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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