CART CORNER: CART captioning en français


By Jean Whalen

« Le fou se rue là où le sage n’ose mettre le pied » . . .

(“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread . . .”)

In January 2014, I accepted a gig at a local university, providing CART captioning for a student in a French immersion class. When the disability services coordinator and I first communicated about the possibility of my covering this class, our conversation went something like this (or at least this is how I remember it):

Me: “Well, I might be interested in providing CART for the Fren-” –

Her: “That’s great! Thanks so much! We’ll be in touch shortly with all the details.”

Gloup. (Gulp.) What just happened? And why am I left with the distinct impression that I was the only CART captioner who expressed an interest in covering this class?

First of all, you must understand that I had no background in French. So to say this was a bit of a challenge would be an understatement. I was exposed to the French language when I worked for the United Nations at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, but just being semi-aware that French was being spoken in the same courtroom in which I was working was as close as I had come to French at that time, aside from saying “Bonjour” to the French court reporters as we passed each other in the hallway.

Little did I know then that my voyage français would last for four semesters! It was a wild ride. It was by far the hardest work-related assignment I’ve ever undertaken, but I don’t regret it for a second.

Here are some of the challenges in providing CART dans une classe étrangère (in a foreign-language class):

  1. There is a language barrier! (Rire.) (Laughter.) If you ever are “courageous” (a.k.a. naïf) (a.k.a. naïve) enough to take on an assignment like this, be prepared to shift your obsessive-compulsive disorder into overdrive! The reason your OCD will be an asset rather than a liability is because when you’re not in class, you’ll be either: a) studying the foreign language in print format; b) listening to the oral language and trying to “get your ear on”; c) trying to think in the new language; or d) creating entries in your steno dictionary, imagining how that word will sound when somebody who actually speaks the language couramment (fluently) enunciates the word — and chances are, it won’t be pronounced the way you’ve been pronouncing it dans votre tête (in your head). I can’t speak for other languages, but the French oral and written languages are two different types of animal. And the way a French word is pronounced is dependent on the words that come before and after it in any given sentence, so its pronunciation changes like a caméléon.
  2. Accent marks are not a luxury in foreign-language classes, they’re a necessity. In English transcripts, no one really puts up a fuss if you leave off the accent mark in words like café or résumé. But in French, if you don’t use the accent mark correctly, it’s just plain wrong. One *must* distinguish, for example, between e and é and è and figure out a way to finger-spell them differently.
  3. I figured out how to use the U.S. International keyboard on my computer and would activate it when I was providing French CART. Most of the letters are the same, so it really wasn’t that difficult to adjust to.
  4. Homophones! If you’re providing French CART, you had better get used to them, because French is full of them. Just as one example, the words parler, parlé, parlais, parlait, and parlaient are all pronounced the same way (PAR-LAY), but one must know which mot (word) is correct for the particular context. And it’s like that for almost every verb you can think of en français. Luckily, Eclipse software, which I use, has a French version. I was able to import the French Eclipse settings into my English version of Eclipse and use the software in a franglais (think Spanglish) sort of way so that some of the verbs and adjectives would auto-conjugate for me.
  5. Reference materials! My BFFs during these classes were:
    1. an electronic French-English dictionary, complete with audio pronunciations and conjugations.
    2. Google Translate – even though Google Translate sometimes gives an “icky” translation that I know is not quite right, it at least gave me a springboard from which to start researching a word or phrase.
    3. an app called Speak & Translate – it can be a real time and finger saver if you have an approximate idea of what you’re looking for. It uses voice recognition and often saves having to physically type in the word or phrase. However, my French accent was not yet good enough for the software to understand my spoken French and translate it into English; it only understood my English and translated it into French (although my accent seems to be getting a little better!). One time, the French teacher was talking about breakfast foods and said what distinctly sounded like “NUTE-eh-yah.” I became obsessed, when preparing the transcript after class, with figuring out what that word was. I repeated it, with the best French accent I could muster, over and over and over into the Speak & Translate app: “NUTE-eh-yah! NUTE-eh-yah! NUUUUTE-EHHHH-YAHHH!!!” I burst into laughter when the software finally understood me and spit back the answer: Nutella! Miam! (Yum!)

Speaking of transcripts, I was required to prepare and email a transcript to the student within two days after each class. This is where the rubber met the rue. Although the transcripts didn’t have to be verbatim, I did my best to give the student a very useable, correct transcript. If I had a question, I would email the instructor. I really tried to restrict the number of emails I sent to the instructors, though, respecting how busy they all were and the limited amount of time I had within which to complete the transcripts.

The different instructors I worked with over the course of the two years would switch back and forth between English and French at the drop of a chapeau, so, with the help of Jeremy Thorne, chief programmer at Advantage Software (Advantage is the parent company of Eclipse), we were able to come up with a one-stroke steno macro that would allow me to flip my French dictionary off and on. This helped tremendously. It also made me realize how far I’d come when I’d glance over at my screen from time to time and realize, Mon Dieu! J’ai oublié (I forgot) to hit my macro! C’est chaos! I am so glad the student I worked with was patient with me and had a sens de l’humour! I would hear her chuckling softly to herself.

Also, at times the instructors would challenge the students by speaking above their heads, which of course was also above my tête. When that happened, I would once again rely upon the student’s sense of humor. (Are we detecting a pattern here?)

Some of my best bloopers during this French odyssey were: phlegmish (Flemish) (I loved that one and still do), and that perennial French classic, The Petite Principal. (Yes, he was a very small principal indeed).

There were times during class when I would literally just be writing sounds I’d hear when the instructor was speaking French (I always wrote what I heard, even if I knew it was coming up as gobbledygook), and I would look at my screen and realize the words were miraculously coming up correctly because I had already programmed them in during a prior class. That was fun.

Numbers were also kind of a riot. Because Eclipse has automatic number conversion, and because I had imported the French settings into my software, when the teacher would say in English, for example, “Turn to page one hundred twenty-seven,” and I would steno “127” on the number bar, it would translate as “un cent vingt-sept,” which is French for 127. I’d think, Oh, so that’s how you spell out 127 in French. So, yes, there were more times than I care to admit when the software was smarter than me.

As a result of providing CART for this class, I am now on my way to becoming a francophone – I still have a long way to go, because it takes about eight years to become fluent in a language. But for two years, instead of paying to take French classes, I got paid to take French classes! And that was fantastique! I have to confess, I placed a giant carotte (carrot) in front of my eyes, and just out of my grasp, to help coax me along when the going got tough (which was often): I booked a two-week trip to France a year ahead of time, complete with a home stay in Nice that included a week of tutoring. And since learning French had already been on my semi-serious bucket list of “things to do when I retire someday” anyway, I am ahead of the game. I continue to study French, and I’m currently participating in a French book club. Ironically, we just finished reading Le Petit Prince. And a principal of small stature wasn’t mentioned in this book, not even once. How very disappointing.

If you ever have the opportunity to caption in a foreign language, I would definitely suggest giving it a whirl, as long as it’s a beginning level class and the people you’re working with understand that it’s not a perfect process. You will need to make a serious commitment, both to yourself and to the student, to stick with it, because you’ll be developing a very unique skill set. There won’t be another CART captioner who will be able to pinch-write for you if you’re sick or want to take some time off. One must plan one’s life around the class schedule.

If you have the desire to learn a new language and are willing to spend the time it takes, give it a try, and bonne chance (good luck)!

Jean Whalen, RDR, CRR, CRC, is a CART captioner based in Apple Valley, Minn. She can be reached at