Santa Can Only Be Captioned with One Ho! ?

Closeup of Santa Claus


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

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

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

II.16. Repetitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 3 of Deadwind seems to ignore its own rule:

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

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

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

And in episode 9:

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

The Dinner does the same:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Santa photo source:

photo from