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

 

Images via https://www.them.us

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:

https://twitter.com/reelwordsedit/status/1026966989850304512

https://twitter.com/reelwordsedit/status/1036690682809741312

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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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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