[Reading Sounds]: Interview with Sean Zdenek

Cover of Sean Zdenek's book: Reading Sounds: Closed Captioned Media and Popular Media. It is an inverted image with a blue and cloudy sky on the bottom half and paved road on the top.

 

 

VW: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Sean! I’m excited to have the opportunity to ask you more about your book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture. I think we agree on a lot of issues about captioning, but your book made me think about some of them differently and, in some cases, more deeply.

For instance, I liked your succinct five guidelines for thinking through the question of significance (pg.123):

1. Captions should support the emotional arc of a text.

2. A sound is significant if it contributes to the purpose of the scene.

3. Caption space is precious. It should never be wasted on superfluous sounds that may confuse viewers or diminish their sense of identification with the protagonist(s).

4. Sounds in the background do not necessarily need to be captioned, even if they are loud.

5. Every caption should honor and respect the narrative. While a narrative does not have one correct reading, it does have a sequence and arc that must be nourished. [All emphases by VW.]

And I think the echo effect you created for the captions from The Three Musketeers (see still image below of captions in a poisoning scene) honoured those points. Actually, I’m going to write an article later about creative captioning which I meant to do before now, and I polled some D/deaf and hearing followers on social media about it (separate polls). Now I’m kind of glad I didn’t get around to that post before reading your book, which made me see them in a more positive light. But more on that in another article!

Video clip of a musketeer collapsed on the floor with a caption that says, Well, just so you don't leave empty-handed, with the text repeated 3 times and overlapping, reflecting his experience of being poisoned

Copyright Sean Zdenek. Do not reproduce.

You may have seen my interview with Tessa Dwyer about her book, Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation, and I was interested to see a political discussion in your book, too: linguistic imperialism, or the idea that “only English matters” (pg.271). Jon Christian’s outing of Netflix a few years ago started off a more frequent public discussion about captions on VODs and in broadcasting; more recently we’ve had Karamo Brown’s calling out Netflix on Twitter about wanting intralingual verbatim captioning and that got some coverage recently. What’s your POV on what’s happening to the online discussion these days around captioning?

SZ:  As you’ll recall, it wasn’t too long ago—circa 2010—when Hulu and Netflix were scrambling to offer any captioning at all on their streaming content. The National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit, which was settled in 2012 when Netflix “agreed to caption all of its shows by the year 2014” (Mullin 2012). Around the same time, Hulu was only captioning about 5 percent of its online programming. I wrote a blog post in 2009 to call attention to the small percentage of captioned programs on Hulu and to show my support for what would become the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” (CVAA), signed into law by President Obama in 2010. The CVAA “requires video programming that is closed captioned on TV to be closed captioned when distributed on the Internet (does not cover programs shown only on the Internet).”

Autocaptioning, which Google debuted in 2009, is an important part of the history of online captioning, too. It has received some well-deserved criticism over the years but also, more recently, some praise as it continues to improve and evolve. (See Rikki Poynter’s 2018 blog post, Are automatic captions on YouTube getting better?) No doubt the ubiquity of autocaptioning on YouTube, despite (or because of) its limitations, has been crucial in shaping the public’s understanding of good and bad captioning.  

Today, digital captioning is having its viral moment, finally. The best example: Nyle DiMarco wrote a series of tweets in February 2018 following a bad experience with movie theater captioning. His story was picked up by a number of news outlets and written up as an op-ed for Teen Vogue. Other popular writers and bloggers, including Ace Ratcliff and Rikki Poynter, have called attention to access barriers and problems with captioning.

VW: Yes, I was interviewed on CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning show about open captioning [transcript here], and the conversation began with the host talking about Nyle’s tweets: his reach was international!

SZ: What we’re seeing with these stories, I think, is the power of social media to elevate to viral status the needs of people who require quality captioning. We’re seeing captioning break into the mainstream in ways it hasn’t before. Popular personalities (celebrities, models, YouTube bloggers) are driving compelling stories that seem tailor-made for viral media.

The online landscape has changed radically in the last decade too. Video rules the web. By 2021, according to Cisco’s projections, most internet traffic—from 80 to 90 percent—will be video, “up from 73 percent in 2016” (Cisco 2017). Netflix alone is responsible for more than one-third of all internet traffic in North America (Luckerson 2015). A decade ago, online captioning was a technical problem to be solved. Today, viewers demand quality captioning and lean on the power of social media to call out instances of poor captioning.  

VW: I’ve shared with you that my in-house captioning experience was eye-opening on several levels. In Canada, even with the upcoming AODA in Ontario, the on-paper standards are basically moot, and as you say, it does seem like CCs are provided to “placate government requirements” (pg.xv) and that they’re seen as “mandatory…as a condition” (pg.80) of broadcasting. Even in accessible projects, captions do indeed seem to be added on at the end “after the real work has been completed” (pg.291). There’s only one full post-secondary study program in accessible media production in Canada, at Mohawk College, that addresses captioning, although I see other schools starting to pick up the idea. You mention hoping CCs will be addressed in the scholarly realm more frequently and seriously. What’s the state of captioning studies as a discipline or even a program in the US? Because, as you say, there is a lot of power and responsibility in the hands of captioners (pg.53), but that’s pretty scary when production isn’t regulated and the craft isn’t even fully taught!

SZ: Academic interest in captioning continues to grow, especially in the humanities. I think the biggest hurdle, from the humanities side, is that captioning has usually been viewed as purely technical or objective, a useful skill or trade but not a complex array of theories or deeper questions of meaning and user experiences. When I refer to caption studies, I intend to link the study of captioning to other humanistic pursuits in writing studies, sound studies, graphic design, art, accessibility, universal design, rhetoric, and more. In fact, I would argue that captioning unites these disparate areas and offers the perfect laboratory for studying questions of digital access across multiple fields of inquiry. A small number of scholars in my own fields of rhetoric and professional writing have taken up the subject of captioning, often in the name of disability studies, which has grown into a vibrant, interdisciplinary research program.

The term caption studies is performative: it doesn’t really exist (yet), but I was hoping to bring it into being in the act of naming it. In my opinion, we need a label that reflects the complexity of the subject itself, one that also aligns with the humanistic inquiry that is at the heart of other studies (e.g. sound studies, gender studies, science studies, etc.). Names matter, of course, which is why I prefer captioner to captionist: the latter sounds too much like typist or transcriptionist (with connotations of direct copying), while the former sounds like (or invokes) writer (with all the agency and creativity that being a writer entails).    

VW: Exactly where I’m at with caption and subtitle editing! I’m trying to raise awareness that just as books don’t just get published as written and editors are integral to the publishing process, so to must caption editing be part of production. Someone summarized my work the other day as “fixing typos,” and I was quick to point out that editing is not just proofreading. It’s a craft, science, and art rolled into one that I’m trying to shed light on because until now it’s been ignored, or at least underserved by so-called quality control. I often make about 150 edits to 60 runtime minutes captioned by a professional captioner or subtitler, not because they aren’t good at their job, but because they’re like book authors and my making the text more clear and correct for the user’s full immersion in the content is a separate skill set. Most of the captioners and subtitlers I work with get this and thank me for what I bring to the edited timed text. Sounds like we both have an opportunity to show the academic and lay worlds that captioning is a humanistic study, as you say, and the holistic, performative aspect goes way beyond avoiding the popular #CraptionFails we see posted online.

SZ: I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course called Web Access for All this semester. It covers several topics, one of which is captioning. As far as I know, it’s the first and only course of its kind at my university. It complements other courses and programs in interactive media, professional writing, and disability studies. But by no means is caption studies a formal program of study in higher education. One way to get there, I think, is to fold the study of captioning into courses on digital access or multimedia design, and then fold those courses into disability studies minors.

Academics and practitioners also need to work together. I’m fascinated by the important work that captioners do but have never worked as a professional captioner. I’ve interviewed captioners but have never observed captioners at work. A full-bodied program of study would support collaborations among multidisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners from academia and industry. Workplace studies of captioners are vital if we want to call attention to the forms of labor and creativity that captioners provide.

VW: They’re also vital to demonstrate to captioning houses, departments and companies that how they’re supposedly training people doesn’t work. It’s not just about being a fast typist, and you can’t be a good captioner with baptism by fire. It’s got to be taught—as in pedagogy—with a view that goes beyond having a facility with subtitling software functionalities. Like writing and editing courses.

You correctly discuss how producers don’t work with captioners (pg.77) and that there’s a disconnect between producers and captioners (pg.290). My experience is that we’re definitely an add-on and that the only feedback is about frames and other technical elements. Whether subtitles or captions, I really think production houses just don’t understand the nuances of captioning (see above) and are just concerned with getting out quick and cheap CCs to meet requirements. It’s kind of depressing sometimes! Do you have more you can add about this that didn’t make it into your book?

SZ: For me, the problem was summarized nicely in an email I received in 2012 from a professional captioner as I was beginning to work on my book. Her email (which I posted anonymously on my blog with her permission) was full of provocative claims:

  • The main factor that drives quality captioning is what clients are willing to pay for it.
  • Most clients see captioning as that mandatory last step that has to get done as a condition of their materials going on air.
  • The vast majority of clients do not care what the captioning looks like, as long as it gets done in time for the stations to receive their captioned masters.
  • Clients will often choose to go to cheaper captioning houses who promise to get their feature film captioned in a day.
  • When a captioning company charges low prices on high volumes of work, it’s because they hire lots of people at low wages. [All emphases by VW.]

It’s hard to imagine a collection of more depressing claims for captioning advocates. I’d be curious to get your take on them. It’s also difficult for me to imagine a harder problem to solve in caption studies.

VW: This is my experience completely, and I see it echoed on closed social media groups for captioners everyday. I also hired one of those cute-kitty-typing-ad captioning services to double check the reality. I sent in a one-minute video and the caption file came back inaccurate!

That’s largely why I’m turning to the nudge paradigm with an initiative that will be announced shortly. I just don’t think that 30 years of demands for accessibility has worked: there’s some progress in quantity but not quality. I think it needs to start with a change of view and attitude in filmmakers, since they’re where everything starts. But more on that later…

SZ: Carefully and creatively subtitled films do give me some hope. The English subtitles in Night Watch, for example, were produced under the director’s supervision. As I wrote about the film in a blog post:

In an unusual move, director Timur Bekmambetov “insisted on subtitling [Night Watch] and took charge of the design process himself,” as opposed to having the Russian speech dubbed into English or leaving the subtitling process to an outside company (Rawsthorn 2007). He adopted an innovative approach: “We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story” (Rosenberg 2007).

Several subtitles in this movie are painstakingly integrated into the aesthetic of the film. They reinforce meaning and mood by blending form and content. Meaning is expressed not only through the words but how they are visually designed (color, movement, dimensionality, transformation). When objects temporarily cover or block the subtitles, we are reminded that the subtitles are part of the scene itself (instead of an add-on or afterthought).

VW: This makes me teary-eyed…

SZ: Night Watch inspired me to explore non-traditional forms of captioning. My experiments with color, icons, typography, and effects were intended to be disruptive and controversial. But I think we need to push against conventions that are limiting and constraining. I published seventeen of my experiments as an online journal article entitled “Designing Captions: Disruptive Experiments with Typography, Color, Icons, and Effects.”

VW: Dear readers, the fact that you’re reading this interview means that you will find “Designing Captions” fascinating. And Sean, I’ll have to check out Night Watch! Whenever I see a show or film with excellent captioning, I always get on my social media soapbox and sing their praises. It’s so rare that filmmakers a) get it or b) care.

As that captioner said to you, in terms of value, “quality is what clients are willing to pay for it” (pg.80) which, depending on the genre or product type, is next to nothing. That was my experience in-house—most of my training cohort quit because it wasn’t a livable or predictable wage, more suited to students wanting part-time work who could drop everything and show up last minute (we stayed in touch and discussed our takes on it). Even now, I get inquiries about rates from filmmakers who’ve been told that they need captions in order to submit their projects for consideration in film festivals, and they balk at professional (not exorbitant) rates. I’m always banging the drum about filmmakers needing to plan for this minuscule percentage of their overall budget so that it’s not an unexpected submission issue… Aside from educating the content producers and production houses, how else do you think we can create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions (not just “good enough” ones) and the potential increase in distribution and profits by making them accessible to another 10+ per cent of the population (D/deaf/HoH/other folks who need accessibility)? My upcoming initiative aside, that is.

 

 It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism.

 

SZ: You’re asking the hardest question of all. Advocates and organizations have worked tirelessly on behalf of individuals who need quality captioning. So many of us care deeply about captioning. It does feel, at times, as though the message isn’t breaking through.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism. Movies are made for people who can hear and see—it’s as simple as that. Stories about inaccessible, or accessible but not usable, movie theater captions remind us that movie producers are not really thinking about the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They are satisfying legal requirements and, in most cases, doing the bare minimum at a fraction of the movie’s budget. Captions come last because, to be frank, the needs of people with disabilities have historically come last (or not at all).

VW: Which is why I’ve been handwriting letters to directors and producers for quite a while now to ask them to be more engaged in the production and use of captions so that more people can watch their films; just because captions are made for bigger films doesn’t mean they’re well done, and usually the caption files are shelved because the cinemas claim no demand for them. So far, no one has replied, which is really depressing.

SZ: How do we “create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions”? I think we need to continue to write about and advocate for quality captioning from our diverse positions of expertise, as you have obviously been doing. Teachers can do their part in training new generations of accessibility-minded producers and consumers. As an educator, I teach my students about captioning and place accessibility at the center of digital design. I also advocate for digital inclusion on my campus. Promoting accessibility is one way for academics to speak to people outside of their narrow scholarly fields who will go on to work in many industries (including the entertainment industry).

VW: I agree. I write about it and I’m seeing an uptick in people in more countries, like Tweeters @deafieblogger, @lifeanddeafpost, @Limping_Chicken, as well as advocacy groups I’m a member of or in touch with, like CCAC and DC Deaf Moviegoers. I did write a speculative piece about how one day we’ll look back at this time of ridiculous exclusivity; I hope you and I are eventually proven right that advocacy will change the landscape.

Even in my work with my clients (who clearly do care about quality as they pay me to edit them, not just review them for typos), the attempt to keep things consistent within a series with a bible I’ll create for the captioners and implementation of extended style guidelines (I model mine on CMoS, too, (pg.161, 162) can still get ignored if I don’t advocate for change with explanations as to how it aids the users.

Even the oft-recommended resources are “lite” in scope and imperfect. (The Captioning Key, for instance, has at least one self-contradictory error that I can recall off the top of my head.) Do you agree with my position that, after 30 years, it’s time for an overhaul of outdated bits and pieces (language has changed since the 80s!) and for the creation of a robust and standardized “CMoS for captioning”?

SZ: Yes, I agree completely. The publicly available captioning style guides need work. I reviewed four style manuals for my book. It was challenging to try to reconcile and justify the differences among them. But more importantly, it wasn’t clear to me why some of the guidelines existed at all. Guidelines are usually offered up as facts with little justification in terms of usability and users’ preferences. For example, guidelines for styling speaker identifiers are conflicting. Do we put parentheses around names and place them on their own line? Or do we set names in all caps and use colons (which is standard in DVD captioning)? Why should we choose one or the other—the style guides are silent on this question. WGBH’s Media Access Group suggests styling speaker identifiers in all caps, but then presents an opposite example:

The Media Access Group’s convention is to show IDs in uppercase, rendered in Roman and set off with a colon. Parentheses or brackets may also be considered. For example, a bottom-center caption with an ID might look like this:
Narrator:
THE RIVERS RAN DRY
WITH DEVASTATING EFFECTS.

Guidelines like this one not only need to be corrected (so the example supports the guideline) but reconsidered entirely. A “robust and standardized” style manual would need to be deeply informed by user studies (focus groups, surveys, eye tracking) and theories of reading, typography, design, and perception.

A related issue is that captioning itself is often assumed to be simple—a matter of transcribing (narrowly defined) or copying down what people are saying. The online DIY tools are built for speed to allow users to quickly transcribe speech. But these tools can reinforce the idea that style manuals are not needed because captioning is straightforward.   

VW: This brings to mind the guy who called me “simplistic” in response to my article, “Good Enough” Captions Aren’t. He was all about the tools, speed, and ease of application, and I think he felt threatened by the position I take.

I couldn’t agree more with your comments about who makes a good captioner. Just as book editors (my other hat) must be well-read, well-educated, and professionally trained in editing best practices, I think captioners do need to be mature individuals with a wide knowledge base and extensive cultural literacy (pgs. 22, 73, 221, 235). I was recently asked why I had sent back an edit to an experienced subtitler with a particular sentence put into quotation marks; in the narration, it was an unattributed quote, but because the person wasn’t of the age or background to at least twig that something had a different register and perhaps should be investigated, it had gone over their head. I’m not blaming them, but it just highlights the need for a certain type or age of person from the workforce—or at least, it validates my insistence that captions and subtitles need an editor. But sadly, typing speed and facility with software are what create the poor results from freelance-marketplace lowballers who are willing to transcribe for pennies. Aside from style standardization and formalization of training, how will we be able to create an understanding that captioning is a skilled profession requiring education (and perhaps accreditation) and to get away from untrained people banging out craptions?

SZ: You’ve raised another excellent question. I don’t have any easy answers. I think we can continue to chip away at people’s expectations and assumptions about captioning (and about access more broadly). Above, I mentioned educating the public, both formally (in our classrooms) and informally (through blog posts, social media, interactions with clients). I am hopeful that our college courses—even when they are not focused on training captioners or even captioning per se—can create lifelong advocates for digital inclusion. More students than ever are being introduced to digital accessibility and universal design. My hope is that they will take their knowledge into their future workplaces and teach others about the value and importance of video access for all.

 

 I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several have told me that they will “never look at captions the same way again.”

 

We can also continue to research captions and user experiences to disrupt the status quo. With Reading Sounds, I set out to show that captioning is much more complex, rhetorical, subjective, creative, and interesting than we have typically assumed. I had in mind a diverse audience (not just scholars in my own fields) because I hoped that the book’s message might resonate with students, film fans, and others who may not be connected directly to captioning. In other words, I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several people have told me after reading my book or attending one of my presentations that they will “never look at captions the same way again.” If we can find ways to get this message into the minds of more people, including movie producers, perhaps we can chip away at the assumption that the subject couldn’t possibly be rich enough to support a book-length treatment, that captioning is not a profession but a simple skill, that captioning only benefits a few people, and so on.

VW: That’s why I wanted to spotlight your book with an interview. It is not only accessible but fascinating and thought-provoking reading for anyone, not just academia. I think I’ve told you that if I ever get to teach a course in caption editing, it’s going to be required reading.

The feedback from the caption users you surveyed did not surprise me. They struggled with having to rethink content in bad captions (pg.67) and expressed a need and appreciation for excellent captions (pg.71), which reflects my articles and guest writers’ experiences. You’re open about your son being deaf and your subsequent interest in captions; I now rely on them due to the hearing conditions that affect my hearing. Do you think, with seemingly international pressure to legislate accessibility (despite my letters to Hollywood!), that all the different types of caption users, but especially the D/deaf/HoH, will ever see true access—and by that I mean high-quality captioning? It’s been three decades already with increased application but stagnant quality. What’s it going to take til craptions are basically a thing of the past?

SZ: The number of people who need or want quality captioning only seems to be increasing as the population ages. In an era of streaming global media, more people are reading movies as well. Netflix has introduced more viewers to the pleasures and challenges of watching foreign movies with subtitles and/or with dubbed speech. (Whereas dubbing is well-known to European audiences, it is not common in the US.) Media globalization is helping to normalize words on the screen for US audiences. 

Universal design has also produced powerful arguments in favor of quality captioning for all. We know the claims and contexts so well by now that they’ve become stereotypes: watching TV in a noisy bar, studying a video lecture in a quiet library (without headphones), learning to read a first language (child) or a second language (adult), and on and on. Even nonhumans rely on captions: Google uses caption data to index the content of videos on YouTube, “but only if you upload your own professional captions. If you use the auto-generated captions that YouTube provides, they won’t be indexed because the quality tends to be very poor” (Dillman 2017). Another reason why autocaptioning is insufficient!

These developments do not eliminate craptions, but they do make captions and subtitles more visible, needed, and expected. As more users encounter and demand quality captions in more contexts, the calls for quality captioning will hopefully become more frequent and persuasive.

VW: There are so many topics you covered that I don’t think are considered even by current advocates: captioned irony; treatment of silences; nonspeech information; continue captions. And I learned a new term: captioned modulation (pg.200). Thank you for such a broad introduction to captioning theory and practice. I hope by the time your next book comes out (😉), rhetoric will have moved out of accessibility-focused circles and into the mainstream as a career option to fill a need and is given more than lip service. I’d love nothing more than to not have material for [intensifies], [indistinct conversations], and [music] craption memes!

 

Head shot of Dr. Sean Zdenek in a blue shirt, dark glasses, outside with snow behind him; he is smiling broadly

Sean Zdenek is associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. His research interests include web accessibility, disability studies, sound studies, and rhetorical theory and criticism. Prior to joining the Department of English in 2017, Dr. Zdenek was a faculty member at Texas Tech University for fourteen years, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses on a range of subjects. Dr. Zdenek's book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press), received the 2017 best book award in technical or scientific communication from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs).

 

#a11yTO Conf conference logo in blue and white

 

 

Vanessa will be speaking October 15–16 at #a11yTOConf on caption editing for accessibility. The title of her presentation is [dog barking in distance].

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Interview: Tessa Dwyer, author of Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation

Cover of Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation by Dr. Tessa Dwyer, showeing a film still of a young Asian couple in a dramatic setup, with the subtitle, "There's something I haven't told you yet."

RW: Hi, Tessa! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I found your book  Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation very timely, and it provoked many questions and some new thinking for me.

I started my university studies in translation, but I was surprised to learn about “value politics” in translation, which certainly wasn’t something I heard about 35 years ago. Could you provide a sort of elevator-pitch definition for readers?

TD: Perhaps because I come from a different disciplinary background – Film and Screen Studies – the “value politics” of translation immediately stood out to me when I started to engage with intercultural viewing practices and, especially, subtitling and dubbing. In fact, it was an encounter with “value politics” that really sparked my sustained interest in the topic. I was writing about Hong Kong action films in my MA thesis, using some French critical theory. My supervisor suggested I read the French theory in the “original,” yet had no qualms about my viewing of subtitled Hong Kong action films. Obviously, there are hierarchies in place about when and why translation does, or doesn’t, matter. What I found ironic was that a very learned translation of a French theorist by someone with expert knowledge of the field was not deemed worthy of serious analysis, while the less than stringent (to say the least!) subtitling of the Hong Kong film industry flew completely under the radar.

In Film and Screen Studies – especially Anglophone film theory – translation is so undervalued and un-theorised that it is almost entirely invisible. Despite the canonical centrality of European filmmaking, for instance, in the development of film theory and culture, the role of translation and the inter-cultural basis of much theorisation is almost entirely ignored. Translation speaks to reception contexts, over those of production/creation, and for this reason, it is often regarded as utterly inconsequential or, worse, as an affront to the creative process and to authorial vision. In this way, translation threatens the core stakes upon which so much of film and screen culture remains invested. That, I guess, it why I find it so fascinating and why I love how translation can demonstrate in myriad ways how the very distinction between production and reception breaks down. Everyday practices of subtitling and dubbing can really challenge so many assumptions and biases in the way we understand and discuss film and screen.

So much for an elevator pitch!... more like a meandering rumination.

RW: That’s great: all helpful!

You discuss critiques of subtitles which include elitism. Do you think wider access to film and video through prevalent video-on-demand streaming services is reducing this problem, which perhaps was more of an art-house issue for foreign films in the past?

TD: This is certainly something to consider. The disruptive influence of streaming platforms is immense, and as I argue in the book, the global media flows enabled by online networking are affected, at every turn, by language difference and translation. These recent industry shifts really bring issues of translation to the forefront of our changing media landscape. So yes, I think that streaming services are set to impact significantly on attitudes to subtitling and dubbing, yet it is too early to tell how this will play out. In 2014, there were predictions that Netflix would cause the demise of dubbing within Europe by providing timely access to content in its original language. However, by 2018, Netflix was streaming dubbed versions of shows by default, claiming that even when audiences insist they prefer subtitling, dubbing keeps more people watching.

RW: You cover issues around translation studies in your book, and current focus on content accessibility has certainly made this area more important than ever. Do you see audio-visual studies increasing in popularity, either as a result of demands for accessibility or because of the globalization of video content (VODs, gaming, etc.)?

TD: Yes, as I mentioned above, I think that the advent of streaming services is increasing attention exponentially on screen translation and localisation (including fan translation and crowdsourcing) and hence, burgeoning areas of research are emerging within Translation Studies. Content accessibility is definitely on the agenda in terms of industry regulation and policy, while global streaming services are having to prioritise translation and localisation. In 2017, for instance, Netflix launched the custom-built HERMES subtitling and translation test and indexing system, which it claims will allow them to “resource quality at scale” through standardised testing and unique identifiers, enabling it to use “metrics in concert with other innovations to ‘recommend’ the best subtitler for specific work based on their past performance.”

RW: Cultural misappropriation in the arts is a hot topic at the moment. Can you share some advice for young or emerging filmmakers, who might be trying to be more creative in order to get a foothold and visibility in a noisy film climate, about how and why to avoid détourning?

TD: Well, I think cultural misappropriation is an ongoing (perhaps necessary) risk attached to many forms of intercultural communication and creation. Détournement was a radical, activist strategy that sought to upset boundaries and challenge modes of thought and politics. It didn’t shy away from cultural misappropriation, but rather, confronted it head-on. It set out to offend and to shock. My take on all this is that intercultural modes of production and reception are vital, essential elements of mediatisation – no matter how risky. We need to recognise this and consider the complexities of translation involved in everyday practices and modes of engagement. I would rather that misappropriation continue to surface as an issue, than that creatives simply avoid engaging beyond their own safe cultural borders and boundaries.

RW: You talk about abusive and corruptive translation and quote Derrida about translation: “... it necessarily violates even as it devotedly follows or respects the original.” As a copy editor of books, I find my profession needs to walk a fine line between being “at once violent and faithful” in helping but also maintaining the author’s voice. “Nornes locates translation abuse within populist practices like anime fansubbing.” I feel the same way about self-publishers who think Grammarly can replace professional editing or who just want to ignore all writing conventions in the name of creativity. But your book seems to make a reasonable, unemotional examination of fansubbing. You changed my black-and-white thinking about it—well, brought my righteous indignation down a notch or two! Just as editors should not encourage grammar policing, what can you say to people who really bristle at fansubbing?

Let’s start with a provocation: maybe translation is, at heart, a fan activity?

TD: Let’s start with a provocation: maybe translation is, at heart, a fan activity? What motivates someone to labour so intensively and minutely with another’s text or creative work, if not some form of respect, devotion or fandom? Of course, the professionalization of the industry means that naturally many translators now routinely labour on works they do not love in any sense, but if we try to think about the origins of the practice, in scholarly and religious contexts say, the fan sense of investment holds.

Speaking from outside the field of professional translation – without the need to defend my own territory – I think it’s easier for me to appreciate the creative and sometimes subversive nature of fansubbing. Also, I’m interested in what fansubbing shows us about global media industries broadly. Fansubbing alerts us to very interesting things that are happening within global media flows, articulating gaps and loopholes, challenging politics, re-purposing technologies and, in some ways, helping to shape the future of global media industries.

Fansubbing is thought to have begun in the US when TV networks stopped broadcasting anime titles like Astroboy and Gigantor. Fans simply went in search of content themselves (sourcing video tapes directly from Japan or Hawaii), which then needed to be translated. As they set about translating for themselves, they discovered the extent of cultural adaptation/appropriation and reworking involved in the US TV broadcasts, and came to see their own translations as more faithful and authentic, and ultimately as safe-guarding the texts. This history is important as it shows how professionalism is by no means a guarantee of quality, due to corporate agendas, industry conventions, cultural attitudes and others factors.

Also – I should mention that many professional audiovisual translators are themselves very interested in fansubbing, and feel that there are many lesson to be learnt. Minako O’Hagen, for instance, notes the benefits of collaborative, peer-to-peer working environments with in-built feedback and mentoring mechanisms. O’Hagen and others also point to the value of expert genre knowledge as something that the industry is learning from the example of fansubbing. Netflix’s Hermes tool is a case in point: the aim is to match the right translator with the right content.

... we should value, not fear, fansubbing...

One of the major reasons why we should value, not fear, fansubbing is due to the fact that many language communities around the world are underserved by online offerings and by professional translation. Collaborative fansubbing provides a means to do something about the inequalities that persist in online modes of screen media access. While Netflix has expanded into 190 (out of 195) countries across the world, it only supports around 20 languages. The Netflix Vietnam service, for instance, offers a very limited range of Vietnamese-subtitled content, and so, once again, viewers resort to fansubs, using websites like subscene.com.

RW: Some people might be surprised to learn about subversive and spontaneous translation of films by audience members; online, I recently learned about lektoring. These brought to mind my days watching shadow-cast performances at The Rocky Horror Picture Show! You also talk about the “participatory” nature of today’s popular and public realms in the area of media consumption. Recently, an article I had posted, about the “good enough” attitude to captions being unacceptable particularly in terms of accessibility, was criticized by a competitor as being too simplistic. I know your book focuses on debates around translation in subtitles, but what’s your opinion on accepting a “good enough” level of captioning? (And you don’t have to agree with me. )

TD: I think it’s always important to advocate for high standards in captioning and other forms of media translation – especially in relation to policy guidelines and regulations. Yes, good enough is not an attitude that industry bodies should take on board, nor translation professionals. And yet, I would never want to dismiss the efforts of amateur, volunteer and community translators, who largely labour at the task of translation in response to industry gaps. I agree whole-heartedly that machine translation can never substitute for human translation and perhaps streaming platforms like YouTube that offer automatic captioning tools are creating such a misconception. The fact that captioning is often unedited is indeed a sign of discrimination and shows a lack of commitment by governments and media industries. It’s an important issue, and one that I think fansubbing and DIY captioning can actually aid. The battle isn’t against amateurs lending a hand where they can – it’s about governments and corporations avoiding their responsibilities and obligations. This is largely what fansubbers are also battling against: lack of access. So why not join forces and get fansubbers to champion the cause and help advocate for change? (n.b. Viki did this when it joined with deaf actor Marlee Matlin in the Billion Words March campaign.)

RW: If I ever teach a course on caption and subtitle editing, Speaking in Subtitles is going to be one of the books on my required reading list, and it really should be a staple on cinema studies intro courses. Although it’s academic, it’s packed with interesting information for general readers that will open their eyes to subtitling and captioning issues that go way beyond craptions and typos: literacy, ethics, politics, media piracy and guerilla efforts, cultural capital, interactivity, quality control, “thick translation” and User Generated Content, massively open translation, CT3—community, collaborative and crowdsourced translation, and Viki. Even the term animé is demystified. And thank you for setting us straight on the word for @#$%&! to represent prohibited expletives: grawlixes or “obscenicons” (Dwyer, pg 120; Díaz Cintas, pg 13). Finally, you’ve provided me with the terminology I needed for a future article I’ll be posting about more creative applications of captions: “integrated subtitles.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share? Perhaps something that didn’t make it into this book?

TD: I’ve published recently on barrage cinema in China (where viewers text comment onto the movie screen) – which relates tangentially to subtitling as a text-on-image mode! I’m also developing a fansubbing project around an in-production Spanish-language web-series called Distancia (watch the trailer here).

RW: I love the discussions around language and vocabulary in the barrage cinema article (“assault,” “bullet subtitles,” “hecklevision”!), and I'll keep an eye open about Distancia. Thank you again, Tessa!

TD: Thanks so much for this positive feedback. It’s truly gratifying to hear that you have found something of value in my book (despite its occasional forays into academic abstraction), and that it even has use for someone working in the industry. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and enquiries and look forward to catching your next post. So, the pleasure is all mine – thank you!

 

Headshot of Dr. Tessa DwyerDr. Tessa Dwyer is a Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies. Prior to arriving at Monash, she taught Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, and worked as a researcher at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University. Tessa is a member of the inter-disciplinary research group Eye Tracking the Moving Image (ETMI) and president of the journal Senses of Cinema (www.sensesofcinema.org).

Tessa’s research focuses on screen translation, language difference and transnational reception and distribution practices. She holds an Honours and MA degree in Fine Arts (Film) from the University of Melbourne, and a PhD in Screen and Media Culture, also from the University of Melbourne.

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How Uncaptioned Movies Are Like Old-Fashioned Vegetable Peelers

Old-fashioned vegetable or fruit peeler, with bare metal handle, against a mottled grey backgroundWould it really kill us hearing folks to go to the movies with open captions?

No one complains about sidewalk curb ramps or the bumpy yellow warning strips at TTC** subway stations: they’re just…there. We don’t tell folks in wheelchairs or scooters to use regular-height curbs and in the evenings only, or folks who are blind they will have safety during rush hours only. Then why the flip are we insisting that captioned movies (the few that are provided with captions) will be shown only on certain days, schedules and cinema screens?

I propose that we caption all movies and make them available at all times.

Now, before you whip out your I-hate-subtitled-foreign-films argument or your I’m-a-details-person rhetoric about how captions will block your view of the mise-en-scène, just grab a handful of popcorn and hear me out.

Humans don’t tend to love change. But generally, we do adapt. That’s why images like this are amusing:

Old fashioned produce peeler with bare metal handle; post says: did-anyone-ever-use-a-peeler-like-this-one-shareWe think, Wow, I can’t believe I used to put up with that! It’s ugly, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inefficient, and not everyone can use that thing effectively.

Eventually, we can barely remember what life was like before a new, improved version and, usually, we even realize that the old way wasn’t that great after all.

That is what would happen with open captions on movies. (Open captions are those that don’t leave the screen—you can’t decide to “close” them and watch video/TV/movies without. They’re ever-present.) We would become so used them that we wouldn't even remember what it was like not to have them. Non-users would tune them out; users would enjoy content more easily.

Not only would about 10% more of the population be able to go to the movies, individuals could broaden their social horizons by being able to attend a film with D/deaf or hard of hearing friends. As I mentioned in a recent article, I couldn’t attend a movie with more than two deaf friends due to the undersupply of assistive equipment (never mind captions). My more cynical side doesn’t understand why movie producers and cinema mega corps aren’t embracing this—aren’t they supposed to want higher box-office takings?

When surtitles*** were introduced to the opera world (by a Canadian company, by the way), people went bonkers. Opera would be ruined, the companies wailed. Opera had to be kept pure, cried the audiences. Guess what happened. More people started going. And most of them were young people. I LOVE surtitles and find they have enriched my opera experience. And if I lose interest or there’s a repetitive text being sung, I just look away. They’re placed in opera houses in such a way so that they don’t distract the disinterested eye but are quickly adjusted to when used. I don’t have to use or pay attention to them if I don’t want to.

But wait! you may interject, you can skip reading boring repeats in opera, but you can’t skip dialogue in a movie or you’ll be lost! Aha! rejoin I. Welcome to the world of the D/deaf and hard of hearing: the dialogue is integral to film. You’re aiding my argument.

And if you’re going to tell me your eye never leaves the multiplex screen for 92 minutes and you have taken in every object in a film, you must have a photographic memory. Most of us aren’t taking in the whole scene—in fact only about 12% of it (Sorry, directors!)—and research suggests that subtitles (and presumably captions) improve the visual experience of film or TV content. Or we look down when we drop popcorn, check our phone for the time, note the green or red exit sign, look at the couple two rows down who won’t stop talking, etc. We already are distracted. If anything, the research suggests, captions will hold our attention to the visual, not adversely affect it.

Also, captions and subtitles that have been edited should be of such a standard that we stop noticing that we’re reading them. So even if our eye does drift to them, they’ll allow us to be fully immersed in the storyline.

We have scent-free institutions for those with allergies. We have Braille on bathroom doors and other public signs. We allow service animals into restaurants. We keep peanuts out of schools. We’re starting to provide alternative-experience concerts for people on the autism spectrum. Do we have a fit about these accommodations? No. They have become part of the public fabric. Those who benefit from them, use them. Those who don’t, ignore them. So why the radio silence about open captions for movies? It’s like it’s not even up for discussion.

If you are such a purist cinephile who must see a “clean” version of a director’s oeuvre, buy the DVD with the director’s cut. (God knows it’ll be out soon enough.)

Or, even better, why don’t you invent some disposable eye gear like 3D glasses that will block out caption boxes at the bottom of screens? Or maybe a big tool, that looks like ET, to stick in your cupholder that will project the virgin film to your sightline alone? Oh…you…wait—why should you be put out so much when you’re just trying to see a movie?

That’s an interesting question, now, isn’t it?

 

 

 

* flickr.com, Grannies Kitchen, "Vintage Vegetable Peeler"

**TTC is the Toronto Transit Commission, which encompasses subways, buses, and LRT and hooks into regional traffic options.

***Surtitles is a trademarked version of supertitles, but as few people seem to know the latter term, I am referring to the former for clarity.

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The State of the Caption: Deaf Accessibility in Toronto’s Cinemas

In December 2017, I contacted the main corporate and some independent film venues in Toronto to canvass their provision of access to hearing assistance for the *Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. Cinemas are only able to provide captions when production companies include the files. But who has what capabilities?

Before you scroll away because you “don’t know any deaf people,” consider this: you may think you don’t, but a lot of people don’t advertise their deafness because a) it doesn’t define them and b) it’s frustrating to keep explaining it repeatedly to hearing people. Also, hearing folks do use captions: English language learners; people needing cognitive support with visual reinforcement; watching shows with heavily accented or audio-obscured speakers; and in noisy places or where the volume is off or problematic. To read about my personal experience using assistive tech in a cinema, read this article. But here’s my experience accessing information about captioning and hearing-assistive devices in eight Toronto cinemas and chains.

In my online contact attempts, my website-linked business name was in my email signature (providing transparency), and I asked only the following of each recipient:

Hello,

I've looked at your accessibility page, and I'm writing to get up-to-date information about the availability of listening assistance at your cinema[s], be it open captions or assistive technologies. I'm in Toronto. Can the Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing attend movies with full access? Do I just show up and any showing will just have assistance available?

Thank you.

 

Here are the fascinating results of my inquiries.

Exterior photo of the Cineplex Scotiabank multiplex in Toronto

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenharris/3371960989

Cineplex

Not surprisingly for a large corporation, I was assigned a ticket to my inquiry and received an automated reply. It said:

- Please type your reply above this line -##

Screenshot of automated reply from Cineplex about caption options and how to access that information on their website

 

 

I replied,

If an individual reads my email, they'll see I've reviewed the website and am requesting up to date information—i.e., has anything about availability changed?, etc.

I'd appreciate a non-automated reply.

Many thanks.

 

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for contacting Cineplex.

All of our theatre locations have the capability to present shows with Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. Ultimately we rely on the film distributors to provide our theatres with the appropriate files for each film so our guests can enjoy these services; because of this there can sometimes be a film without these features offered. You can always check the availability of these services by searching film showtimes online and if you see (CC/DS) underneath the film format your show will have Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. (see example below)

If you need more information on what each device does see the links below.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

When you go to your local theatre simply request either device from the box office and the staff will be happy to set it up for your show.

If you have anymore questions please let me know.

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

I thought the “there can sometimes be a film without these features offered” was gilding the lily a bit. I also felt the DS info indicated that they were copy-and-pasting and not writing back specifically with my question in mind. I wrote back,

Thank you again.

But would it be possible to implement a search function so that we can look for films with CCs rather than clicking through every possible movie and theatre to see if they have captions/assistance? I think I will also have to approach cinemaclocktoronto.com about considering adding a search feature, since most of us look for movies online in one place, not at the discrete sites of cinema corporations.

The answer:

Hello again

I will happily share your feedback with the IT team in the hopes they can add that functionality. Please note you can search individual theatres and their showtimes at the bottom of each of those links I sent you.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

Hm. I think a chat with Powers That Be about searches and increased access would be fruitful...if only I could reach them.

 

External photo of the Carlton Cinema in Toronto

Imagine Cinemas

Image: grainger via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlton_Cinemas_Toronto.jpg

The much-loved local Carlton and its related cinemas have demonstrated commitment to accessibility for audiences and employees, which I have respected greatly. Plus, their staff are outstanding in their customer service, and their reply reflected some of that.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We have a few locations with assistive listening devices, however we often experience technical difficulties with them which is why they aren’t advertised. We also have a few locations that play open caption films on certain days/ show times.

I will forward your email on to our Carlton and Market Square locations as they are our DT [downtown] Toronto locations and would have a better idea as to what they actually have.

 

And further follow up, since I’d mentioned me needing to bring this up with cinemaclocktoronto.com:

 

Our Carlton location have headphones that amplify sounds but no open caption.

Our Market Square location has assistive listening devices but have expressed that they don’t work very well. They do however have 1 open caption movie a week (see screenshot on how it would appear). They are the ones that say OC. The upcoming week they are playing The Greatest Showman and the following week is Star Wars.

Cinema clock is a third party website so unfortunately we cannot control how they display content.

Hope that helps!

 

Customer service first prize to Imagine! They already show one captioned movie a week—not what I’d call fully accessible but certainly open and willing to improve. They admitted their lackluster customer feedback and communicated that openly to me. They were also the first company to reply—the same day I emailed and a week before the other replies began to trickle in. Small chain, bigger heart?

 

 

Interior photo of the Hal Jackman auditorium at the AGO in Toronto

Image: https://www.ago.net/jackman-hall-overview

Jackman Hall, AGO

I received this reply:

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email.

At the moment Jackman Hall Theatre is not equipped with open captions options or assistive technologies. We are able to transmit, however do not have the devices in house. It would be up to the client to provide the film with captions built into the film as well as provide any devices or hardware. We are working towards upgrading our venue in order to be more inclusive. At this time we not able to assist with deaf, deafened or hard of hearing patrons with full access unless the film is subtitle or a client provides the assistive devices/hardware.

Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or concerns.

 

I found this interesting considering that it is in the AGO, which is 33% government funded, and that the AGO Transformation, which included the renovation of Jackman Hall, was completed in 2008. The $276 million project couldn’t throw in some hardware then or since??

 

Exterior photo of the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://www.ticketmaster.ca/TIFF-Bell-Lightbox-tickets/artist/2270943

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Bell TIFF Lightbox’s reply was interesting in several ways.

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email and interest in attending films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Hearing Assist (which raises the volume for visitors with slight to moderate hearing impairment) is available for all of our screenings as it is provided by our theatre.

The availability of Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio is dependant [sic] on the copy provided to us by the distributor. If we have films that come with Closed Captioning or Descriptive Audio we will display that information on our Website.

Please refer to the example below. (SUB = Subtitle, CC = Closed Captioning, DS = Descriptive Sound, TBLB 3 = Cinema #3)

When you arrive at the cinema please inform Box Office staff that you require additional equipment and the staff will be happy to assist you with the set-up and procedure.

Hope this information helps.

 

They said Hearing Assist was used as an amplifier but a phone call confirmed the brand was Listen, so this doesn’t seem to be updated info as requested.

Note, too, the use of the term “hearing impairment,” which is interesting terminology from a charity purporting to be “committed to a strategy that works to remove barriers to interacting with our programming” (TIFF, 2016: http://humber.ca/makingaccessiblemedia/modules/03/09.html). The echo I experienced was still a barrier. And being non-hearing is not considered an “impairment” or disability by the so-called afflicted or disabled. (http://cad.ca/issues-positions/statistics-on-deaf-canadians/)

I’ll also add here that during  December, as a TIFF member, I received nine donation-dunning emails between the 13th and 31st, with clickbait-worthy subject lines like “You’re on my mind” pleading for access to our thoughts about connection and access to members’ wishes. I am seriously considering cancelling my membership. It will be dependent on the response I get when I email them. If they’re really serious about “want[ing] to know what you think,” they may bite.

I wrote back asking about a search function for CCed films.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We are glad to hear the information was helpful.

At this time we do not offer a feature on our website like the one you have described but I have passed your email on to the department that handles the website for consideration when planning future updates and features. In the mean time [sic] clicking through the various films is the only way to see the information regarding Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio.

Regards,

Customer Relations

 

Both in email and in person, I was readily informed that Call Me by My Name has CCs. This is incorrect, and I suspect a lot of venues and services, perhaps unwittingly, plug such films as accessible to the non-hearing: that film’s dialogue includes three languages, which are subtitled for marketability; it is not accessible in that it was intentionally released with non-hearing audiences in mind—that is captioning.

 

Interior photo of the auditorium of the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://hotdocscinema.ca/c/history

Hot Docs

The old Bloor Cinema seems to be typically at the mercy of producers’ inclusion (or not) of caption files. I suspect most documentarians are making their films on low budgets; however, some are backed by humanitarian organizations, and you’d think their mores would support full accessibility. (Perhaps some PhD student can do some research into how many docs are captioned…) And, frankly, I’m surprised when the theatre was renovated, some funds weren’t allocated for assistive equipment like CaptiView. Surely some doc files are captioned?

Hi Vanessa,

Thanks for your question!

Firstly, for each screening we can provide head phones that allow the viewer to increase their own listening volume independently.

For more specific hearing aid devices, such as closed captioning, the most up-to-date information would be available at our Box Office, per screening; each documentary comes with/without its own set of closed captioning and hard of hearing accessibilities.

The best option would be to call our box office the week your preferred documentary is showing and ask for the accessibility options on that specific film.

I hope this helps.

 

 

Exterior photo of the Revuew Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revue_Cinema

The Revue

Being a very small enterprise, understandably they wrote back

Hello  Vanessa,

We currently do not have assisted listening devices available at our theatre, But we are working on it.
So sorry for the inconvenience... We will make it a priority to attain these devices during the new year and you will be contacted promptly once we have acquired a few.

Thank you for your interest,

-Revue Cinema

 

Note the apology and plan of action. Good sign! I’ve made a note to check back with them.

 

Interior photo of the Royal Cinema's auditorium in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: http://newsite.theroyal.to/about-the-royal/#

Royal 

Through several emails, I learned that the Royal generally does not offer access to deaf-assistive technology but does, interestingly, have two series events that feature access vehicles: Drunk Feminist Films and Screen Queens, the former having hired ASL interpretation in the past due to a small Deaf community being involved. The other reason for provided captions is that events have live comedy commentary over top of the movie through microphones, thus captions allow people to listen to the comedians talk about the movie while also watching the movie. But with general programming, like all cinemas, they are stuck with only being able to provide captioning when it is provided by movie producers.

 

Cinema Clock  https://www.cinemaclock.com/ont/toronto

I also emailed this clearinghouse of movie listings to see if the search function could not be tweaked to include a way to find only those movies with CCs.

The email envelope icon on their home page does not work, so I went to their Contact Us link on the More tab and filled out an online form there. After three weeks, I have not heard back from them.

 

 

I’m going to assume that we have it relatively good in Toronto and that access to assistance for deaf moviegoers is generally sketchy or non-existent in most smaller Canadian cities and towns. If you know otherwise, please share information in the Comments.

If you're interested in accessing more caption options (i.e. for any time slot, not just the cinema's dead day), have a polite chat with or send an informative email to the management. Eventually, feedback will work its way up the corporate ladder and maybe—one day—access to movies for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing will no longer be considered an extra cost or frill. It'll just be going to the movies.

 

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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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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 gutteral 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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Changing Text: Part II — Expletives

Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

 

Expletives may have different treatments based on house styles, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

Swear words in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style to represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice.

I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle and my opinion here), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

 

[Note that the incorrect caption in the image above should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative. Spelling and punctuation fails…]

If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at info@reelwords.ca. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.

 

 

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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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Newsflash: The Deaf Are Not Intellectually Disabled

Especially for a government-published "educational" graphic about accessibility!

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The Responsibilities of the Captioner

Scene from a modern-set opera with surtitles projected above the stage

 

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, so it is a thing. 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 have two examples to discuss: translating and expletives.

I saw the HD Live Met presentation in the cinema of the fabulous opera Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès. Although it is sung 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 and in the last lines of the opera, in their characters’ terror the cast 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.

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 Met 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 (or book editor) knows 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 arts and literature audience to at least have a sense what the Latin was about, even if they couldn’t translate it word for word. So the surtitler decided who they were dealing with. (Again, if the Metropolitan Opera 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 to best do it in that scene: with the atmospheric layer of using Latin. He does not dumb his libretto down 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 D/d/HoH 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.

One 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 general summarization.

Expletives in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

It is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice. I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

As Ada in Peaky Blinders (Season 1, Episode 2) says:Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

NB this incorrect caption should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative.

 

 

If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at info@reelwords.ca. I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.

 

 

 

*Expletives may have different treatment, based on house style, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

**The word surtitles is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company, where the practice and technology was developed. [Yay, Canada!] The general term is supertitles, but as most readers will be familiar with surtitles, I’ve used that in this article.

 

Re: top photo: Image not credited on original source https://www.sdopera.org/experience/supertitles

Bottom photo is a screenshot from the Peaky Blinders series as presented on Netflix.

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“Good Enough” Captions Aren’t

I recently watched an amateur video about DIY captions. The fellow who made it was earnest, trying to make it easy for the average person to create captions, and I'm sure he meant well. But then he said that although they wouldn't be perfect, they'd be "good enough."

Granted, he was referring to fansubbing movies (which is a topic for another time), but I get the sense that this is a common attitude of the hearing world towards captioning for the accessibility purposes. Would blue and purple traffic lights be good enough? How about food with just a bit of salmonella? I know I wouldn't want to buy a tire with a slow leak.

Captions are used by the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing (Deaf/HoH), second-language learners, university students as study aids, people in sound-sensitive environments, and many other folks.

Many countries, provinces and states have legislated that media must provide video material that is accessible and that captioning be of excellent quality. It's not optional. But very rarely do I see closed captions that meet the required standards.*

Some producers of video rely on automated captioning services or, if they have "the budget for it," a closed-captioning provider. But the latter do not have trained professionals copy editing the files and/or they often don't understand the specialized editing required to meet the accessibility standards needed for users. Anybody can transcribe audio. But caption text has to be rendered readable by humans in 2-second chunks. And by readable, I mean comprehensible so that the entire video context is taken in with ease and appreciation for the content. But that's not what’s getting churned out. (See my opinion about video-on-demand services here.)

I'm tired of "good enough." I'm frustrated by reading about craptions being doled out to the Deaf/HoH. I'm fed up with empty promises about the delivery of accessibility.

When are the Deaf/HoH going to get the quality of captioning they're legally (and morally) entitled to? Why is "good enough" the status quo?

I've written many articles and posts about why captions and subtitles require not just proofreading but copy editing, just as the printed word does. (You can read them here to learn more about the nuts and bolts.) But I'm increasingly interested in making some noise about cranking up the demand for #NoMoreCraptions! As someone who appreciates closed captions (and may later need them more), I am no longer willing to let this slide.

“Captioning should not look like throwing magnetic letters on a fridge.”**

And yet, that's what the CC setting on our screens usually generates because (seemingly) providers don't think the Deaf/HoH are worth the expense of creating high-quality, copy-edited captions. Like other areas being bandaided because of a lack of enforcement or true dedication to creating accessibility (e.g. the wonderful but shamefully needed food banks, Stopgap Foundation, etc.), unedited captions are generally of such poor quality that they're useless and watching TV, movies, etc. is often given up on.** And saying there isn't money for quality captioning comes from an outlook of discrimination.

It's also uninformed. Budgeting for this aspect of production and distribution does not have to be expensive. If absolutely necessary, fine—use automated captioning in some form of AVR (automatic voice recognition). But then turn the rough copy over to a professional to be perfected. It's like writers who say they can't afford any professional editing or proofreading but then complain that no one bought their book: if its content isn't edited properly, readers aren't going to want to slog through it.

Until governments enforce the standards they've promised on paper so that the digital files are accompanied by high-quality captioning, they're short-changing the Deaf/HoH of their right to a huge part of full engagement in modern cultural content.

I'm not. . .er. . .crapping on the DIYer per se. I'm saying his comment is exemplary of the attitude society has towards people needing captioning: if you're not a hearing person, you can just make do with good enough. (And that's audism.)

#NoMoreCraptions!

 

 

*Canada's 2016 CRTC policy can be found here.

**Unattributed comments from CRTC 2008 Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities.

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Get Distributed

Get Noticed for the Right Reasons

You've invested a lot of time, money and heart into making your film, show or video. You have big plans for distribution—whether it's worldwide or just to corporate headquarters. You can't afford to become one of those online memes because of errors.

Reel Words is the only subtitle editing company providing quality control for flawless English text because it's the only one with extensive editorial and titling experience behind it. Translators and transcribers are terrific at their craft but, like authors of books, they're not trained to review text for correctness, consistency and clarity.

Don't settle for error-ridden automated titles. Impress distributors or stakeholders with professional-looking, accurate subtitles or captions, and enjoy rave reviews from audiences by fulfilling the growing demand for No More Craptions!

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What’s the Difference between Subtitles and Captions, Anyway?

Colour photo of oranges in vertical rows on the left and red applies on the right, as they might be lined up on display in a grocery store.

 

Fuzzy on the difference between subtitles and captions? We tend to use the terms fairly interchangeably, lumping them into some vague notions about "boring films" and closed captions on TV "for the deaf." But they are distinct animals, and here I'll share some straightforward info about the two, why the distinction matters, and why they're necessary.

Let's start chronologically, with subtitles. Before talkie films, silent films relied on cards with text shown for several frames, to insert dialogue or other information relevant to the story. Later (see the links provided under History to fill jump ahead), subtitles were introduced so that audiences of foreign films to translated the actors' words. Although helping hearing people understand the language, subtitles are also used in teaching scenarios, as visual reinforcement of the audio aids language acquisition.

Subtitles tend to be at the bottom centre of the screen (although that convention is changing in some productions), they can be turned off (they can be "closed"), and they never mention the onscreen audio language, although they may when another language is used in the action. They often are not used if the audio is considered common knowledge or if the word sounds the same in the translated language (e.g. a lot of languages use some form of the word "cool" or "okay"). Subtitled films can subsequently be captioned. You'll see why below.

Captions are intended for the Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing, people with a variety of hearing issues (such as the ones I outlined in the here), and in situations that aid the hearing audience: noisy spaces or places where the sound has been turned off. They can be closed (optional) or open (embedded in the video). Sometimes their position moves to indicate who is speaking or that name can be explicitly shown, such as [VANESSA:] or  >> TV anchor. They are usually in the same language as the audio and provide all utterances, tone of voice, atmospheric sounds or other effects. They can be added to subtitled work if this latter information needs to be conveyed for the CC audience.

The commonality is that both are often poorly written, or lack lustre at best. Many countries now have laws and regulations in effect to require that film productions and TV shows are distributed and broadcast with content that communicates with almost perfect verbatim accuracy and correct syntax, presentation, etc. That's where we come in.

Communication is a right, not a privilege.

In my work experience, subtitlers are professional translators and titlers who, despite their advanced training and skills, are hired at very low rates and with unreasonable turnarounds. It's no surprise, then, that they are too rushed to create a perfect file or that less trained people are awarded files. Unfortunately, subtitles are not considered important, seemingly something to slap on the end product to say it was done, without considering how their level of quality affects the viewer's immersion in the film. Which is counterproductive to critical and popular success, isn't it?

Closed captions are created with the same attitude (again, in my experience; others might have had better luck): captioners are typically not paid a living wage, and the speed at which they have to process material before broadcast encourages errors in spelling, grammar and written style. [However, house styles and extenuating circumstances in the material can force those shifts and they are then not errors.] Often they are hired largely based on keyboarding speed, and writing and editing training is erroneously considered irrelevant. When I captioned, the employees processing several shows or movies per day had no time or knowledge to be able to apply the editing I do, and the quality assurance supervisors were in the same boat.

So, while their form and function can be quite different, subtitles and captions both require editing. Google "caption errors" and the images that show up readily prove my point. No one is offering the editing Reel Words is, despite the very real need. And it's a shame because it is disrespectful of viewers who require the accessibility to fully participate in current culture and it ruins the enjoyment of audiences who love foreign films. Basically, the current state of affairs in subtitling and captioning is unacceptably abysmal.

The goal of all film storytellers is to keep their audiences completely immersed in the content; once attention is sidelined by errors, the flow is lost while the brain struggles to figure out what was (not) communicated and to keep up with the subsequent titles.
Our view is that we all deserve better—whether we are hearing or non-hearing. We expect outstanding CGI reults and online variety, but captions and subtitles are ignored. Part of the ethos of Reel Words is to advocate for actual improvement in standards, not just on the books. No More Craptions! may be lighthearted in tone, but the rallying cry is serious in vision.

Closed captions used to be considered a frill, and now they are required. Together, let's demand improvements in quality. If you are a producer, you can start by having your subtitle or caption file edited.

 

 

 

Photo source: frankieleon, let's compare apples and oranges, May 3, 2009 on Flickr.com

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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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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 

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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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