Reddit Gold: “People who have been deaf their entire lives, do TV show subtitles like “upbeat jazz music plays” mean anything to you?”

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Today’s post is from u/Landeg who answers the question: “People who have been deaf their entire lives, do TV show subtitles like “upbeat jazz music plays” mean anything to you?

I am not Deaf myself but I do a lot of closed captioning work (so I’m the person writing “upbeat jazz music plays”).

Imagine you are reading a book that has been translated from another language, and in it, two of the characters are arguing over a local delicacy, “blancragg“. One character loves it, one character hates it, but they don’t describe what it is. A native reader who has tried blancragg before would understand immediately upon reading it and would know which character they agreed with.

Then you see that the translator has left a footnote on that page – “blancragg is a paste made of fermented snails”. It doesn’t matter that you have never eaten blancragg in your entire life or could have no possible way of knowing exactly what it tastes like – you now have enough information to understand the author’s intention with this argument, e.g. establishing that one of these characters has peculiar tastes and may be old-fashioned, etc.

If “blancragg” had turned out to be a lightly-seasoned vegetable dish, our interpretation might be that one of the characters is a picky eater. If “blancragg” had turned out to be a sweet pastry, our interpretation would be different again.

Even though we’ve still never tasted blancragg.

Basically, it doesn’t matter whether a Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual has ever “heard” music before; knowing its intended tone is still relevant to their understanding and enjoyment of a movie. You’ve probably seen how much a scene can change if it gets dubbed with different music (an intense chase scene becomes a comedy if you add the Benny Hill theme). Music is a cue hearing people use to indicate tone, so that cue should be translated for those who can’t hear it. Our understanding of “blancragg” may never be the same as someone who has actually tasted it, but being given a rough approximation has still improved our experience.

Also, our interpretation of music’s effect on movie scenes is often informed by other movies, pop culture, etc. So it doesn’t matter if someone has never heard “upbeat jazz” music; they will still have enough of a cultural understanding based on other times they have encountered “upbeat jazz” music to get what tone that cue is implying.

And as people have mentioned, plenty of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people do listen to music, but for different reasons. So they can translate “upbeat jazz music plays” to their experiences listening to, watching, or feeling upbeat jazz.

Someone else up-thread mentioned laughing at a lot of closed captions, and I’ll agree they can get borderline absurdist sometimes. But if you take a step back, you’ll start to notice how much the tone of a person’s voice, the way music is played (aggressively, timidly, etc.), even the way a non-human or inanimate object makes a sound (dog barking playfully vs threateningly, car horn beeping politely vs angrily, etc.) all lend to our understanding of the scene. (Good) directors and audio techs pay a lot of attention to the way we passively assign emotions or intent to these sounds and how it impacts our interpretation of a scene – why shouldn’t that intent be translated in captions?

Edit: There are lots of great responses in this thread from people who are actually Deaf or Hard of Hearing, unlike myself, which will give a much better perspective! This comment by /u/Notmiefault explains why captions you might think are funny or unnecessary are actually very important.

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