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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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,


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