Laura Newcombe: Lost in Translation – Whatever Happened to Subtitling in Cinemas?

Posted on June 26, 2013



Picture this: you are out with your friends one night having a good time, completely unaware of how the evening will unfold; unfortunately for you, one of your friends suggests a trip to the cinema.

An experience that should be relatively painless in comparison to being shot in the neck during a failed attempt at paintballing. However you cannot hear. You tentatively approach the building in a desperate bid to avoid committing social suicide. Mission impossible ensues as you brace yourself for a film without subtitles and a monumentally extortionate bill.

This is all too familiar for me. As a cinema goer who is deaf, it saddens me to see that there are hardly any subtitled viewings available in cinemas. In fact I was unaware that subtitling in cinemas existed until one Thursday afternoon I happened to stumble upon Pirates of the Caribbean with subtitles. It took me twenty years to discover that subtitles in cinemas existed and from then on I still struggled to find a viewing that was subtitled outside of work times.

This frustrated me to no end, after all what ever happened to equality and diversity? If we cannot hear, why should we be deprived of a popular social activity with our friends? Why had television entered the 21st Century with 80 per cent of programmes subtitled and yet cinemas were still lagging behind in the dark ages?

These were questions that started to linger in my mind. Being deaf and growing up in a hearing environment meant that social activities with friends, who can hear, often resulted in trips to the cinema.

Searching for visual clues in a desperate bid to understand the protagonists incoherent mumbling, lack of lip action mixed with orchestrated sound in the background, was a constant reminder of my limitations. Even the person who was selling the tickets could not be sure of when there would be another subtitled viewing available.

A few months ago, or in many respects a lifetime ago now, I embarked on a journey investigating the influence of subtitles for the deaf in a predominately hearing society. What started out as an academic piece of work suddenly became something that could potentially impact on those who are reliant on subtitles.

Initially my investigation was centred on the need for more subtitled viewings to be available in cinemas; however it took a slight diversion and started to reflect on the viewpoints of deaf people themselves.

Quite a few people, especially parents, were unaware that subtitled viewings existed. In fact many said that like me, they had walked in on a subtitled viewing by accident. It seemed that cinemas had lost faith in the subtitling system, fearing that increased subtitled viewings could lead to a loss in sales; hence the lack of information from cinema staff regarding subtitled viewings.

In order to investigate this issue further I conducted a focus group, consisting of those who could hear and those who were deaf. It became clear from my findings that the core problem with subtitling in cinemas was the lack of understanding from the staff themselves.

One of the respondents who is deaf commented that subtitling in cinemas was ‘too much effort to find out. They do not clearly specify online or in the cinema which viewings are subtitled.’ The difficulty in obtaining a subtitled viewing became one of the main topics of debate during the research process.

When the parents of children who are deaf were questioned, it was no surprise to discover that they were also oblivious to the possibility of their child seeing a subtitled viewing in cinemas. The general response was ‘I have never taken my child to see a subtitled showing at the cinema as I did not know they were offered.’

This was of no surprise to me as a fellow cinema goer who did not realise herself that subtitled showings in cinemas existed. It felt insulting and frustrating that deaf people did not have the autonomy to enjoy the cinema experience as a social activity. Therefore I decided to investigate the cinema industry further.

Contacting people who worked in the industry or charities that worked with the deaf was incredibly hard. Luckily for me, Charlie Swinbourne, the Editor of this site, who I contacted through BBC Ouch, was on board to help. He suggested that I contact Mr Phil Clapp who is the Chief Executive of the Cinema Exhibitors Association.

Mr Clapp stated that ‘there are challenges to putting on more subtitled screenings. On the whole it is financially difficult for cinemas to show subtitled screenings at peak times.’ He also said that the introduction of the new subtitle spectacles would solve this problem, providing an increase subtitled viewings.

Although there were mixed responses from the focus group in regards to using subtitle spectacles, it did come across as a strong contender as a solution to the problem of subtitles. The respondents of the focus group felt that it would be embarrassing to wear spectacles in the cinema and be singled out from the rest of the audience.

However I do think that if a larger variety of films were offered as a result of these spectacles then their opinion could be swayed. After all when the lights go down, people don’t tend to notice what people are wearing. Even those who can hear have expressed how subtitles are useful when actors speak incoherently.

For some reason the integration of these subtitle spectacles into cinemas has come to a halt. As a lover of cinema, I feel disappointed that these spectacles have yet to make an appearance. However when they do it will be interesting to see if they can finally revolutionise the cinema experience for the deaf.

Until then all we can do is watch this space….

Laura Newcombe’s experience of being deaf has triggered an interest in how deafness is construed by society. She has both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in Media Communication. During her academic career she won awards for her research projects, including creating a waterproof hearing aid case. For her Master’s degree she conducted a research project investigating the impacts of subtitling in cinemas within a deaf community. She is writing a novel which will have two main characters that are deaf and hopes to one day become a professional writer.

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