captions and subtitles

As a deaf person, I’m naturally very interested in accessibility on the Internet. Ironically, one of the things I loved best about it, in the late 80′s when I first encountered the ‘nets and online culture, was how fully and completely I could participate in it. There were no barriers to my understanding any conversation (other than the language — and it was then as it is now overwhelmingly English) or jumping into the largest sprawling group conversation without missing a beat (hello, Usenet).

The ultimate irony is that as the ‘net has matured and as bandwidth, technology and applications have exploded, the amount of audio and video material has also increased at the same rate. I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is to go to some interesting blog only to be confronted with uncaptioned videos or worse yet, podcasts (I have at least some hope of lipreading videos if they are of good quality and focus clearly on the person who is talking). I have found only one or two podcasters who regularly supply transcripts of their ‘casts so for all intents and purposes, I completely ignore podcast material. More than once, I’ve longed for the days of the heavily text based Internet. But that genie won’t go back into the bottle and quite frankly the visual aesthetics of color, graphics, and WYSIWYG interfaces seduces even me.

And then along came YouTube and the fight was completely over ;-)

Oh and then I started to learn ASL, which opened its own can of worms. Because of course the only way to communicate via ASL on the Internet is via… video clips. And yet, absurdly, because I am not a native signer, I often need some captioning help with ASL video clips. Oh, the irony, it burns.

So, when I post video clips, I do my very best to find clips that are captioned, or to post them with transcripts. Google/YouTube have a auto-captioning feature (which is for some reason not available on every otherwise uncaptioned clip). The quality of the auto-captioning varies tremendously — I think there’s some mechanism for correcting them, as older clips seem to be better done than newer ones, but in other cases the quality of the audio and clarity of the speaker seems to come in play as well. Some auto-captioned stuff comes across as positively LSD-laced and unintelligible. I’ll avoid these if I can, or mark them [Auto-captioned] along with + for good, ++ for excellent, - for mediocre but workable, and - - for don’t even bother. Note that in some cases, embedding a video loses the captioning (this seems to be particular to YouTube, Flash, and running Linux, but there may be other instances this pops up) — you can simply click on the video to go see it on YouTube where all the options will show up.

I prefer to post or point to transcripts regardless of the captioning status of the video, because one thing to keep in mind is that video clips are not searchable (this is actually the reason Google has been experimenting with auto-captioning). Even though Obama Signed [the] Internet Captioning Act in early October, the percentage of captioned video material on the Internet is vanishingly small and thus there’s a lot of material that doesn’t get caught in a search.

I also try to spread awareness of the issue where ever I go on the Internet. When a video is posted at a site I frequent, I will ask about the captioning or transcripts; I will often hunt them down myself and post them in the comments for the benefit of the next person who comes along that article. These are small things, but my hope is the more people who realize this, and who start doing the same thing I’m doing, the more this situation can be rectified. Please do so — I would be thrilled if even only one or two people reading this went on to always ask about captions or transcripts at the sites they frequent. This is the potential of the Internet — distributed and diffused, acting en masse to be far more effective as a whole than as an individual.

As a final note, in the U.S. “captioning” is commonly used to refer to same language subtitling, generally intended for the deaf and hard of hearing, which will also often include extra notes, such as “Footsteps heard in the distance” or “Sound of door closing” (or sometimes more hilariously “Ominous music playing”). “Subtitling” more often refers to cases where a foreign language film has the translation of the spoken dialogue into written subtitles (rather than dubbing over the spoken track with a new track in the second language). Most of the time, captioning can be turned off or on, as it is recorded on a separate track, and subtitling is often part of the film or clip itself. In other countries, though, “subtitling” is usually used for both cases.

I remember one particularly vexing movie, L’Auberge Espagnol, which was done mainly in French and Spanish (where everyone spoke French in France, and Spanish in Spain) plus a hodgepodge of other languages thrown in, as l’auberge had a mix of international students. So depending on which language you selected to subtitle it in, it would subtitle all spoken dialogue for all languages but the subtitled one. So if you chose French subtitling, you didn’t get any subtitling while they spoke in French, but the rest of the languages would be subtitled in French. I chose English, and discovered this when I could not at all follow those portions of the movie with the British students! I had to switch to Spanish (which I do understand) to pick that part of it up! And sometimes you just can’t quite get what you want: when I watched Y Tu Mama Tambien, I wanted Spanish captioning because, dammit, I wanted very specifically to pick up on the slang and swearing, but could only get English subtitled copies (I don’t know what deaf Spanish speaking customers did for this movie :-P).

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