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Writing Without Sound: Language Politics in Closed Captioning

 Amy Lueck

As the field of Composition pays more attention to the diverse composing practices encouraged by new media, it becomes increasingly incumbent on scholars, researchers and teachers to consider the affordances as well as the limitations or challenges of these practices for students and other composers: both material and ideological, personal and political. In considering writing with sound, then, we must also consider writing and reading of individuals without access to sound. As we consider the translation of meaning across modes, the transformation of material across compositions and recompositions, we might be reminded also of the complexity of translation also within and across languages, such as that from sounds to written symbols in Closed Captioning.

This paper will draw on work in composition and translation studies that acknowledges the complexity and importance of cross-language translation in a global economy  and values difference and negotiation of meaning—even occasional incomprehension—in language use to consider Closed Captioning (CC) policies and practices in America (Cronin; Horner et al.; Prendergast; Venuti; White). Translation here is understood as an act of meaning making within and not just across languages, whereby English is always in conversation with other languages, even in monolingual settings, and negotiated within itself by unique language users (Ferré; Pennycook).

This examination of Closed Captioning furthers the argument that translation of any kind is a complex process that never entails equivalent representations because, despite being “standardized,”  captioning remains a complicated, even messy, language practice.  Representing “voice” and delivery in print or textual form is a contested possibility, and the choices made in such representation have implications for the identity construction of speakers and viewers. Though no translation will be “correct,” then, there are more or less responsible translations and representations. The production and reception of Closed Captioning is a rhetorically significant exchange that further articulates this notion of translation and struggle in hearing, reading, (mis)understanding, and representing sound and language.

The complexities and possibilities of language exchange and mediation that are at the center of writing tasks for closed captioners are in many ways analogous to the negotiations and translations of meaning for students in First Year Composition (FYC). While captioners make choices about representing spoken language in alphabetic script, both within and outside of English, students and teachers of FYC make choices about how they interpret and represent meaning and language as they read, write and revise in traditional print compositions or any other new media composition—they translate between oral to written,  academic and other discourses, English and other languages, and between multiple modes.  Closed Captioning, then, represents a site of language use that helps teacher-scholars consider the complexities of these translation processes for students, and how concerns of sound and translation are ever-present in language use for both hearing and hearing-impaired individuals.

This view of language as translation begins to undermine language policies like Standard English or English Only, which tend to resist or deny the value of language diversity in civic and classroom spaces and assert that a standard is both possible and desirable. Drawing on criticisms of English Only and Standard English, I examine how CC tacitly supports conservative language politics and (often inaccurately) assumes a monolingual, English Only audience (Mao; Milroy; Trimbur). A major problem with a Standard English and English Only captioning practice is that it is exclusionary of certain language users (those uninitiated into the dominant language culture), which is directly at odds with the goal of equal access that led to the creation of CC by the Americans with Disabilities Act; this problem is mirrored in FYC programs, where the institutional and pedagogical rationale has been to “initiate” first year students with differing writing or linguistic backgrounds to the college discourse community in a similarly equitable manner, while often excluding or devaluing the students’ own diverse backgrounds in the process. Despite their philosophical underpinnings, both captioning and FYC reveal the subtle but relentless monolingualism of American linguistic culture.

The larger issue for scholars of language and literacy, then, is that CC policies and practices—like many FYC classrooms—reflect and shape ideas about language and translation that are inherently political but largely rendered invisible.  Though the assumption is generally that closed captioners “follow very specific guidelines…which dictate how and what is interpreted/translated, a formula that is applied with very little variation regardless of genre or audience,” the interpretation and translation of these guidelines (and the guidelines themselves) are not neutral or “natural” (Udo and Fels 211).  As with any translation or interpretation, captioning changes the original text, whether the translation is from aural sounds and words to alphabetic characters or from one language to another. Those faced with the exigencies of providing quick and “accurate” renderings of speech for audiences face significant challenges and rhetorically meaningful choices that deserve notice, as they align with language policies and assumptions that underwrite much of our civic, political and scholastic interactions.

The analogy in FYC might be the handbooks and guidelines for “acceptable” paper formatting or proofreading for students and teachers, where standardization is preferred (and assumed to be possible) over a negotiation such as that promoted in Lu and Horner’s Writing Conventions, by which students (and teachers) “examine what conventional beliefs about  writing and conventions for writing are useful for, where they fall short, and how to revise them in light of the changing circumstances in which they find themselves as writers” (Lu and Horner). The recent translingual statement by Horner et al. further develops and articulates such a critical assessment and selective use of conventions, and is at the heart of the consideration of sound and language forwarded in this paper, representing a more equitable and responsible approach to CC, FYC and other spaces of oral/aural and written language use.

The examination of such language ideologies and rhetorical choices in CC will be approached in this paper in reference to two major translation situations: the interpretation and representation of “non-standard,” accented, or dialect speech in English, and the translation and representation of other languages in American film and television.  These issues are closely and deeply related, of course, so in some ways this is a false distinction (Pennycook). However, it is useful to divide the discussion in such a way as will make space for some of the unique assumptions and implications of each situation, both of which have significance for the ways students negotiate and represent themselves and others in their compositions. For English language captioning policies, I want to draw attention to the entrenched language values embodied in captioning practice. Acknowledging captioning as translation and interpretation, I want to think about how captions necessarily change the meanings of media for their audiences (especially since captioning is done post-production, and not aligned with producer or director intentions), and to think about the problems inherent in representations of “non-standard” (and non-American) Englishes. We might think here about Composition programs that treat “proof-reading” as “post” the process of meaning-making and merely acts attending to the mechanics of communication, as well as how students must take up the questions of representation of their own and others’ unique linguistic experiences, which are mediated by cultural and institutional expectations for language use.  I will explore the ideological position of CC that both buys into and reinforces the value and centrality of Standard English, just as many FYC classrooms have done.

Across languages, I want to draw attention to the choices captioning policy makes about foreign language translation: Do you translate into English, transcribe in the original language (if so, in the language’s own characters or Roman characters?), say "speaking _(language)_," or ...not even represent that there is speech occurring? All of these are real options that have been taken up by captioners, and not for clear “regulatory” reasons. If English subtitles are not provided for a program that uses foreign speech, is language considered a "sound effect" (i.e. “indistinct yelling”) or are we meant not to understand it but to know that we are not able to understand it? We might consider how untranslated foreign language can be a site of productive cultural and literacy struggle for audiences, encouraging cross-language exchange and negotiation such as Prendergast describes. Are we doing a disservice to the hearing impaired by making invisible or otherwise effacing this struggle for meaning? As much as translation “occasions revelations that question the authority of dominant cultural values and institutions,” everyday uses of it, as in CC, can also reinforce those values and institutions (Venuti 3).

In this way, I am also interested in thinking about how inclusion of foreign language reflects globality and how we (both through official discourse or as differently situated readers) might try to negotiate it--how these practices reflect, inscribe or produce certain cultural positions and identities through media. Are audiences of CC (hearing impaired or, say, language learners using CC as a pedagogical tool, among others) given a choice about what positions to take in reference to other languages, to embrace the struggle of translation and linguistic exchange, as recent calls in composition studies have encouraged (Horner et al.)? The captioning choices that are inflected by these questions reflect the ways viewers (are allowed to) see other languages and cultures and linguistic exchange as audience members of CC. These choices function rhetorically to position audience members and even remark on conflicts like war (however unintentionally on behalf of captioners or filmmakers), as I will suggest below.   We might consider how students, like CC viewers, might utilize their various linguistic resources to position themselves as global citizens in similar ways; looking at how this is accomplished in CC will provide another lens through which to understand the pitfalls of and opportunities for students’ various cross-language representations of both themselves and others.

My research questions include:

      How does current CC policy privilege and promote the value of Standard English? How are other discourse styles invisibilized or otherwise devalued? What does “marking” accented speech (as though there’s no accent in standardized American English?) and representing irregular or nonstandard English do for the viewer? For the speaking subject? How does this relate to the experience of various, specifically located FYC students?

      What assumptions do cross-language translation practices make about viewers’ own language histories and literacies--that they do/do not need to hear other languages being spoken, that they could/could not understand it if they could hear it, that they should/should not know what it says if they don't speak the language?  What values does it reveal/encourage in reference to non-English languages and speakers? How might foreign languages be used as a site of productive discomfort where multilinguality—for various bodies of viewers and students, and in different ways-- is encouraged? What subject positions and linguistic identities does CC allow for its audience? How does this relate to the possible experiences of international and L2 students in FYC classrooms?

Closed Captioning: Background

Closed captioning is an invaluable asset to the 35 million people in the US identified as hearing impaired (FDA).  But while hearing impaired viewers are the primary audience of CC, the service is also used by others. It is commonly used in public settings where noise or disruption otherwise prohibit the use of sound files, such as the gym or bar. More interestingly, perhaps, closed captions also are used in classrooms and by individuals to learn languages. Studies such as those discussed in Reading Today  have demonstrated that CC and open captioning (or subtitling) can be valuable learning tools for both L1 and L2 (hearing) learners, who use the textual translation in connection with the spoken words to develop language literacies. While a discussion of the uses of CC for second-language learning is outside the scope of this paper, the use of CC as a pedagogical tool further suggests the importance of reflection on the language assumptions and practices behind this practice, as it is ever important to consider the messages our teaching “texts” are sending. 

But captioning is not a practice that many Americans think about often because “the very design of captioned text to be ‘closed’ instead of ‘open’—that is, ever-present in the broadcast signal but invisible on the screen until the feature is turned on by the user—was meant to keep it out of sight of hearing television viewers” (Downey 4). Though often unnoticed and unutilized by hearing viewers, though, CC services are almost ubiquitously available on US television programs and films. Federal regulations instituted by the FCC over the past fifteen years have made this the case, requiring all network and cable broadcasts to include CC and all televisions manufactured or sold in the US after 2002 to include a component for displaying captions.  As of 1996, all new television programming in the US has been required by the FCC to include CC files, and as of 1997 a schedule was developed that would require an increasing number of pre-1996 shows to include CC files (FCC). These text files are encoded on the program file post-production, most often by a third-party vendor hired by the network or production company for this purpose.

 When thinking about CC, many people recall the error-ridden transcripts of news shows or live programming that they might have seen at the bar or gym—often the only times many hearing viewers see captions at all. However, those programs are captioned by live captioners (realtime stenocaptioners), often at the network itself, or even by computer software programs based on phonetic algorithms (which will not be addressed specifically here). If a show were to be rebroadcast, many of these temporary solutions to captioning regulation are later corrected and made a permanent part of the video file by “off-line” captioners who prepare captions from pre-recorded videotapes and thoroughly review the work for “errors” before airing.

While film companies are not currently required by the FCC to include CC files, any movie aired on network or cable television must be captioned for that use, and therefore many films are captioned despite the fact that they otherwise fall under an exemption. Additionally, most films include captions on their DVD or video products, as well as subtitle options, as a response to market interest and/or anticipation of television airing. 

Another important distinction for many hearing viewers is between subtitling and captioning. Unlike subtitling, the closed captions can be turned on or off by viewers, and they display not only language but all sounds and significant silences that are determined necessary to understanding the content or narrative of the show, such as sound effects or music. Subtitles, then, often serve a very different ideological and material function, representing only foreign (in translation) or indistinguishable (ie. mumbled or inaudible) speech, and follow different guidelines than CC that will not be discussed here (Robson). But, while closed captions may be turned off, they are similarly encoded permanently on the television and film files, making them more than transitory or negligible for present and future viewers.

Guidelines have been developed by captioning vendors and other groups that are meant to standardize and streamline the process of captioning both television programming and film. For the purposes of this paper, I will reference Captioning Key, a document developed by the Described Media and Captioning Program (DMCP) and funded by the U.S. Department of Education to articulate a set of commonly acknowledged conventions and policies in captioning. Private vendors develop their own in-house styles, but this DMCP document—in drawing on the style manuals of major captioning vendors and research on captioning—represents one of the most theorized sets of guidelines, and one endorsed by the National Association of the Deaf.  For all the good they do, however, I want to consider how these guidelines not only (problematically) assume and reinforce the dominant interpretations of standardized American language use, but also assume the possibility of standardization across content and captioners, leaving unacknowledged the complexity of the translation process at hand. The implications of these policies and assumptions in terms of sound, writing, and language will be discussed below.

This goal of this paper is not to dismiss the work of captioners or suggest that such policies and guidelines are politically or practically inadequate; after all, the valuable goal of captioning companies is to produce readable, understandable captions, and I believe that the guidelines are sincere attempts to accomplish this and not to promote language ideologies. But that’s not to say they might not be improved or at least further considered. This is to say that the captioning discussed here deserves notice precisely because it is an intentional and theorized attempt to represent language for audiences who are not just a federally-acknowledged interest group but a diverse group of consumers and individuals with preferences to be met.  The goal of this paper, then, is to draw attention to the interpretation and translation of sound, voice, and identity in captioning that tacitly promotes certain language ideologies, so that a discussion can continue about language use and difference in everyday technologies like CC, as well as what teachers of FYC and other language courses composing in print, sound or video might learn from these other sites of writing and communication.

Captioning English language: English as always in translation

Pennycook reminds us that English is a language always in translation,  always existing in the context of other languages. Further, though, we might remember that all languages are in translation within themselves, as meaning is negotiated between speaker and hearer, writer and reader—and always imperfectly so (see Ferré; White).  The exchange of meaning is never a direct transfer, but rather is interpreted and changed in the course of each utterance. This is especially true in the case of Closed Captioning, where English language is translated from aural utterances and sounds to written words and symbols, further mediating the meaning for the audience before those audience members begin a second level of translation to make meanings for themselves. 

Yet CC is presented as a largely neutral act, a one-to-one transfer of meaning that is consistent.  Even the more sensitive and responsible guidelines, such as those produced by the DCMP, do not address the complexity of this process. The primary requirements of quality captioning listed in that source include:

      Accurate: Errorless transcription is the goal for each production

      Consistent: Uniformity in style and presentation of all captioning features is crucial for viewer understanding.

      Clear: A complete textual representation of the audio, including speaker identification and non-speech information, provides clarity.

      Readable: Captions are displayed with enough time to be read completely, are in synchronization with the audio, and are not obscured by (nor do they obscure) the visual content.

      Equal: Equal access requires that the meaning and intention of the material is completely preserved. (DCMP 7)

Towards equal access, this list supports a view of language and translation that believes in direct equivalences in representing language and the possibility and value of standardization. But if, as many translation and composition theorists, we question the possibility of completely preserving the meaning and intention of any production across modes or situations, we might hesitate over this seemingly objective and neutral list. Believing that a representation of meaning can be errorless, consistent and complete in these ways leads captioning policies into the pitfalls of standardization that have been similarly identified in composition classrooms and theories.

             To its credit, the Captioning Key resists the active standardization of English into Edited American English (EAE) when possible, in contrast to other companies who standardize English into EAE when transcribing non-fiction programs because EAE is “clearer and easier to read,” and that it avoids stigmatizing “non-standard” speech. The rationale for keeping language as close as possible to the original is expressed in the Captioning Key philosophy statement: “The DCMP captioning philosophy is that all captioning should include as much of the original language as possible; words or phrases which may be unfamiliar to the audience should not be replaced with simple synonyms. However, altering the original transcription may be necessary to provide time for the caption to be completely read and for it to be in synchronization with the audio” (5). This statement gestures toward an earlier and ongoing debate over verbatim versus edited captions, whereby policies either encourage editing out words to increase reading speed or dictate verbatim transcription (including all words, even those seemingly superfluous) to present more information (Ward et al.). While reading speed is of central importance in captioning, Robson references a member of a consumer advisory board of hearing impaired viewers at VITAC (the nation’s largest captioning company) who explained that the purpose of captioning is “to provide equal access, not partial access based upon someone else’s interpretation of what I need” (20).

            The related concern taken up in this paper is whether including all of the “original language” means that “someone else’s interpretation of what [viewers] need” is no longer at issue, or if the myth of verbatim captioning continues to quietly infringe on viewers’ access. As will be shown below, these ideals of “quality captioning” in fact tacitly support Standard English as a privileged discourse in practice, marginalizing and devaluing “non-standard” forms by marking them off textually. 

Toward “accuracy, clarity, and readability” the Captioning Key determines that captioners are to represent all speech irregularity (ie. stuttering) and to mark dialectal and accented speech (24).  For regional or accented speech, the approach is twofold: to indicate the accent in brackets, such as [Southern accent]; and to “keep the flavor of the dialect” in the wording, as in “You sho’ ain’t from ‘round here” (25).

Whether an accent or a dialect, the captioner must determine that language is non-standard in order to know whether to mark it, as all other speech is presumably unmarked and considered standard.  Additionally at issue, then, is the judgment captioners must make about whether it is important for an audience to know that a person is speaking in a foreign or regional accent.  There are no further guidelines in the style guide to help determine what would make this information necessary, and it is hard to imagine a satisfactory way to determine this.  The assumption that it might ever be necessary to mark some dialects and accents and not others is troubling for many compositionists and linguists because, again, it assumes that there is a default language standard that is neutral and therefore need not be marked, while others are so stigmatized as to be marked as sound effects. Treating it as a sound effect means language difference and diversity is mobilized only as a shallow identifier of difference or characterization playing on stereotyped meanings. Rather than representing language difference in an equitable way, then, this policy reduces such difference to caricature: there is no meaningful difference unless it is to mark a stereotyped identity or situation against the “standard.”

One support for emphasizing speaking style is related to the assumption (expressed in the “Access” quality listed above) that it is intentional on behalf of the director or writer, meant to convey character, mood or other narrative elements (except, of course, unaccented “standard” speech, which is unmarked and assumed neutral). Intentionality is central in this consideration, yet Udo and Fels emphasize that intention is seldom or never communicated from producers to captioners. While indeed it is often the case that stuttering is used to convey uncertainty, fear, or lying, or accent is meant to convey regional difference that might identify a character as an “outsider” or a situation as “foreign” to a character, as just a few examples, these characterizations (intentional or not) come with a whole set of identity politics and prejudices implicit in them. At the same time, they might (and often do) convey information to hearing audiences, however problematic, that could well be missed by hearing impaired audiences if not represented in some way.

At issue for this discussion is not to determine whether it is ethical to represent dialectical difference, but to consider and draw attention to how this language is represented and what is seen as constituting “difference” to begin with. As Milroy points out, “dialects cannot be labeled ‘non-standard’ unless a standard variety is first recognized as definitive and central” (534). Representing dialect and accent in programs assumes and supports a form of standard English that is left unmarked and assumed as neutral, against which all other speech is compared.

Indeed, standard forms are left unmarked, unidentified, “neutral” in contrast to all other forms of speech in the Captioning Key guidelines, rather than one among many possible speaking styles. This might be partially explained by Milroy’s argument that standard languages are not just vernaculars or dialects—not just one among several equal choices--both because they are imbued with different power and legitimacy and because they exist only in the mind, as an ideal: “the standard ideology decrees that the standard is an idea in the mind—it is a clearly delimited, perfectly uniform and perfectly stable variety—a variety that is never perfectly and consistently realized in spoken use” (543, emphasis in original). Whether a company makes the decision to standardize spoken English, effacing difference, or to represent it closer to its original and mark it as somehow irregular, both take as their starting point an assumption about Standard English and its value. Each choice assumes the power and legitimacy of Standard English and helps reinforce it by leaving it “unmarked” and presumably neutral.

The seeming neutrality of captioning, then, constitutes one of the major issues, as “any enterprise which claims to be non-ideological and value-neutral, but which in fact remains covertly ideological and value-laden, is the more dangerous for this deceptive subtlety” (Joseph and Taylor, as cited in Milroy 531). In this subtle way, captioning engages in language politics that covertly and even unknowingly support standard language practices. Drawing on Milroy’s  treatment of “legitimacy,” I argue that CC contributes to the legitimization of standard English in ways that intersect with treatment of language in L1 and L2 FYC courses that similarly value handbooks, “proof-reading” and other standardized practices.

            To return to the larger argument of this paper, the policies for representing the diverse sounds of English in captioning serve to invisibilize or tokenize difference, to pretend towards neutrality, to ignore the complex politics and language values behind all acts of translation, and overall to construct meaning for their audiences in very specific ways that are politically aligned with assumptions of Standard English’s value and hegemony.  Milroy usefully remarks that, while “[t]here is of course no reason why accounts of standard English should not be relied on for various purposes, provided that arguments are put forward to justify the use of the standard, and not other forms, in some given instance,” but we must “be assured that it is appropriate to do so in such an instance”  (544). Milroy emphasizes the need to promote a critical approach to language use in writing with and without sound that is at issue in this paper.  The creators of the Captioning Key would seem to agree, as when Teresa Rogers, Accessibility Coordinator of the DCMP, writes, “I have observed that both children and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing are often deprived of the opportunity to access, analyze, learn, evaluate, and fully participate in the mainstream of American culture because of the lack of captioning or faulty presentation of it” (DCMP 6). Yet the traditional views on language and translation may be hindering the realization of this goal if captioning is not understood and presented as a complex and significant language activity. How can we encourage both captioning practices and discussions about them that encourage not just the access, but the analysis and  evaluation of captions, their presentation, and their content? This is the same opportunity teachers of FYC have recently been called to make available to their students (Lu and Horner; Horner et al.), to make writers and readers aware of the various linguistic options and resources available for their communicative purposes, so that individual writers might be able to “justify the use of the standard” or another form in their composing. Examining captioning of varieties of English speech might help us to consider how our students are being encouraged to make similar choices (or not made aware that they have such a choice) about their own diverse language resources, such as whether to standardize their compositions into EAE, when and how to do so, and what it might mean to their audiences.

Captioning foreign language: Assuming a monolingual audience

            If captioning policies for English language can be said to support Standard English, captioning policies for foreign languages can similarly be said to support English Only. The assumptions about what an audience could or should understand of foreign language are particularly troubling when we consider how out-of-sync they are with a country where more than twenty percent of the population speaks a language other than English (Trimbur). As clarified above, the representations of foreign language in captioning in the U.S. are not the same thing as subtitling or open captioning. Unlike subtitling, in which language is translated to English (or another language selected by viewers), captioning represents language that can be heard by hearing viewers but that may or may not be “intended” to be understood by certain audiences who can or cannot speak the non-English language, leaving it untranslated.  Per federal regulation, all meaningful sound must be represented by captions, but how the sound (and the meanings) of spoken language is represented varies significantly.

            The Captioning Key’s policy on foreign language highlights the important goal of access in captioning, while also producing or reinforcing an English Only conception of what needs to be accessed. The brief section states, “If possible, caption the actual foreign words. If it is not possible to caption the words, use a description (e.g., [speaking French]). Never translate into English” (25). First of all, it is quite unclear what it would mean to be “possible” to caption foreign words here: does this include words that are enunciated clearly and therefore able to be researched and represented? Does it include words that are understandable to a bi-lingual captioner who knows the language in its original? We can imagine these scenarios might be the goal of this guideline—that those without knowledge of the language would be encouraged to look up spellings, or that speakers of the language would be encouraged to provide responsible representations—making this an encouraging language policy that could provide options for those interested in translinguality and cross-language communication. However, this does not seem to be the case in practice for many captioning companies, whose time and economic constraints likely limit the amount of resources they are willing to put towards such labor-intensive captions. More often, captions follow the trend of the US’s largest captioning company, which directs captioners to caption commonly understood phrases such as “C’est la vie” and otherwise resort to description. In these cases, foreign language becomes tokenistic in a way similar to the tokenistic treatment of regional differences discussed in English captioning above. 

At the same time, the Captioning Key’s lack of specificity on what “possible” looks like could lend itself to even less responsible representations than the transliteration and tokenistic use of phrases used elsewhere, as a result of the fact that this policy again (as we saw with English) assumes that translating spoken language into textual representations is an easy one-to-one exchange that one either knows in its exact standard or doesn’t have (the right) to work to represent.  We might be reminded once again of Milroy’s  concept of “legitimacy” here, whereby the standard version of a language can be used legitimately, while other attempts to make meaning are unauthorized and illegitimate.  Though the policy—as is typical for CC—specifically prohibits translating into English, the very small notice given to captioning foreign language and the general inadequacy of the practice as outlined here and in other captioning companies are undergirded by the tacit assumption of an English Only audience and captioning team. Speakers of other languages are acknowledged in this document only as potential learners of English, and not as speakers of English who might also have knowledge of and interest in other languages in conversation with English in media (DCMP 5).

The brief statement of what to do if it is “not possible” to caption foreign language further establishes this position on foreign language and its value by suggesting that describing what is being said is in some way equivalent to identifying that speech is occurring: rather than describing what is being said, the captioner is directed (by the example: [speaking French]) to describe merely the action of it being said, regardless of what “it” is. The words and meanings of foreign language do not matter in such a caption, and are treated as little more than a sound effect; where dialect was considered a sound effect imposed on otherwise meaningful speech, here foreign language can be reduced  entirely to effect, not even constituting meaningful communication.

In terms of global exchange and identity construction, this policy encourages viewers to ignore and silence other languages and, perhaps by extension, cultures (perhaps even one of their own). In her introduction to Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross- Cultural Texts, Dingwaney asserts that cultures are translated as much as languages; in film we might consider how a culture or nation is being represented on the screen, being “translated” or not, being “made comprehensible” or not, and the violence that might be done. The captioning policy ascribes a low value not only to trans-lingual and cross-cultural exchange, but to the languages and cultures themselves.

As an extreme example we might consider the 2009 American war drama Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan. In this film, a young American soldier, Tommy Cahill, is captured in a POW camp in Afghanistan. While he and another captured soldier speak English, scenes of their time in captivity are filled with the sounds of Afghan language, as Afghan soldiers speak outside their cell. However, the captions for these scenes do not indicate that any language is being spoken, that any sound is heard outside the cell. Far from translating this speech, or even indicating the sound of [Speaking Farsi] or [Speaking Afghan language], the hearing impaired viewer is made completely unaware of the language or even sound.

Not only does this not represent the scene well, it also completely silences the Afghans in an already politically fraught scene and situation, indicating a politics of indifference (at best) towards the speakers. Does this represent an American disposition towards Afghans? Even (especially?) in times of war, is the language of the ‘enemy’ to be so ignored? This may seem like quite a leap, but we might seriously consider how our representations of language may help shape certain subject positions that are particularly meaningful in the context of global conflict and representations thereof. Though this is just one example (and a film clearly not captioned according to the DCMP guidelines), how does this captioning decision reveal the already-invisibilized status of (certain) foreign languages in American cinema and media, that it would seem reasonable and even possible to wholly ignore an instance of language use? Just as Venuti acknowledges that the choice of what texts to translate to English informs the formation of cultural identities that can produce or inscribe prejudices, so can translating difference in film do the same by representing language and culture in ways that make them either meaningless yelling (even silence) or meaningful speech. This speaks to what I have begun to argue earlier of the English Only ideology of captioning practices that denies legitimacy to other languages and closes down possibilities of linguistic and cultural exchange for non-hearing viewers. What is important to realize here is that hearing viewers would have the opportunity to understand, to attempt to make meaning, to resist understanding or to ignore the speech altogether—but hearing impaired viewers do not have these choices, these positions afforded to them, if they are not provided a responsible representation of the sounds of language in such instances.

Policies on foreign language captioning as they are, then, tend to reveal assumptions about the language proficiencies of both captioners and audience members: that neither would generally be able to understand foreign speech, and neither should be encouraged to try very hard to do so. In the cases where non-English speech is completely uncaptioned or identified only as empty word-sounds in a caption, hearing impaired viewers are not given the opportunity to attempt to understand, or to have the experience of non-understanding and the potentially productive negotiation--and even struggle--of translingual communication.  To a hearing impaired viewer, the message is that foreign languages do not constitute meaningful communication and that there is not value in negotiating language difference. Importantly, this is not a decision she gets to make on her own.  Additionally, the viewer who knows the non-English language is unable to access the linguistic exchange that she might be able to understand if she could hear it, again revealing the English Only assumption in captioning.

While it could be argued that significant instances of foreign language are often subtitled or translated by an interpreter (towards English Only, but in the name of access), there is a serious grey area there too.  One very pertinent example is provided by Prendergast in her article in Cross-language Relations in Composition. Prendergast describes a scene in the 2007 Irish film Once, directed by John Carney. The film follows a relationship between an Irish busker (“the guy”) and a Czech immigrant (“the girl”) who have to negotiate meaning and their relationship across different language backgrounds. Prendergast explains well the significance of language difficulty and translation (what she calls “cross-languaging”) represented in the film:

The pivotal moment of the film is one in which the two, who have theretofore negotiated the thickets of their ambiguous relationship primarily through music, engage in an act of cross-languaging: using a Czech phrase she has taught him at his request, the guy asks the girl if she loves the husband she left behind in the Czech Republic. Her response—answering both the central question of the film as well as that of their relationship—is given in Czech with no accompanying subtitle or verbal translation. The Irish busker doesn’t understand what she said and neither do most of the movie’s viewers, but those viewers equally understand that what they’ve missed is the key to unraveling the meaning of the film and the fate of its central characters. (231)

This scene is a wonderful example of the possibilities of translation and captioning of foreign language. Though the phrase was crucial to the movie, it was untranslated: both the English-speaking character and the audience members are left with the struggle and negotiation of unsuccessful cross-language communication that Prendergast and others (Horner et al.; Venuti; White) want to celebrate. Prendergasts mentions the great number of viewers who turned to the internet and other resources to discover what was said, identifying in this an “extension of the classroom” into theaters and homes.

Because this cross-language moment is so key to the movie, a caption of the Czech speech is indeed provided, but--likely because the phrase is not familiar to many English speakers, as “C’est la vie” might be--it is transliterated. For both hearing viewers who used the captions to determine the spelling of the phrase to enter into a search and hearing impaired viewers, this captioning choice caused difficulties for viewers, since  the transliteration of what one Czech discussion board says should be “Miluji tebe” is provided as “Noor-ho-tebbe,” rendering it confusing and almost meaningless even to speakers of Czech (My Czech Republic). Through discussion of the statement’s context, though, discussion board posters determined the meaning together in what might be considered an exciting cross-lingual exchange on par with the one represented in the film itself. At the same time, we might consider the status given to language by captioners of this film, considering that all Czech speech outside of this scene is represented as “[Speaking Czech]” and this scene is only transliterated. Though transliteration makes the exchange of meaning in translation difficult,  attempts to represent the language constitute a more responsible and equitable approach to captioning than merely marking that language has occurred; just as it is true that there are no “correct”--only more or less responsible—translations, there may not be “correct,” but indeed more or less responsible captioning practices (Venuti).

Even when a director may not have intended it, hearing audiences may be able to understand foreign language, or not--to try to understand or translate what is not readily understood or to experience the discomfort of not understanding and choose not to seek out information to complete their understandings. As White suggests, “our sense of incompleteness is itself a spur to investigation, learning, invention” (335); but this sense of incompleteness may not be one that hearing impaired viewers even experience, or are able to remedy in the face of inadequate captions.

If we can see “not understanding as a space for learning,” as bell hooks argues and White affirms, how might we take lessons from the language issues in captioning to encourage active participation in language negotiations in our classrooms? Are the opacities and clarities that seem almost inevitable in CC be made productive for various language users in our classrooms (White)? And might we draw attention to these moments and make CC a more productive site of critical linguistic exchange as well?

Prendergast mentions the exciting possibilities of learning and exchange provided by Once, when viewers subsequently logged onto the internet to figure out what “the girl” had said in the film. It is important not only to ensure that hearing impaired viewers have these same options, but to make sure our pedagogies and language policies encourage citizens (perhaps starting with our students) to take up these options, beginning with knowing that they exist.

Conclusion: What Captioning has to offer FYC pedagogy

            The practices of CC intersect with the ways FYC writing has been conceived until recently (and in many ways continues to be conceived). Both are framed as monolingual acts, where languages are viewed as discrete and consistent entities without crossover and without significant (or valuable) intra-language variation. Across languages, negotiation has been similarly devalued, such that foreign language in CC has been tokenized or largely disregarded, just as FYC has not, until recently, made a place for students’ multiple linguistic resources. In response to this, and as part of a call for translinguality in composition, we might follow Pennycook’s acknowledgement that,

it is possible to view all language use as a process of translation, thus questioning the assumption that translation is a mapping of items from one code to another, and seeing the possibilities of language negotiation for our students’ professional and personal futures. According to George Steiner (1975: 47), ‘inside or between languages, human communication equals translation’…It also suggests that this boundary we set up between languages, making translation an issue when we speak ‘different languages’ but not when we speak the ‘same language’ is a distinction that is hard to maintain. (40)

 The “consciousness of language and the limits of language” at play in captioning has been the central concern of this paper, drawing attention to the politics that are inscribed in CC policies and practices and considering the subject positions and linguistic identities made available to CC users and how they are similar to the positions offered to FYC students in the dominant pedagogical models (White 333).

As we draw attention to the variety of language practices of our students, we might consider other spaces in which language is being reified, and English is tacitly promoted—where our students or other citizens might be learning or reinforcing understandings about language and cross-cultural exchange. Closed Captioning has something to offer not just to disability studies, where scholars or practitioners might reconsider issues of access or the political messages sent by CC, but also to composition teachers and scholars who might look to other sites of language use and negotiation to conceive of the challenges faced by students as they translate their own and others’ meanings into written form.  As Horner et al. point out, behind the ostensible neutrality of laissez-faire language policies, including those involved in CC and FYC, is a policy of expediency to establish and maintain rule that produces an implicitly English-only policy, though it is not legislated--a linguistic ambivalence that does not support and value individuals’ rights to their own languages.

More work needs to be done on the issues of expediency and the practical possibilities of language negotiation for both CC and college writing. Part of that work is in acknowledging that composing of any kind involves complex translations of sound, voice, and meaning for audiences, composers, and students.  In addressing the complexity of meaning-making and encouraging a more critical negotiation of language use both within and across languages, I hope to further the inquiry into and continual revision of language policies inside and outside the classroom.  Any goal or focus has as a necessary correlate a set of assumptions and a field of unacknowledged oversights; in emphasizing any issue we will always be marginalizing other concerns. We need to continue to consider the issues of accessibility as contexts change and proliferate, and recognize and evaluate the choices made and paths taken. The issue of sound and representation is, of course, only one way into this conversation.

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