Working on subtitles for deaf hard of hearing people (SDH or HoH) is, obviously, very different (and much more challenging) than making “normal” subtitles. And I don’t mean the technical differences only, we have to learn how people without the ability of hearing perceive the world.
In that case the subtitler must put himself in the position of a person who doesn’t hear anything. A good practice might be to watch a movie on mute, but with normal subtitles. At that moment we come to realize that it is impossible to understand everything, that one gets sometimes confused about what happened in the movie, that one is missing something. For instance: a dialogue between two people, a conversation that we understand since we turned on the”normal” subtitles. And suddenly they turn around, look at something or someone who wasn’t on screen just seconds before. What just happened? Did that third person say something? Did he make a noise? Yell?
Then, of course, there is music. We often don’t realize how big the role of music in movies is. Someone says, for example: “I don’t know what to do now”, without smiling or crying, just a neutral, maybe indifferent facial expression. A slow, sad song allows us to understand that the character is in a sad mood or that something sad is happening or about to happen. Similarly, a joyful, fast music makes us understand in a fraction of second that something good is about to happen. Without hearing that music, we as spectators, just don’t know how to react, what we were supposed to feel. Was the intention of the director to make us cry, smile, burst of laugh, or feel scared?
How to describe that music? “Slow music” doesn’t mean much – it can still be either sad or joyful. As a subtitler I must remember, though, that I have to describe it with as little characters as possible. And that’s often a big challenge because there is no time, something else is happening onscreen. Music can announce threat, consternation, terror and as a subtitler for hard of hearing people it is my role to describe it correctly, as close as possible to what is heard.
Then, there are subtitles themselves. Rule number 1 is that I am not allowed to spoil any kind of surprise, element that a “normal” viewer wouldn’t know about either. My subtitles can’t expose facts that are not known to the viewer yet.
I can’t forget to mention things that are happening onscreen but a deaf viewer might not understand – a woman hiding her face in her hands could be crying, laughing, sobbing, breathing hardly, taking deep breath, mumble something, she can be speaking normally, loudly or whispering. It is the subtitler’s role to make the distinction between those noises and describe them correctly.
There are also the technical rules: in particular the use of colours. The common practice is that subtitles are white for DVD’s and that they have colours in teletext (TV). In subtitles for TV the most important characters are given colours: green, yellow, red, clear blue, or purple. Studios might use different colours and also, in some cases, they always give a given colour to the most important character, let’s say that green always goes to the leading character, yellow to the second more important, etc.
When a character (especially one of the leading ones) appears the first time on screen, his or her name must precede the subtitle:
It is good practice to, where possible, add people’s names. Instead of saying: “Hello!”, the character could say: “Hello, John!”. In common subtitles we skip all noises like: ah, ugh, eh, etc. In SDH subtitles, at the contrary, we must write it - if we don’t do that, then the character opened his mouth, there is no subtitle and the viewer might think that something was said, maybe something important. The viewer gets confused.
The speed of reading for hard of hearing people is also lower than usual. And the guidelines for the speed should be provided by the studio.
It has been a challenge for me to make those subtitles, mostly in the beginning. But I got used to the rules, and I always hope that given that I did my best, the viewer will be satisfied. For me, making that kind of subtitles is also very rewarding, I feel that my job has more meaning and that fact makes my job even more important to me.