Santa Can Only Be Captioned with One Ho! ?

Closeup of Santa Claus


I recently had a conversation with another subtitling professional about a particular Netflix “rule.” Many companies that aren’t even Netflix’s Preferred Vendors use the streaming service’s online guides for subtitling and captioning (or SDH: subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) whether their client has stipulated it or not. There’s some erroneous thought that the timed-text guide is some kind of definitive subtitling (and captioning) resource, when in fact it is inconsistent and incredibly insubstantial. In his article From old tricks to Netflix: How local are interlingual subtitling norms for streamed television? in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Audiovisual Translation, veteran AVT scholar Jan Pedersen presents his findings about the various languages’ Netflix guides, which he objectively describes as “work[s] in progress” (pg. 16).

My interlocutor maintained that Netflix doesn’t allow for repetition of subtitles, and I maintained that was a guideline that often had to be disregarded. She said her clients insisted on that; I said mine (and I) insisted on common sense and contextual consideration.

First we had a minor discussion about the differences between stuttering and stammering in speech, in editing, and thus in subtitling. But the main focus was whether a person greeting a large group with many Hellos should be captioned with more than one Hello. The Netflix guide says:

II.16. Repetitions

Do not subtitle words or phrases repeated more than once by the same speaker.

If the repeated word or phrase is said twice in a row, time subtitle to the audio but translate only once.

Now, supposing an onscreen child is being a pest, hounding an adult, but other dialogue also needs to be subtitled, then it’s understandable to indicate that (perhaps with [child continues interrupting]) but not repeating their line. Time and other factors may well preclude repeating. But, generally, repetition is plot-pertinent, moving the action or characterization or mood along; writers don’t include it to be annoying. In order to present complete content (and because time was not a factor in our example), viewers using subtitles or captions have the right to know that the character is personally greeting as many people in the crowd as he can: it indicates his level of engagement with them. To subtitle him as saying Hello once not only suggests he says it once and then ignores the rest of the group—while he is facing away from the camera but the audio repeats his greeting—it conveys inaccurate narrative, particularly to the  nonhearing viewer. This is audist and inaccessible: bad subtitling practice and ethics.

In frustration, I said that being pedantic like that meant that we should caption Santa Claus as saying Ho! rather than Ho! Ho! Ho! She conceded that “I suppose that particular case would be treated differently.”

But overall she wasn’t having it. Her bottom line was satisfying her customers’ needs by sticking to the rules and getting paid, repeat business.

My bottom line is serving the subtitle/caption user by educating the client—if it’s even needed. I’ve never had a client question repetitions that were contextually correct, race back to section II.16, and refuse to pay me. They appreciate the feedback notes in my returned file. That’s how I communicate with subtitling and publishing clients: I share the rationale I’ve employed based on my expertise in editing and suggest they use my edit. If they want to stet for whatever reason, that’s their choice, but they rarely disagree.

Eventually, I wound up our discussion by suggesting we might agree to disagree, and we both very politely agreed to do so.

But this is the kind of issue in subtitling and captioning practice today that irks me. Rule-sticklerism trumps complete access to clear communication. The inconsistencies Pedersen reported from his research confirm my ongoing opinion that Netflix (and people following their and similar guides) do not understand the nuances of English and how language needs to be treated in subtitling. His discussion points out their abbreviated and less detailed guidelines (for various languages’ timed-text guides). He correctly suggests:

...The great similarity among the TTSGs shows that Netflix is basically rebooting subtitling norms, by prescribing the use of the same norms across the board (albeit with local language examples) and then gradually adapting them to local norms via updates… When there was suddenly a huge and urgent need for subtitling into many languages, it was probably too time-consuming to research local norms… This must have prompted the use of the one-size-fits-all solution of norms, influenced by DVD norms, which could then be modified as you go along, so to speak. Here, new  norms  are  imposing  a  one-size-fits-all  system,  which  is  then  adjusted  post hoc. (pg. 17)

He says scholarly research into other VODs would be interesting, and if my survey of lack of quality captioning by streamers is any indication, I bet the results would be even more lacklustre.

So, let’s look at some examples that prove that repetition of dialogue is necessary and others that were not well handled.

Episode 3 of Deadwind seems to ignore its own rule:

Woman in restaurant standing and leaning over table, speaking to someone offscreen, captioned "I'm on your side. I'm on your side."

So does season 1 episode 5 of The Kominsky Method, when Arkin’s character walks through his office to welcomes from several employees:

Alan Arkin in character, walking through an office filled with employees, captioned "Thank you. Thank you."

And in episode 9:

Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas seen through a car window while the latter is driving, captioned, "Good. Good."

The Dinner does the same:

Laura Linney facing an unseen man, captioned, "Do not quote at me right now. mDo not quote at me right now."

It doesn’t seem like Netflix has a total hate-on for repetitions. Or else their QA people are asleep at the wheel.

Let’s look at this rule when it was pedantically applied by a well-meaning vendor but then two episodes later was wisely disregarded. (This is an argument for using the same subtitler for a series or at the very least creating and using a show bible.)

When, in episode 6, Arnau marries the bridezilla, she is subtitled—incorrectly. A good translator should know or at least confirm meaning: to pledge one’s troth is to promise marriage or get engaged, not to wed.

Video still of medieval characters, a priest flanked by a man and woman facing each other in a church, captioned "With this ring, I plight thee my troth."

But when it’s his turn to return the ersatz wedding vow, he is uncaptioned. Note that in the dub, he repeats “With this ring, I thee wed” but neither version is provided. Of course it’s “twice in a row,” but that’s the presentation of the ceremony in the show, and withholding his vow is absolutely ridiculous.

Video still of medieval characters, a priest flanked by a man and woman facing each other in a church.

Why is it withheld? Because “rule” II.16 says not to. [Insert eyeroll.]

In episode 8, when he gets to marry the Nice Girl, he again is subtitled wrong for “I thee wed” (and their order in making the vows is reversed):

Closeup of male hand placing gold band on female hand, with medieval cuffs visible, captioned "With this ring, I plight thee my troth."

And she promises likewise, even though it’s the same line.

Longshot of medieval wedding scene in a chapel, captioned "I plight thee my troth."

So, what’s the big deal in the first instance? We get it, right? It should be obvious from the video… That’s not the point. First, it gives the subtitler (or vendor/contractor/client/whoever) the power to decide that a major event in the story should not be conveyed with completeness to the viewer—and I believe that ethically that’s not in their purview to do. It is pedantry of the worst sort, and I don’t regularly see Netflix as using a whole lot of language knowledge or common sense, so no surprise. But most importantly, it yanks the viewer out the narrative so that they are no longer fully immersed in the plot. They’re no longer fully immersed in the story, but wondering, Wait—what? Why isn’t he talking? Is there something wrong with the stream? No, his mouth is moving… I guess he said the same vow, coz we can see it’s the wedding, but…

I would argue that subtitling/captioning ethics demand that we convey to a viewer using timed text what a non–caption user is getting: the whole cultural content, uncensored and correct, whenever possible. The politics of deciding who gets to “hear” what, based on blind rule-following, is ableist.

These are the kinds of issues that need to be considered in media-production programs that cover accessibility: usability is the icing on the accessibility cake. We need to teach these nuances to students and current professionals. Otherwise, subtitles and captions are just lip service to our present and forthcoming legislation, never mind our supposedly more inclusive world.




Santa photo source:

photo from

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

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.