To say that captions are “closed” is to indicate that they are optional. The effort, however minor, required to make them visible separates them from their “open” cousins. Open captions, such as the translated whispers of foreign baddies in a thriller, effectively if not literally “burned” or branded onto the picture, are optional only in the possibility of being ignored. They insist on themselves, telling us what we ought to pay attention to and how, visible traces of the production’s political preconditions.
The critical and commercial success of “Parasite” among Americans returned the sticky matter of those traces, and the hegemony implied, to public conversation. “The vast American public will not accept films with subtitles,” Helen Mirren told the Guardian in 2014, an incontrovertible fact for which she blames the use of “Frenglish” instead of French in DreamWorks’ “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” “Americans just don’t like reading subtitles,” film critic Alissa Wilkinson repeated following this year’s Oscars, explaining why she had doubted that the Academy would give “Parasite” its props.
The historical note that “Parasite” is the first “foreign language film” — as the Academy called such films before this year — to win Best Picture, and the 11th to be nominated, evidences a certain truth to the axiom, at least among the people in charge of deciding which films are worth consideration as best. (Elsewhere, civilian viewers have hotly debate the virtues of watching anime with “subs” — subtitles — versus “dubs” — dubbed voices.) Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean director of “Parasite,” lightly chided prejudiced audiences in his acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes, saying in Korean (translated by director Sharon Choi) as, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Open captions suggest national and racial norms — that English is king — that remain in play when English is spoken, as in the less artistically defensible genre of reality television, where the speech of drunks, minorities and immigrants alike must, editors assert, be spelled out or else is wrongly assumed unintelligible. Broadcast programs that single out the socially and economically vulnerable, such as “Cops” and “Maury,” come to mind, but the practice is also common enough in news broadcasts and documentaries, such as in “Usain Bolt: The Fastest Man Alive,” in which the BBC chose to subtitle its Jamaican subject.
By “translating” speech in a shared language for the sake of clarity, open captions insinuate a failure of the speaker — with all necessary prejudicial baggage. The opposite impulse drew me to closed captions. My failure led me.
It began what must be an eternity ago with “Game of Thrones,” a series that has more linguistic diversity than most American television, featuring an array of accents that go unattributed to matters of worldbuilding. (The Starks are an admixture of Yorkshire and posh or, rather, “Received Pronunciation” accents, for example — rather democratic for a show obsessed with hierarchy and power.) Struggling to track its multiplying medley of tones and inflections, I found I was missing minor details about places and names, along with the all-too-rare moments of wit.
The same was true for genuinely British — and genuinely clever — productions, such as “The Thick of It” or “The Great British Bake Off.” Like many Americans, I fancied myself cultured enough to master the sonic details of another society. I assumed an Anglophonic bond was enough. But the gap between shared language and shared sound is vast, I learned. I wasn’t too good to hear Malcolm Tucker spew swear-y insults in all their phlegmy glory without missing a single word. Closed captions became a must.
Once I turned them on, though, they stayed on, for any and everything on television. My hearing ability, I soon realized, had made me lazy. I took for granted a breadth of comprehension I never possessed — closed captions knew me for a liar. A show’s captioned equivalent isn’t better per se, but it is more industrious. It is like an invitation to see itself at work for which I’d only needed to ask. Certain mechanics make themselves known: storytelling decisions so often slipped under the table by rushed editing and superb acting (or its opposite) came to the fore with language in view.
How presumptuous I had been, to conflate hearing with comprehension. I was catching dialogue, all of it, words spoken off-screen, in a crowd, underneath and in between heated arguments. I was noticing other sounds: sighs deemed important enough to type out; footsteps it would be remiss to omit. I would have heard these things, maybe, but might not have noted them, they would have instead blended into the grander Foley artistry of a given episode.
This is precisely why people hate subtitles, argues Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum: “After all,” he writes, “they eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines.” His distaste is my relish. Rather than obscure actors’ work, subtitles amplify the labor of many. They engender a sense for the lines that were once words on the page, put down by a person who may never become a household name, returned to text again on-screen by another person whose name we’ll definitely never know. There’s craft and labor and, delightfully, personality on the other side, too. Subtitlers give good adverbial flair — tell us who did what “wryly,” “sadly,” “mockingly,” “internally.” They are a form of sly disclosure, as artful as sets or costumes.
“Succession,” the hilarious HBO soap about billionaire cavepeople, takes as much pleasure with its closed captions as it does with the fictional news tickering across any given screen on-screen. In the first season episode “Which Side Are You On?”, an eternally anxious Tom Wambsgans nurses a dubiously explained black eye with one hand while the other is on the phone; his fiancee studies the politics playing out on television, a moody blur in the foreground. On the phone, business is happening, and subtitles capture the dialogue happening on both ends: “The nuclear reactor is sealed off. The infected have been shot. / Oh, that’s great.” The juxtaposition of these hyperbolic lines, matter-of-factly transcribed, intensifies the comedy of the scene’s cold, domestic visual of man and almost-wife, living separately in a bright, white zillion-dollar apartment.
Few things demonstrate the power of a subtitle as clearly as the animated GIF. It is rare to encounter a GIF without some customary transcription attached and so-called “descriptive noises” — sound captioned in brackets or parentheses — take on a life as memes on their own. The “[Intensifies]” meme, as the encyclopedic KnowYourMeme.com calls it, apocryphally applies the common audio description “intensifies” to various visual media (a GIF of painter Bob Ross is given the caption “[JOY INTENSIFIES]”). The meme is said to be derived from an episode of “Breaking Bad” that provides the caption “[revving intensifies]” for the sound of Walter White’s and Walter Jr.’s car engines.
In America, televised media was ever meant for a certain people — aggressively Anglophone without discernible hearing disabilities. The jokes, the pacing, the tone, the score, the drama, the gags, the payoff in most any given show adheres to assumptions about our senses. It was not until the 1970s that decades of activism for deaf and hard-of-hearing communities manifested the first major experiments with the distribution of captioned television, supported by the collaboration of commercial-federal interests, technological innovation, and skilled, volunteer labor. Decades more would pass before captions would be the mandated technological and communications standard; in January 2012, the FCC added requirements for closed captions in Internet programming. Closed captions prove vital not only for deaf and hard-of-hearing peoples and their friends and family, but for those for whom English is an additional language and their family and friends. More of us can be thankful, though, for closed captioning is a boon to everyone.
Captioned text is “closed” until it is needed. But for that very reason, captions can feel like divulged secrets, windows into what a show thinks it’s doing, to a whole interpretive universe, a playground of ideology and messy intentions. If a transcription is head-scratching, it is at least there, ripe for interpretation. Sound is not neutral, and neither its translation. Subtitles introduce a gap between what we perceive and know about the media in front of us. The leap is not only valuable, but fun. Surrender can be quite amusing.