The Relevance of Humour in Audio Description

By Juan José Martínez-Sierra (University of Murcia, Spain)

Abstract & Keywords

English:

This article aims to illustrate how a pragmatic analysis based on the Relevance Theory can be applied to the study of humour in audio described products. More particularly, its main purpose is to show the results of a discursive analysis of both the original version and the audio described version of the comedy film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. First the theoretical framework used is outlined, and then some examples are included to illustrate the way those different theoretical concepts can be applied empirically. Such an application provides a discursive and descriptive account of how humour travels in audio description. It also evidences the role that describers can perform as providers of the new information that is needed for the process of inference to be completed successfully.

Keywords: audio description, audiovisual translation, humour, relevance

©inTRAlinea & Juan José Martínez-Sierra (2009).
"The Relevance of Humour in Audio Description", inTRAlinea Vol. 11.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/1653

The Relevance Theory

The Theory

The Relevance Theory - also referred to as the Principle of Relevance - is a discursive theory developed by Sperber and Wilson. A first version appeared in 1986, and has since then been subjected to different updates (see, for example, Sperber and Wilson 1995, 1998 and 2002 and Wilson and Sperber 2002a and 2004). Albeit they developed this principle from the maxim of relation of Grice’s Cooperative Principle [1] , their proposal should not be understood as an extension of Grice’s work, but rather as a theory on its own and as a different way of explaining how we communicate linguistically (Reyes 1996: 53).

Briefly put, when a sender makes clear his or her intention to communicate (ostensive communication), it creates a presumption of adequate effect for the minimum necessary processing effort (or, at least, with no unjustifiable processing effort), if optimal relevance is sought. The receiver has to discriminate between what the speaker’s words mean (sentence meaning) and what the speaker actually means (utterance meaning), and he or she does so by means of inference - that is, the process by which an assumption is given validity from the validity of another assumption (Escandell 1996: 111). When communication is to take place, the receiver uses additional - new - knowledge (contextual assumptions), which he or she combines with existing - previous - knowledge (existing assumptions) to interpret what is not explicit and derive cognitive effects. The receiver, then, brings together the linguistic meaning of the sentence and the background knowledge he or she shares with the sender to interpret the sender’s communicative intention. This process is time and effort consuming but, if the item of information is relevant, it has a reward, which consists of an improvement or satisfying modification of our representation of the world [2].

Cognitive Effects

According to the Relevance Theory, an input (an image, a sound, a statement, a memory, etc.) will be relevant for an individual as long as it connects with his or her previous knowledge and leads to pertinent conclusions, in the sense that they involve a significant change in his or her mental representation of the world. Such conclusions are, in Sperber and Wilson’s words, contextual effects. In later revisions of their initial approach to their theory (see, for example, Sperber and Wilson 1995), they refer to the contextual effects as cognitive effects.   

Regarding the different possible types of cognitive effects, despite the fact that the taxonomy proposed by Sperber and Wilson does not seem to be comprehensive, they do speak of three initial categories:     

* The first type is the contextual implication, which they define as “a conclusion deducible from the input and the context together, but from neither input nor context alone” (Wilson and Sperber 2002b: 251). That is, it is a new assumption added to our inventory of existing ones and created from the combination of one or various existing assumptions with one or various contextual assumptions.
* The second type is named strengthening; that is, when new information reinforces an existing assumption (Sperber and Wilson 1986: 109).
* The third category is contradiction, which is found when new information weakens or contradicts an existing assumption, even leading to its abandonment (Sperber and Wilson 1986: 109).   

The Relevance Theory and Humour

As Vandaele (2002a: 230) claims, “Relevance is no longer a principle confined to serious speech.” Several authors have followed a linguistic or discursive approach to the translation of humour, such as for example Attardo and Raskin (1991), Attardo (1993, 1994, 2001 and 2002), Vandaele (1995, 2001, 2002a and 2002b) and Yus (1997 and 2003). Similarly, the Relevance Theory has already been applied to the study of the dubbing of humour (for example, see Martínez-Sierra 2004, 2005 and 2008) [3]. In the case of humour, a wider definition of reward is needed, so that it can incorporate the multiple functions of humour and include the recompense that takes the form of laughter (external or internal [4]). Thanks to this wider definition we can presume that the combination of the sets of existing and contextual assumptions and the cognitive effects that we derive from it has, in the case of humour, an undeniable function: the production of amusement.

Relevance and Audio Description

In a nutshell, according to the Relevance Theory, communication can be understood as a confluence of a set of existing assumptions and a set of contextual assumptions, from which a series of cognitive effects will be derived. Thus, the old information that we already have - our previous knowledge of the world - combines with the new information that is given to us at the very moment of the communicative exchange. In a conversation, for example, the new information is given by the interlocutors, each one providing the other with pieces of such a type of information. A dubbed or subtitled film can also be considered a communicative situation - a one-way communicative exchange -, in which the viewers act as the receivers of the new information that is provided by the film via dialogues, sounds and images.

But, what happens in the case of an audio described film? Of course, both existing and contextual assumptions will also interact. Yet, since in this case we cannot really count on the images, does it mean that the new information will be provided only by the dialogues and the sounds? Any definition of audio description will state that it is a practice in which a narrator or describer narrates or describes [5] everything that can be seen and is considered relevant [6]. So the question is: does the describer provide the new information that in the non-audio described version of a film was provided by the images?[7]

Application of the Relevance Theory

The previous section ended with a question, which shall be addressed here by presenting three examples to outline the way in which some of the notions discussed above can be applied to the analysis of the audio description of humour. The examples belong to the American comedy film - in fact, some sort of mockumentary - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles 2006).

The Relevance Theory is applied to each movie segment, both to the original version (OV) - the non-audio described version - and to the audio described version (ADV). The pragmatic elements in each version - that is, the existing and contextual assumptions, along with the cognitive effects that can be derived from their combination - are identified and then compared. 

It should be pointed out that, in order to develop the list of existing and contextual assumptions as well as of cognitive effects, the role of an average viewer (or ideal viewer in Kovacic terms 1995: 378) has been assumed.

Example 1

Contextualization:

Beginning of the film. Borat is giving us a tour of his village and introducing his friends and relatives to us.

Dialogue + Description:

Borat: This is my mother. She oldest woman in whole of Kuzcek. She is 43. I love her.
Describer: She looks about 90.

Existing Assumptions (OV and ADV):

1) Grey hair and wrinkles are clear signs of ageing
2) Someone who has been declared the oldest person in a place must be quite old
3) Life expectancy is rather short in undeveloped countries
4) Sons usually love their mothers

Contextual Assumptions (OV):

1) Borat introduces his mother, a grey haired woman whose face is full of wrinkles, to the audience
2) He says she is the oldest woman in town
3) He says she is 43
4) He says he loves her

Contextual Assumptions (ADV):

1) Borat introduces his mother to the audience
2) He says she is the oldest woman in town
3) He says she is 43
4) We are told that she looks about 90
5) He says he loves her

Comment:

In the OV, when Borat introduces his mother to us we can actually see her face and notice the wrinkles on it as well as her grey hair (OV contextual assumption 1). For obvious reasons, in the ADV we cannot count on the visual elements. However, we are told about her look by the describer (ADV contextual assumption 4), which constitutes a clear example of the describer providing a piece of information that in the OV was provided by an image and that otherwise would be lost.

Cognitive Effects (OV):

1) When combined with CA 1 (the woman’s look) and CA 2 (the fact that she is the oldest woman in town), CA 3 (her age: 43) contradicts EA 1 and EA 2 (the wrinkles and grey hair as signs of ageing and the idea that the oldest person in a town must be quite old, respectively)
2) CA 3 (her age: 43) and CA 2 (the fact that she is the oldest woman in town) reinforce EA 3 (short life expectancy in undeveloped countries)
3) CA 4 (Borat saying that he loves his mother) reinforces EA 4 (the idea that sons love their mothers)

Cognitive Effects (ADV):

1) When combined with CA 1 and CA 4 (the woman’s look) and CA 2 (the fact that she is the oldest woman in town), CA 3 (her age: 43) contradicts EA 1 and EA 2 (the wrinkles and grey hair as signs of ageing and the idea that the oldest person in a town must be quite old, respectively) 
2) CA 3 (her age: 43) and CA 2 (the fact that she is the oldest woman in town) reinforce EA 3 (short life expectancy in undeveloped countries)
3) CA 5 (Borat saying that he loves his mother) reinforces EA 4 (the idea that sons love their mothers)

Comment:

In both versions the cognitive effects that can be derived are basically the same ones (except for a slight difference as far as the arrangement of the different assumptions is concerned), which is not surprising since in both cases we departed from the combination of the same existing and contextual assumptions.

Example 2

Contextualization:

Beginning of the film. Borat is giving us a tour of his village and introducing his friends and relatives to us.

Dialogue + Description:

Borat: This is Natalya.
Describer: He and the cheap looking blonde kiss with tongues and everything.
Borat: She is my sister. She is number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan. Nice!

Existing Assumptions (OV and ADV):

1) Brothers and sisters do not French kiss
2) Borat lives in some sort of poor, undeveloped country
3) Cultural practices in developed and undeveloped countries may vary substantially
4) In general terms, prostitution is not considered a desirable job

Contextual Assumptions (OV):

1) Borat introduces a girl named Natalya to us
2) They French kiss each other
3) Borat tells us that Natalya is his sister
4) Borat tells us that she ranks fourth in some kind of national prostitute ranking
5) Natalya shows a cup and smiles
6) Borat shows his pride and says “Nice!”

Contextual Assumptions (ADV):

1) Borat introduces a girl named Natalya to us
2) We are told that they French kiss each other
3) Borat tells us that Natalya is his sister
4) Borat tells us that she ranks fourth in some kind of national prostitute ranking
5) Borat shows his pride and says “Nice!”

Comment:

The way contextual assumption 2 is rendered in both versions constitutes another clear example of how the describer can provide a piece of new information that in the OV was provided by an image. While in the OV we can see how they kiss, in the ADV we are told that they kiss and how they do it. That way, the same piece of information is made available to both audiences. On the other hand, OV contextual assumption 5 is lost in the ADV, simply because it is provided by an image that is not described in the ADV (most likely due to lack of time). The question is: does the fact that OV contextual assumption 5 is missing in the ADV affect the overall pragmatic and humorous outcome of the audio described version of this segment? Let us see the different cognitive effects.

Cognitive Effects (OV):

1) CA 2 and CA3 (the fact that Borat and his sister French kiss each other and Borat telling us that she is his sister, respectively) contradict EA 1 (the idea that brothers and sisters do not French kiss)
2) CA 2 and CA3 (the fact that Borat and his sister French kiss each other and Borat telling us that she is his sister, respectively) reinforce EA 2 (Borat’s origin) and EA 3 (the idea that different countries may have different cultural practices)
3) CA 4 (the prostitute ranking), CA 5 (Natalya showing a cup and smiling) and CA 6 (Borat showing his pride) contradict EA 4 (the negative connotations of prostitution)

Cognitive Effects (ADV):

1) CA 2 and CA3 (the fact that Borat and his sister French kiss each other and Borat telling us that she is his sister, respectively) contradict EA 1 (the idea that brothers and sisters do not French kiss)
2) CA 2 and CA3 (the fact that Borat and his sister French kiss each other and Borat telling us that she is his sister, respectively) reinforce EA 2 (Borat’s origin) and EA 3 (the idea that different countries may have different cultural practices)
3) CA 4 (the prostitute ranking) and CA 6 (Borat showing his pride) contradict EA 4 (the negative connotations of prostitution)

Comment:

In the light of the series of cognitive effects derived in both versions, the fact that OV contextual assumption 5 is missing in the ADV does not seem to affect the final outcome too seriously. Effects 1 and 2 are just the same in both versions. As per effect 3, it is a contradiction that in the OV stems from the combination of three contextual assumptions (4, 5 and 6). In the ADV, the contradiction remains, although it is true that it stems from the combination of only two contextual assumptions (4 and 6). Therefore, it seems safe to assume that humour will be present in both versions, although perhaps to a different degree (a reception study would be needed to analyse the actual humorous effect that each version can produce). 

Example 3

Contextualization:

Borat has already arrived in the United States. He is staying at a hotel for the first time in his life.

Dialogue + Description:

Describer: At the hotel.
Borat: Everybody say U.S.A. television much better but this I watched for three fours, do not change.
Staff member: There’s a remote control right here. Press these two arrows to change the channel.

Existing Assumptions (OV and ADV):

1) Usually, there is a television set in hotel rooms
2) The television set screen sometimes shows a welcome / informative message
3) Remote controls can be used to change channels
4) When in a hotel, you can ask for assistance in case of problems
5) Borat comes from an undeveloped country

Contextual Assumptions (OV):

1) A staff member of the hotel goes to Borat’s room
2) Borat complains for watching the same programme for hours
3) We are shown the television set screen: it shows information about breakfast service times
4) The hotel employee suggests Borat to use the remote control and explains to him how it works

Contextual Assumptions (ADV):

1) A staff member of the hotel goes to Borat’s room
2) Borat complains for watching the same programme for hours
3) The hotel employee suggests Borat to use the remote control and explains to him how it works

Comment:

OV contextual assumption 3 is not present in the ADV. The reason is that it is a piece of new information that is provided by an image for which there is no description because there is no time for it. Again, the question is: does the fact that OV contextual assumption 3 is missing in the ADV affect the overall pragmatic and humorous outcome of the audio described version of this segment? Let us see the different cognitive effects.

Cognitive Effects (OV):

1) CA 1 (a staff member goes to Borat’s room) reinforces EA 4 (in case of need, you can get help in a hotel)
2) Part of CA 2 (Borat complaining about watching the same programme) reinforces EA 1 (television sets in hotel rooms)
3) Part of CA 2 (Borat complaining about watching the same programme) reinforces EA 5 (Borat’s origin)
4) Part of CA 2 (Borat complaining about watching the same programme) and CA 4 (the staff member explaining to Borat how to use the remote control) reinforce EA 5 (Borat’s origin) and EA 3 (the usefulness of remote controls)
5) CA 3 (the television set displaying a message that includes information about breakfast service times) reinforces EA 2 (the idea that welcome / informative messages are often displayed on screens)

Cognitive Effects (ADV):

1) CA 1 (a staff member goes to Borat’s room) reinforces EA 4 (in case of need, you can get help in a hotel)
2) Part of CA 2 (Borat complaining about watching the same programme) reinforces EA 1 (television sets in hotel rooms)
3) Part of CA 2 (Borat complaining about watching the same programme) and CA 4 (the staff member explaining to Borat how to use the remote control) reinforce EA 5 (Borat’s origin) and EA 3 (the usefulness of remote controls)

Comment:

On this occasion, the answer seems to be affirmative. In the OV, contextual assumption 3 is crucial to get the joke (basically, that Borat has been watching the same content for hours, thinking that it was a television show when in fact it was just information about breakfast service times). OV contextual assumption 3 makes it possible for cognitive effects 3 and 5 to be derived in the OV. Since OV contextual assumption 3 is missing in the ADV, it follows that these two effects will not be possible to be derived, thus affecting the humorous result negatively. So, if the question is whether the ADV of this segment is relevant, the answer will be yes, since three effects can be derived - although it is also true that, when compared with the original version, an equal information processing effort results in fewer effects, so the relevance degree that is achieved is affected negatively. But if the question is whether the ADV is humorous, the answer will be no, since the two effects that are key for humour to be possible are lost.

Concluding Remarks

The aspects of audio description waiting to be dealt with are numerous, and one of them has to do with the handling of humour. Approaches such as the one proposed in this article will hopefully help fill this particular gap. Not only does the Relevance Theory seem applicable to the study of audio description in general and of the audio description of humour in particular, but it can also be a valid theoretical approach to throw some light on the mechanisms of this intersemiotic translation mode [8].

In fact, such an approach allows for a consideration of the figure of the describer as the provider of the different pieces of new information - the contextual assumptions - that are necessary for the process of inference to be successful and, therefore, for the potential production of humour. Of course, as it is so common in audiovisual translation modes, time can be a restrictive factor, and the role of this provider of new information can be affected negatively or even impeded by lack of time for the description of a given visual element.

References

Attardo, S. (1993) “Violation of Conversational Maxims and Cooperation: the Case of Jokes”, Journal of Pragmatics 19: 537-558.

Attardo, S. (1994) Linguistic Theories of Humor, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, S. (2001) “Humor and Irony in Interaction: From Mode Adoption to Failure of Detection”, in L. Anolli et al. (eds.), Say not to Say: New perspectives on miscommunication, IOS Press, http://www.vepsy.com/communication/book3/3CHAPT_07.PDF [10 March 2009].

Attardo, S. (2002) “Translation and Humour: An Approach Based on the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH)”, The Translator 8(2): 173-194.

Attardo, S. and V. Raskin (1991) “Script theory revis(it)ed: joke similarity and joke representation model”, Humor 4: 293-347.

Blakemore, D. (1992) Understanding Utterances, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. 

Braun, S. (2007) “Audio Description from a discourse perspective: a socially relevant framework for research and training”, Papers from the Centre for Translation Studies. Paper 1, http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/translation/1 [30 March 2009].

Díaz Cintas, J. (2008) “Introduction,” in J. Díaz Cintas (ed.), The Didactics of Audiovisual Translation, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1-18.

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Notes

[1] “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice 1989: 26). See also Grice (1975).

[2] This succinct description of the Relevance Theory should suffice for the purposes and scope of this article. For a deeper discussion and further details, see Sperber and Wilson (1986, 1995, 1998 and 2002), Wilson and Sperber (2002a, 2002b and 2004), Blakemore (1992), Escandell (1996) and Viaggio (1996), among others.

[3] These works contribute to the idea that within the pragmatic discipline it is possible to find valid tools for the analysis of humour in audiovisual material. They include the analysis of the source and dubbed versions of an American television animated series. Such an analysis was successful, since it made it possible to compare those two versions and detect possible changes in their respective humorous nature.

[4] Vandaele (1999: 237) talks about physical laughter or smiling, on the one hand, and about an “‘inner’ feeling which comes close to laughter,” on the other.

[5] It is not my wish to enter the debate on narration/description, so in this article both terms are used indistinctly.

[6] According to Díaz-Cintas, “AD consists in transforming visual images into words, which are then spoken during the silent intervals of audiovisual programmes or live performances” (2008: 7).

[7] For authors such as Vercauteren (2007), some sounds should also be described, so a similar argument could be expounded in regard to sound. In any case, and due to the scope of this article, I shall focus on the visual elements.

[8] Along similar lines, authors such as Braun have also attempted “to show that a discourse-based approach to AD can provide an informed framework for research, training and practice” (2007: online).

©inTRAlinea & Juan José Martínez-Sierra (2009).
"The Relevance of Humour in Audio Description", inTRAlinea Vol. 11.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/1653

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