the masses and that the bums-in-seats don’t care about writing and language or their experience with your art.

If your production budget is over $5000, you need to have an editor review the text or at least a proofreader look at it with fresh eyes. (Your mum/husband/BFF won’t do because there are things to consider that they aren’t trained to look for.) For as little as the price of a couple of first-release DVDs, you can have your post-production text in a workplace-training video reviewed (word count depending, of course). For the price you’d plunk down for a new cellphone, you can have your short documentary proofread.

All the social media shares of signs with bad spelling, grammar and punctuation are an indicator of the appetite people have for mocking errors. If you don’t want your work turned into a derisory meme that gets more coverage than the original piece, you need to consider this often-overlooked aspect of post-production.

Just as THX reminds us that “the audience is listening,” it would be wise to remember that it is reading, too.

 

 

This is the first of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The others will address inadequate translations and poor word choices in subtitles. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors’ Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers’ Association.

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Subtitle First Aid, Part II

Very generally, subtitles are used in film and TV for translating foreign or indistinct speech and closed captions are for providing the hearing-impaired viewer with the audio information they are missing. As I said in the first article of this series, subtitling must not distract from the film experience, so titles or captions both require judicious choice of wording.

There are many variables involved in subtitling that aren’t evident when we watch a subtitled foreign film or closed-captioned TV show. As in many areas, projects are usually not adhering to their projected timeline, and titlers (like book proofreaders) are at the end of the process; read: rush job with no rush-job fees. Subtitling and captioning have many spatial and temporal requirements; some are based on government standards, others on average reading rates, on industry-wide conventions, and so on. Pop-ons and roll-ups use different production models. And cost is affected by companies using international roster or tender systems for finding the most cost-effective labour market they can. So it’s not always fair to complain about subtitle quality but, reasons or excuses aside, they do get noticed and it does matter.

The reason [Sadly go-karts] is lamentable is that there is a finesse to captioning and subtitling in knowing what needs to be written and when. Paul Aaron (above) is neither saying that he is sadly go-karting, nor is that a sound that must be replicated for the viewer: it’s a visual, and it’s self-evident.

Let’s look at some other problematic subtitles and captions.

I’m sure you can discern the utter uselessness of this one:

Or this one:

But what about this one?

It is sort of funny, and it does the trick. But “sissy” is a subjective description, and it’s likely a localized idiom that may not communicate to people of all ages or all cultures. An editor should have flagged this caption as problematic because it could put up a potential barrier between the medium and some viewers.

Here’s an easy one:

It’s obvious, it’s visual, and anger itself is not a missed sound.

And here’s one for the “intensity” sub-genre of bad captions:

You can’t steal intensely; you can only steal with intense emotions. Even then, this is not a word or sound to be communicated aurally.

Just as you can’t loudly imply cannibalism:

You could perhaps convey that there is a loud gnawing sound, but if it’s cannibalistic eating, that’s either known to the viewer or will be, but cannibalism is not inherently aural, nor is implication loud.

Here’s another inaccurate one that a caption editor would have re-written:

I saw this episode of Orange Is the New Black, and Piper is not urinating forcefully, as if she were straining with a kidney stone; she had been desperate to go for hours and was finally allowed to but only with a male guard present. A more accurate title would have said [Urgent stream of urine]. That’s a sound and that fills in the missing information more correctly. Her face conveys her disgust.

This isn’t the worst caption in the world:

But in best practices, it might have been better to write something like “Expresses indecision” (if that were the case; I don’t know the scene) because the “I don’t know” sound is a culturally differentiated mannerism.

There are others which can be trickier, however.

[Not as good as drugs]? I don’t recall this Breaking Bad scene. But the square brackets indicate Paul Aaron is not speaking those words; perhaps he is otherwise communicating that the food he is accepting is not as satisfying as a drug high. We don’t know what is not as good as drugs (we can only assume from the visual cue that it is food) and again it’s not a sound that needs captioning. If he were eating but really wanted drugs, a correct caption might be [Grunts resignedly].

My final example is not from a subtitle or caption but could easily be. A fellow editor told of a South African correspondent who was talking about a "toot" which, to her, meant a drink. My colleague commented that "toot" means something very different to us in North America (and she didn’t mean a cute car-horn sound). This demonstrates the need to have an editor review the text for idioms appropriate for the intended market. Sometimes idioms must be retained to convey cultural richness and idiosyncrasies in the story, but it is important to have someone who is aware of potential stumbling blocks (and riotous audience laughter) and who is capable of supplying synonyms that will still work with the film. The Harry Potter books were Americanized for this continent’s market (and some would argue unnecessarily), but there are times when professional copy editing of the subtitles can prevent gaffes, offence or derision and—ultimately—loss of post-distribution revenue.

Subtitlers and captioners have to work at unbelievable speeds and too often with insultingly low pay. It's not always their fault if the titles we see are poor or just plain wrong. But a subtitling editor can check the work with a lot less hassle than your production team would have going back down the pipeline to get the errors dealt with. Then, when your film is received with popular and critical acclaim, you can pop that bottle of bubbly and have a toot to celebrate!

 

 

This is the second of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The first addressed proofreading as a basic component to post-production and the final one will deal with inadequate translations. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors' Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers' Association.

 

 

The balance of the photos used in this post were retrieved on July 7, 2016 from here.

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