Communication Design and the End of Inscrutable Objects

The second article in a series by my guest blogger, Melissa Giles, about text, editing, and media accessibility.

 

Imagine if you were blind and were frequently emailed invoices as PDF files that your screen reader could not access, or if you were repeatedly mailed unusable hard-copy magazines because the sender said they could not provide an accessible digital version. These things happened to Jonathan Craig, a writer and editor from Brisbane. What surprises him the most is that the senders were disability service providers.

 

Torso shot of Jonathan Craig in his wheelchair at a table, coffee cup in hand.

 

These kinds of experiences are commonplace for people with vision impairment, but can largely be prevented or solved with improved awareness and motivation of the document creators.

Many other accessibility problems for people with vision impairment have been solved with the internet, screen readers and devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets. But these solutions are not universally available and do not replace the need for good communication design.

Craig points out that these technology solutions are not available to all Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) members, the main readers of Blind Citizens News, the magazine he edits. The magazine is available in a wide range of formats that take into account the equally wide range of readers’ skills, internet access and device hardware and software.

One assumption about skills that was questioned to cater for the publication’s readers is the idea that all blind people can read braille, Craig says. It takes some time to learn braille after acquiring or developing vision impairment and, for various reasons, including other disabilities, some people never do.

After Craig produces each issue of Blind Citizens News as a Word document, it is sent to other specialised contractors to reformat in braille, audio and large print. ‘There is great infrastructure available already to allow for alternative formatting,’ he says, ‘so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.’

BCA members can elect to receive one of these formats in the mail or, like non-members, can read the magazine online. Each article is published as text on its own web page and has a linked audio file. The web page text and the downloadable Word documents of the whole magazine can be read by screen readers, transformed into braille or enlarged as text.

Of course, BCA goes to this effort because of its readers’ particular requirements. But these readers also want – and need – to access other publications that are not aimed specifically at people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, due to inadequate consideration of communication design, many publishers exclude such readers.

Craig emphasises that sighted audiences can also be served when publications use formats designed for people with vision impairment, such as spoken versions of text. Audio books were originally created for people who couldn’t read print, Craig says, but others enjoy listening to them too.

By learning from the multi-format approach of magazines such as Blind Citizens News, Craig argues that other publications can serve people with a range of disabilities and reach unexpected non-disabled audiences – for instance, those who want to access content on the go, while commuting or exercising.

Screen readers

Many accessibility factors must be considered beyond a publication’s file type or format. One factor is how the content will be read. When designing a publication that is inclusive of audiences with vision impairment, the way that screen readers will interpret the content becomes an important consideration. This is a common way that many of these people access content online, both as downloadable documents and as web pages.

‘There are a surprising number of people who still believe that we can’t access computers,’ Craig says. ‘As a result of this awareness problem, a lot of people never think about how they create their documents, apps or even memes, because they don’t know what a screen reader is or how it works.’

The easiest way to experience a screen reader is through activating the technology built in to many touchscreen devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Another way is through the basic demonstration version provided in Vision Australia’s free Document Accessibility Toolbar for Microsoft Word (available for PC only). This toolbar includes a range of other functions designed to make it easier to create accessible content.

For a fully functional computer-based program, you could install a free screen reader called NVDA (non-visual desktop access) and use it to experience the web and digital documents and preview your own content. Be warned that the basic NVDA download comes with a harsh, robotic-sounding voice, but the program can be customised with purchased voices that are easier to listen to.

If you have more detailed knowledge about web design and programming, a webinar by Smashing TV called ‘How a screen reader user accesses the web’ might help you to gain a better understanding of website navigation from a blind person’s point of view.

Much online content is more accessible now via screen readers, Craig says, but this positive trend means that ‘the ongoing habits which render documents unreadable by screen readers are more frustrating than ever’.

PDF files are one of the culprits. As illustrated by Craig’s invoice problems, PDFs are often inaccessible if screen readers cannot interpret them as text. Some PDFs are interpreted as images and are therefore unreadable, as are actual images, including infographics and other visual objects.

Alternative text

One important step in creating accessible content is ensuring that every image in documents, on web pages and on other platforms has ‘alternative text’ (or ‘alt text’). The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines recommend that alternative text be used to reproduce the meaning of all non-text content because this allows users, including users of screen readers, to access the same information in other formats.

For sighted users, correctly formatted alternative text becomes visible in a box that appears when holding the mouse over an image. But for users of screen readers, the text will be spoken or, additionally, transformed into braille if the user has connected a refreshable braille display to their screen reader.

Craig has noticed, on Twitter especially, that more people are using alternative text. ‘Though I believe accessibility is a right, I am still absurdly grateful every time someone describes a photo they’ve posted,’ he says. One side effect of this increased use of alternative text is Craig’s developing sense of appreciation for ‘exactly why people’s cats and dogs are cute’.

Alternative text should include the equivalent essential details needed to make sense of an image, given the reading context. So instead of inserting alternative text saying ‘My dog at the park being cute’ on your next social media post, describe what the dog is doing that makes it look so cute.

Once researched, some basic accessibility principles, such as always including alternative text for meaningful (not decorative) images, are relatively straightforward to understand and remember. But there is much more to know about creating accessible content, including PDF documents, and communicating with people who use different forms of technology and have different disabilities.

To help make this process easier, various organisations offer training, in addition to services, including checking and amending existing content and providing accessible document templates.

 

About Jonathan Craig

Jonathan Craig has been the editor of Blind Citizens News for the last year. He extends the idea of accessibility to include access to his publication for writers who may never have had anything published before.

‘Whenever I can, I work very closely with them, to show them what I’ve learned about the mechanics of storytelling,’ Craig says. ‘It would be easier just to rewrite (their stories) where necessary, but I love seeing their confidence grow as they create drafts which look more and more like what they wanted to put on the page, but couldn’t produce alone.’

Recently, Craig replaced his magazine editor ‘hat’ with his broadcaster headphones and worked at the BCA national convention, assisting with live streaming of the event and co-presenting a daily podcast – both efforts by BCA to include as many non-attendees as possible in the proceedings.

Being part of a minority community and having to work hard for social change can be an ‘agonisingly slow’ process, Craig says. But he is proud of how his fellow BCA members unite in their struggle to be included in everyday activities.

BCA is currently campaigning to have audio description on Australian television and raising awareness about specific touchscreen EFTPOS terminals that prevent blind and vision-impaired users from independently typing their PIN. Find out more at www.bca.org.au/campaigns.

Contact Jonathan Craig via bca@bca.org.au with ‘Att: Jonathan Craig’ in the subject line, or via the BCA office on 1800 033 660.

About the author

Melissa Giles is a copyeditor from Brisbane. She would like to advance the understanding of communication accessibility and related professional practices. This includes encouraging diversity within the editing profession and highlighting ways that editors and organisations can incorporate people who are often overlooked in the communication process.

This article was first published in the Editors Queensland April 2019 newsletter OffPress. Editors Queensland is a branch of the Institute of Professional Editors Ltd (IPEd) in Australia.

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“I wish I had heard all of my dad’s eulogy”: Hearing Aids as a New Lease on Life

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.

 

Headshot of Patricia Morris MacDonald.

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.

She can be reached at powerplayediting@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of P. MacDonald.

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Captions Need Show “Bibles”

Colour photo closeup of gilded Bible pages, with gold cover, snap closure and tasselled bookbark hanging in the foreground.

 

Captions and subtitles need "bibles" just like theatre pieces or movie productions. Like their literal iterations, these collections of information are guides for all the relevant players on how to present content so that it's clear, correct, and, most of all, consistent.

When I was a captioner, some shows had 'em and some didn't. Worst was when we had to consult fan wikis for character name spellings, backstory, etc. VODS, shows, and movies need bibles templated and used, if they're going to commit to full accessibility for all users.*

Depending on where the captioner or subtitler is, there are differences in how they would normally write as a layman and how they would do their work. A Canadian captioning a show from and about the States would defer to American dictionary spellings and definitions and standard writing style guides, plus the client's house style guide. But an American subtitling an import series from Scandinavia would be wise to not only adhere to the client's wishes and that country's standard guides but also recommend other applications based on show content and branding, audience composition and an eye to future distribution potential.

Show bibles vary from artform to artform. It may well develop to have set and costume notes and samples, helpful visual ephemera, guidelines on authorized style guides, character details, notes on directorial changes and edits (updated), and all of this should be backed up—at least twice. Hard copies might also be wise should the internetalypse happen midproduction.

Here's an example of what Netflix's much (self-)touted subtitling policies did not address or succeed at (or this wouldn't have happened).

Peaky Blinders, Season 4, Episode 5 (accessed December 2017). In one scene, Cockney Jewish character Alfie Solomons is saying Good boy but the caption says Goodbye. Perhaps the non-native captioner (or one without British background or dialectic familiarity) should not be the titler for dialogue if they can't understand the accent, let alone understand that Goodbye wouldn't even make sense in the context if that were the audio. It causes errors and (although apparently not here) extra costs in QC corrections.

Screenshot of Alfie Solomons and Luca Changretta characters in Peaky Blinders show. The erroneous caption for Alfie says, Goodbye, trot on. Down there is Bonnie Street.
Image: cropped screenshot accessed Netflix, Peaky Blinders, December 31, 2017.

If a show bible is not extant or available, a good editor will do some research and preferably some subsequent consultation. The latter should be done by the most qualified expert in their professional network: moms with English degrees don't count. Having established some form of NDA, the editor should present their problem and its context, their research, and a suggested edit to the consultant. Confirmation or correction should lead to a fix, and either way the edit should be flagged with a justified query or note to the managing editor. Time is tight on titling projects, but there's no excuse for guessing. I have a time limit on how long I'll do my own research before turning to an expert; if I can't get the ME a recommended edit, I'll pass on my recommendations for next steps.

This example also points out the pitfalls of having blinders on about vendors. Perhaps your regular multilingual translator in Europe is multitalented, but this show would have required a titler who had ties to or experience with people in London and Birmingham, for instance.

Another problem with this scene was when, in the same episode,

Alfie Solomons was captioned as speaking Italian when in fact he was speaking Yiddish...

Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders show is captioned as "[speaking Italian]"

 

...but the captioner didn't have enough linguistic background to tell the difference between guttural and romance language phonemes. (Note that although different, captions and subtitles are sometimes needed in the same product. Read more here.) The titler should have consulted someone (or perhaps shouldn't have been contracted in the first place). I have a whole discrete presentation I can give about foreign language subtitling inconsistencies within Netflix captions; see the Engagements tab to book similar lessons and discussions.

So a bible, shared with the captioner, would have been available to tell them that Alfie Solomons is a Jew from the East End, living in Birmingham, with the common interruptor of the area's "yeah" and that he has no known connections to the Italian language. These are two instances where Netflix would have been saved embarrassment from YGWYPF vendors. If they aren't embarrassed, simply in terms of access to content for the deaf they should be.

Bibles can be simple, and they don't have to be pretty. But they do need to be complete, proactive, shared and USED.

 

*Read here about who should be using captions and/or subtitles (and sometimes both); it's not just a "deaf problem."

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The Case for Subtitle Editing

Colour photo of a cinema from the back row looking at a blank screen.

 

The explosion of access to international shows and films from independent filmmakers and from (S)VOD* suppliers like Netflix provides viewers with diverse and exciting choices. Many series and movies are outstanding. Except in one area.

If you hope to reach viewers around the globe, your production’s subtitles or captions must communicate flawlessly, and currently many are failing miserably.

You only have about 2 seconds per title to enable the viewer to absorb the content, so it needs to be picture-perfect.

What does picture-perfect mean in subtitling? It requires quality-control editing to catch more potential problem areas than you’d think. Recently, I did a survey of pitfalls in the final episode of a foreign TV series I’d been watching on Netflix. During that one episode, I documented 84 discrete errors—meaning 84 usage errors, not repeated occurrences like “hte” or even the possible multiple errors within one word or phrase.

At that rate, the reader stumbles due to incorrect subtitles about every 30 seconds and loses concentration on the dialogue.

By the time the brain has sorted out the discrepancy or compensated for misunderstanding, another title has flown by. Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.

The problems I found in the show I surveyed involved not just typos but also errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, timing, capitalization, speaker identification and, most often, idiomatic usage.** Never mind missing titles or titling a character’s use of the English “Okay.” with “alright”. [Can you identify the 5 errors there?] A subtitle editor would catch and fix those.

Why does this happen? It’s probably not the subtitler’s/captioner’s fault. They work under extremely tight deadlines. Good translation takes time. The technology is intricate. And they are usually not briefed to copy edit—nor should they be: translation and copy editing for film are totally different skill sets.

Many shows are titled by people contracted to do the freelance work by companies that, frankly, want output quantity rather than quality. But if you’re working with a professional subtitler and translator, such as those affiliated with SUBTLE, the international Subtitlers’ Association (full disclosure: I’m a member), you are likely dealing with a highly trained and invested individual contractor or small company. Just like writers who need copy editors and proofreaders, as the filmmaker you may wish to hire a collaborative team: the translator/subtitler and the subtitle editor to check for idiomatic correctness. Did you know that “English” in print and film is edited by country? Editing English texts from Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia requires education and experience in working with those countries’ conventions. Like all types of editing, to edit titles for film you need more than experience helping your friends with their resumes or teaching English for 20 years. You need formal training and ongoing professional development because “the rules” are always changing.

“Native speakers only” is not an adequate qualification requirement for captioning.

Subtitle editing is affordable because the subtitler has done the bulk of the work; the editing just cleans up the titles with a fresh pair of eyes and ensures that your long and expensive project is professional and truly accessible.

The goal of subtitles and captions is to communicate while making viewers forget they are reading titles. Good titling is as important as movie soundtracks: they should enhance the experience while being unnoticeable in the moment.

 

 

*(Subscription) Video on Demand

"Facilitate viewer immersion" (and all grammatical variations of it) is a copyrighted phrase. © Vanessa Wells, 2017.

 

 

 

Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008, Flickr.com

 

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What IS a Subtitle or Caption Editor?

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You might wonder what a subtitle editor is, since many companies already offer subtitle translations. Those like my colleagues in SUBTLE (Subtitlers' Association) produce professional results—yay! But frankly, subtitling companies are hanging out their shingles despite lacking one important component: editing skills. (Not technical video editors: that's a different area.) I realized this when I worked in captioning and saw how the products needed editing. It's like expecting authors to turn out perfect books without manuscript editing: not good.

Subtitles cannot be flawless or even excellent without editing, and they require a trained, professional editor who is also knowledgeable about captioning and subtitling, translation, foreign languages, linguistics and the conventions of different kinds of English. Otherwise, the results are unsatisfactory: even if you aren't reading them critically, imperfect subtitles are distracting.

Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.

A subtitle editor checks, adjusts and polishes the text so that it is clear, consistent and correct.

Did you try to solve the challenge I included in a recent post? After seeing 84 discrete subtitle errors in one episode of a show on Netflix, I posted one example and suggested that there were 5 errors in it and asked if you could find them. The subtitle read:

Alright

for a non-English-speaking character saying

Okay.

In fact, I'd even argue that there are 6 errors in that one word. (Email me if you think you can figure out the problems in that example.) But that word distracted me, and I didn't even have my editor's cap on—I was just chilling with a show on the weekend. Not the end of the world, granted; but my reading brain stumbled, and that caused me to pause, which caused me to miss the next title, which made me lose the thread of the dialogue, and I had to rewind. (This is especially problematic if you're watching a show that is info-heavy, such as a mystery or crime thriller.)

While providers like Netflix are rolling out new services to try and produce better subtitle translations, they're still missing this essential step in the process. No reputable book publisher would release a book without editing or proofreading done. But more on that in a future article.

So if you watch shows and films to relax and to rest your weary brain and you don't want to have to think while you're doing it (isn't that the point of recreational viewing?), you should be demanding this level of production from providers. Part of your monthly subscription fee or movie charges goes to subtitling, so you might as well get good product for your money. Would you want to buy a new book that hadn't been edited? No, but we constantly do because it's considered too costly by a lot of publishers now. If you expect your can of paint to be sold with a handle attached or fruit not to be sold when it's moldy, why are you settling for second rate in your entertainment? Rise up, good people, and demand excellence! It doesn't look like online viewing is going away anytime soon, but if we continue to accept second-best quality, we'll soon be given third.

Clear communication is not a frill, it's a basic requirement.

To see the areas of both work and play which need excellence in captioning and subtitling, see my post, Who Needs Subtitle Editing?

 

 

 

Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008, Flickr.com

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Subtitle Edit Draw

Are you a filmmaker in Canada? Do you have a film made in a language other than English? You could win a subtitle edit of your transcribed captions or translated subtitles before your film’s release!

In celebration of National Canadian Film Day 150 (NCFD 150) #CanFilmDay on April 19, 2017, Wells Read Editing will hold a draw (via Random Picker, maximum 1000 entries) on April 26 for entries received by (re-)tweet with the hashtags #CanFilmDay #SubtitleEditDraw by 11:59pm EST on April 25. One winner will have one film’s English subtitles proofread, edited and checked for idiomatic correctness for FREE; two alternates will be generated by the software in case the winner cannot accept the prize.

Entrants do not have to be Canadian citizens but must be 18 years of age or older and able to provide current proof of residence, work/self-employment/film studies/amateur film making in Canada. Film length is not to exceed two hours, although work past 120 film minutes may be completed at regular fees; payment to be arranged and paid in advance; minutes begin with opening frame even if they are credit titles/visuals. Date of work fulfillment to be determined between editor and winner. Language of subtitles must be English, and Canadian, American, British or Australian conventions can be specified (depending on your intended market). For this draw’s prize, editing will not be embedded in the titling software or video file and will be completed by text document, screenshot PDFs with mark up or another mutually agreed-upon manner. Film credits will include reference to “Subtitle Editing by Wells Read Editing.”

To enter, tweet #CanFilmDay #SubtitleEditDraw to @vwellseditor 

~ FIN ~

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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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