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CFP: History of the reception of scientific texts in translation

By Fabio Regattin (Università di Bologna, Italy)


©inTRAlinea & Fabio Regattin (2016).
"CFP: History of the reception of scientific texts in translation"
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About the author(s)

Fabio Regattin è dottore di ricerca in Scienza della Traduzione. I suoi principali ambiti di ricerca sono la traduzione del gioco di parole e la traduzione per il teatro.

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©inTRAlinea & Fabio Regattin (2016).
"CFP: History of the reception of scientific texts in translation"
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Translating Echoes

Challenges in the Translation of the Correspondence of a British Expatriate in Beresford’s Lisbon 1815-17

By António Lopes (University of the Algarve)

Abstract & Keywords

In 1812 the Farrer family established their wool trading business in Lisbon. Samuel Farrer and, a couple of years later, James Hutchinson remained in regular correspondence with Thomas Farrer, who owned a textile mill in the vicinity of Leeds, then centre of the wool trade in England. Their correspondence, spanning the period 1812-18, offers a vivid account of life in Lisbon and its hardships and troubles in the aftermath of the Peninsular War. Those letters mirror the turbulent politics of the time and articulate an attempt to narrate otherness and the way it kept challenging their gaze. The translation of the letters has posed some challenges, especially on a stylistic level. In order to confer a sense of historical authenticity on the target-language text and to attend to the stylistic features of the source-language text, the translator has been forced to revisit the Portuguese language of the period as it was spoken and written by the urban middle class in Lisbon. In this article I discuss some of the issues, both theoretical and practical, that have arisen in the course of the translation process.

Keywords: travel writing translation, commercial correspondence, private sphere, estrangement, displacement, double disjuncture, Peninsular Wars

©inTRAlinea & António Lopes (2013).
"Translating Echoes"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translating 18th and 19th Century European Travel Writing
Edited by: Susan Pickford & Alison E. Martin
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1. Introduction

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
Saint Augustine

During my research for the British Travellers in Portugal project – an ambitious initiative that has been carried out for almost three decades by the Anglo-Portuguese Studies group at the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (Lisbon and Oporto) –, I chanced upon a rather curious collection of letters housed at the National Archives in Kew.[1] Written by James Hutchinson Jr. (1796 - ?), a young Yorkshire merchant working in Lisbon, and addressed to his brother-in-law, Thomas Farrer, who headed the family’s wool business back in Farnley, Leeds, these letters span a period of approximately two and a half years (from 22 July, 1815 to 29 November, 1817), at a time when Portugal was struggling hard to stand on its feet after the scale of destruction caused by the Peninsular War.

Originally, the primary purpose of my undertaking was to contribute to an anthology of translated accounts of the city of Lisbon by British travellers. This meant that a considerable portion of the original text, most of it dwelling on private affairs or matters of commerce, would have to be excised in order to leave only those passages where explicit references were made to the Portuguese capital. However, it soon became evident that the scope of the content of these letters called for a differentiated approach and so the editor commissioned me to translate the complete set. The investment in an unabridged translation would give readers the opportunity not just to satisfy their curiosity about Lisbon, but above all to gain a sense of the complexity of the historical, social and economic issues with which the letters engaged, all the more so because translation is not about impoverishing the original, but about giving it a new lease of life: translation is not just a question of making a text accessible to another community of readers by acquiring a new linguistic and cultural dimension, but above all of allowing the letters to transcend their immediacy and the original purpose for which they were written, and inscribing them in new discursive practices.

So, instead of publishing excerpts of the letters in the anthology, both the editor and I decided to publish the complete set in two issues of the Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses (CETAPS, Lisbon) (see Lopes 2010). This would allow us to preserve the integrity of the letters and, given the fact that the Revista is aimed at a scholarly readership (historians, philologists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and so on), to invest in a more detailed and in-depth approach, marked by philological accuracy and by a consciousness of the challenges posed by the hermeneutical inquiry. This would also give me the opportunity to set my own translation agenda, not just in terms of style and method, but also in terms of the future of this project. As a matter of fact, the files contain dozens of other letters and papers written by other members or friends of the family which, in view of their historical value, are also worth translating. I decided to amass all of them with the aim of publishing the whole collection in one single volume. That work is now underway.

Since translation is necessarily always a reflexive process (in more than one sense: on the one hand, the translator has to speculate about the meanings that the source text does not immediately disclose and about the readers’ responses to his/her choices; on the other, the target text always presents itself as a mirror image of the source text), the task of rendering this piece of nineteenth-century English prose into contemporary Portuguese prompted a series of theoretical and empirical questions which I set out to explore in the present article. The next section seeks to set the letters in their political, social and economic context. The meanings they contain are rooted in a specific historical setting, which has to be revisited so as to enable the text to function simultaneously as a piece of documentary evidence and as an instance of resistance: in the case of the former, substantiating that which historiography has already validated; in the case of the latter, defying or even rebutting historical theories. The third section (‘An Englishman in Lisbon’) touches on issues of estrangement, displacement and the quest for a sense of belonging, all of which are central to travel writing. The fourth section (‘Prying into a Gentleman’s Private Correspondence’) discusses the ethics and the challenges of translating the intimacy and confidentiality of private correspondence, and how the author’s objectivity gives the translator a foothold in the factual validation of his translation. The last full section (‘Translation as a Double Disjuncture’) focuses on issues of spatiality, temporality, representation and re-representation, as well as on some of the solutions to the problems posed by the historical dimension of the texts (modes of address; anachronisms; outdated terminology; formulaic language; and the need for historical research).

2. The Letters in Context: Portugal and her British Ally 1809-20

The Farrers were one among many of the local families whose lives revolved around the woollen and worsted manufacture and trade in Yorkshire. The success of their business went hand in hand with the economic growth and technological development of the period, a process which would leave an indelible mark on the landscape of the Midlands and the North of England. These developments led to major changes in the social structure, with a generalised phenomenon of rural-urban migration meeting the industry’s need for labour (Fletcher 1919: 77-84). The Yorkshire region soon became the chief export centre for manufactured woollen goods. In a world of cut-throat competition, those who succeeded in business were of an unrelenting entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit that often looked beyond the confines of Britain.

Industrial expansion forced traders to look further afield and open up new markets; Portugal swiftly became a key destination. Since Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, decreed in 1806, was firmly in place, the first industrial nation found itself in a worrying predicament. Portugal, where Britain’s commercial stakes ran high, was also left particularly exposed. It was only through Lisbon that it was possible to gain access to the Brazilian market, which had long become the mainstay of the intensive southern Atlantic economy, responsible for the capitalisation of the European market in the Early Modern period. Besides, the Portuguese could not afford to lose the support of the old ally, whose navy provided protection for the trade routes between the metropolis and its colonies. The French invasions of Portugal pushed it to the periphery of the very empire it had founded. If the demise of both commerce and industry had a terrible impact on the economy, the destruction the war wrought in the provinces proved no less damaging. Looting, extortion and massacres left a trail of blood, hatred and revulsion across the whole nation that was to remain unabated for generations. Wellington’s scorched earth policy – aiming to deprive the French troops of victuals and other supplies – aggravated the situation even further. Agriculture and husbandry practically ground to a halt and farmers were unable to produce the foodstuffs required to feed the urban centres. Famine set in and with it a period of demographic stagnation.

Freeing Portugal from the chains of Napoleonic imperialism was not without its costs. Unable to overcome such complete vulnerability, the nation was at the mercy of British interests. Certainly a significant part of the Portuguese economy had for a long time depended on Britain. Whether Portugal benefited from this trade relationship or not is a matter of controversy (Borges de Macedo 1963; Bethell 1984; Maxwell 2004; Pijning 1997; Pardo 1992). However, at least since the Methuen Treaty (1703) Britain had been undermining the Portuguese industry with a substantial influx of cheap manufactured goods undercutting all competition. In January 1808 the opening of the Brazilian ports to Britain represented a fatal blow. Two years later, the protective mechanism of customs duties was removed precisely when the Portuguese economy was most in need of it. The prospects for the manufacturing sector grew dimmer as British cotton and wool cloths flooded the Portuguese market.

The political power that William Carr Beresford, commander-in-chief of the Portuguese troops during the invasions, held during this crucial period in the country’s history played a decisive role in protracting this position of economic subordination. He ended up gaining considerable ascendancy over the representatives of the Prince Regent. In the post-war years he headed the military government, a position which rapidly eroded his earlier prestige as a war hero. People started protesting against the way public funds were being squandered to pay for the presence of British troops on national territory. Portuguese officers likewise harboured deep-seated resentment towards the British officers, who were now apparently being granted all sorts of privileges and promotions (see Glover 1976). Beresford’s radical intransigence in politics led to the repression of those who advocated a more liberal agenda, namely those who were suspected either of sympathising with the ideals of the French Jacobins, or of defending a constitutional monarchy. As a stern defender of Tory absolutism, his views were in line with the ones shared by two other Anglo-Irish potentates, namely Wellington and Castlereagh (Newitt 2004: 107). His absolutist values, along with his thirst for power, left him isolated in a world riven by deep-rooted hatreds. The revolutionary clamour heard in Oporto on 24 August 1820 was to put paid to Beresford’s ambitions. Paradoxically, partly thanks to the influence of the British officers, the British tradition of liberalism ended up taking root in a country lacking in ideological coordinates to define its political future.

When James Hutchinson first set foot in Lisbon, the country was going through a period of economic depression. His letters mirror the upheavals and the social unrest of the period and therefore help to shed light on historical processes, since they testify to the way in which individuals perceived reality and (re)acted accordingly. Popular reactions to the new king, news of the uprising in Pernambuco (Brazil), political persecutions, and hangings are well documented elsewhere,[2] but here we are given a view from the inside. Moreover, rather than just affirming the picture that the extensive historiographical literature on the subject has already established, the letters also disclose new facets. They prove that, despite the impressive growth of Britain’s exports in this period, British trade did not run smoothly in Portugal. Hutchinson could hardly be said to be the definitive model of the successful businessman. His efforts, nonetheless, were mostly undermined by factors that lay beyond his reach. General poverty, scarcity of money, shortages of food and other essentials, and rationing, for example, became recurrent, if not obsessive, subjects in his letters, betraying his sense of frustration and underachievement. Moreover, Hutchinson was forced to deal with fierce competition within the Portuguese market and the incompetence of the Customs officials, not to mention liabilities and bad debts, marketing obstacles and, curiously enough, an increasingly demanding clientele, all of which imposed psychological costs he found ever more difficult to cope with. And although he was not so forthcoming in discussing political issues, such as Beresford’s repression, his fears and silences about the persecutions are no less telling.

Each letter contains, as it were, the very essence of history and, through the picturesque and sometimes disconcerting episodes they feature, they help us recreate a reality long buried by time. Precisely because this is a genuine voice that has remained hidden amidst other archival material for almost two centuries, unscathed by later misappropriations or misinterpretations, we are able to salvage pristine fragments of the historical experience and to retrieve for our collective memory some of the particularities and singularities that are usually overlooked in the construction of the historical grand narratives of the nation. In a letter dated 18 October 1816, for instance, Hutchinson speaks of the funeral ceremonies of Queen Maria I and clearly enjoys recounting the peculiar causes of the accidental fire that burned down the church where those ceremonies were being held. In a later letter (22 October 1817), he provides a first-hand testimony of the horrendous hanging of the men who followed Gomes Freire de Andrade in his revolt against Lord Beresford’s roughshod rule. Elsewhere he laments the shortage of foodstuffs and the rise in prices which mercilessly strike the poor (letter dated 25 January 1817), but he cannot help relishing the story of a woman arrested for stealing bodies from the cemetery to produce black pudding to be sold to the local shops (9 August 1816). In another letter he speaks of an earthquake that threw the city ‘into the most dreadful alarm’ and the scenes of panic that ensued, while rejoicing at the fact that he remained ‘during the whole of the night in a sound slumber’ (3 February 1816).

3. An Englishman in Lisbon: Estrangement, Displacement and the Quest for Belonging

Notwithstanding the rapid decline of the Portuguese economy during and after the Peninsular War, British traders rapidly resumed their investments in the country. Samuel Farrer & Sons were amongst them. Samuel Farrer Jr. established the family’s business in Lisbon in 1812. The family’s entrepreneurial effort must have paid off somehow, for upon his death, in February 1815, they decided to keep on investing in their Portuguese venture. It would be up to young James Hutchinson Jr. to take up the business. His inexperience notwithstanding, James was not entirely at a loss. The need to account for every transaction and to keep his brother-in-law posted about how business was being conducted resulted in a correspondence of considerable length, which lasted until his departure from Lisbon at the end of 1817. The letters were permeated by the young man’s comments, remarks and anecdotes about life in the Portuguese capital. Being an outsider in customs, language and feelings, Hutchinson tried hard to accommodate himself to his new setting.

In his letters, however, the affectionate attachment he exhibits towards his sister and the other members of his family indicates that his stay in Lisbon was, emotionally speaking, hard to bear. He often complained about her silence and the fact that she now seemed to have forsaken him altogether. But then, it was not just the separation from his loved ones that threw him into a state of melancholy. His life in the Portuguese capital was infused with a sense of estrangement he was unable to overcome. He felt uprooted and disengaged.

It becomes all too apparent that his gaze is that of an outsider, of someone struggling to succeed in a strange, disturbing world, whose social and political environment contrasts in many respects with that of his native land. He soon realised it would not be easy to fit in. Despite the support that other British expatriates residing in Lisbon gave him, he complained to his family about living conditions there. Blatantly ironic, he confessed that he ‘suffer[ed] very much from the Muschetos [sic], Bugs & other filth with which this sweet City so much abounds’ (11 August 1815).

His difficulty in understanding the Portuguese is particularly visible when he is faced with the lack of patriotic fervour of the man in the street, a fervour one should expect from a nation that had been recently freed from the Napoleonic terror:

On Saturday last the King was proclaimed throughout the City and Sunday was appropriated for the acclamation.—The Troops were reviewed by Marshal Beresford, yet never did I witness their going through their manoevres [sic] in such an inanimate manner:—never was such a Viva given by the Portuguese to their Sovereign; scarcely did one Soul open his mouth, excepting the Marshal and his Staff Officers:—it was a complete ‘Buonapartean Viva’ a forced shout of applause dying away in a groan. (11 April 1817)

Since most of the time he was consumed by work, it becomes difficult for the contemporary reader to detect such feelings of estrangement in the midst of commercial jargon and ledger accounts. He sought to be meticulous in his book-keeping and reports and sensitive to changes in market conditions, especially as far as fashion, trends, tastes and purchasing power went. He struggled to prove himself worthy of the trust and respect not just of his brother-in-law, but also of other foreign merchants who had already established their names in the Portuguese market. He even got carried away by the idea of opening his own establishment in order to fend off competition and to tackle the problem of low bids, which often forced him to keep the bales in store for unusually long periods of time.

In order to perceive how displaced he felt, one has to read between the lines. When his enthusiasm waned or his health gave way, an undeclared anxiety and irritation would surface. His less than flattering comments on Portuguese customs officials and the tone of his replies to his brother-in-law whenever suspicion of laxness or mismanagement hung in the air prove the point. He became impatient when ships from Brazil, New York or Falmouth were unduly delayed. He was unnerved by the negligence of long-standing debtors, who often turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. Besides, in spite of the considerable sums of money that passed through his hands, James was far from leading an easy and comfortable life. In a sense, it was through his own body that he first measured the degree of his maladjustment. He was constantly ill, poorly dressed, and found his lodgings uncomfortable. The weather did not suit him and he feared death might creep up on him. For some time he had to resign himself to ‘a Bed Room fitted up for me in the Warehouse, without any other convenience or sitting room’ (11 April 1817). He would wear the same clothes for months on end, winter and summer alike. Disease would take hold of him and he would be confined to bed for several weeks. His neat copperplate handwriting would then degenerate to illegible scribbling. In the spring of 1817 he would confess that ‘I have suffered very materially in my health since I came here’. Convinced that he was no longer fit for the job, he would then ask Thomas to let Ambrose Pollett, a friend of the family, replace him in the firm. His physical condition would not let him endure another winter in Lisbon. In his last letter, dated 29 November, he once more complained about his health, saying that the cold weather caused him to ‘spit blood in considerable quantities from the lungs’ and that he was afraid he would never be able to return to his homeland again ‘since I fell [sic] persuaded I shall never get better of the severe illness I had in the Spring of the year 1816’. To him Lisbon, thus, ended up representing the proximity of death, that ultimate moment of displacement. His fears, however, were unfounded and he went back to England where he remained in convalescence, before returning to Portugal. But once more the climate did not agree with him. His health worsened, especially after hearing the news of his nephew’s death in December 1818, and he was compelled to leave Lisbon one last time.[3]

In the course of his stay, James was badly in need of a focal point to keep things in perspective and letter writing served such a purpose. More than anything else, it allowed him to keep his sense of belonging alive. These letters ended up being the only bridge not just to his origins, but above all to his own identity. He felt so helpless when his sister failed to reply to his letters that ‘it even grieves me to the heart when I reflect upon it’ (17 February 1816). This sentimentality towards his family is in marked contrast with his attitude as an observer. Although Hutchinson cannot entirely detach himself emotionally from what he witnesses, there is a kind of Verfremdungseffekt in his writing, a journalistic objectification of the topics he covers, whereby the distance between himself and the other is never to be entirely spanned.

4. Prying into a Gentleman’s Private Correspondence: Issues of Intimacy, Confidentiality and Objectivity in Translation

Translating something as intimate and confidential as private letters has the potential to border on voyeurism. It raises issues that concern the ethics of translation, since the translator, unlike the casual reader, is supposed to leave no stone unturned in his struggle to reach communicative effectiveness. His labour consists in unveiling all meanings, in ransacking the secrets of the author’s mind, and, if necessary, in exposing the frailties of his body. The innermost thoughts are not fenced off from the translator’s dissecting tools. In this sense, translation is to be viewed as an act of intrusion and, simultaneously, of extrusion (in other words a disclosure and a close examination of that which pertains to the private sphere). The former constitutes a form of violation, of disrupting that which belongs to the realm of the confessional and becoming, to borrow the words of St. Augustine, ‘privy to the secrets of conscience’; whereas the latter manifests itself in the form of violence, destroying the integrity of the textual body, vivisecting it and exhibiting it to the public gaze. Nevertheless, such violence is mitigated by the transmutational properties of time. Over time, these texts have acquired the status of archaeological evidence, which does not necessarily mean that in this respect the position of the translator is less delicate. After all, he was not the addressee of the letters and that fact alone poses some problems. An outsider may find it difficult to penetrate the referential fabric of the letters. Unlike travel accounts or autobiographies written for publication, these texts were not intended for a wide readership. They were personal in tone and content, and the writer knew what responses to expect from his only reader living across the English Channel. The writer did not project an ideal or fictional reader to whom he might grant full right of access to the world recreated in his prose. As a consequence, his world remains sealed off from a larger audience and the translator is forced to break into the textual space like a trespasser. Implicatures lie hidden within this corpus of letters but they can never be entirely unravelled: whatever inferences the translator may draw, he or she will always lack the necessary background knowledge to establish their validity. Such implicatures, one must not forget, are a symptom of the close relationship existing between the two correspondents. Implicit meanings result from a common experience, excluding other readers. Fortunately, the text in question is generally far more objective and factual than one would suppose, and this alone gives the translator significant leverage over the hidden aspects of the correspondence. It is in the terrain of factuality and narrativity that the translator moves free from major constraints, although it is certain that the faithfulness of the representation can never be taken for granted (see Polezzi 2004: 124).

Of course one cannot expect to find in such letters a precise and exhaustive portrait of Beresford’s Lisbon, systematically organised in such a way as to cover all possible angles. What we get instead is a myriad of disparate images that can hardly be coalesced into one single picture. The reason is obvious: the stories he tells do not follow any thematic pattern, other than the fact that all of them revolve around the city itself. Apart from the town of Sintra, a popular tourist resort in the nineteenth century, where he spent some time ‘for the benefit of my Health which, thank God I have recovered beyond my expectation’ (14 June 1816), he never set foot outside of the capital (or at least there is no archival evidence of him doing so) and therefore he apparently did not know what was going on in the rest of the country. His letters lack the ‘horror and pity’ William Warre experienced as he crossed the country chasing after the fleeing French army and encountering ‘many people and children absolutely starving and living upon nettles and herbs they gathered in the fields’ (Warre and Warre 1909: 222). Not even Sintra, that ‘glorious Eden’ with its ‘views more dazzling unto mortal ken than those whereof such things the Bard relates’, as Byron wrote in his celebrated Childe Harolds Pilgrimage (1812), succeeded in enrapturing our author, who preferred to remain faithful to whatever notable occurrences Lisbon had to offer the outsider’s gaze.

Hutchinson’s short narratives appear scattered throughout the letters in a rather random way, and it is their reading as anecdotal collages, rather than as a set of tightly-woven, interrelated stories, that allows the reader to gain a taste of the spontaneity of the narration and the ingenuousness of the narrator. Although the anecdotal episodes themselves are self-contained and refer only to fragments of both individual and collective experiences in early nineteenth-century Lisbon, they play an important part in the process of historiographical reconstruction of the past. The historiographical value of the letters lies in the fact that they contain accounts that were neither censored nor doctored: no one ever scrutinised or edited the stories, which were simply committed to paper without any concern for accuracy, trustworthiness or factuality. The ensemble of letters forms a sort of scrapbook containing clippings or mementos that were never meant to be published. Such moments, however, were bound together by a common genetic code: they all emerged out of the drive for novelty, a drive partly explained by the way the processes of cultural displacement affected the author.

However, when it comes to Hutchinson’s values and ideological assumptions, they are not readily easy to detect. He preferred to position himself as an observer rather than as a commentator, and avoided getting entangled in elaborate considerations. If the translator wants to gain a glimpse of his ideas and opinions, then he/she must proceed by engaging in a symptomatic reading of the letters, observing, for example, the way he framed and skewed the subject matter, or how he got himself more or less emotionally involved with the events he narrated, or simply how he refrained from passing judgement on what he saw. Far from highly opinionated, the letters nonetheless give us the chance of peering into his personality, albeit obliquely.

Sometimes, however, he felt compelled to take sides, such as when he dared to air his own opinion on Beresford:

...being the weaker power & finding himself defeated in all his projects, it is reported that he is about leaving [sic] the Country, which in my opinion is the wisest step he can take, else a worse fate may attend him. (11 April 1817)

Such explicitness was rare. Shortly after the rebellion in Pernambuco, Brazil, Hutchinson censured himself for letting slip his views on the political turmoil that had gripped the country and decided to not to return to the issue for fear of reprisals:

You are well aware that it is necessary to be very cautious how we treat upon political subjects in this Country, for which reason I avoid any thing of this nature, only sofar [sic] as I suppose it may be connected with the interests of Mercantile Affairs. (4 July 1817)

His fears over the consequences of political dissent were not wholly misplaced. The horrific hanging of the Conspirators he watched on 22 October 1817, shortly before his departure, left a lasting impression on him:

[C]uriosity led me to be one of the spectators of this awful scene & however disgraceful hanging may be in England I can assure you it is not less so here. The Executioner is obliged to ride astride the shoulders of every man he hangs.—It was about four O’Clock in the Afternoon when the Prisoners arrived at the foot of the Gallows & was about midnight when this melancholy scene closed.—After the Execution of all 7 out of the 11 were burnt on a Funeral Pile on the spot.

Here, his voyeurism matched his horror as he came to the full presence of death—that dark character that kept resurfacing in his writing.

5. Translation as a Double Disjuncture

As we have seen, what was once private acquires, over time, an archaeological value: the status of artefact is conferred on language as privacy metamorphoses into historical evidence. In translation, chronological distance is of the essence: one might even argue that every translation has embedded in its genes an indelible anachronism. In sharp contrast with our contemporary world, where synchronous forms of communication and instantaneous access to information seem to have taken hold of the way we communicate with each other, the art and craft of translation necessitates the slow transit of time. It is a painstaking process of problem-solving, reflection and maturation. It takes time and perseverance. And when it involves the representation of past historical phenomena, as in the present case, the temporal dimension acquires critical significance. On the one hand, the translator cannot help excogitating his own condition as a historical subject: he becomes conscious of the relativity of values, of the differentials separating lifestyles, habitus (in the Bourdieusian sense) and Weltanschauungen. On the other, the target text ends up constituting the representation of a representation and, as such, it is, as Althusser once stated of ideology, a representation of an ‘imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (Althusser 1971: 162). And here, in the translation process, the time gap separating source and target texts functions not so much as a thread linking both acts of writing along a historical continuum but rather as a lens, generating several simultaneous optical effects, where light shifts in unsuspected ways and where appearance must be understood in its composite and elusive nature. The world of the (author’s) ‘present’ can never be reconstructed as such in the target text. The translator necessarily operates in the time gap between two ‘presents’ (his/her own and the author’s). That is why the translator’s labour must be that of a conscious re-representation of history. This, of course, entails much scrupulous work of detailed historical research, as well as the ability to articulate it within the translational process.

The crux of the matter lies in being able to dwell in the interstices between two languages, two cultures and two historical periods. This is the translator’s privilege and the source of many of his tribulations. To be able to lay claim to the ability to contemplate the insurmountable differences that separate not only languages but also cultures, one is required to perceive how far one’s own consciousness depends not only on λόγος and on the chains of meanings that help one make sense of the world, but also on the points of rupture of discourse, those points where signifiers and signifieds (regardless of the language) can no longer encompass those phenomena that keep resisting appropriation, including the culture of the other. In other words, one must learn to come to terms with the undecidability which undermines the certainties offered by our ingrained logocentrism.

As the translator shifts, in the course of the translation process, from one logosphere (in the Barthesian sense) to another, he realises that the movement itself does not (actually, cannot) entail the loss or gain, subtraction or addition of meanings. Meaning does not constitute some sort of universal currency (that is, manifestations of a universal language common to all human beings) that can be subjected to a process of direct exchange or transaction. Meanings cannot migrate freely from one language to another. I can only subtract meanings within the system they belong to. Languages weave their own networks of meanings and the exact value of each meaning, if it can ever be assessed, is to be determined only symptomatically by the effects generated by its presence or absence in one particular social and cultural context. To believe in the transferability of the meaning and its capacity to survive as a whole in two distinct linguistic and cultural environments (as in a process of ecesis) is not to realise something that Derrida pointed out: that even within the same language meanings not only differ (a problem of spacing), but are forever deferred (which is the condition of their temporality). One of the main problems of translation, therefore, is not just spatiality but also temporality, particularly the historical condition of the texts.

And this, I think, poses an obstacle far more difficult to overcome, since it has to do with the impossibility for the translator to render two externalities compatible in one single (target) text. Just as Hutchinson was compelled, as an expatriate, to come to terms with the social and cultural reality of his host country[4] (which is, for all purposes, a question of spatiality), so the translator, like a migrant travelling through time, is forced to come to grips with an ancient world governed by laws long forsaken and now irretrievable (the question of temporality). And since both writer and translator are forever barred from a fully unmediated contact with the unconsciously lived culture of the Other, both seeing it as something external to themselves, though not necessarily negative, their attempts to assimilate cultural elements and national idiosyncrasies can only take place on the terrain of the imaginary, which enables them to crop, select, filter and reshape elements and idiosyncrasies in order to discursively tame the otherness. It is when the translator is trying to tackle texts of this nature that he feels – to allude to one of Derrida’s most quoted metaphors, borrowed from Shakespeare – that ‘time is out of joint’, namely that he is supposed to take up the writer’s voice, but without being able to adjust either to the discursive and ideological framework within which the texts once gained their coherence, or to the past ‘structure of feeling’ (to use one of Raymond Williams’s concepts of cultural analysis) that informed the emotions, thoughts and actions of the original writer (Williams 1965: 64-6).

Translators of travel writing therefore have to operate on a double disjuncture. On the one hand, they have to deal with the cultural gap that exists between the author and the people he visits (Hutchinson and the Portuguese), a gap which over-determines the perceptions, constructs, responses and projections of otherness of the British expat, but which -- since it is barely made explicit in the text -- can only be detected by means of a symptomatic reading. On the other hand, translators have to negotiate the disjunction that will always separate them from the time and the concrete conditions under which the texts saw the light of day -- a disjunction that is further amplified by the impossibility of mapping the exact location of the intersection of cultures which gives the letters their characteristic intercultural tension (see Cronin 2000: 6). Therefore, the translator is left with no choice but to try to overcome these two disjunctions, both of which constitute distinct moments of resistance to interpretation.

The translator’s path is strewn with obstacles, for the minute he or she starts translating the text that distinction is no longer clear: the two moments overlap and the barriers between them become blurred, since his or her gaze is constructed in and through the gaze of the expatriate. How can we then circumvent the limitations to translation that such a double disjuncture imposes? Of course a careful, detailed investigation into the empirical elements offered by the letters and the issues broached therein must always be conducted, but this is not enough: it can only be through a critical awareness of these tensions and resistances that translators may decentre themselves and avoid the pitfalls of identification and idealisation. It is this decentring at the core of translation that ends up being in itself a form of travelling. After all, ‘translatio’ in Latin means ‘carrying across’, ‘transporting’, ‘transferring’, and, in contrast to what we may think, it is not the source text that is ‘carried across’ to a target culture. It is rather the translator and his reader who are invited to venture across a frontier -- the frontier that sets the limits to their identities, values and representations, and that is both spatial and temporal.

In fact, the main challenges to the translation of these letters were posed by the problem of temporality, that is, by the difficulties of bridging the time gap. The first issue to be tackled was the stylistics of the Portuguese target text. It was not just a matter of finding the best equivalents and transferring contents from the source text into the target language without major semantic losses. It was also a matter of finding a style and a register that could somehow match the original ones. In order to do that, I compared the letters to similar archival and bibliographical sources in Portuguese. Two manuals of commercial correspondence proved invaluable: Arte da correspondência commercial ou modelos de cartas para toda a qualidade de operações mercantis [The Art of Commercial Letter Writing or Letter Templates for all Sorts of Trade Operations] (Anon.; 1824) and Monlon’s Arte da correspondência commercial ou escolha de cartas sobre o commercio [The Art of Commercial Letter Writing or a Selection of Business Letters] (1857), the only key style manuals of the day in this area still available for consultation in the Portuguese National Library. The analysis of the examples of letters allowed me to determine the way in which the target text was to be drafted.

One of the most complicated aspects I had to deal with was choosing the mode of address: the original letters invariably start with ‘Dear Brother’, and then the addressee is always referred to with the second person personal pronoun ‘you’. In Portuguese, this is not so linear. In the early nineteenth century, modes of address would have varied according not only to social class, age or degree of familiarity, but also to written language conventions. ‘You’ could be translated either as ‘Tu’ (too informal; the verb is conjugated in the second person singular), ‘Você’ (slightly more formal; the verb is conjugated in the third person singular), ‘Vossa Mercê’ (idem), or ‘Vós’ (more formal; verb conjugated in the second person plural), among several other possibilities. Back then, a relationship with a brother-in-law, close as it might have been, did not necessarily imply the use of the informal ‘tu’, since informality and closeness are not synonyms. The way Hutchinson closed the letters (‘Your ever Affectionate Brother’) bears witness to such emotional proximity, but it is far from being indicative of a relaxed, informal manner. The solution to the difficulty in ascertaining whether we were dealing with informality or politeness was partly given by the 1824 manual. The plural ‘Vós’ is used when addressing both singular and plural persons, but in some cases all we have is the initial ‘V—’, which could stand either for ‘Vós’, ‘Você’ or ‘Vossa Mercê’. When the ‘V—’; form occurs, the verb is conjugated in the third person singular, midway between formality and affable politeness. This was the form I resorted to throughout.

Another difficulty had to do with wording. The manuals proved useful in guiding my lexical choices. I wanted to give the translation a distinctive period flavour to represent the historical dimension of the original letters. For example, ‘company’ could be translated either as ‘sociedade’ or ‘empresa’, but these words barely appear in the 1824 manual, especially when referring to one’s own company. Instead, the commonest word is ‘caza’ [House] sometimes ‘caza de commercio’ (dated spelling), which I decided to adopt. Many more old-fashioned or outdated Portuguese words that appear in the manual were likewise retrieved: ‘embolço’ [imbursement]; ‘estimar’ [to believe; to guess];  ‘fazer-se de vella’ [to set sail]; ‘governo’ [management]; ‘sortimento’ [assortment]; ‘sortir’ [to sort; to provide]; ‘praça’ [exchange or financial centre; market]; ‘rogar’ [to beseech]. The manual was equally useful in providing formulaic language that was pretty close to some passages in Hutchinson’s letters: ‘Sacámos hoje sobre vós pelo importe da factura (…) L... a 60 dias á ordem de…’ [Today we drew on you for the sum of £… at sixty days]; ‘Vosso reverente servidor’ [Your very Obedient Servant]; ‘Por esta confirmamos a nossa circular de (…) desde a qual ainda não tivemos a satisfação de receber alguma vossa…’ [Without any of your Favors since mine of the … I have now to inform you…].

Another challenge was related to the commercial jargon both in English and in Portuguese. Nowadays commercial terminology in both languages is much more complex, but most of the neologisms that currently exist in Portuguese are English words. Back then, that influence was more tenuous. In any case, the search for the right equivalent would have always been time-consuming. ‘Bill’ alone, for instance, could be equivalent to as many things as ‘letra’, ‘letra de câmbio’, ‘saque’, ‘promissória’, ‘papel comercial’, ‘título de comércio’, ‘factura’, or ‘facturação’. If we multiply this by the wide spectrum of nomenclatures related to those areas of economic activity Hutchinson was directly or indirectly involved in, we have an idea of the complexity of the task.

To start with, there were the inner workings of the wool trade business. I had to unwind the ball of yarn of the English wool and worsted industry, including all the details concerning the different stages of the manufacturing process: recognising the provenance and differences in quality of the raw wool available in both the Portuguese and Spanish markets, the various patterns of the warp and weft, the way the cloth should be cut or dressed, specific types of woollen cloths, their designs and colours, and so on. One particular stumbling block was the enigmatic ‘37 R., 6 F., 4 S., 1 T. & 11 A.’ (letter dated 9 August 1816). It took me a while before I learnt from a magazine published in London in 1804 (Tilloch 1807: 239-42) that the initials did not stand for any English or Portuguese words, but for Spanish ones. They referred to the way Spanish wool (which also included Portuguese wool) was classified: Primera or Refina (R.), Fina (F.), Segunda (S.), Tercera (T.) and Añinos (A.).

Moreover, since conducting business ventures overseas back then was not without its risks, I had to acquaint myself with the idiom used in cargo and shipping insurance, learn about risk-assessment, shipping deadlines, storage conditions, bills of lading, types of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic, and so on. But then there are also taxes and duties, customs procedures and the requirements of port authorities, the valuation of the bales in the Cocket,[5] goods lodged at the Custom House not yet dispatched -- all of this wrapped up in a language of its own, which has to be patiently disassembled, explored, digested, and then reassembled and fine-tuned in the translation process. In order to penetrate that language I had to resort to historical research once more. I visited the ‘Torre do Tombo’ (the Portuguese National Archives) and consulted the records from the customs houses that existed in Lisbon at that time: the ‘Alfândega Grande do Açúcar’, the ‘Alfândega das Sete Casas’, the ‘Alfândega da Casa dos Cinco’ and the ‘Casa da Índia’, the first of which provided invaluable information about the duties on wools and worsted, the classification of wools and of all sorts of cloths, their quantities and provenance, and so on. In the records of the ‘Casa da Índia’, the inventory of the cargo of the French ship Le Commerciant [sic], seized in the summer of 1809, reminds us of the risks faced by merchants like Hutchinson.

I adopted a domesticating approach to a certain extent, adding explanatory footnotes whenever words, phrases or referents might challenge the modern reader’s understanding of the target text. However, since the Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses is aimed at a scholarly readership, it proved unnecessary to insist on the explanation of cultural or linguistic aspects that they are supposed to be already acquainted with. Differences in style between early nineteenth-century and early twenty-first-century Portuguese are noticeable, but they do not make the text less intelligible. In any case, stylistic conventions should not pose a problem for all the scholars who are used to working with documents of that period. So I kept the footnotes to a minimum. The future publication of a book containing the complete correspondence of the Farrer family, this time aiming at a more general readership, will entail a different explanatory methodology, but not a different stylistic treatment.

6. Conclusions

Writing narratives of displacement and travel is in itself a translational act, where the author is always seeking to translate into his mother tongue the manifestations of the culture of the other.[6] The translator of travel writing, in turn, operates on a double disjuncture – the gap between the author and the visited culture, on the one hand, and the gap between the translator and the author, on the other – threefold if you include the inevitable temporal disjuncture. In the process, the translator is forced to question his identity, values and the representations of his own nation and people, especially if the original text is non-fictional and therefore stakes a claim to the immediacy and truthfulness of the experience. The translator thus has to achieve a tour-de-force in bridging all three gaps and rendering the text accessible to the contemporary reader. However, the meanings in the target text will always have but a spectral relation with the ones in the source text: they are constructed at the same time as a re-apparition of a former presence (that does not present itself as full presence) and as the apparition of a new presence –a new text in its own right. This distance between the source and target texts becomes more difficult to span when historical time – fissured as it has been, in this particular case, over these past two centuries by sudden ruptures and discontinuities – keeps eroding the paths that could render the source text recognisable to the reader: hence the importance of the translator’s historical consciousness and the necessity of articulating historical research with the translation process, since any translation of historical material that disregards the intelligibility of historical processes lacks the authority to stake claims to accuracy and credibility.


Althusser, Louis (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans B. Brewster, London, New Left Books.

Bethell, Leslie (1984) Colonial Brazil, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Borges de Macedo, Jorge (1963) Problemas da História da Indústria Portuguesa no Século XVIII, PhD diss, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Casas Pardo, José (ed.) (1992) Economic effects of the European expansion, 1492-1824, Stuttgart, Steiner Verlag.

Cronin, Michael (2000) Across the Lines: Travel, Language, Translation, Cork, Cork University Press.

Fletcher, J. S. (1919) The Story of the English Town of Leeds, New York, Macmillan.

Gentzler, Edwin (1993) Contemporary Translation Theories, Clarendon, Multilingual Matters.

Glover, Michael (1976) “Beresford and His Fighting Cocks”, History Today 26, no. 4: 262-8.

Lopes, António (2009) “Cartas inéditas de um jovem burguês 1815-1817” (1.ª parte) [“Unpublished letters of a young bourgeois 1815-1817” (1st part)], Revista de Estudos Anglo Portugueses, no. 18: 93-133.

--- (2010) “Cartas inéditas de um jovem burguês 1815-1817” (2.ª parte) [‘Unpublished letters of a young bourgeois 1815-1817’ (2nd part)], Revista de Estudos Anglo Portugueses no. 19: 175-204.

Maxwell, Kenneth (2004) Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750-1808, London, Routledge.

Newitt, Malyn (2004) Lord Beresford and British Intervention in Portugal, 1807-1820, Lisbon, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais.

Pijning, Ernst (1997) “Passive resistance: Portuguese diplomacy of contraband trade during King John V’s reign (1706-1750)”, Arquipélago – História 2, no. 2, 171-191.

Polezzi, Loredana (2004) “Between Gender and Genre: The Travels of Estella Canziani” in Perspectives on Travel Writing, Glenn Hooper and Tim Youngs (eds), Aldershot, Ashgate: 121-37.

Tilloch, Alexander (1807) The Philosophical Magazine: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures and Commerce. vol. 27. London, R. Taylor. (accessed 15 April 2011)

Warre William, and Edmond Warre (1909) Letters from the Peninsula, 1808-1812, London, John Murray.

Williams, Raymond (1965 [1961]) The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin.


[1] Ref. No. E 140/34/1. Records of the Exchequer: King's Remembrancer: Exhibits: Farrer (and another) v Hutchinson (and others). Scope and content: Letters to Thomas Farrer from his brother-in-law, James Hutchinson (Jnr.), in Lisbon. Covering dates: 1815-1817.

[2] Manuel J. G. de Abreu Vidal. Análise da sentença proferida no juízo da inconfidencia em 15 de Outubro de 1817 contra o Tenente General Gomes Freire de Andrade, o Coronel Manoel Monteiro de Carvalho e outros... pelo crime de alta traição. Lisboa, Morandiana, 1820; José Dionísio da Serra. Epicedio feito, e recitado em 1822 no anniversario da sempre lamentável morte do General Gomes Freire de Andrade. Paris, 1832; Joaquim Ferreira de Freitas. Memoria sobre a conspiraçaõ [sic] de 1817: vulgarmente chamada a conspiração de Gomes Freire. London, Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1822.

[3] He outlived Thomas (who died circa 1820) and was appointed executor of his brother-in-law’s estate.

[4] A process E. Gentzler (1993: 37) calls ‘domestication’.

[5] A customs office in Britain where detailed records of exports were kept.

[6] On the relation between travel and translation see Lesa Scholl (2009) “Translating Culture: Harriet Martineau’s Eastern Travels” in Travel Writing, Form, and Empire: The Poetics and Politics of Mobility, Julia Kuehn and Paul Smethurst (eds), London, Routledge; Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (1998) Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters; and Susan Bassnett (2002) Translation Studies, London, Methuen.


About the author(s)

Antonio Manuel Bernardo Lopes, PhD in English Culture, MA in Anglo-Portuguese Studies (specialty in English Literature) and BA in Modern Languages and Literatures
(English and German), is Senior Lecturer (Professor-Adjunto) in English Studies with the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the School of Education
and Communication, University of Algarve, where he teaches English language, literature and culture, literary analysis and supervises ELT postgraduate projects. He is
also the director of studies of postgraduate programmes in ELT and translation. He is a researcher at the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies
(FCHS/UNL and FLUP), working with the following research groups: Anglo-Portuguese Studies; Literature, Media and Discourse Analysis; British Culture and History. He
has also participated in several European-funded projects related to teacher training and computer-assisted language learning. He is currently the EUROCALL
representative in Portugal. His doctoral dissertation is entitled The Last Fight Let Us Face: Communist Discourse in Great Britain and the Spanish Civil War.

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"Translating Echoes"
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Études de linguistique appliquée 181 - n°1 janvier-mars 2016. Médiation et droits linguistiques.

By Elio Ballardini (DIT- Forlì, Università di Bologna, Italy)


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About the author(s)

ENG: Elio Ballardini gained PhD in Translation Science (University of Bologna), Researcher & lecturer in French Language and Translation (Interpreting) at the DIT-Forlì of the University of Bologna.

ITA: Elio Ballardini è Dottore di ricerca in Scienza della traduzione, Ricercatore di Lingua e traduzione francese (area interpretazione) presso il DIIT-Forlì (Università di Bologna).

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Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory

By Paschalis Nikolaou (Ionian University, Greece)


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About the author(s)

PASCHALIS NIKOLAOU was born in Alexandroupolis, northeastern Greece in 1979 and studied at the Universities of Hertfordshire and East Anglia. Articles on aspects of translation studies have appeared in academic journals and edited volumes. His poems, translations and reviews have been published in The London Magazine, MPT, Parnassus, and The Wolf, among others. With Maria-Venetia Kyritsi he co-edited Translating Selves: Experience and Identity Between Languages and Literatures (Continuum Books, 2008) and, with Richard Berengarten, the Selected Poems of Nasos Vayenas (The Perfect Order; Anvil Press Poetry, 2010) – a volume shortlisted for the Criticos Prize. His most recent publication is 12 Greek Poems after Cavafy (Shearsman Books, 2015). He currently lives in Corfu, where he is Lecturer in Literary Translation at the Ionian University.

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Intralinea 3.0 – without Giovanni

By The Editors

©inTRAlinea & The Editors (2016).
"Intralinea 3.0 – without Giovanni"
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On 27th July 2016 Giovanni Nadiani died after a long battle with cancer. Giovanni was a dialect poet, playwright, cabaret artist, musician, essayist, translator, refined thinker, inspiring teacher, founding member of this journal and, above all, our great friend.

*                    *                    *

On a mild winter’s day, in 1997, Giovanni was walking through the university district of Bologna when he bumped into two fellow students from the PhD programme in Translation Studies: Federico Zanettin and Elio Ballardini. The three decided to stop for a drink and the conversation soon turned to translation studies and the impact that new technology was having on the way that academic research was being produced and distributed. This led to the idea of starting a journal that was completely digital and entirely open access, two concepts that have since become very familiar but which were truly experimental in 1998. With the support of one of their tutors, Marcello Soffritti, the decision was made to launch the first Italian online-only journal on translation studies. It was Giovanni who came up with the idea for the name of the journal: “inTRAlinea”, which stood for traduzione in linea [online translation] and where the “intra” also represented interpretating and translation. This founding group soon expanded with the addition of two fellow students from the doctoral programme, Lucia Gunella and Nicolina Pomilio, and Silvia Bernardini, a colleague from the University of Bologna.

From the start, the idea was to maintain a high academic standard, while at the same time allowing room for playful experimentation. The decision was also made to promote translation as an activity, as well as an object of study, with a section devoted to original translations. Throughout, Giovanni’s energy, intelligence and passion for linguistic and literary research were the driving force behind the project.

In April 1998 the first issue of inTRAlinea was launched with the URL and with an editorial written by Giovanni, which began with the statement:

The most interesting ideas on translation are by now inextricably linked to the development of, so-called, new technologies.

The editorial went on to say that the purpose of this new journal was not to simply reproduce a paper-based journal in digital format, but to create an ongoing workshop (“cantiere” in Italian) in which there were sections that were more stable and institutional, that functioned as a conventional container of scientific research, and others which were more fluid and which were able to exploit the potential of what was then a new medium – in ways that were, as yet, hard to predict.

The inTRAlinea homepage in 1998

The other significant statement of purpose in the editorial was the intention to use Italian as the principal language of the journal. The aim was to begin experimenting with the use of Italian in the digital age and to provide a space in which it was possible to find an alternative to the dominance of English. You can read the full editorial here.

*                    *                    *

In 2005 the website of the journal underwent its first major overhaul with the adoption of a content management system and the introduction of a bi-lingual interface:

The inTRAlinea homepage in 2005

The decision to include an English interface was prompted by the recognition that the journal was acquiring an international audience and that these non-Italian readers should be acknowledged and welcomed. This change did not detract from the journal’s stated intention of providing a privileged channel for research on translation written in Italian.

Over the following couple of years there were changes to the Editorial Board with the departure of Lucia, Nicolina, and Silvia and the arrival of Chris Rundle and Fabio Regattin, and the journal also became formally affiliated with the Department of Interpreting and Translation of the University of Bologna (then known as SITLeC) without, however, surrendering any of its editorial or financial independence.

Once again, it was Giovanni who wrote the editorial and took stock of how the journal had evolved over the first seven years of its life. Among other things, he observed that the Internet had had a clear impact on the way that academics were writing but that this tended to focus on the “real-time” advantages of digital publication and the easy distribution of ideas that it could promote, rather than on the editorial potential afforded by hypertexts. Giovanni also talked of the importance of adopting recognized, international, standards of quality control if Italian research on translation was to consolidate the international recognition that it was beginning to enjoy – a reference to the decision of the journal to adopt a double-blind refereeing system. You can read the full editorial here.

*                    *                    *

In 2010 inTRAlinea underwent its second major overhaul with a new, English-language only interface, and a new URL:

This shift away from its Italian roots was both a positive recognition of the large international audience that the journal had acquired as well as a sober recognition of the need to adapt to a more hostile political environment and the increasing pressure being put on Italian (and European) academia by systems of evaluation that were barely tailored to research in the humanities, let alone research in Italian.

So, although we were determined to continue to publish in a wide variety of languages (currently we have articles in English, Italian, Spanish, German, French and Polish), we decided that the journal should adopt a more international profile that would enhance its accessibility to scholars worldwide.

This more international profile was also reflected in the addition of three new scholars from outside Italy to the Editorial Board: Federico Federici, Gabriela Saldahna and Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody.

*                    *                    *

And so we come to the present. We are entering a new phase in the life of the journal, one without Giovanni.

Perhaps the most significant way in which this online-only journal has evolved away from a paper-based model of publication is in terms of its editorial flexibility, its low cost, and its open access.

Our annual volume is open-ended and we can add new articles to it as they arrive and complete the refereeing process. The low costs of online publishing (and in particular the evolution of very sophisticated content management systems) make it possible to be entirely self-financed and, of course, to be entirely open access.

As our readers will be aware, the issue of open access scholarship has been the object of much discussion in recent years. The traditional economic model at the basis of most Western academic publishing in journals is being challenged by an increasing number of scholars who find themselves being evaluated on the basis of their “impact” while at the same time realising that their impact could be much greater if all potential readers could gain easy access to their work. The rapid rise of online research communities such as and Research Gate are an indication of how strong the desire is among scholars to find alternative ways of making their research known.

The closed system of expensive journals who are indexed within expensive (and closed) indexing systems also poses another serious ethical issue in that they create economic barriers that exclude scholars from poorer countries, both from accessing the research being published there and from being published within these constellations themselves.

The issue of research evaluation and the domination of English is also becoming very critical. The long-term implications of the pressure being put on the humanities to make itself open to more “empirical” forms of evaluation are extremely difficult to gauge, but it seems highly unlikely that they can ever favour genuine philosophical enquiry. Linked to this problem is the fact that the main academic indexes, such as Scopus and the Web of Science, are worryingly Anglo-centric. Long and glorious intellectual traditions are in danger of being ignored because their publishing cultures do not fit the parameters that these private indexes have established

We feel it is important, then, that journals such as inTRAlinea continue to exist; journals that maintain rigorous academic standards without needing to erect any barriers to access and without homogenizing all intellectual traditions into a single uninspiring mass. And it is significant that it is those same “new technologies” that originally inspired Giovanni, Elio and Federico to found the journal that makes it possible for us to do this.

In presenting the 2016 volume, then, we wish to remember Giovanni and acknowledge the huge debt that we owe him. Without his energy, intellectual drive and rigour this journal would not have come into being. We also wish to remember him as a much-loved friend who will be sorely missed by us all.

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Message(s) in a bottle: translating memory, the memory of translation

By Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli & Ira Torresi (University of Bologna, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

Using metaphors as a heuristic tool, as well as real-life examples, in this paper we investigate the role of translation in ensuring the memory of texts. We argue that translation is not a process that derives a target text from an original, but rather, it generates the text – both the target version and the original – since it gives it new life both in the source and the target polysystems (to use Even-Zohar’s terminology). This is particularly evident when serendipitous mistranslations initiate repertoires of their own, or when translated texts gain more currency than the source text, or express the translator’s/new author’s own style. Employing another metaphor, translation can be seen as a bottle carrying messages across to polysystems that are distant not only in space but also in time, as is the case with so-called archaeotranslations that revive entire canons, or with translations that restore historical events to the collective memory of the sociocultural polysystem they originally took place in. In this metaphor, the message/text becomes as important as, and largely depends upon, the circumstances of translation, such as the sociopolitical situation and norms of translation in force at the time when it was translated.

Keywords: memory, metaphor, generation

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Translation is entirely mysterious. [...] What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat … where in this metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches.
(Le Guin 1983: 112)


The watery world evoked by Ursula K. Le Guin in her attempt to unveil the ‘mystery’ of translation certainly points to the uncertainty of the definition of translation itself, in a somewhat Baumanian understanding of ‘liquidity’ (Bauman 2000). If one looks more closely at the extended metaphor in our ex ergo, however, one also distinctly perceives the vitality and creativity of the process of fishing up ideas from a teeming sea using ‘nets of words’ (writing original texts, but also translating them) and processing, ‘canning’ them in order to make them digestible for readers across space and time – perhaps in the form of ‘sandwiches’, as Le Guin says. The process of translation, then, can be seen as an act of weaving networks of words (or net-words, one might say with Ruggieri 2007: 8) in which not only ideas, but also, as we will see, memories, social and translation norms, forgotten languages and historical events get caught and can thus (re)surface to new life.

Similarly to Le Guin, in this paper we will use metaphors as a heuristic tool to investigate the role of translation in this kind of ‘networding’ to commend texts to memory, and also to explore new ways of viewing translation as a process. The cognitive value of metaphors in scientific as well as everyday thought is well known (see, among others, Black 1962 and Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Within translation studies, however, it has been acknowledged only very recently (St André 2010, Guldin 2016), despite translation itself having been likened to a metaphorical process (Evans 1998) and the whole literature about translation theory and practice being riddled with metaphors of all kinds, from the early political incorrect ones – such as ‘unfaithful and beautiful’ vs. ‘faithful and ugly’ – to those listed by Reynolds:

Through the centuries, translation has […] infused, transfused, refined; and mirrored, and copied, and opened the window. It has been thought of as preserving fire, or suffering from disease, or bringing the dead to life. […] Many of the everyday words for describing translation have an obvious metaphorical charge: ‘faithful’, ‘free’, ‘close’; as do many of the jargon terms of TS: ‘domesticate’, ‘dynamic’, ‘formal’. (Reynolds 2011: 39)

If we focus on literary translation in particular, Steiner’s words come to mind, when he wrote in the preface to the second edition of his After Babel:

There are no ‘theories of literature.’ There is no ‘theory of criticism.’ There are no ‘theories of translation.’ What we do have are reasoned descriptions of processes. […] Our instruments of perception (narrations of felt experience) are not theories in any scientific – which means falsifiable – sense, but what I call working metaphors. (Steiner 1992: xvi, our emphasis)

Steiner seems to suggest that a metaphor on translation can be more than ‘a starting point for further theories, a partial view which tells us something, but not everything, about the process it refers to’ as Jean Boase-Beier writes (2010: 28). Boase-Beier, who, incidentally, refers only to metaphors based on the alleged transparency and vicariousness of translation (likened to a window-pane, melting and re-freezing an ice cube, or a ‘staging’ of the text), seems to discard the analytical values of such metaphors on the grounds of their partiality. We have nothing against this implication – unlike translation theories, translation metaphors show no ambition to describe the process they refer to as a whole, but only to shed new light on ‘just one thread of the translating process’, so that as many as possible are needed to reconstruct a reasonably complex – although never complete – overall pattern (Hanne 2006: 221). This is why in the following we choose to discuss two, rather than one, working metaphors, and we are well aware of their partiality. We wish we could explore more, to add more partial views to this Cubist picture of ours, but we are constrained by the legitimate limitations imposed by journal policy and readers’ attention.

And speaking of partiality, of course, one needs to bear in mind that metaphors are embedded in cultural specific cognitive domains. This means that the working metaphors we will be talking about are largely the product of our being steeped in Western culture and might not fit other cultural contexts.

1. The generating power of translation

The first working metaphor that we propose emerged naturally from a brainstorming session in which we intended to explore the reasons why we believed translation could foster the memory of a text. Strangely enough, in our reflection about translation and memory we never came to notions of texts surviving time or ‘living on’ (Brodzki 2007: 5), but rather to ideas of translation as a generative force. We realized right from the start that such ideas could be subsumed by a sort of parent-child relationship between translation and the text itself that was quite unexpected, at least for us. Translation appeared to generate the text and act as its parent, rather than the other way round – and by providing the metaphorical amnios in which the text thrives and comes to life, translation also creates the very possibility for it to be commended to memory.

First of all, we reflected, translation enables a text to enter a new world – a new literary polysystem, Even-Zohar (1990) would say. In that polysystem, the untranslated text would simply not be present or would be only marginally relevant, because it would only be known to people who read the source language and come in contact with the text without the mediation of institutional agents.

Secondly, once the text begins a separate existence in different polysystems, it might happen that its translated versions become more central to their respective polysystems than the original, thus ensuring the survival of the text even when the source polysystem would provide a hostile environment. A good example of this situation is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), whose early translations into German and French (Joyce 1927 and 1929 by Goyert and Morel et al., respectively) obtained huge success – and were used for many early translations into other European languages – at the same time as the original was censored (therefore, not circulated at all) in the US, the UK and Ireland (Lernout 2004: 12).

Thirdly, it is quite obvious that once the translated text has entered the new polysystem, it takes on a life of its own, and writes its own history. In Even-Zohar’s (1990) terminology, it becomes a repertoire of its own in the target polysystem, thus generating new interconnections that are not open to the original text but only become possible thanks to translation. This becomes apparent when serendipitous deviations from the letter of the original – what more normative translation scholars than us  would call ‘mistakes’ – become standard citations and remain in the mainstream language and culture even after the ‘mistake’ has been publicly exposed.

Bible translations offer many interesting examples of such a process. One that is particularly telling is what happened to Moses, who is described in the Old testament as ‘radiant’ (karan), but since in Hebrew vowels are not transcribed, St Jerome interpreted the consonant cluster krn as keren, ‘horn’, thus writing in his Vulgata (Exodus 34.29): ‘ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua’ (he ignored that he looked horned). This is why Michelangelo, when he made the beautiful statue that can be seen in the San Pietro in Vincoli church in Rome, crowned it with horns (Fig. 1). Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Latin Bible offers a very tangible example – one that is literally cast in stone – of how a translation can take on a life of its own, different than the original, and generate other works, not only in the target literary polysystem but also, through intersemiotic translation, in other forms of art as well.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Another example of the generating potential of translation is the intentional game invented by Eugenio Montale with his Poesia travestita (Poem in disguise, 1999). Montale intended to investigate what would happen to one of his poems in translations into different languages. But unlike the usual process of translating from the same original, he disguised his Italian poem ‘Nuove Stanze’ (New Stanzas) as a poem originally written in Arabic – actually, the first translation in what became a chain, the Arabic being translated into French, the French into Polish, the Polish into Russian, the Russian into Czech, the Czech into Bulgarian, the Bulgarian into Dutch, the Dutch into German, the German into Spanish and finally the Spanish back into Italian. Each translator was unaware that Montale was the original author and that he or she was actually translating from a translation. Needless to say, the final result of this circular Chinese whispers game was pretty much different than the original, but nonetheless a viable text that brought to the surface unsuspected potential meanings that were embedded but invisible in Montale’s original poem. These potential meanings are also generations, ‘children’ that the text would not have had, if it had not been translated in such a provocative and extreme experiment. Poesia travestita, then, is an example of how multiple translations, with their respective interpretations that were only latent in the original source text (see e.g. Senn 1984), can be regarded as a single polyglot macrotext, not unlike the one envisaged by O'Neill (2005) to comprise all Joyce's writings and their translations alike.

But there is one last aspect of the translation as generation metaphor that we wish to discuss. Once the translated text takes up a life of its own, then it is also free to accept the cycle of life, which also includes death. In a polysystem, however, just like in nature, dead matter usually fertilizes new life. So it happens that works written in a ‘dead’ language are revitalized by translators/authors who rewrite the originals following their own style and poetics, in fact cannibalizing them. Sometimes in order to ensure the memory of a text, to make it live again, to make sure that new readers find it interesting and pleasurable to come in contact with that text, one must kill it in the first place. Suffice it to mention Seamus Heaney’s translations of Virgil (2001a) and Dante (1979 and 1993)[1], or the Beowulf epic (Heaney 2000). Or Italo Calvino’s Italian translations of Raymond Quenau (1967).

Everything we have argued until now challenges the very concept of an ‘original’. The generation metaphor we have employed focuses on translation as a generator of new life that enriches a target polysystem but at the same time revives what is traditionally called the original, giving it new life and relevance within the original polysystem. In this sense we can say that translation promotes the memory of the text in all the languages it is circulated in. And if we accept this view, distinguishing between an ‘original’ and its ‘translations’ seen as its derivatives, or even ‘servants’ of a ‘king’ text (Martin Luther quoted in Wilt 2003: 41), does not have much sense – they are all children that receive life from the translation process (Fig. 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Rather than being at the centre of the picture, the original – or the text written in language 1 – is undoubtedly the starting point of the translation process, but after the translation process has produced other language versions, it becomes just one of the embodiments of the text as it travels across different literary, linguistic and cultural polysystems. The centre and core of this generative model becomes what postcolonial translation studies call the ‘space-in-between’ or the ‘third space’ that is the ‘starting point for interventionist translation strategies’ (Wolf 2000: 141). It is our contention here, however, that all forms of translation, whether or not openly interventionist, always ‘imply a shift towards the centre, where cultures encounter each other, and where meanings are effectively “remixed”’ (ibidem); and that ‘centre’ is the translation-space itself.

2. Message in a bottle

This image of translation as a shift or travel towards a ‘third space’ brings us to the second metaphor we would like to use as a means to reinterpret translation. We have imagined the journey of the text across different polysystems as the whereabouts of a message in a bottle. This metaphor might at first seem similar to the well-known metaphor of translation as transfer, or as the container that carries a text across languages and cultures (see for instance Halverson 1999). Using the particular metaphor of the message in a bottle, however, produces specific associations that the generic ‘container’ or ‘transfer’ metaphors may not have. Under this metaphor, the producers of the text – its author and translators, but also the translation process itself, as we have just seen – in fact throw the text into the vast sea of reception. The image that immediately comes to mind when we use this metaphor is one of danger: as soon as the text leaves the safe shore it is subjected to the vagaries of readership, since the text has a set of intended addressees but might in fact reach other shores than its producers intended. It is also clear that there is a risk that the text be lost in the tidal waves of editorial fortune.

But at the same time, the message in a bottle metaphor leads us to reflect upon what is around the text that accompanies it along its perilous journey. If the text itself can be equated to the verbal message written on the paper inside the bottle, then when it is translated and thrown into the ocean to reach other polysystems it becomes a vessel of memories, a bottle that contains more than one message. The degree of yellowing of the paper, the weathering and opacity of the bottle, the shells and concretions that accumulate on the bottle, the shape, colour and material of the cork, the very air trapped inside the bottle, also become carriers of meaning. At the same time as they ensure the survival of the text, they tell the story of its journey – its origin, and sometimes even the reason why it was put in a bottle.

For instance, as Tymoczko (1999: 55-6) reminds us, translations carry traces of the norms of translation in force in the historical period they were made in. In her book, Translation in a postcolonial context, the author describes the history of the translation of Old Irish epic sagas into English. As Tymoczko points out, the very first translations were functional to a rhetoric of the Irish identity that fell in line with the Romantic image that one usually associates with the strong, brave medieval hero, to such an extent that passages where the hero was ridiculed or described under a less knightly light were censored. Such early translators clearly took colonial cultural strategies into account when choosing what to translate and how to translate it, because they felt that they could not lend their work to a colonial rhetoric that diminished the Irish people as not serious enough to rule themselves (Tymoczko 1999: 163-221). As a result, today such translations can be fully understood and appreciated only in the light of the cultural and translation norms that were in place in the period when the translations were carried out:

The translator’s choice of translation strategy – like all practices – is conditioned by the historical moment and the ideological framework within which the translation is produced, as well as the position of the translator within the cultural system. (Tymoczko 1999: 178-79)

Mapping Tymoczko’s ideas onto our message-in-a-bottle metaphor, such norms can be seen as the air trapped in the glass whose chemical composition, if correctly analyzed, gives information about the place and time when the bottle was corked and put into the sea. Similarly, Tymoczko’s analysis provides invaluable information on the context of production of the translations she focuses on, unveiling the norms that provided the microclimate in which the translation products make sense. Without taking that microclimate into account the piece of paper in the bottle risks not standing the test of time and crumbling to pieces when exposed to an entirely different atmosphere.

The metaphor of the message in a bottle is also useful to understand how translation can revitalize texts that have somehow slipped out of the collective memory, even for a long time. An extreme example would be the cases of 'archaeological' translation: entire literary polysystems, once lost to humankind because the language they were written in was forgotten, can be restored to world culture thanks to multilingual translations that include other languages that may be equally dead, but more accessible to scholars.

The story of Champollion and the Rosetta Stone is well known: it is thanks to its decoding that we can now have access to texts written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Perhaps less famous is the story of the inscription found on Mount Behistun, Iran, in the 18th century, and deciphered in mid-19th century, that bore the biography of Persian emperor Darius the Great in three versions of cuneiform writing – Old Persian, which was decoded first, Elamite and Babylonian Akkadian. It is thanks to this trilingual inscription that we can now enjoy access to precious texts such as those of the Gilgamesh saga, the epic story of the king of Uruk written in Babylonian Akkadian some 4,000 years ago and bearing several similarities with the Old testament. Translated for the first time into English in the 1870s, it was retranslated several times and is now a very productive repertoire in polysystems across the world. A Google search ran in November 2013 retrieved a staggering number and variety of texts of different genres bearing ‘Gilgamesh’ in the title or as the name of one of the characters, from Argentinian and American science fiction comics and graphic novels to videogames and Japanese animated series. Think of the wealth of texts that we would not have today if Darius the Great had not thought about translating his own biography into Babylonian Akkadian as well as Old Persian and Elamite. Or if the Behistun inscription had never been discovered and had remained like a bottle containing a message still floating in the waves of lost memory.

One other way in which translation can act as a bottle carrying messages across the ocean of memory is when it brings back to the surface past events that risk being obscured or forgotten. In semiotic terms events, too, count as text that can be carried across by translation. It is the case of the short story ‘Dear You’ by Irish author Evelyn Conlon (2013), a narrative account of the life and deeds of Violet Gibson, the Irishwoman who shot Mussolini on April 7, 1926. Mussolini was so humiliated by the fact that he had almost been killed by a woman that he managed to keep the attempt on his life out of the media, and Gibson was not put on trial but segregated in a mental asylum for the rest of her life. Conlon imagines Violet Gibson finding the strength to reclaim her voice for herself and tell her own story, entrusting it to a message in a bottle so that the world that she has lost forever will not forget her fate. Which is, unfortunately, what we tend to do, since the Violet Gibson affair is not often mentioned in the history books that circulate in Italian schools. It is not by chance that Conlon chose to first publish the story in Italy at the same time as its Italian translation, each English page facing its Italian version. In such a way Violet Gibson re-enters Italian culture and historiography, as well as individual readers’ imaginations and emotions, through translated literature.

3. Conclusions

In this short essay we have used two metaphors to explore aspects of translation that may escape more linear, non-metaphorical thinking. In §1 we have seen how translation can be conceived as a generation or filiation process that gives life to texts that are then left free to roam the world of reception, thus giving new life to the ‘original’ in its own turn. In §2 we have discussed the metaphor of translation as the carrier of a message in a bottle, as a process that enables the transmission of knowledge and cultural repertoires across time as well as space, thus bridging temporal gaps that may be so large that all trace of the original text had been lost. Once again, then, the translation process confirms its potential for (re)creating the original at the same time as it creates its translated products.

In this sense, translation may truly grant the ‘life and afterlife’ of a text (Di Giovanni 2013; Sinha 2007). Investigating such power through metaphors has proved fruitful in this, however small, exploration of translation in general. Further research along the same lines may provide precious insight. For instance, more in-depth metaphorical investigations of specific case studies may shed new light on trans-creation mechanisms and on the dynamics that link different language versions of the same text. Additionally, the further exploration of metaphors of translation coming from non-Western or non-hegemonic traditions, like the ones evoked by Valerie Heniuk (2010), would invigorate the discussion of metaphors as effective heuristic and analytical tools in translation studies, as well as highlight facets of the translation process that may so far have received little consideration under well-established translation theories. While such investigations remain beyond the space and time limitations of the present essay, we hope that metaphor-driven research gains, and retains, the firm ground it deserves in translation studies, thus contributing to the fertility of the latter as an interdisciplinary field cross-pollinated by the suggestions and ideas of cognitive linguistics and semiotics.


Bauman, Zygmunt (2000) Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity.

Boase-Beier, Jean (2010) “Who Needs Theory?” in Translation: Theory and Practice in Dialogue, Antoinette Fawcett, Karla L. Guadarrama García and Rebecca Hyde Parker (eds), London, Continuum: 25-38.

Black, Max (1962) Models and Metaphors, Ithaca, Cornell UP.

Brodzki, Bella (2007) Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Conlon, Evelyn (2013) “Dear you” / “Caro, Cara”, trans. I. Torresi, Tratti 93: 42-67.

Di Giovanni, Elena (2013) “Translation as Craft, as Recovery, as the Life and Afterlife of a Text: Sujit Mukherjee on Translation in India”, TranscUlturAl 5, no. 1-2: 99-115.

Evans, Ruth (1998) “Metaphor of Translation” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (1st edition), Mona Baker with Kirsten Malmkjaer (eds), London, Routledge: 149-53.

Even-Zohar, Itamar (1990) Polysystem Studies, special issue of Poetics Today 11, no. 1.

Guldin, Rainer (2010) “Metaphor as a Metaphor for Translation” in Thinking through Translation with Metaphors, James St André (ed), Abingdon and New York, Routledge: 161-91.

---- (2016) Translation as Metaphor, Abingdon and New York, Routledge.

Halverson, Sandra L. (1999) “Image Schemas, Metaphoric Processes and the ‘Translate’ Concept”, Metaphor and Symbol 14, no. 3: 199-219. [Previously published in Sandra L. Halverson (1998) Concepts and Categories in Translation Studies, Bergen (Norway), Department of English of the University of Bergen.]

Hanne, Michael (2006) “Metaphors of the Translator” in The Translator as Writer, Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush (eds), Leicester, Leicester University Press: 208-24.

Heaney, Seamus (1979) “Ugolino” in Field Work, London, Faber and Faber: 61-4.

---- (1984) “Station Island” in Station Island, London, Faber and Faber: 61-94

---- (1993) Cantos I-III in Dante's Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets, Daniel Halpern (ed), New York, Ecco: 3-15.

---- (2000) Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux.

---- (2001a) “Vergil: Eclogue IX” in Electric Light, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux: 38-41.

---- (2001b) “Bann Valley Eclogue” in Electric Light, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux: 12-3.

---- (2001c) “Glanmore Eclogue” in Electric Light, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux: 42-4.

Heniuk, Valerie (2010) “Squeezing the Jellyfish: Early Western Attempts to Characterize Translation from the Japanese” in Thinking through Translation with Metaphors, James St André (ed), Abingdon and New York, Routledge: 144-60. 

Joyce, James (1922) Ulysses, Paris, Shakespeare and Company.

---- (1927) Ulysses von James Joyce: vom Verfasser geprüfte deutsche Ausgabe von George Goyert, 3 vols, Basel, Rhein-Verlag.

---- (1929) Ulysse, traduction intégrale d’Auguste Morel, revue par Valery Larbaud, Stuart Gilbert et l’Auteur, Paris, Gallimard.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1983) “Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry” in Dancing at the Edge of the World. Thoughts on words, women, places (1989), New York, Grove Press: 104-14.

Lernout, Geert (2004) “Introduction” in The Reception of James Joyce in Europe. Vol. I: Germany, Northern and East Central Europe, Geert Lernout and Wim Van Mierlo (eds), London, Continuum: 3-13.

Marías, Javier (1992) Un corazón tan blanco, Barcelona, Anagrama.

Montale, Eugenio (1999) Poesia travestita, Maria Corti and Maria Antonietta Terzoli (eds), Novara, Interlinea.

O'Neill, Patrick (2005) Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press

Queneau, Raymond (1967) I fiori blu, trans. I. Calvino, Turin, Einaudi (French edition 1965, Les Fleurs Bleues, Paris, Gallimard).

Reynolds, Matthew (2011) The Poetry of Translation: from Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue, Oxford, OUP.

Ruggieri, Franca (2007) “Foreword” in Joyce and/in Translation, Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli and Ira Torresi (eds), Rome, Bulzoni: 7-8.

Senn, Fritz (1984) Joyce's Dislocutions: Essays on Reading as Translation, John Paul Riquelme (ed), Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sinha, Raman Prasad (2007) “Life and Afterlife of a Text: Studies in the Concept of Translation” in Random Plurals: Fragments on Philosophy, Aesthetics, and History, Ratnamuthu Sugathan and Kamal Kishor Mishra (eds), Delhi, Anjali Anu Publishers.

St André, James (ed) (2010) Thinking through Translation with Metaphors, Abingdon and New York, Routledge.

Steiner, George (1992 [1st pub. 1975]), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford, OUP.

Wilt, Timothy (2003) “Translation and Communication” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference, Timothy Wilt (ed), Manchester, St Jerome: 27-80.

Wolf, Michaela (2000) “The Third Space in Postcolonial Representation” in Changing the Terms: Translating in the Postcolonial Era, Sherry Simon and Paul St-Pierre (eds), Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press: 127-46.


An earlier, shorter version of this paper was published in Italian in Mirella Agorni (ed) (2014) Memoria Lingua Traduzione, Milan: LED, 17-26.

[1] Besides translating Virgil’s IX Eclogue and some of the Cantos of Dante’s Inferno, Seamus Heaney is also renowned for embedding the stylemes of the two classics in his own poetics, for example in the Bann Valley Eclogue and the Glanmore Eclogue (Heaney 2001b and 2001c), and the poem ‘Station Island’ (Heaney 1984).

About the author(s)

Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli (✝2016) was professor Emeritus at the University of Bologna, where she taught English language and Literature for a few decades. She was also Faculty Dean (of the Advanced School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators) and Department chair (of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Translation, Languages and Cultures, now DIT) for several years. She served as President of the International James Joyce Foundation from 2000 to 2004. She published extensively on James Joyce, translation studies, gender studies, and cultural studies.

Ira Torresi teaches interpreting between English and Italian at the Dept of Interpreting and Translation of the University of Bologna at Forlì. Her research interests span from advertising translation to representations of gender and (Italian, Italian-American) ethnicity/nationality, Joyce in translation, and Child Language Brokering (interpreting/translation provided by children). In all these fields, she tends to apply social/visual semiotic analytical tools as well as more traditional, verbal-based ones.

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©inTRAlinea & Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli & Ira Torresi (2016).
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Les sens dans la traduction du « texte » filmique

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The Translator Made Corporeal: Translation History And The Archive

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Exchanges Journal: Call for submissions

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Translator’s Paratextual Visibility:

the case of Iranian translators from 1906 until 1926

By Zahra Atefmehr (Allameh Tabataba’i University, Iran)

Abstract & Keywords

The present study is an attempt to find out whether the Iranian translators whose translations were published during the twenty years before the fall of the Qajar dynasty – from the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy in 1906 until the end of Qajar dynasty in 1926 – were visible or invisible with respect to paratextual elements. That is to say, how much the translators used paratexts and how much their presence is felt in paratextual elements of their translations. 106 translated volumes published during this period have been examined in terms of their paratextual elements which, for the purposes of  this study, included the translators’ prefaces and the presence of translators’ names versus the presence of authors’ names on title pages. The study will show that the translators were visible, mainly due to their high social and educational status. The study also proposes a model termed Network of Visibility, which is used to represent the connections among those who were involved in either the production or publication of translated books – i.e. the translators, the publishers and the patrons; and also the original authors.

Keywords: invisibility, paratextual elements, Iran, Constitutional Monarchy, Qajar dynasty, translators

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I would like to express my greatest thanks and indebtedness to my dear professor, Dr. Farahzad, without whose encouragement, constant support and generous guidance the present research would not have been possible. It is also a genuine pleasure to express my deepest sense of appreciation and profound gratitude to Dr. Rundle for his valuable comments and suggestions that led to a substantially improved version of the paper.

1. Introduction

The history of translation in Iran arguably begins in the 6th century BC when the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids, was established. The main evidence of translation activities during the Achaemenid Empire are the documents and royal inscriptions that have been found, mainly in the languages of Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite.[1]

From the Achaemenids until the present day, the long history of translation in Iran has witnessed three major translation movements.[2] What makes these movements different from individual translational activities is that they involved producing series of translations on certain subjects in order to achieve certain goals, and which were commissioned and supported by the ruling governments. These translation movements were mainly triggered by the personal interest of a king.

The first translation movement began after the establishment of the Sassanid Empire, the last pre-Islamic empire in Iran, in 224AD.[3] With the support and encouragement of the Sassanid kings many books especially in the subjects of philosophy, medicine, astronomy and mathematics were translated from Indian, Latin and Greek into Middle Persian. The movement reached its peak during the reign of Anushiravan (501-579AD) when first the Academy of Gondishapour, an advanced medical school, was established and later the schools of astronomy and mathematics, nearby. The Academy, which was one of the major scientific centers of the time, took in scientists, students and teachers from around the ancient world who translated the influential works of their civilizations into Middle Persian.

When the Muslim Arabs conquered Iran in 651AD and the Sassanid Empire fell, Arab Caliphates took control of Iran for around two hundred years.[4] The second translation movement in Iran was part of a massive translation movement that occurred in the Islamic world during the reign of Abbasids (750-1258AD), the third Islamic caliphate.[5] During this movement, the Muslim translators translated numerous works in various branches of science mainly from Greek, Syriac and Latin into Arabic. As mentioned before, during the Sassanid era and especially in the Academy of Gondishapour the most influential works of the ancient world were translated into Middle Persian. The second translation movement in Iran involved translation of the invaluable heritage of Gondishapour into Arabic by Iranian translators who had converted to Islam.

The third translation movement in Iran occurred during the Qajar dynasty. The Qajars reigned over Iran from 1785 to 1926. In the Qajar era, diplomatic relations between Iran and the West expanded. Political relations were established between Iran and the three great powers of Russia, France and England and these led to significant developments. The first postal service, the first telegram line, the first railways, the first printing press and the first newspaper were some of these advances. The Qajars’ lofty aspiration for the modernization of Iran resulted in a translation movement through which the Iranians became acquainted with many of the technological, cultural and intellectual achievements of the West.

Following the defeats of Iran in the Russo-Iranian wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828), Abbas Mirza, the prince of Iran as well as the military commander of the Iranian army, decided to modernize Iran’s military forces.[6] Therefore, under his command, many books about military science were translated into Persian. Moreover, Abbas Mirza dispatched groups of students to European countries to learn the latest European sciences and to become familiar with European culture. After returning to Iran, many of these students turned into translators who translated numerous books in various subjects from English and French into Persian.

This translation movement reached its peak during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896) who felt a deep fascination for the civilization of the West following his journeys to Europe. His interest in keeping abreast of the news and events of the European countries and in reading foreign novels played a crucial role in promoting the translation of foreign books and newspapers into Persian. Another important factor in encouraging an increase in translations was the foundation of the first Western style school in Tehran, called the Dar ul-Funun, by the order of Amir Kabir, the chief minister to Nasir al-Din Shah. This school was established for the purpose of training Iranian students in modern sciences. The teachers of Dar ul-Funun were mainly from France, Austria and Italy and the lessons were taught in French. The translation of various scientific books into Persian for students of this school, the building of a theatre in the school and the subsequent translation of dramatic works, as well as the establishment of Foreign Language courses all meant that the school of Dar ul-Funun had a significant impact on the number of translations being carried out in Iran.

However, despite the government’s efforts to modernize the country and despite many advances, Iranians were not satisfied with the Qajar kings. The intervention of foreign powers in the domestic affairs of Iran and the incompetence of the Qajar kings in addition to some other internal difficulties, mainly the increasing poverty and inflation, provoked widespread discontent among the people. Gradually, the discontent gave rise to massive protests and a series of protest movements from 1905 to 1906, collectively called the Constitutional Revolution of Iran. This revolution led to the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy in 1906, which marks a crucial turning point in the history of Iran. Many consider the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy to be “the end of the medieval period in Iran” (Rashidvash 2012: 183).[7]

This paper will look at the 106 translated volumes that were published from the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy in 1906 until the fall of Qajar Dynasty in 1926. These translations will be analysed with respect to their paratextual elements, in particular the translators’ prefaces and the presence of the translators’ and authors’ names on the title pages with a view to establishing how visible Iranian translators were at the time. In addition to revealing the status of translators (in terms of their visibility), these paratextual elements also provide a valuable insight into the history of translation in Iran in the period from the constitutional monarchy until the end of the Qajar dynasty.

2. Paratexts and Paratextual Visibility

The term paratexts was first used by Genette in 1987. As he states, “a literary work […] is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, [and] illustrations” (1997: 1). Genette believes that such “accompanying productions” that “constitute […] the work’s paratext” are the elements that enable “a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public” (1997: 1-2).

In reference to translation, the term “invisibility” was originally used by Venuti to “describe the translator’s situation and activity in contemporary Anglo-American culture” (1995: 1). Koskinen believes that “at least three distinct kinds of visibility” exist, which are the “textual, paratextual and extratextual visibility” (2000: 99). Among the three, the paratext seems to provide a useful way of gauging translator visibility across a large number of translations and over an extended period of time.

3. The Iranian Translators’ Prefaces (1906-1926)

The Iranian translators who published their translations from 1906 until 1926 had a tendency to write long prefaces even for the most ordinary novels. In their prefaces, the translators discussed issues related to the production and publication of their translations, as well as going into more personal detail concerning their own lives. Some of the translators used their prefaces to make complaints about some cultural practices and habits or some of the social problems they observed in Iran. Others used the prefaces to express their admiration for the new age of development and growth in post-Constitutional Revolutionary Iran.

In what follows I shall examine a number of these prefaces with the aim of showing how the translators used prefaces, and of shedding light on some aspects of the translators’ lives and activity during that period.

Ha’eri Sadr al-Maʿāli

We begin with the preface written by Ha’eri Sadr al-Maʿāli for his translation of George W. M. Reynolds’s The Bronze Statue, Or, the Virgin's Kiss, published in 1907. The preface is quite autobiographical and contains valuable information about the years before and after the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy. In his preface, Sadr al-Maʿāli not only reveals Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar’s interest in translation but also his tyrannical behavior and the strict censorship he imposed on translations. Sadr al-Maʿāli recounts that:

Around 1307 AH (1890 AD), when Nasir al-Din Shah was about to depart for Europe, he ordered that while he was away, each of the translators who worked for the Royal Translation House should find a remarkable and beneficial book, translate it and then offer his translation to him [Nasir al-Din Shah] on his return to Iran. (1286/1907: 4)

As we said before, the Qajar translation movement reached its peak during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah. In addition to the school of Dar ul-Funun, the Royal Translation House of Nasir al-Din Shah played a crucial role in the considerable increase of translated books in this era. The expansion of diplomatic relations between Iran and European countries, the avid interest of Nasir al-Din Shah in reading foreign newspapers and books and the process of modernization of country that necessiated the production of translations in various branches of science impelled the government to establish an official organization for translation. This organization, called the Royal Translation House enabled the government to hire translators and to have control over the publication of the translations. The translators who worked for the Royal Translation House were either foreigners and ambassadors who resided in Iran, or Iranian translators who graduated from Dar ul-Funun or were sent to European colleges and who became translators after their return to Iran. The determining factor in choosing a book for translation was the subject. In most cases, Nasir al-Din Shah would commission translations of books on his favorite subjects (mainly history and historical novels) or on any topic he deemed to be beneficialto the Iranian people. It was then the responsibility of the translator to choose an appropriate book whithin that topic. As Afshar reports, during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah “more than five hundred books” on “military science, technology (such as photography, telgraph, agriculture), medicine, geology, physics and chemistry, geography, history, law, literature and fiction” were translated (1381/2002: 90). However, in some cases, a translator himself chose a book because he considered its subject to be beneficial for the Iranian people. Although the choice of which text to translate might be left to the discretion of the translators, they could not be published without the approval and authorization of Nasir al-Din Shah. As seen above, in 1890, before departing for Europe, Nasir al-Din Shah commissioned the translators of the Royal Translation House to find and translate a remarkable and beneficial book of their own choice. Yet, as the translator Sadr al-Maʿāli explains, The Bronze Statue was strictly censored by the King, even though he considered it to be beneficial for people. Sadr al-Maʿāli believed that this “political and historical fiction” that “recount[ed] corrupt behavior and scandalous deeds of the oppressors” could make Iranian people aware of the tyrannical behaviour of their rulers (1286/1907: 1).

Following the direct order of Nasir al-Din Shah, Sadr al-Maʿāli, an “Indian and Arabic translator” in the Royal Translation House, started searching for “a proper book” to translate and found The Bronze Statue, Or, the Virgin's Kiss (1286/1907: 4). After “reading some lines of the book”, he regarded it as having “hidden treasures” and as beneficial as a “panacea” for Iranian youth (1286/1907: 4-5). Nonetheless, he believed that “the tyrannical ideas of the king” would not let him to publish the book without “any harm to [his] life and wealth” (1286/1907: 5). Reynolds’s The Bronze Statue is a novel about protesting against the Catholic Pope and against the monarchy so naturally, as Sadr al-Maʿāli says, it could be interpreted as an attack “against the ruling monarchy of Iran” (1286/1907: 5). Yet, notwithstanding the risks, Sadr al-Maʿāli, who was fascinated by the book, started his translation and it took him “four years to finish the translation of the first volume and one-third of the second” (1286/1907: 6). Meanwhile, he met and consulted some powerful people but all of them believed that publication of his translation was “impossible” because of “the tyranny of the King and the impossibility of changing the [troublesome] sentences of the book” (1286/1907: 6).

Nasir al-Din Shah extolled European civilization and he enthused over the modernization of Iran, yet he regarded freedom of the press, which was a perfect means of transference of Western liberal thoughts, as a threat to his absolute monarchy. Therefore, he imposed strict censorship on the press and on translated books. The Bronze Statue was one of the novels that could not obtain the approval of Nasir al-Din Shah. It was banned and Sadr al-Maʿāli was “sent to jail for a time” (1286/1907: 1).

In 1896, after reigning for forty-eight years, Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated. Ten years later, during the reign of Mozaffar al-Din Shah, son of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Constitutional Monarchy of Iran was established and the first National Parliament of Iran was opened. This Parliament “passed laws” that guaranteed “freedom of the press”, which in turn “brought about a sudden flourishing” of the press and of publishing (Keddie & Amanat 1991: 204). Sadr al-Maʿāli’ points to this improvement in the political climate when he finishes his preface by saying, “Thanks to this King [Mozaffar al-Din Shah] came the day that the situation of the country changed, tyranny and oppression were overthrown and at last the Constitutional Monarchy was established, justice and fairness made our country a paradise” (1286/1907: 6). Finally, the climate of freedom after the establishment of Constitutional Monarchy enabled Sadr al-Maʿāli to publish his translation.

Mirza Baqer Khan Tabrizi

Another interesting preface is that found in Mirza Baqer Khan Tabrizi’s translation of Henry Kalleli’s A History of the Far East or the Russo-Japanese War, published in 1909, in which Tabrizi, refers to the historic bombardment of the parliament in Iran. He states that “the tragic event of the bombardment of parliament and the subsequent incidents hindered publication of the complete translation” of A History of the Far East (1288/1909: 3). This bombardment happened in June 1908 after serious disputes between Mohammad Ali Shah, the second Qajar king after the Constitutional Revolution, and the constitutionalist members of the parliament. Apparently, the subsequent incidents in Tabrizi’s statement refers to the events that followed the bombardment of the parliament, which brought about a period of repressive dictatorship, referred to in Iran as the Lesser Autocracy or the Lesser Tyranny. During this period, many journalists and writers were killed or exiled and the “leading members of the Press fled or were captured” (Avery 1991: 840). The suppression of the press and constitutionalists continued until July 1909, when Mohammad Ali Shah was dethroned and his son Ahmad Shah ascended the throne. Once more, newspapers “proliferated” and book publishing revived “to ensure that Iran’s first steps towards democracy would not be forgotten and would be retrieved” (Avery 1991: 841). The fall of the Lesser Autocracy and the subsequent revival gave Tabrizi the chance to publish his translation of Kalleli. Tabrizi finishes his preface by saying that he “humbly” offers his translation to Ahmad Shah, “as a sign of gratitude to [that] auspicious year” which was “the first year of coronation of the Just King who is the Supporter of the Constitution” while hoping that “the King would accept [his] unworthy present” (1288/1909: 4).

Ali Dashti

In the preface to his translation of Gustave Le Bon’s Les Lois Psychologiques de l'Évolution des Peuples, Ali Dashti implicitly points to the censorship of his translations and works. Dashti explains that he “strongly desired to translate this book” but due to “non-publication” of his previous “translations and works”, he suffered a feeling of “disappointment” that initially “deterred [him] from translation of the book” (1302/1924: 1). Dashti (1894-1982) was a well-known journalist and a political activist who, especially after the agreement of 1919 between Iran and Britain, published articles in the press that were critical of the government. This provoked the government into first imposing a ban on his works and then sending him into exile for some months.

The Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, according to which Britain gained control over Iran’s military and financial affairs[8], fomented revolutionary activities and political unrest throughout Iran. Following a period of mounting discontent, a coup was plotted by the British leaders to “install a strong Iranian government that would guard against revolutions” (Keddie & Amanat 1991: 210). The two Iranian leaders of the coup were Sayyid Ziya al-Din Tabatabaee and Reza Khan. When the coup succeeded, a new government was established and Sayyid Ziya, the political leader of the coup, became the prime minister of Iran. As soon as he was appointed prime minister, he ordered the mass arrest of anti-government political activists and journalists. Ali Dashti, who had just returned from his exile, was also arrested for the second time. In the preface to his translation of the Gustave Le Bon’s book, Dashti directly points to this imprisonment and says, “At last the idleness of the three-month imprisonment in Sayyid Ziya al-Din’s presidency gave me time to translate the book” (1302/1924: 1). Yet, as he says in his preface, he “could not publish this translation until three years after his release from prison” (1302/1924: 1).

Sayyid Ziya had failed to achieve the goals of the coup and he was removed from the government after ninety days. With the downfall of Sayyid Ziya, Reza Khan, the military leader of the coup who was now the Minister of War, gained power. Soon, political activists were released from prison and “the number of publications increased again” (Farahmand 1381/2002: 360). Yet, Reza Khan was not tolerant of anything that was against his ideas. The opposing voices were suppressed ruthlessly or they “were forced to agree” with Reza Khan “either by money or by coercion” (Farahmand 1381/2002: 360). In 1922, Dashti published an article in his own newspaper in which he sharply criticized Reza Khan.[9] Surprisingly, Dashti did not receive any punishment, yet shortly after the publication of his article, he joined the supporters of Reza Khan and “published many articles stating his approval” until he became one of the most outspoken advocates of Reza Khan (Ariyanpour 1387/2008: 320). Apparently, the publication of his translation in 1924 was one of the benefits of his support of Reza Khan, as his preface to the translation of Gustave Le Bon’s book shows. At the end of his preface, Dashti praises Reza Khan (also known as Sardar Sepah) and says, “Recently […] my translation was shown to Sardar Sepah, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the great man who is destined to bring prosperity for Iran, and he ordered the publication of my translation” (1302/1924: 1).

*                    *                    *

In general, the translators’ prefaces trace a line between pre and post-Constitutional years. They depict the pre-Constitutional years as a dark period filled with tyranny and convey the idea that the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy was a promising start to a new and flourishing era in Iran. However, as we have seen, there were periods of tyranny, oppression and censorship even after the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy.

In addition to the issues discussed above, many of the translators used their prefaces to make complaints about their underdeveloped country and their backward people. These translators believed that spreading the civilization of the West by means of the translation and publication of books written by the Western writers could bring about desirable changes in their country. One of these translators was Mohammad Ali Golshaeian who, in his preface to the translation of Maurice Leblanc’s Aiguille Creuse, says:

One of the means of spreading the glorious civilization of the West in Iran, as the only way of salvation and the sole means of growth for us is to translate new and beneficial European books […] Therefore I translated this book […] so our people can read this book and see the differences between our life and the Europeans’ and thereby think about changes and decide to acquire the European sciences. (1304/1925: 2)

This section has looked at just a few examples of the issues that translators discussed in their prefaces. For many translators, the preface was an opportunity to express their sadness at the backwardness of their country, the illiteracy and ignorance of their people, or the cruelty and tyranny of the dethroned kings, as well as their happiness over the beginning of a new and modern era in their country. Through their prefaces, they also shared their personal experiences and memories with readers.

4. The Translators’ Names vs. the Authors’ Names on Title Pages

Among the translations that were published between 1906 and 1926, the majority of the volumes do not include the name of the original author on the title page – regardless of whether or not they include the translators’ name. However, in many of these translated books that did not carry the author’s name on their title page, her/his name can be found in the translator’s preface. That is to say, in many cases, the author was known to the translator and certainly to the publisher, yet her/his name did not appear on the title page. In general, the publishers did not follow a consistent pattern in publishing the translators and authors’ name. Some of them published both the names of translator and author on title page, while many of them published only the translator’s name.  In a few cases, instead of the translator’s name, the name of commissioner or patron appeared on the title page, along with the name of original author.

Perhaps the origin of such inconsistencies lies in the imperfect copyright laws of the day. The first press law was enacted in Iran in February 1908. Article 1 of the Press Law stipulates, “The publishing house is not allowed to publish anything without knowing the name and social standing of an author and without writing its own name and professional standing at the end of publication” (as cited in Gharebaghi & Asghari 1378/2000: 6). The publishers were thus obliged to publish only works by authors they could identify but they were not obliged to acknowledge the author in the publication. Besides, in Article 1 of the Press Law there is no reference to translators and translations, so publishers could get away with publishing the name of whomever they desired on title pages. Moreover, the publishers were free to grant any title they desired to the translators. For instance, many publishers published written by or in many cases translated and authored by before a translator’s name, with or without the name of original author. In some cases, as explained in next section, publishers bestowed grand titles on the translators.

Such shortcomings in the law were corrected in February 1926, eighteen years after the enactment of the first Press Law. In the fifth legislative period of the National Consultative Assembly of Iran, the following laws were enacted:

Article 245: No one has the right to publish, whether totally or partially, individually or by someone else, an original work of authorship including book, pamphlet, work of drawing and architecture, photographic work or else without the permission of the author or a person who obtained such permission from the author.

The above rule is also applicable to anyone who, in addition to publishing a work of authorship without its author’s permission, makes modifications in the original work and later it becomes clear that those  modifications were made to escape the law.

 Article 248: No one has the right to publish an original work of authorship including book, pamphlet, work of drawing and architecture, photographic work or else as her/his own or as the work of another person. (as cited in Gharebaghi & Asghari 1378/2000: 25)

The above laws could be considered as the first officially enacted copyright laws in Iran. Although still there is no reference to translation or translators, under the new law, publishers were obliged to be mindful of the titles they gave translators. It was no longer possible for them to call a translator the writer or author of a translated book without having convincing reasons for doing so. All the translated volumes that were published during 1926, which is also the last year of Qajar dynasty, contained the original authors’ name, in none of them was the translator referred to as author or writer and the translators’ names were not accompanied with grand titles anymore.

5. Network of Visibility

The paratextual elements of the translated volumes that were investigated in this study revealed that the translator’s visibility could be a multidimensional matter. In this research, it became apparent that from 1906 to 1926, visibility was not peculiar and confined to the translators, but a network of visibility existed among those who were involved in the translations (Figure 1). We call it a network because interrelated connections existed among those we consider to be members of this network – i.e. the original authors, the translators, the publishers and the patrons. These interrelated connections are of two kinds, they are either non-reflective or reflective. In a non-reflective connection, one member becomes the source of visibility for other member/s of the network. That is to say, in such connections, member A imparts credibility and visibility to member B only via appearance of her/his name next to the name of member B on a translated book. For example, since from 1906 to 1926, the translators were mostly among high-ranking political figures or they belonged to the nobility, they were the source of visibility for anyone whose name appeared as the publisher or patron of their translations on title pages or prefaces. Given the high social status of these translators, we have placed them at the core of our network of visibility.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Network of visibility from 1906 until 1926

In addition to the non-reflective connections, a second type of connection was also detected. This connection, that we labelled as reflective, is one where member A imparts visibility (either intentionally or unintentionally) to member B by lavishing praises and compliments on that member; yet, the given visibility reflects off and creates visibility for member A as well. An example of such reflective connections is that between translators and original authors. In their prefaces, many translators make exaggerated remarks about the importance of the book they have translated or the fame of its author. They overstate the uniqueness of the book by using phrases such as the best, the most comprehensive, the most credible, or the most beneficial book ever and the singularity of the author by phrases such as the only philosopher of the century, the most celebrated historian of time, the only scholar of time, and so on. Such exaggerated remarks can perform a double function of producing and reflecting visibility at the same time. These emphatic expressions (whether real or just exaggerations) make the translators visible since they implicitly suggest that the translator has done a great job by translating a great work of a great author. Indisputably, a translator of a great work by a well-known author is far more visible than a translator of an ordinary book by an unknown author.

Moreover, some of the translators referred to the commissioners or patrons of their translations who were mostly among those who either possessed power or an outstanding reputation for their erudition. For example, Tamaddon al-Molk Sajjadi in the preface to his translation of the Blue Book, which is a translation of the letters exchanged between Iran and Britain in 1911, extols the greatness and high social status of Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari who was the compiler of the Blue Book as well as the commissioner of its translation:

Therefore, as His Excellency, The Honorable and The Lover of Knowledge Aqa Sardar Asʿad [Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari], his prosperity and wealth endure forever, willed to compile, translate and publish the Blue Book, which is indeed the most beneficial history book on Constitutional Revolution for Iranian readers, he assigned me, Tamaddon al-Molk, to translate this book. (1291/1913: 1)

It is an example of reflective connection between a translator and a commissioner. Ali-Qoli Khan Bakhtiari, one of the major supporters of the Constitutional Monarchy of Iran, was a powerful and rich tribal leader who, in addition to his political activities, established himself as the significant patron of cultural activities during the late Qajar dynasty.[10] Obviously, the fame and reputation of this commissioner brought credibility and status for the translator as well. It was a great honor for Tamaddon al-Molk Sajjadi to be chosen and assigned by such a significant person to do the translation. Undoubtedly, a translator who is considered worthy of attention by an important, powerful and influential person is more visible than a translator who does not receive such attention.

It should be noted that due to the low number of commissioned translations, the commissioners are not incorporated in the network of visibility. According to the translators’ prefaces, except in few cases, all the translations were chosen by the translators themselves. This is different from the era before the establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy during which the main commissioner of the translations was the King, Nasir al-Din Shah. However, the trend of choosing books mainly based on their subjects, not their authors, remained unaltered. Based on the translators’ prefaces, the translators chose books on subjects considered suitable for Iranian society irrespective of their author; and in the few cases of a commissioned translation, it is explicitly stated that the commissioner asked the translator to find a book suitable for the Iranian people and translate it.

So far we have considered how the translators’ visibility was affected by the way the presented themselves; but several translations also contained complimentary remarks on the translators by the publisher or by some other prominent person that was not directly involved in the publication of the translation. Such compliments are presented either in a distinct section titled Taqriz – a section at the beginning or end of a book written by the publisher or by a significant person mainly in praise of the book and its translator – or within the publisher’s or a third party’s preface.

Besides, on title pages of many translated volumes, the translator’s name is accompanied by his nobility title or official position. During the Qajar dynasty, “ample use of grand titles was a practice not limited to the ruler” as “all the princes of the royal family, members of the nobility, courtiers, government officials, and army officers […] held titles” (Amanat 1997: 11-12). Yet, in many cases, the titles given to the translators by the publishers look superfluous. That is to say, publishing a series of titles and cognomens before and after a translator’s name looks like something more than a sign of respect since neither the law, nor courtesy required such excessive descriptions. An example of such an excessive use of titles can be seen in the translation by Yusef Ashtiyani of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which was published in 1907. On the title page of this translation, the publisher added nine titles Yusef Ashtiyani’s name. According to the title page, the book is translated by His Excellency, The Highest, The Most Glorified, The Most Beneficent, The Superior, Aqa Mirza Yusef Khan Eʿtesam al-Molk Ashtiyani Mustawfi al-Mamalik. Among all these titles, only Mustawfi al-Mamalik (The Lord High Treasurer) is an official title given to Ashtiyani by the Qajar court. Another example is the way the publisher introduced Habibollāh Hoveyda, the Consul-General of Iran in the Levant and the translator of The Story of New Adam written by Nikola Haddad, which was published in 1924. On the title page of this translation, the translator is introduced as His Excellency, The Highest, The Most Glorified, The Honorable, Aqa Mirza Habibollah Khan Ayn al-Molk. Here again only one title, which is Ayn al-Molk (Eye of the Kingdom) is a title given by the King.

In addition to such titles, which in many cases extend to more than two lines, there are sometimes descriptions after the translator’s name, which identify his/her profession. For example in the translation of History of Islamic Civilization, written by Jurji Zaydan and published in 1911, the publisher introduced the translator as His Excellency, The Highest, The Devout and Religious, Aqa Mirza Ebrahim Qomi, Senate of the second and fourth legislative period of the National Parliament of Iran, May his blessings last forever.

The publishers and patrons’ prefaces in praise of the translators, the publishers’ use of titles and cognomens, and the publishers’ hints at the status of the translators by describing the translators’ profession are all cases of reflective connections in the network of visibility. As mentioned, the translators are placed at the core of this network because they were mostly senior figures in their society. They were either one of the princes, royal descendants, ambassadors, senators, and other high-ranking politicians or they belonged to the nobility. When the number of translators (who published their works from 1906 until 1926) is compared with the number of translations (82 translators for 106 published translations), it becomes evident that none of the translators could be described as prolific. All these translators held official posts that granted them a high status in Iranian society. In what follows, more information about translators’ status during the late Qajar dynasty as well as elaboration on the network of visibility will be presented.

Until 1911, when elementary school became compulsory in Iran, education was exclusive to the children of aristocrats and those who possessed wealth and power. Many of the young aristocrats had the chance to finish their higher education in universities of European countries. Learning foreign languages, becoming familiar with the civilization and technological advances of the West and comparing the life of people in Western countries with the life of people in Iran, made some of these educated nobility keen to improve the quality of their compatriots’ life. They believed that spreading the civilization of the West and making people familiar with the scientific and intellectual advances of the European countries would raise social awareness and consequently would have a desirable effect on the social condition of Iran. So, many of the educated aristocrats became interested in translations of books in popular genres such as novels and history as a way of reaching out to the public mind. However, the popularity of these translations with the public was not the only reason behind the choice of these two genres. For many of these translators, European countries had succeded in developing in various cultural, technological and scientific ways due mainly to the morally edifying role of literature on their people. As Matevous Melikiyans writes on his translation of Avetis Aharonian’s Tearful Land:

One of the best means of moral edification for this nation and population whose ignorance and benightedness destroyed the foundation of their society and brought about the backwardness of their civilization, is novels and dramas […] people of the West are well aware that the main reason for their enlightenment is nothing but the works of gifted writers and patriot thinkers who incorporated moral vice and virtues in novels, comedies and tragedies […] that have made Western people aware of their good and bad behavior and gradually guided them from ignorance and darkness to prosperity and development. (1290/1911: 1)

These translators also believed that reading the history of European countries could eventually provoke the Iranians to reflect on their situation and could act as a spur to cultural and social change.

The social status of the translators also led the publishers to introduce these people to the public and to make readers aware of their position and profession. The publishers either talked about biographies, ideas and status of translators in distinct prefaces or tried to introduce the translators on title pages. In addition to the publishers, in some cases the patrons wrote prefaces to translations in which they praised the cultural services, the virtues and the singularity of that translator. Such attempts not only imparted visibility on translators but also made the publishers or the patrons visible since the high status and reputation of translators brought credibility and fame for them too. Yet, in a few cases, the patron enjoyed higher social status than the translator, which resulted in the reverse direction of visibility. That is to say, in such cases, the translators and/or the publisher wrote prefaces about the virtues and position of the patron or the publishers chose to publish the name of patron on title pages with or without publishing the translators’ name. In these cases, the patrons were the sources of visibility and status for the translator and the publisher.  


The paratexts, especially the prefaces that were investigated in this research are a source of fascinating information about various aspects of the translators’ life and activity. The paratextual elements also allowed us to hypothesize a network of visibility as a way of representing the status of translators.

This study has shown that the high status of the Iranian translators of this period (from 1906 until 1926) is reflected in their high paratextual visibility. In addition, due to their pre-eminent position, these translators were also a major source of visibility for their publishers and patrons.

This pre-eminent position enjoyed the translators came from their high social and educational status. As we explained above, during the Qajar era, higher education was accessible only to the children of aristocrats. They were sent either to Dar ul-Funun or to European colleges where, along with completing their education in a certain field of study, they also became familiar with European languages and Western culture. The young aristocrats, who, in addition to their social superiority, enjoyed educational privileges, were given high-ranking official posts after graduation or when they returned to Iran. Among them, some were seriously concerned about the development of their country. They considered the translation of foreign books, especially histories and novels that depicted European life, culture and technological advances, as the best way of introducing Western civilization to Iran. They believed that familiarizing Iranians with the Western world would encourage them to make the social and cultural changes that might eventually result in modernization, political reform and democracy in Iran. Yet, it seems that for many of these translators, the content of the translated books was not sufficient to achieve progress. They looked for a medium via which they could directly ask their people to reflect upon their situation and encourage them to strive for social and cultural changes. Considering that the only mass media in Iran during the late Qajar era was newspapers, which were published in a limited number of issues and only in a few major cities, we understand the unique opportunity that the prefaces represented for them. Many translators used prefaces to promote their own social and political agenda, which was to make people aware of their miserable condition and to encourage them to make changes in their lives. In their long prefaces, many translators portrayed Western life as a utopian model that the Iranians should try to emulate.

However, with the introduction of compulsory elementary education in Iran in 1911 and the expansion of public education, the number of literates increased and higher education was no longer the exclusive preserve of aristocrats. During the final years of the Qajar dynasty, a few translators arose from non-aristocratic families and their number gradually increased. Consequently, from the late Qajar era, translation as the secondary occupation of some aristocrats turned into the profession of ordinary educated people who held no grand titles or high official posts, who were not of royal descent and who enjoyed no special social privilege. Consequently this new generation of the translators were of a lower status than the previous generation and they were no longer at the centre of the network of visibility.


Afshar, I. (1381/2002). Aghaze-ye tarjomeh-ye ketabha-ye farangi be Farsi [The beginning of translation of Western books into Persian]. Iran-Shenasi, 14(53), 79-110.

Amanat, A. (1997). Pivot of the Universe: Nasir Al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831–1896. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ariyanpour, Y. (1387/2008). Az Saba ta Nima [From Saba to Nima] (Vol. 1&3). Tehran: Zavar.

Avery, P. (1991). Printing, the Press and Literature in Modern Iran. In P. Avery, G. Hambly, & C. Melville (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Iran (Vol. 7, pp. 815-869). New York & UK: Cambridge University Press.

Baker, M., & Hanna, S. F. (2009). Arabic tradition. In M. Baker, & G. Saldanha (Eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (2nd ed., pp. 328-338). London & New York: Routledge.

Dashti, A. (1302/1924). Translator's Preface. In G. L. Bon, Tatavor-e Melal (Les Lois Psychologiques de l'Évolution des Peuples) (p. 1). Tehran.

Farahmand, J. (1381/2002). Rokn-e Chaharom: Asnad-e Matbuat-e Iran Doreye Qajar [The Fourth Base: Documents of the Press in Qajar Era]. Tarikhe Moaser-e Iran, 23, 355-462. Retrieved from

Frye, R. N. (1983). The Political History of Iran under the Sasanians. In E. Yarshater (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Vol. 3 (1), pp. 116-180). U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Genette, G. (1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. (J. E. Lewin, Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghani, C. (2000). The 1919 Agreement. In C. Ghani, Iran and the Rise of the Reza Shah: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Power (pp. 21-39). London & New York: I.B.Tauris.

Gharebaghi, M., & Asghari, H. (1378/2000). Ghanoun-e Matbouat az Mashrūtiyyat ta Emrooz [Press Laws from Mashrūtiyyat until Today]. Tehran: Pangan Publication.

Golshaeian, M. (1304/1925). Translator's Preface. In M. Leblanc, Ghasre Marmooz (Aiguille Creuse). Tehran: Boosfour Publication.

Ha’eri Sadr al-Maʿāli, H. (1286/1907). Translator's preface. In G. W. Reynolds, Boose-ye Azrā (The Bronze Statue, Or, the Virgin's Kiss) (pp. 2-7). Teharan: Farous Publication.

Karimi-Hakkak, A. (2009). Persian tradition. In M. Baker, & G. Saldanha (Eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (2nd ed., pp. 493-501). London & New York: Routledge.

Keddie, N., & Amanat, M. (1991). Iran Under the Later Qajars, 1848-1922. In P. Avery, G. Hambly, & C. Mellville (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Iran (Vol. 7). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Koskinen, K. (2000). Beyond Ambivalence: Postmodernity and the Ethics of Translation. Finland: University of Tampere. Retrieved from

Melikiyans, M. (1290/1911). Translator's preface. In A. Aharonian, Diyar-e Ashkbar (Tearful Land). Tehran: Farous Publication.

Pourbakhtiar, G. (1387/2008). Sardar As'ad Bakhtiari va koosheshhay-e farhangi [Sardar As'ad Bakhtiari and his cultural endeavors]. Ganjine-ye asnad, 69, 19-24.

Rashidvash, V. (2012). History of Iran: The Circumstances of Signing Golestan and Turkmanchy Treaties and its Contents. International Review of Social Sciences and Humanities, 3(1), 246-261.

Sajjadi, T. a.-M. (1291/1913). Translator's Preface. In Ketab-e Abi [Blue Book]. Tehran: Baradaran-e Bagherzadeh Publication.

Shadmohammadi, M. (2005). Translation movement and emergence of modern intellectual life in Qajar period. Translation Studies, 3(10), 7-26.

Stolper, M. W. & Gragg, G. (1998) “Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions from Persepolis in Electronic Form”, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago News & Notes, 157, 1-19

Tabrizi, M. (1288/1909). Translator's Preface. In Tārikh-e Aqṣā-ye Sharq yā Moḥārebey-e Rous va Zhapon [A History of the Far East or the Russo-Japanese War] (pp. 2-4). Shiraz: Haji Sheykh Ahmad Publication.

Venuti, L. (2008). The Translator's Invisibility: A history of translation (2 ed.). USA & Canada: Routledge.

Zarrinkub, A.-H. (1975). The Arab Conquest of Iran and its Aftermath. In R. N. Frye (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran: The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs (Vol. 4, pp. 1-56). U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


[1] See Stolper & Gragg  (1998).

[2] See Karimi-Hakkak (2009).

[3] See Frye (1983).

[4] See Zarrinkub (1975).

[5] See Baker  & Hanna  (2009).

[6] See Shadmohammadi (2005).

[7] All translations from Persian are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[8] See Ghani (2000).

[9] This newspaper was called Shafaq-i Surkh (The Red Twilight), which was published from 1922 until 1935 in Tehran.

[10] See Pourbakhtiar (1387/2008).

About the author(s)

Zahra Atefmehr received her master’s degree in Translation Studies from the Department of English Translation Studies, Allameh Tabataba’i University in 2015. She is currently a PhD student in Translation Studies at Allameh Tabataba’i University. Her main research interests lie in the history of translation in Iran, in particular history of translation and translators during the 19th and early 20th century (The Qajar era).

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MultiMeDialecTranslation 7 – Dialect translation in multimedia

By The Editors


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Dialogue interpreting. A guide to interpreting in Public Services and the Community

By Natacha Niemants (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy)


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About the author(s)

Free-lance conference interpreter and translator in Italian, French, English and German, I carried out a PhD project on the Training of Dialogue Interpreters at the
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and work there as a Postdoc. I previously taught French-Italian translation and interpreting at the University of Macerata
and the University of Bologna, where I’m currently offering French-Italian tutoring services to MA interpreting students. My research interests include the
following: interpreting in healthcare, interpreters’ training, role-play and task-based language teaching, computer assisted language learning, transcription,
conversation analysis, and TV interpreting.

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Cfp: Translation meets Book History: Intersections 1700-1900

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Giovanni Nadiani in Memoriam

By Koloman Brenner & Irmeli Helin (Univ. of Eötvös Loránd, Hungary & Turku, Finland)

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Traurig und mit großer Dankbarkeit gedenken wir unseres Kollegen und Freundes Giovanni Nadiani. Gern erinnern wir uns an seine vielseitige wissenschaftliche Arbeit für die Dialektforschung und Übersetzungswissenschaft. Maßstäbe gesetzt haben die zwei internationalen Konferenzen zu Dialektübersetzung und Dialekten in Multimedia, die er in Forlì 2007 und 2010 in hervorragender Weise organisiert hat. Neben der Wissenschaft zeigte Giovanni auch eine ausgeprägte literarische Begabung, wie die Veröffentlichung mehrerer Sammlungen von Dialektgedichten und von Theaterstücken im Dialekt eindrucksvoll belegt. Er war einer der Gründer unseres Teams, das bisher sechs MultiMeDialecTrans -Symposien organisiert hat und weiter organisiert. Giovanni Nadiani mit seinem freundlichen Wesen wird uns allen in bester Erinnerung bleiben.

Das MMDT Scientific Team
Koloman Brenner, Ungarn
Klaus Geyer, Dänemark
Irmeli Helin, Finnland
Mihaela Koletnik, Slowenien
Herta Maurer-Lausegger, Österreich

It is with sadness and a great sense of loss that we share the news of the death of our colleague and mutual friend Giovanni Nadiani in August 2016, after a prolonged illness.  We salute with gratitude his diverse contributions in the academic world, especially in research into dialects and translation. In this respect, the two highly successful international conferences under the themes of Translation of Dialect and Use of Dialect in Multimedia that he organised in Forli, Italy, in 2007 and 2010 served as important milestones. Our MMDT Scientific Team has already organized six MultiMeDialecTrans Symposia with Giovanni among the founders of this Symposium. His work will be continued in these symposia. Yet, Giovanni was not only an academic scholar; he had outstanding literary talent, manifested by his anthologies of poems in dialect and his plays written in dialect. Giovanni Nadiani was a friendly and co-operative person whose memory will always remain in our hearts.

Kollegamme ja yhteinen ystävämme Giovanni Nadiani poistui keskuudestamme pitkällisen sairauden murtamana elokuussa 2016. Kiitollisina muistelemme sitä monipuolista ja tieteellistä työtä, jota hän teki murteen tutkimuksen ja käännöstieteen parissa. Erityisen tärkeitä virstanpylväitä olivat ne kaksi kansainvälistä, suuren menestyksen saavuttanutta konferenssia, jotka hän järjesti Forlìssa 2007 ja 2010, ja joiden teemana olivat murteen kääntäminen ja murteen käyttö multimediassa. Giovanni ei ollut vain tiedemies ja tutkija, vaan myös erinomainen kirjallinen lahjakkuus, josta osoituksina ovat hänen murrerunokokoelmansa ja murteella kirjoitetut näytelmänsä.  MMDT Scientific Teamimme on järjestänyt jo kuusi MultiMeDialecTrans –symposiumia, ja Giovanni oli yksi sen perustajista. Näissä symposiumeissa hänen työnsä jatkuu edelleen. Ystävällisen ja avuliaan Giovanni Nadianin muisto säilyy lähtemättömästi sydämissämme.

About the author(s)

Koloman Brenner was born 1968 in Ödenburg/Sopron (Hungary). Bilingual (German-Hungarian) education. University studies in German language, literature and History at the University of Szeged. 1993-1997 assistant at the German Department of the University of Szombathely, 1997-2000 assistant professor at the University of Veszprém, since 2000 assistant professor at the Institute for German Studies of Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. 2006-2001 Dean´s commissioner at the Faculty of Humanities, 2011-2015 Vice-Dean for strategic operations. Teaching and searching in German phonetics and dialectology, multilingualism and language policy. Member of the National Self-Government of Germans in Hungary.

Irmeli Helin is professor of German Translation and Interpretation, University of Turku, Department of Linguistics and Translation Studies, adjunct professor of German Translation and Terminology, University of Helsinki. Main research areas: translation of dialects, retranslation, evidentiality and terminology. Member of the international scientific committee of MMDT

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Screening the foreign: directionality strategies used in the dubbing of Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun

By Dominic Stewart (Università di Trento, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

In the literature on dubbing there has been very little focus on the issue of directionality within the context of multilingual films. This paper hopes to redress the balance by focusing on the Italian dubbing of two English-language films – Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun – the aim being to exemplify how the inherent alterity of foreign films can be foregrounded or suppressed by directionality strategies in the dubbing process.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, dubbing, directionality, accents, multilingual films

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In the burgeoning research on film and television dubbing some important themes have received recurrent attention, while others have received very little. Much discussion has been devoted, for example, to topics such as dubbing vs subtitling, dubbing as duplicity and as verbal acrobatics, dubbese and viewers’ perceptions of it, but there has been relatively little focus on how dubbing deals (i) with directionality, that is, the rapport between native and non-native usage in the transfer from source text to target text, and (ii) with multilingual films offering metalinguistic scenarios where the language of either the source text or the target text is the object of discussion or attention. Bollettieri-Bosinelli (2002: 84) recalls ‘l'incongruità di certi western in cui l'ufficiale yankee chiedeva al capo indiano "Capisce l'inglese?", del tutto improbabile in un film parlato interamente in italiano’ [‘the incongruousness of westerns in which the Yankee officer asked the Indian chief “Do you understand English”, totally implausible in a film entirely in Italian’]. Along the same lines Bollettieri-Bosinelli (1994: 25) discusses ‘…certi doppiaggi degli anni cinquanta, dove poteva capitare di sentire in un western un ufficiale bianco […] chiedere con inconfondibile accento romanesco al capo indiano se parla italiano’ [‘…some examples of dubbing from the 1950s, in which you could hear a white officer in a western […] asking the Indian chief in an unmistakable Roman accent if he speaks Italian’]. In these examples it is the multilingual scenario which is salient, but the issue of directionality is also relevant, because a decision has to be taken regarding the presumably non-native English of the Indian chief and how his voice is to be dubbed into Italian.

In this paper I intend to focus on directionality within the framework of multilingual films dubbed from English into Italian, with a view to illustrating how directionality strategies can foreground or suppress the cultural and linguistic otherness of foreign films. Particular attention will be devoted to Eat, Pray, Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010) and Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells, 2003).

Directionality in dubbing

It should be underlined from the outset that the interpretation of directionality in this paper is unorthodox. The concept usually refers to whether translators work into a native language or into a non-native language, and therefore the mother tongue of the translator is central to the issue (see for example Pokorn 2005, Beeby Lonsdale 2009). In this sense directionality is to be distinguished from direction of translation, which is concerned simply with which languages are part of the translation process and in which direction one moves between them (for example from Swedish to French or from French to Swedish), irrespective of native/non-native language contrasts. For present purposes, however, ‘directionality’ or ‘dubbing directionality’ refers to the interplay between native and non-native language production across original films and dubbed films, in other words the way in which native and non-native usage in the source text are reproduced in the target text.

Four modes of directionality may be posited. In the explanations, as in the entire paper, I shall refer to the direction English to Italian:

Native → native

It goes without saying that native language production in the original is almost always translated with native language production in the dubbed version. Native English, whether it be Scottish, Canadian, New Zealand etc. is almost always dubbed into native Italian. Of course the distinction between mother tongue and foreign language is not always clear-cut, since there are many varieties of a language which hover between native and non-native status (see Davies 2003), but  the native → native directionality accounts for the great majority of dubbing activities, whatever the languages involved.

This directionality naturally includes those cases where a regional English accent is rendered with a regional Italian accent (Pavesi 2005: 38, Bruti 2009, Chiaro 2009: 158-9), though in practice this happens very rarely, the most obvious example being The Simpsons, in which for example a Scottish accent is rendered by a Sardinian accent. In passing it is worth noting that regional Italian accents are certainly used in dubbing, but as a rule they do not correspond to marked regional English accents in the original – perhaps the most striking example of this is the Italian version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975), which contains a generous sprinkling of Tuscan, Bolognese, Milanese and Sicilian, but for the most part these do not translate regional accents in the English version. A further example of this is the Roman accent adopted in the Night at the Museum films (Shawn Levy) for the Roman centurion Octavius, assigned standard British English in the original film.

Non-native → non-native

The modality whereby a non-native English accent is dubbed with a non-native Italian accent is common, and examples readily spring to mind: the voices of the French Inspector Clouseau, of Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot, of the character Zorro, and, to cite an instance from one of the films that will be analysed later in this essay, the Brazilian businessman played by Javier Bardem in Eat, Pray, Love. Examples abound in animated pictures too: Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) in the Shrek films and Lumière the French candelabra in Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991). Here the decision to dub these characters with non-native production is an obvious one because the non-native accent is a defining characteristic of the personalities in question (see Heiss 2004: 212-3 for further discussion), but it should also be pointed out that this directionality is frequently associated with comic, caricatural figures whose non-native accent contributes significantly to the humour. In this connection it is interesting to compare this modality with those described below.

Native → non-native

The native → non-native modality is predictably less common than those outlined above, given that this study is confined to native / non-native production from English to Italian, and therefore does not embrace instances where, for example (in an English-language film), native French – perhaps subtitled in the original – is rendered with non-native Italian (Italian pronounced with a French accent and/or characterised by imperfect lexis and grammar). Within the parameters set by this paper the most obvious example of native to non-native is Stanlio e Olio / Laurel and Hardy, where Stan’s native English and Oliver’s native American are both rendered with comically non-native Italian (see Bollettieri-Bosinelli 1994: 20). Here again it is the comic nature of the protagonists which is a crucial factor in the decision to dub them as non-native, and again this modality is more widespread when comic or cartoon characters are involved. Further examples are the English geese in The Aristocats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970; see Bruti 2009) and the Scottish hen in the animated picture Chicken Run (Peter Lord and Nick Park, 2000), which is assigned a strong German accent in the Italian version (Chiaro 2009: 159).

One might also include occurrences where pidgin English is rendered with non-native Italian, but on the whole this directionality is comparatively rare.

Non-native → native

As a rule this modality applies when the non-nativeness of a character’s accent is barely noticeable or is irrelevant. For instance in the film Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) there are a few non-native English accents, two of which are scarcely perceptible either because their English is near-native (the boss’s secretary Mia played by Heike Makatsch), or because they say very little (the office-worker Karl, played by Rodrigo Santoro), in contrast to Aurelia the Portuguese maid/waitress (Lúcia Moniz), whose difficulties in English are central to one of the film’s storylines. Thus Mia and Karl are dubbed with a native Italian accent, while Aurelia is assigned non-native Italian. In some films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor’s non-native English accent is not germane to the American character he portrays and in any case remains unemphasised, so his non-nativeness is eliminated in the Italian dubbing. The same goes for certain films of Antonio Banderas, for instance You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen, 2010). This happens in animated pictures too, for example in The Aristocats the character Duchess, voiced in the source text with a French accent by the Hungarian actress Eva Gabor, is assigned native Italian in the target text, notwithstanding the occasional French word (in particular Monsieur). A truly exceptional case is once again to be found in the dubbing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which a French soldier speaking English with a French accent is transformed into an Austrian speaking native Sicilian.

A case apart within this category is that of Italian actors who speak English in English-language films. In the majority of cases the actors in question are playing Italian characters and so naturally they dub themselves into Italian, thus their non-native English in the source text is converted to native Italian in the target text. (Of course there are also cases of Italian actors playing non-Italian characters in English-language films, for example Gian Maria Volonté as a Colombian in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Francesco Rosi, 1987) and Giancarlo Giannini as a Mexican patriarch in A Walk in the Clouds (Alfonso Arau, 1995).) Examples of this are not hard to locate: a fairly recent example is the film The Tourist (2010, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), set in Venice, in which several Italian actors, including Christian De Sica, Nino Frassica and Neri Marcoré dub themselves in the Italian version. The transformation is usually non-traumatic, since the characters are Italian anyway, but of course with this solution the linguistic differentiation between the Italian and non-Italian characters of the source version disappears in the dubbing, in which for example the characters played by Christian De Sica and Johnny Depp address each other in native Italian. This is just one more case among countless others where ‘il doppiaggio non riesce […] a riproporre le spesso numerose varianti linguistiche e sociolinguistiche presenti nella versione di partenza’ [‘the dubbing cannot […] preserve the often numerous linguistic and sociolinguistic variants present in the source text’] (Perego and Taylor 2012: 124). To offset the lack of differentiation the Italian characters’ voices are sometimes given a more regional or colloquial emphasis, in contrast to the fairly flat Italian accent used for the non-Italian characters; for example Raoul Bova speaks non-native English in Under the Tuscan Sun but has traces of Neapolitan in the dubbing.

Multilingual films

Multilingualism is another term which needs to be qualified, at least within the context of film production. As the epitome of a multilingual film one instinctively thinks of works such as L’auberge espagnole (Cédric Klapisch, 2002) in which an array of languages is spoken, but in reality the range can be restricted to just one more language beyond the basic language of the film – see Chaume (2012: 131) and Chiaro (2009: 159), who alludes to the ‘translational quandary’ deriving from films of this type.  See also Heiss (2004).

In this regard Chaume (2012: 132) distinguishes between the main language of a film (L1), the dubbing language (L2) and any other languages (L3) used during the course of the film. He goes on to discuss the various ways of dealing with L3 in dubbing, but points out that the issue becomes more complicated when the L3 corresponds to the L2, that is, to the dubbing language, and here too different strategies may be adopted: zero translation, translation into a different accent, translation into a different language altogether. This latter strategy is exemplified by Chaume with reference to the Spanish version of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), in which an impromptu Spanish lesson is transformed into a lesson of Portuguese, but in the literature one can find references to analogous occurrences between English and Italian, notably in A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988), where Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) becomes aroused whenever she hears Italian words (Bollettieri-Bosinelli 2002: 84-5, Chiaro 2009: 259). In the Italian version the words spoken by her lover Otto (Kevin Klein) are transformed into Spanish, for example spaghetti, Mussolini and San Pietro are converted to paella, Franco and El Prado. In this regard one is reminded of the Spanish dubbing of the celebrated British sitcom Fawlty Towers, in which Manuel, the waiter from Barcelona, is transformed into Paolo from Naples.

Comparable problems arise when it is the L1 which is the object of attention, for example in Love Actually when the Englishman Colin is in an American bar getting to know some local girls who are fascinated and amused by his southern English accent:

Stacey: That is so funny! What do you call that?
Colin: Er, bottle.
Girls: Bottle!!
Carol-Anne: What about this?
Colin: Er, straw.
Girls: Straw!!
Jeannie: What about this?
Colin: Table.
Jeannie: Table. The same.
Stacey: Oh, it's the same.

Here the humour of the scene hinges on regional accents rather than different languages: in the dubbing the phonetic differences between English and American are dealt with on the lexical axis, albeit rather improbably: bottle is converted to boccia (which usually corresponds to ‘carafe’ or ‘jug’) and straw becomes succhialiquido (an unusual term literally corresponding to ‘liquid sucker’, i.e., an object used for sucking liquid).

When L2 and L3 coincide: Eat, Pray, Love

The fascination that Italian life and culture continue to hold above all for the British and the Americans is reflected in the fact that so many films have been dedicated to the experiences of British and Americans in Italy, whether the protagonists take up residence there or are just passing through. Such films can be divided, albeit simplistically, into two main types. The first is where the protagonist merely scratches the surface of the Italian language and culture, for example Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick, 2010), in which the American and British protagonists make no earnest attempt to speak Italian or learn about Italian culture (though the character played by Vanessa Redgrave is in search of her Italian love of long before). The second type features characters who take active steps to familiarise themselves with the Italian language and/or Italian culture, for example Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun. For both these types the main characters are dubbed according to the modality native → native described above, that is, native English is transformed into native Italian.

Since in part these films are set in Italy the modality native → native can produce dubbing complications, particularly as regards the second type above, and it often takes a real sleight of hand to make it work. In the film Eat, Pray, Love the character Liz (Julia Roberts), who initially speaks no Italian, has a sojourn in Rome – during which she has Italian lessons and makes a number of friends – before continuing on her travels. As stated, the character is dubbed into native Italian, so the fact that she needs to pull out an Italian-English dictionary every now and then is incongruous, but this is played down in the dubbing by making the character recite names of celebrated Italian dishes whenever she does so, a logical move in that she subsequently enthuses about Italian cuisine. This is the first example in the film of the coinciding of L2 (the dubbing language) and L3 (a foreign language in the original film). Then when Liz first meets the Swedish woman Sofi in a bar, her remark ‘your Italian’s fantastic’ is transformed into ti comporti proprio da vera romana [‘you really behave like a true Roman’] and Sofi’s reply ‘I have a wonderful tutor’ becomes ho un cicerone personale, conosce Roma a memoria [‘I have a personal guide, he knows Rome by heart’].

Here the L2-L3 conundrum, as in the sequence described above from A Fish Called Wanda, is easily solved, but this is a different scenario from Otto’s passionate articulations in Italian because (i) the relevant section of Eat, Pray, Love is set in Italy whereas A Fish Called Wanda is set in London, and (ii) Italian is much more explicitly the object of metalinguistic discussion. Indeed the coinciding of L2 and L3 becomes more convoluted when Liz subsequently begins Italian lessons. Here transforming the language being discussed into Spanish (as in A Fish Called Wanda), French etc. is clearly not an option – the idea that an American woman with no knowledge of foreign languages settles in Rome for a few months in order to learn Spanish or French would be decidedly far-fetched, whatever the degree of tolerance of Italian audiences when confronted with foreign influences in film dialogues (Ulrych 1996: 157). In the case in point the strategy adopted is to convert Liz’s meetings with her teacher into lessons on Latin and on the city of Rome. In the source text the Italian lesson includes an explanation of the past tense conjugation of the verb attraversare [‘to cross’], which in the target text becomes:

Original version

Dubbed version

Back translation

Liz: (out of shot) - - -

Liz: I monumenti di Roma sono pieni di frasi latine. Mi aiuti a capire qualcosa?

The monuments of Rome are full of Latin sentences. Would you help me understand?

Giovanni: You can say: Egli attraversò [=‘He crossed’].

Giovanni: Come no! Partiamo dalla prima in classifica: SPQR.

Of course. Let’s start from the most popular: SPQR.

Liz: Egli attraversò [=‘He crossed’].

Liz: Non significa senatus qualcosa?

Doesn’t that mean senatus something?

Giovanni: It’s a past. Noi attraversammo [=‘We crossed’].

Giovanni: Senatus populusque ecc. Sai come lo traduciamo qui a Roma?

Senatus populusque etc. Do you know how we translate this in Rome?

Liz: Noi attraversammo [=‘We crossed’].

Liz: No, come lo traduciamo a Roma?

No, how do we translate this in Rome?

Giovanni: Voi attraversaste, essi attraversarono [=‘You crossed, they crossed’].

Giovanni: Sono porci questi romani. Quale preferisci dei due?

These Romans are pigs. Which do you prefer of the two?

Liz: Too fast. OK.

Liz: La versione originale. Vai avanti.

The original version. Go on.

Aside from the fact that the solution adopted challenges the much-hyped notion that translations tend to be more conservative than originals (see Pavesi 2005: 56-7), it seems to work, except where Liz subsequently expatiates upon the beautiful sounds of Latin. More generally in the film the protagonist’s progress/difficulties in Italian are converted into progress/difficulties concerning the Roman way of doing things, particularly eating. When some time later Liz shows off to her Roman friends by summoning the waiter and ordering a meal in a Roman restaurant, once again she clearly cannot do so in Spanish, French etc. in the target text – the only option is Italian (or perhaps Roman dialect, though that really would stretch the boundaries of credibility), the emphasis falling upon her conversance with local culinary specialities rather than with the Italian language.

As regards directionality, in the dubbing the voice of the character played by Roberts undergoes for the most part the transition native → native, though there is a very restricted smattering of non-native → native, because in the original Liz utters a few phrases in (non-native) Italian which are duly converted to native Italian in the target text. The voices of the Roman characters undergo the transformation non-native → native, that is, they are converted from non-native English to native Italian, with the actors dubbing themselves (the Swedish character Sofi is also converted to native Italian, though she has near-native English anyway). There are thus two different directionalities at work here, and yet, intriguingly, both are characterised by a single underlying precept: the suppression of the foreign. As a result of the modality native → native, Liz’s difficulties as a foreigner in Italy learning Italian are eliminated, and with the conversion non-native → native all the foreign (English) accents have disappeared. These factors, particularly the prophylactic solution of blocking out Liz’s Italian language-learning activities altogether, mean that, at least from a linguistic point of view, the foreignness of the Italian part of this film has been diluted considerably. Before commenting on this methodology let us now compare the strategies adopted in another film recounting the experiences of an American woman in Italy: Under the Tuscan Sun.

When L2 and L3 coincide: Under the Tuscan Sun

The film Under the Tuscan Sun also concerns an American woman with no Italian who goes on holiday to Italy, but in this case the protagonist decides on the spur of the moment to buy a house in Cortona, Tuscany. Most of the dialogue in the source text takes place in English, whether the native English of the protagonist Frances (played by Diane Lane) and of her friends Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who is English, and Patti (Sandra Oh), who is American, or the non-native English of Frances’ Italian friends, including Marcello (Raoul Bova) and her estate agent (Vincent Riotta), and of Pawel (Pawel Szajda), one of the Polish labourers who are restoring her newly-acquired house. There are several sequences in Italian, produced for example by the elderly owner of the property that Frances then purchases, by an elderly grandmother who complains that her South American e-mail buddy no longer writes to her, by Chiara, a young Italian woman who falls in love with Pawel, and very occasionally by Frances herself. Thus again we have moments when, in Chaume’s terms, L2 (the dubbing language) coincides with L3 (a foreign language in the original film) within a multilingual film. Yet as far as directionality is concerned, it is particularly striking that although Italian is rarely the explicit object of discussion or attention in the dialogues, directionality issues in the Italian version of Under the Tuscan Sun are frequent. Indeed all four modalities of directionality are recurrent:

  1. native → native: as a rule the American and English characters’ native English is dubbed into native Italian, though some exceptions are made, particularly for the protagonist (see below).
  2. non-native → non-native: the young Polish labourer Pawel speaks non-native English and is occasionally dubbed into non-native Italian, although as discussed in (iii) below his exchanges with Frances in English are almost always subtitled into Italian.
  3. native → non-native:  earlier it was underlined that this modality is normally reserved for comic situations but here it is not. Firstly, the histrionic Katherine is basically dubbed into native Italian but with the occasional non-native sound, presumably to emphasise her quaint Englishness. Secondly, there are several moments when Katherine and above all Frances are dubbed in English, with Italian subtitles, by the Italian dubbers themselves. Sometimes it is a question of just a couple of words inserted here and there – which usually results in some very abrupt code-switching – and sometimes several lines in succession. This strategy occurs most often when Frances addresses the Polish Pawel. An example is the following, where Frances discovers Pawel and his girlfriend Chiara in bed together in her bedroom. The dubbed exchange has Italian subtitles:

Original version

Dubbed version

Pawel: I’m sorry Frances.

Pawel: I’m sorry Frances.

Frances: Sorry?!

Frances: [Italian dubber’s voice] Sorry?!

Pawel: We have nowhere else to go to be together!

Pawel: We have nowhere else to go to be together!

Frances: Well what does that make me? Saint Francesca: patron saint of horny teenagers? Pawel, you were doing it in my bed!  I don’t even do it in my bed!

Frances: [Italian dubber’s voice] Well what does that make me? Santa Francesca: patron saint of horny teenagers? Pawel, nel mio letto, in my bed!  I don’t even do it in my bed!

In this and in many other cases Frances’ lines are reproduced in English (sometimes with interjections in Italian, such as nel mio letto above) by the Italian dubbers and with a non-native accent, a move which constitutes a curious instance of the modality native → non-native.

  1. non-native → native: all the English-speaking Italian characters in the original are converted to native Italian in the dubbing, again with the actors dubbing themselves. The sporadic instances of Frances expressing herself in non-native Italian are converted to native Italian.

Code-switching is a salient feature of the dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun. The exchange between Frances and Pawel above provides a glimpse of this, but a more evident  example is when Frances visits Rome and is importuned by three workmen who chase her through the streets. Desperate to get away from them, she grabs the arm of a passer-by, Marcello (Raoul Bova), and kisses him on the cheek. Once again in the dubbed version there are Italian subtitles for the parts in English:

Original version

Dubbed version

Back translation

Frances: I’ve been looking for you everywhere! You said you were going to meet me, I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes. What am I going to do with you? …

Frances: [Italian dubber’s voice] There you are, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Hai detto che saresti venuto a prendermi. Ho aspettato venti minuti, ma dove sei finito?


There you are, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You said you’d come and get me. I waited 20 minutes, where did you get to?

Marcello: - - -

Marcello: Ma lei chi è?

But who are you?

Frances: I’m sorry. Mi scusi, eh? Thank you.

Frances: [Italian dubber’s voice] I’m sorry. Mi scusi eh? Grazie, scusi.


I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

Thanks, sorry.

Marcello: You just kiss me and now you’re going?

Marcello: Wait, un momento, non si fa così. Mi ha appena baciato!

Wait a minute, you can’t do that! You’ve just kissed me!

Frances: Yes, I’m sorry.

Frances: [Italian dubber’s voice] Yes, I’m sorry.

Yes, I’m sorry.

The brusque code-switching, the recurrent subtitling and the liberal use of all four directionalities in the dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun are in marked contrast with the strategies used for the dubbing of the Roman part of Eat, Pray, Love, where there is very little code-switching and subtitling, and where just two directionalities predominate: native → native and non-native → native. Overall, the approach adopted in Under the Tuscan Sun informs the dubbed product with a degree of linguistic complexity which is perhaps to be attributed to the wish to retain the foreignness and alterity of the film, by contrast with the Roman part of Eat, Pray, Love, where the foreignness is toned down considerably by the dubbing.

An obvious question at this point is whether such linguistic complexity can be taken on board by the average viewer, and an equally obvious question regards the pros and cons of these two very different methodologies, but in order to suggest some constructive answers we need to consider the issues raised within the broader topic of the tolerance of filmic language and situations in general.

Tolerance thresholds

In the literature on dubbing there is no shortage of references to filmic language – both original and dubbed – as an illusion. According to Perego and Taylor (2012: 71-2):

La doppiezza che caratterizza il dialogo filmico si riscontra anche in altre dicotomie interessanti, tra le quali ricordiamo il fatto di non essere spontaneo ma di dover apparire tale; il fatto di essere permanente ma di dover apparire effimero; il fatto di essere proferito da attori che sembrano parlare naturalmente ma in realtà recitano; e infine il fatto che il pubblico accetta l’illusione linguistica cui è esposto pur nella consapevolezza che si tratti di finzione.

[the dual nature of film language is also to be found within other interesting dichotomies, such as not being spontaneous but having to seem spontaneous, such as being permanent but having to seem temporary, such as being produced by actors who appear to be talking naturally but in reality are acting, and such as the fact that the audience accepts the linguistic illusion despite being aware that it is all fiction].

Lionello (1994:  46) takes the view that ‘il primo falso del doppiaggio è l’originale stesso’ [‘the primary falsity of dubbing is the original film’], and Fink (1994: 34) asserts that ‘il doppiaggio non fa che aggiungere artificio ad artificio, un livello ulteriore di finzione a un testo [‘dubbing simply adds artifice to artifice, constituting a further level of fiction’].’ See also Chiaro (2008: 243).

It is clear that as film viewers we are invited to take on board a series of linguistic illusions already present in the original version. I was interested to note that in two recent English-language films, Night Train to Lisbon (Billie August, 2013) and The Family (Luc Besson, 2013) set respectively in Lisbon and in a village in France, the local people, almost without exception, boast a most impressive command of English. This already stretches belief, as does the fact that when the Portuguese characters of Night Train to Lisbon address each other with no-one else present they do so in English with a Portuguese accent. These are common scenarios – one need only recall war films where for example German officers regularly communicate with each other in accented English – now so tried, tested and accepted that even when situations of this type are far-fetched they may still pass unnoticed. The Family describes the experience of an American mafia boss who becomes an informer and then leaves America with his family for a village in France under the FBI witness protection scheme. A part of the film describes the first day in the nearby school of the two children in the family, one of whom, the fourteen-year old Warren (John D’Leo),  is confronted during the break by two of his new French classmates. Bear in mind that this is not by any stretch of the imagination an international school – it is a small, local school chosen by the FBI for reasons of anonymity:

French classmate: You gonna act the smartarse with us?
Warren: OK. Can we just cut to the chase here? What game are you in? Bullying? Protection? Shakedowns? You got a monopoly or do you divvy up the market? What do you reinvest your dough in?

I am a native speaker of English but on first hearing this sequence I had to replay it. The fast delivery, the New York accent and the generous sprinkling of colloquialisms, plus Warren’s almost expressionless and gesture-free communication, made it difficult to follow. Things improved with the second listening but only by the third did I manage to grasp all of it. Fearing the age factor (the boy is 14, I am considerably older), I played the clip to my final-year Italian university students (target C2 English language level), who were barely able to understand even the drift of the exchange, let alone the individual words. The two local 14/15-year old French boys, however, not only assimilate Warren’s message in a flash but are so completely enraged by it that they beat him up on the spot. Yet despite the total implausibility of all this it is hard to imagine that anyone but a language expert would object to it. It seems legitimate to assume here that the viewer’s tolerance threshold is fairly high.

Similarly, in Under the Tuscan Sun the farmers of Cortona speak fluent English and there are even a couple of elderly country women who can follow rapid English dialogue rather too effortlessly. Thus it is often the case that, in the name of smooth, comprehensible running of a story, we are required as viewers to suspend linguistic disbelief, and within this framework dubbing is just one more element contributing to that suspension of disbelief across the board (Bucaria 2008, Chaume 2012: 16). In consideration of this one wonders why the dubbers of Eat, Pray, Love went to such extraordinary lengths to cover up the fact that an American woman in Rome is learning Italian. Since her Italian lesson (which occupies a good 5-6 minutes of the film) regards the passato remoto / simple past of the verb attraversare, it would not have been an insurmountable to task to convey that the protagonist is used to adopting only the passato prossimo / perfect tense and that therefore she is experiencing a degree of difficulty with the passato remoto, so widespread in Rome and in the south of Italy but much less so elsewhere, and in the dubbing this could have been mixed in with the already present element of learning aspects of Roman life and culture. In another part of the film Liz is given an informal lesson on the Italian habit of gesturing to support the spoken word, but for present purposes this seems to me on more or less the same level as her taking lessons of Italian. If viewers can suspend enough belief to take on board that a character producing native Italian is unaware of the fact that Italians frequently accompany their speech with gestures, then they should be able to handle that same character having difficulty with the passato remoto.

The dubbing strategies characterizing Under the Tuscan Sun, on the other hand, are very different in that the foreignness of especially Frances but also of other characters is constantly foregrounded, is very ‘in-your-face’. As noted above in the analysis of directionality, in the more methodologically complex dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun non-nativeness is much more salient, combined as it is with code-switching and the recurrent use of subtitles, and it makes sense to ask ourselves whether viewers are able to absorb and accept such strategies. My hypothesis – based on the suspension of disbelief argument above and on the fact we do not need to understand absolutely everything in order to appreciate a film – is that they are, notwithstanding the fact that there are undoubtedly moments when the complexity of the translation issues in Under the Tuscan Sun risks compromising a smooth understanding of the dialogues. During a dinner hosted by a family from Cortona, a man without much English sitting next to Frances is becoming very friendly. The source and target dialogues are as follows:

Original version

Dubbed version

Back translation

Man: Nubile? [=‘Are you single?’].

Man: È sposata?

Are you married?

Frances: Eh?

Frances: No, non più.

No, not any more.

Man: Ahm… Celibate?

Man: Ah no? Meeting? Un appuntamento?

Ah no? Meeting? An appointment?

Frances: Celibate… Celibate? Celibate! No, I mean… Ah, well, no … Well, actually I have to admit it has been a while!

Frances: Meeting… Un appuntamento?

[Man: Sì!]  Un appuntamento! No, insomma … Lei vuole prendere un appuntamento?!

Meeting? An appointment?

[Man: Yes!]  An appointment! No, that is … You’d like a meeting with me?!

Katharine: Celibe in Italian means single. He’s not asking when you last had sex, he’s asking whether or not you’re married.

Katharine: Credo che Alberto voglia dire ‘a date’. Vuole sapere se hai una relazione, ‘date’, ecco, non se vuoi un appuntamento con lui.

I think Alberto means ‘a date’. He wants to know if you have a relationship, a ‘date’, not if you want a meeting with him.

Frances: Thank you. No, I’m not.

Frances: Grazie. No, sono single.

Thankyou. No, I’m single.

In my view the original scene is played out well and makes us laugh, perhaps due especially to Frances’ rather crestfallen mien and to the condescending explanation provided by the very posh Katharine, but the dubbed exchange is bewildering because two characters who are after all speaking to each other in native Italian suddenly hit a lexical blind alley for no good reason, especially as it is the Italian man (rather than the non-Italian woman) who inexplicably finds himself unable to call to mind such commonplace words as relazione (relationship) or fidanzato (partner/boyfriend). Then in the following scene the dubbed Katharine, who had confidently asserted in the above exchange that the man was in reality not asking her out, then comforts Frances – who has confessed that she feels she’s made a fool of herself – by saying not to worry about it, that all Italian men try it on, be they married or unmarried.

Of course there are technical restraints such as timing and lip-synch, but there is no escaping that the dubbed exchange reported above doesn’t make much sense. Further, there is some curious subtitled code-switching immediately before and after the exchange that doesn’t aid comprehension at all, which is a pity because as stated above the original scene is clear and amusing. Nevertheless, the images save the day, enabling the viewer to recognise that some sort of attempt to ‘approach’ Frances has been made.

Transparency vs duplicity

Galassi (1994: 65) takes the view that dubbing ‘spesso è un’acrobazia, talvolta un funambolismo’ [‘is often a matter of acrobatics, sometimes of tightrope walking’]. Proof of this is provided by the directionality strategies adopted in Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, though the specific strategies adopted in each film are in stark contrast with each other. The dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun is characterised by complex directionality (all four directionalities are used), and some of the procedures adopted – in particular where the Italian dubbers code-switch, producing English subtitled into Italian – are elaborate and in any case not entirely consistent. Further, the translation of language mistakes and misunderstandings is clumsy, though on occasions the mistake is judiciously ignored, for example when Marcello points to a little girl eating an ice-cream and proudly announces ‘My nephew!’, which is rendered with ‘Mia nipote!’ [= ‘my niece’]. Overall, the foreignising thrust of the target text is conspicuous: the dubbing is in Italian, but the foreignness of the film is all-pervasive. The directionality strategies adopted in the Roman part of Eat, Pray, Love, on the other hand, tend to block out the foreign: certainly the scenarios of the foreigner struggling with Italian and of Italians coping with English have been removed. It is worth noting in passing that not one of the ten or so Italian students of mine (English level C2) who had seen this film only in Italian had actually realised that the real purpose of the meeting between Liz and Giovanni was an Italian lesson.

If, like Paolinelli (2000: 54), we take the view that ‘l’unico doppiaggio degno di nota è quello che non si nota’ [‘the only dubbing worthy of note is that which cannot be noted’] (see also La Trecchia 1998: 116), then clearly the dubbing strategies privileged in Eat, Pray, Love win the day. The dubbing of this film domesticates otherness (see Danan 1991 and Denton 2000) and runs very smoothly as a result. If on the other hand we take the view that ideally the dubbed version should try as far as possible to reproduce the conceptual and situational content of the original, then the more foreignising dynamics of the dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun, notwithstanding the occasional hiccup, would be prioritised.


Generally it is true, as Perego and Taylor (2012: 124) affirm, that ‘il doppiaggio non è una forma traduttiva trasparente ma opaca. Consente di manipolare – e addirittura di censurare, come succedeva soprattutto in passato – il messaggio di partenza senza mettere lo spettatore nelle condizioni di verificare seduta stante il contenuto del messaggio originale’ [‘dubbing is not a transparent but an opaque form of translation. It enables manipulation – and even censuring, as happened above all in the past – of the source message while not allowing the audience to verify during the projection the original content’], a truth epitomised by some of the ingenious dubbing strategies adopted in Eat, Pray, Love. It is striking, however, that in this film such virtuosity is triggered by something as circumstantially innocent as a foreign language lesson, and one cannot help wondering if the acrobatics are really necessary. As viewers we all know that in reality Liz doesn’t speak a word of Italian, we all know that two Portuguese people would not normally address each other in English if no-one else can hear them, just as most of us know that rapidly-delivered New York slang will be way beyond the understanding of fifteen-year-olds in a small French village. When we watch films we suspend belief constantly, it is part and parcel of the viewing experience. So in Eat, Pray, Love is it really necessary, simply because Liz is dubbed into native Italian, to block out altogether the notion that she might have some difficulty at least with the finer points of the Italian language (such as the passato remoto), rather than have her extol the euphony of the sounds of Latin or be told jokes about the Romans being pigs? Such radical outcomes are directly contingent upon the directionality strategies dominating this section of the film (native → native, non-native → native), which have the effect of squeezing out the foreign in favour of the local.

What, on the other hand, makes the dubbing of Under the Tuscan Sun so striking is that, despite the undeniable awkwardness of its directionality strategies, it resists opacity, it creates generous gaps in the dubbing screen and allows alterity to come through. Foreignness is screened but not screened, so to speak. And that, one might tentatively propose, is what the celebrated acrobatics of dubbing should be all about.

Alongside the analysis of other factors such as the rendering of culture-bound realia, jokes and lexis, the study of directionality in dubbing affords insights into the domesticating or foreignising thrust of multilingual products, helping us to gauge and to decide to what degree foreignness is toned down or foregrounded in the process of transfer from one language and/or culture to another.


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About the author(s)

Dominic Stewart is Associate Professor in English Language and Translation at the Department of Literature and Philosophy of the University of Trento, Italy

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"Screening the foreign: directionality strategies used in the dubbing of Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun"
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Dire la verità mentendo

By Anabela Cristina Costa da Silva Ferreira (University of Bologna, Italy)


©inTRAlinea & Anabela Cristina Costa da Silva Ferreira (2016).
"Dire la verità mentendo"
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About the author(s)

I’m a translator as well as a teacher and researcher at the Scuola di Lingue e Letterature, Traduzione e Interpretazione of the University of Bologna (Forlì Campus), where I teach Portuguese language and culture. My research interests focus on terminology and lexicography, particularly in the legal sphere. I’ve published several Portuguese and Italian dictionaries, whose updated version will soon be available (2017), accompanied by a dedicated app. I’m a representative of the Camões Institute and I’ve been responsible for the Examination Center of Portuguese as a Foreign Language no. 3007 since 2002. In 2003 I found the “Pequena Biblioteca de Português” (Small Portuguese Library) in Forlì. I also study “false friends” cases between portuguese and italian, and the portuguese words in italian language and in “romagnolo” dialect.

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Babel. Festival di letteratura e traduzione

By The Editors


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Fra traduzione e scrittura, senza confini semiotici o letterari

Giovanni Testori e Amleto

By Anna Fochi (Cardiff University, UK)

Abstract & Keywords


In line with cultural approaches that view translation as a continuous process of dislocation and border crossing, the article focuses on the never-ending translating relationship between Giovanni Testori (1923-1993) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Testori’s artistic universe ranges from literature and cinema to painting. Symptomatically, the artist always stresses and violates literary, semiotic and social ‘fences’, which makes his encounter/collision with Hamlet exceptionally complex. The analysis devotes special attention to Testori’s works produced in the years between the late ‘Sixties and the early ‘Seventies, following Hamlet’s meandering ‘voyage’ through drama and film transpositions, as well as semiotic contaminations and border violations, into poetry and painting. Yet, the vital contact with the Shakespearean play is never actually surrendered, in spite of recurring radical metamorphoses. As the analysis points out, the complex evolutions of Testori’s Hamlet reveal a ‘star like contact’ with the inspiring focus rather than on-going linear estrangement. It is this clue which reveals the inner translating nature of a unique artist/hero/text liaison. As a matter of fact, the case study shows that Testori’s tormented chasing of Hamlet can be fully understood only if we approach it from the challenging angle of translation as a disruptive key to creativity and complexity. Hamlet’s multiple dislocations become a paradigmatic experience of hybridization, living on blurred and shifting borders, between creative writing and translation.


Collocandosi nell’ottica di un approccio alla traduzione come processo continuo di dislocamento e superamento di confini, l’articolo riflette sulla necessità, di fronte a esperienze traduttive che esaltano l’ontologica ambiguità della traduzione, che la critica della traduzione letteraria abbandoni la prospettiva analitica del binarismo oppositivo. Lo studio di caso focalizza l’attenzione sul proteiforme e tormentato rapporto traduttivo che lega Giovanni Testori (1923-1993) all’Amleto shakespeariano, come testo teatrale e personaggio.  La natura artistica di Testori, per il suo estendersi dalla letteratura al cinema e alla pittura, continuamente forzando e violando barriere di ogni tipo (fra generi letterari, ma anche fra codici semiotici), rende eccezionalmente complesso il suo scontro/confronto con Amleto. La metodologia di lettura critica necessariamente si adegua, adottando una ‘focalizzazione mobile’, per potersi muovere liberamente oltre i confini del testo singolo, sia esso scritto o visivo, e sempre cercando di cogliere il carattere fluido di questa singolare esperienza traduttiva. L’articolo prende in particolare considerazione le opere prodotte dall’artista lombardo tra fine anni Sessanta e inizio anni Settanta, seguendone il personalissimo ‘pedinamento’ di Amleto attraverso trasposizioni teatrali e filmiche, contaminazioni semiotiche, ‘sconfinamenti’ nella poesia e nella pittura. Le metamorfosi sono sorprendenti e radicali, ma il contatto diretto con il testo shakespeariano non è mai veramente tagliato. La conclusione dello studio di caso è che la chiave interpretativa dell’Amleto testoriano va cercata nella condizione stessa dell’ibrido e dell’ambiguità, condizione che per essere apprezzata e compresa ha bisogno però di essere letta all’interno di un rapporto traduttivo profondamente aperto alla creatività e complessità. Una simile chiave di lettura ne lascia anche cogliere la valenza come modello paradigmatico della fluidità e inafferrabilità degli stessi confini fra traduzione e scrittura.

Keywords: Amleto, Hamlet, Testori, shakespeare, william, cultural translation, scrittura creativa, pittura, sceneggiatura, teschio

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1. L’ontologica ambiguità della traduzione

One of the enduring qualities of translation is its refusal to be contained. We are captivated by its resistance to easy classification, for when it comes to theorization, translation’s cryptic status is not a stumbling block but an invitation. (Maitland 2016: 17).

Il rifiuto della traduzione a lasciarsi racchiudere entro confini netti, e quindi il suo necessario sfuggire a ogni facile classificazione, possono giustamente essere individuati come un vero nodo cruciale per Translation Studies. E’ soprattutto a partire dal testo miliare di Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’ (Benjamin 1923/2000), che viene messo in discussione il binarismo testo originale vs. traduzione, a lungo principio fondante di tanti studi del settore. Questo, però, non cancella il fatto che il testo fonte rimanga pur sempre una condicio sine qua non per la traduzione, visto che la stessa raison d’être della traduzione come testo in una data lingua dipende dall’assenza di un altro testo scritto in un’altra lingua. Proprio tale praesentia in absentia richiede che il testo in traduzione si allontani dal testo fonte, aprendo strade nuove e interessanti. ‘Small wonder that the practice of the translator is so difficult to place, for the ontology of a translation is ambivalent to say the least’ (Maitland 2016: 17).

L’ambivalenza ontologica della traduzione, segnalata da Maitland, scaturisce, in piena logica benjaminiana, dal non essere né il testo fonte né il testo in traduzione delle entità fisse e permanenti. In altre parole, non devono essere concepiti come due opposti binari, ma trame diverse di possibilità testuali, strettamente intrecciate fra loro dal lavoro soggettivo della traduzione. E’ poi proprio sempre nel solco del decostruzionismo che, più recentemente, è emerso il concetto di Cultural Translation, termine coniato da uno dei nomi più prominenti del Postocolonialismo, Homi Bhabha (The Location of Culture 1994). E’ vero che Bhabha non articola il suo discorso all’interno di  Translation Studies, rimanendo gli Studi Postocoloniali il suo ambito di ricerca. Tuttavia molti dei corollari importanti della sua teoria sono stati accettati con entusiasmo anche in altri campi di studio. In particolare, un concetto come ibridità (lo spazio della sovversione, trasgressione, blasfemia, eresia, o meglio, della negoziazione che nullifica ogni divisione binaria, Nowotny 2009: 200), e ancora di più la metafora ad esso legata, resistant translation (il negare l’integrazione totale da parte del soggetto che migra e che sviluppa forme ibride e personali di resistenza rispetto a una traduzione fagocitante), sono principi entrati a tutti gli effetti anche nel discorso traduttivo.

La traduzione culturale è del resto un termine ormai correntemente usato in ambiti disciplinari anche molto diversi. Anzi, l’accusa all’interno di Translation Studies è proprio di essere troppo usato, o per lo meno non usato col rigore dovuto. La critica più rilevante è che, essendo cultural translation  un termine ombrello piuttosto che un chiaro modello teorico,  le suggestive metafore da esso introdotte correrebbero il rischio di rimanere vaghe e soprattutto poco rilevanti per la pratica della traduzione.  L’ambito di indagine di questo articolo deliberatamente prescinde dal prendere parte diretta al dibattito teorico sull’argomento, dibattito che negli ultimi anni è diventato particolarmente animato e autorevole.[1] Tuttavia, attraverso uno studio di caso emblematico ed illuminante, questo scritto vuole spostare il discorso su un ambito meno teorico. Il proposito è di richiamare l’attenzione sulla critica della traduzione letteraria come pratica, riflettendo sulla problematicità di lettura e definizione presentata da una esperienza traduttiva che esalta al massimo l’ambiguità intrinseca, ontologico appunto, del processo traduttivo, ambiguità la cui ricchezza potrebbe essere solo parzialmente compresa se affrontata nella prospettiva analitica del binarismo oppositivo.  Come vedremo, è uno studio di caso che esige una metodologia di lettura critica a ‘focalizzazione mobile’, per potersi muovere liberamente oltre i confini del testo singolo, sia esso scritto o visivo, cercando di cogliere il carattere fluido di quel processo traduttivo che, appunto, in questo studio di caso si può evincere solo in una pluralità di testi e di sistemi semiotici.

2. Uno studio di caso paradigmatico: Giovanni Testori

La personalità artistica di Testori (1923-93) può a pieno titolo essere definita proteiforme, per quel suo estendersi dalla letteratura al cinema e alla pittura, come critico raffinato e come pittore. Del resto, anche all'interno della letteratura, Testori si è avventurato praticamente in tutti gli ambiti, includendo la saggistica (letteraria, di costume e di arte), la narrativa, il teatro e la poesia. Proprio questa sua vulcanica versatilità lo ha portato di continuo a sforzare, violare, o comunque svuotare i confini tra generi letterari, così come fra scrittura e traduzione, e persino fra scrittura e pittura.

Da un tale vortice non rimane esente, del resto, neanche il suo rapporto ossessivo con un testo emblematico quale l’Amleto di Shakespeare. Studiare l’inesauribile scontro/confronto fra Testori e Amleto (come personaggio e come testo), sforzandosi di seguirlo nei meandri di un percorso personalissimo e insofferente verso ogni tipo di prigioni, sia semiotiche sia letterarie, porta necessariamente a riflettere sulla natura stessa di un tale rapporto fra artista, personaggio e testo. Testori, d’altra parte, è scettico rispetto alla possibilità di tradurre grandi opere in altre lingue, e in particolare proprio l’Amleto. ‘Amleto recitato in italiano è uno sfocatissimo ricordo dell’Amleto di Shakespeare.’ (1996: 101). Si avvicina, infatti, una sola volta all’esperienza della traduzione come vero e proprio processo di trasferimento interlinguistico da testo a testo, quando nel 1991 si cimenta, sempre comunque a suo modo, con la traduzione poetica della prima Lettera ai Corinti di San Paolo.

Il target di questo studio di caso sul viaggio di Amleto nell’universo testoriano diventa, pertanto, capire se, e fino a che punto, un simile legame artista/personaggio/testo possa essere considerato ancora di natura traduttiva. L’ipotesi è che le proteiformi metamorfosi di Amleto/Testori possano essere colte come un modello paradigmatico della fluidità e inafferrabilità dei confini fra traduzione e scrittura.

‘La pittura matura dentro l'uomo Testori assieme con la scrittura. E' un filtrarsi reciproco’, come osserva Luigi Cavadini nel catalogo della mostra Parole e colori (Milano 2003: 7). Lo conferma Alain Toubas, nel catalogo di un'altra mostra sempre del 2003, I segreti di Milano: ‘Testori è un raro esempio di scrittore non catalogabile in un genere preciso […]  Non ragionava in termini di generi letterari [...] Per raccontare Testori, il suo mondo, la sua “eversione” non bastano solo le parole: è necessario ricostruire quel magma di immagini e di figurazioni che hanno sempre affollato il suo mondo’ (17-8).

I ‘Padri’ [i pittori amati] gli offriranno visioni, immagini, temi, suggestioni, riflessioni che dall’arte pittorica o scultorea passeranno, lungo gli anni, quasi senza soluzione di continuità, come legati in un tutt’uno, ad alimentare la sua visione e la sua idea del teatro, nonché la sua stessa scrittura drammatica, la sua poetica, i suoi temi più affascinanti e ricorrenti, le sue scelte linguistiche. Come, d’altra parte è uno sguardo anche teatrale quello con il quale Testori si pone ad osservare [...] le immagini dell’arte. (Taffon 1997: 20-1).

3. Amleto e il magma artistico di Testori

All'interno di questo grande magma che è il mondo testoriano, colpisce come l'artista sembri essere continuamente all'inseguimento di un confronto viscerale con uno dei più universali personaggi shakespeariani: Amleto, appunto. E' vero che Testori è uso a 'visitare' nel profondo altri grandi personaggi e testi classici del passato. Si pensi alle rivisitazioni del Macbeth (Macbetto, 1974), dell'Oedipus (Edipus, 1977), o classici più moderni come i Promessi Sposi del Manzoni (La Monaca di Monza, 1967, I promessi sposi alla prova, 1984). Ancora più notevole, poi, è l'inseguimento di personaggi eversivi come Erodiade e Giovanni Battista. Testori comincia con Erodiade e i disegni e acquerelli delle Teste del Battista nel 1968 (oggetto questi ultimi di una mostra al Centre Pompidou di Parigi nel 1987), seguite dalla riscrittura dell'Erodiade per l'interpretazione di Adriana Innocenti nel 1984, per culminare infine nell'evoluzione di Erodiade in Erodiàs nel secondo dei Tre Lai nel 1994.

Tuttavia, è proprio Amleto, lo splenetico principe shakespeariano, come Testori ama chiamarlo, che permea nel profondo il suo universo artistico, tanto da farcene avvertire la presenza in quasi tutto quello che lui ha prodotto (Doninelli 1993: 50). ‘Amleto è uno dei testi che in assoluto Testori amò di più’, come sottolinea Fulvio Panzeri in una delle schede preparate per il Catalogo della mostra I segreti di Milano del 2003 (144).

L'inizio di questo infinito pedinamento ha radici lontane, negli anni della guerra, quando Testori, appena ventenne e rifugiato in una remota valle delle Alpi, decide di cimentarsi con l'esperienza del palcoscenico, coinvolgendo altri giovani amici nell'impresa quanto mai ambiziosa di mettere in scena il ben noto testo shakespeariano.[2] E’ solo la prima battuta di  un dialogo appassionato e mai concluso. Tuttavia, pur permeando tutto l’universo artistico di Testori, il confronto con Amleto trova comunque un momento privilegiato nelle opere a cavallo tra fine anni Sessanta e inizio anni Settanta, anni che quindi rappresentano un tassello cruciale nel nostro percorso sulle tracce dell'Amleto testoriano.

Sono anni, questi, di grande operosità per Testori: da raccolte di poesie (L'amore, 1968, Per sempre, 1970, A te, 1972-3, Alain, 1973, Nel Tuo sangue, 1973) e saggi letterari fondanti per la sua poetica (quale Il ventre del teatro, 1968), alla sceneggiatura di un film su Amleto, 1970, fino ai non meno sorprendenti testi per il palcoscenico (il monologo teatrale Erodiade, 1967-8, e L'Ambleto nel 1972). Eppure, questi non sono anni fecondi solo per la scrittura. Testori, infatti, dopo una lunga pausa di vari anni, ritrova anche la forza e l’impeto per riprendere a disegnare e a dipingere con grande entusiasmo. Notevole, per esempio, è la vasta serie di disegni, e anche acquerelli, dedicati alla Testa del Battista, concepiti in parallelo e in dialogo con la scrittura di Erodiade. Inoltre, sempre di questi anni, è anche la prima importante serie di Tramonti, 1967-9. E’, dunque, un momento artistico di particolare felicità, che culmina, appunto, nella prima mostra personale organizzata da Testori a Torino nel 1971.

4. I tre ‘imbastardimenti’ del ‘sublime esemplare’

Come appena ricordato, con la sceneggiatura del 1970 su Amleto, Testori riprende in maniera diretta la tragedia shakespeariana, cosa che farà per ben altre due volte (una a brevissima distanza, nel 1972, con L'Ambleto, e l’altra invece dopo dieci anni con Post-Hamlet, 1983), sempre, però, rendendola oggetto di rivisitazioni radicali. E’ lo stesso Testori a mettere in guardia il suo pubblico, dichiarando la natura volutamente dirompente del suo personalissimo inseguimento dello splenetico principe.

[...] rivisitazioni [...] imbastardimenti [...] strozzamenti [...], certo delle derelitte e parzialissime prove che il qui scrivente ha tentato d’eseguire su e perfino contro (egli lo sa, lo sa benissimo) il sublime esemplare. (Testori 1983c).

Il primo di questi ‘imbastardimenti’ a cui si riferisce Testori è appunto la sceneggiatura per un film sull'Amleto, che lui stesso avrebbe dovuto dirigere, ma che invece non fu mai girato. Il progetto fu infatti abbandonato, e la sceneggiatura rimase praticamente ignorata, fino a che nel 2002 Fulvio Panzeri, la pubblicò postuma assieme ai disegni dei costumi per i personaggi principali del film, eseguiti sempre da Testori  (Amleto, Gertrude, Claudio, Ofelia, Polonio, i contadini).[3] Sono in tutto dieci bozzetti, molto curati dall’artista, e rivelatori di una lettura assai personale del testo,‘disegni di un Amleto barbarico, che hanno fatto da prova per il futuro Ambleto’, come commenta Alain Toubas (Testori 2003b: 24). Notevole, poi, è nei bozzetti l’attenzione per il dettaglio, come rivelano le brevi annotazioni a matita sui colori e sui materiali da usare nella realizzazione scenica: una puntigliosità non certo fine a se stessa, quanto presaga, invece, della rilevanza dell’elemento pittorico-visivo in tutto il testo della sceneggiatura testoriana.

La trasposizione filmica del 1970 è comunque, pur essendo basata sul testo di Shakespeare, un ‘imbastardimento’ e ‘strozzamento’, con dei vistosi  scostamenti rispetto alla tragedia di riferimento, anche al solo livello di trama. Innanzitutto Testori cambia l'ambientazione. La scena, infatti, si sposta dalla Danimarca a una valle oscura e solitaria delle Alpi italiane. Altre variazioni macroscopiche: il protagonista è legato a Orazio da una relazione omosessuale; e infine Amleto uccide la madre Gertrude, per poi suicidarsi.

Questo primo importante incontro artistico col testo di Shakespeare, pur nel rispetto della struttura e delle caratteristiche formali di una sceneggiatura, rivela già la natura poliedrica e magmatica della vena artistica di Testori. E' un testo, infatti, dove componenti pittoriche, narrative, cinematografiche, poetiche e drammatiche si intrecciano e si sovrappongono. Come osserva Fulvio Panzeri nella Nota che accompagna la sceneggiatura, sotto la penna di Testori, e nella prospettiva cinematografica, la tragedia shakespeariana diventa una vera e propria storia dialogata, dalla forte connotazione visiva, e da un non meno forte furore espressivo e tensione apocalittica, riproponendo temi e soggetti che sono tòpoi ricorrenti nell'universo artistico di Testori. Emblematica, per esempio, è la ricorrenza del tema del tramonto: la sceneggiatura di Amleto apre su un tramonto che accompagna il funerale del padre di Amleto, acuendone, nel disfacimento simbolico del giorno, il senso di violenza e deterioramento che la morte, e questa morte in particolare,  inevitabilmente porta con sé. Un ancor più emblematico e lacerato tramonto segna, poi, la scena finale della morte di Amleto, creando, con una epanadiplosi figurale, una cornice perfetta al testo (Testori 2002: 179).

A questo punto, il riferimento intratestuale e intersemiotico alla pittura di Testori è inevitabile. Come già ricordato, proprio negli anni immediatamente precedenti la sceneggiatura dell’Amleto, fra il 1967 e il 1969, Testori aveva infatti prodotto il suo primo ciclo di Tramonti, una serie di acquerelli, tutti realizzati su cartoncini di piccole dimensioni. In particolare, nei primi di questi acquerelli la prospettiva apocalittica si sposa a una pennellata molto densa che ‘accentua il senso di sfaldamento della materia, col colore che colando verso il basso sembra sciogliersi sul foglio’ (Archivio Testori). In tutti gli acquerelli, poi, si sprigiona un senso di estrema malinconia e angoscia che richiama linguaggio e immagini dei componimenti poetici dei Trionfi, ma che, come appena osservato, si sposa anche perfettamente alla forte atmosfera di putrefazione fisica e morale della sceneggiatura di Amleto. Si innesca dunque un fitto gioco di echi intertestuali e intersemiotici che amplificano e problematizzano le singole immagini e scene. Non sorprende, quindi, che il messaggio metaforico del tramonto non venga mai veramente abbandonato da Testori, riaffiorando come tema centrale anche proprio pochi mesi prima del suo personale tramonto, in otto piccoli acquerelli tra la fine del 1992 e l’inizio del 1993.

Dopo soli due anni dalla sceneggiatura, Testori riprende in mano il testo shakespeariano, per una rivisitazione ancora più radicale ed esplosiva: L'Ambleto, pubblicato nel 1972 e magistralmente portato in scena dalla Compagnia Franco Parenti nel 1973 al Salone Pier Lombardo di Milano. Una lapidaria ed efficacissima definizione di questo suo nuovo lavoro, e, quindi, ‘dichiarazione d'intenti’ al medesimo tempo, è offerta dallo stesso Testori nel titolo stesso di un’intervista al  Corriere della sera del  9 gennaio 1973.  ‘Ambleto? “Una mazzata”’.

In effetti, L'Ambleto di Testori è stato uno dei casi letterari più dibattuti nel panorama culturale dell'Italia dei primi anni Settanta. Ambientato a Lomazzo, in Brianza, L'Ambleto è scritto in una lingua virtuale e pur sempre splendidamente reale, basata sull'italiano parlato, ma anche influenzata e contaminata dal dialetto milanese, il francese, il latino, lo spagnolo e persino la lingua modernissima dei media. Il testo ruota attorno a un protagonista che è figlio di Amleto, e allo stesso tempo creatura altra rispetto all'eroe shakesperiano. Ambleto, a differenza di Amleto, non è l'intellettuale, straziato fra l'azione e la consapevolezza riflessiva, ma il giovane guitto che più che recitare lo splenetico principe, lo incarna con furia e disperazione.

Fosse stato un regista ‘moderno’, Testori ci avrebbe dato un Amleto ‘nuovo’, un ‘Amleto’ di oggi, nella sciocca presunzione di saperla più lunga di Shakespeare. [...] Testori si è servito di Amleto come ci si serve di un mito, offrendoci di un mito moderno una variante geniale e creativa. Non ha ‘riscritto’ Amleto. Ha scritto un Amleto diverso, un Ambleto che è debitore a Shakespeare di tutto e di niente. (Cesare Garboli, in Testori 2003b: 268).[4]

5. L’evoluzione del tòpos padre/figlio e le metamorfosi di Amleto

Il dialogo con l’Amleto di Shakespeare, e col suo protagonista, non si ferma, comunque, a questi due momenti forti di contatto, ma fin dall’inizio penetra e feconda tutto l’immaginario di Testori. Si sposti, per cominciare, la focalizzazione sul tema del rapporto padre-figlio, che appare in maniera forte nelle poesie dei Trionfi nel 1965, e che viene ripreso nella raccolta L'amore del 1968, dove è evocato nel rapporto fra il poeta più maturo e il giovane amante, e dove è spesso anche ribaltato metaforicamente, in uno scambio insistito di ruoli fra i due amanti (Cappello 1983: 73). Il rapporto  padre/figlio è, del resto, un tema centrale anche nella tragedia di Shakespeare. E’ naturale, quindi, che Testori lo legga come un nodo tematico cruciale per la sua interpretazione del testo, facendone poi uno dei tòpoi fondamentali della sua poetica. Proprio questo nucleo tematico è, infatti, oggetto di particolare attenzione, e di radicale evoluzione, sia nella sceneggiatura del 1970, prima, sia nell'Ambleto, subito dopo.

Nella tragedia di Shakespeare il rapporto fra Amleto e il padre morto è indiscutibilmente sempre caratterizzato da ammirazione profonda da parte del figlio. Al contrario, invece, nella sceneggiatura del 1970 il rapporto è dominato da uno straziante sentimento di amore/odio. Il figlio è pieno di rancore, innanzitutto perché il padre è morto senza permettergli di capire la causa della sua improvvisa morte. Ma, soprattutto, il padre è colpevole di non aver mai spiegato al figlio la ragione per cui gli ha dato la vita, condannandolo a entrare in un mondo così pieno di squallore. Così, quando il padre appare ad Amleto, non è uno spettro maestoso e che incute reverenziale timore come nella pagina shakespeariana, ma una massa disgustosa e straziante di carne in decomposizione, una specie di enorme feto. I ruoli quindi si ribaltano scandalosamente: il padre si ritira fino a diventare feto, ma un feto che già porta i segni della morte, e il figlio si inginocchia e lo solleva con le braccia tese, con un gesto tipicamente paterno.

Abbiamo visto come il tema della decomposizione e putrefazione associate alla morte sia sottolineato nella scenneggiatura dalla complessa metafora del tramonto, a sua volta  problematizzata da una fitta rete di rimandi intertestuali e intersemiotici. Ma il senso di disfacimento in Testori va ben oltre la classica associazione con la morte. E’ fortissimo anche nelle  scene di passione carnale fra Gertrude e Claudio, dove la denuncia ossessiva della putrescenza fisica diventa evidente figura di un ben più terribile decadimento morale.

Le teste di Gertrude e di Claudio impestate, schiacciate, l’una sull’altra [...] I corpi di Gertrude e di Claudio, osceni ed ansimanti; i loro muscoli: le loro osse, vengono infine scoperti come montagne di carne nella caverna, asfissiante per calore ed afror dei lenzuoli. (Testori 2002: 22 - finale scena III)
Le due facce decomposte, mostruosamente flaccide e incollate l’una sull’altra, di Gertrude e di Claudio [...]. (Testori 2002: 121 - inizio scena LV)

La sceneggiatura di Amleto segue a breve distanza la scrittura del monologo teatrale Erodiade (1967-8). E i due testi appaiono, infatti, sottilmente legati. Anzi, il pieno significato simbolico di questa ossessiva insistenza sul tòpos della morte come immagine estrema della decomposizione morale da cui è afflitta tutta l’esistenza umana, si può cogliere solo se la sceneggiatura di Amleto si legge in continuità con l’Erodiade e, soprattutto, con i 73 disegni a penna (a tratti neri fittissimi) e con gli acquerelli che lo accompagnano, rappresentanti tutti la Testa  del Battista (1968). La rete di riferimenti intratestuali e intersemiotici, dunque, si infittisce e arricchisce vertiginosamente. La serie pittorica delle Teste, infatti, non può, a sua volta, essere scissa dal ciclo degli acquarelli sul Tramonto, che, come già osservato, riprogongono con forza, e sempre in quegli anni, il messaggio di morte e di disfacimento della materia. Tuttavia, è soprattutto nella tragica espressività della serie delle Teste del Battista che si coglie il vero correlativo oggettivo delle didascalie della sceneggiatura: eco, amplificazione e chiave di interpretazione al medesimo tempo.  La serie di disegni e acquerelli sulla testa del Battista, che giustamente viene considerata uno dei momenti espressivi più alti della produzione pittorica di Testori, ripropone, in maniera allucinata e allucinante, con solo piccole variazioni, il soggetto raccapricciante della testa decapitata del Battista, facendone un’icona potente di denuncia morale. ‘La maschera sanguinante del volto è esasperata e deformata a tal punto da trasformarsi in alcuni casi in un cumulo irriconoscibile di carne in decomposizione’ (Associazione Testori, Archivio Testori).

Figure 1
Testa n. 22 Testa n. 25 Testa n. 44

Nell’Ambleto la scena dell’apparizione del padre morto presenta un’ulteriore e più radicale evoluzione, con il protagonista, Ambleto, e non il fantasma del padre, che subisce una metamorfosi straordinaria. Solo regredendo fino a diventare una goccia di sperma, e così rientrare nel corpo del padre nell’attimo prima del concepimento, il figlio può sentire la voce del padre che chiede vendetta, ma anche impone di salvare ‘la soverana piramida dell’ordeno e del potere’. Questa volta, tuttavia, la reazione del figlio è di antagonismo completo non solo verso il padre, ma anche verso tutti i padri che hanno costruito quel sistema orribile di corruzione e potere, a cui Ambleto non può e non vuole più sottostare. La missione di Ambleto assume pertanto dimensione apocalittica: annientare ‘la piramida’, a partire da ‘l’Unico e Unichisssimo che ce sta sù’ (Testori 1997: 1185). L’urlo di Ambleto prepara quindi la strada per la preghiera blasfema e straziante indirizzata all’altro Padre, quello divino, nella straordinaria raccolta di versi Nel Tuo sangue, di pochi anni successiva (1973).

La tormentata evoluzione del tòpos padre/figlio diventa imprescindibile, poi, per la comprensione di tutto il mondo poetico testoriano. Nel seguente brano tratto da Per sempre (1970), l’appello toccante rivolto dal poeta all’amato ruota sempre attorno al rapporto padre/figlio, e l’espressionismo semantico del  testo appare chiaramente fertilizzato dalla figura di Amleto. Il breve testo si apre con un riferimento intratestuale al pianto del re, che evoca la sceneggiatura di Amleto, sempre del 1970, con le disarmanti lacrime del feto-spettro del re ucciso. Allo stesso tempo, però, la poesia offre un interessante esempio anche di richiamo diretto al testo inglese, riferimento intertestuale che si discosta dalla sia pur contemporanea esperienza traduttiva della sceneggiatura. I versi richiamano, infatti, anche i soldati che fanno la guardia nella scena iniziale dell’Amleto shakespeariano, e che sono i primi a incontrare il fantasma del re assassinato. Proprio questa scena, che è significativamente omessa nella sceneneggiatura del 1970, viene invece scelta e condensata nella immagine iniziale della breve poesia, che prosegue poi con i simboli emblematici della sovranità: il trono, il manto, la corona e l’ermellino, che il testo presenta come chiara metonimia per un potere corrotto e ingiusto. La poesia si chiude quindi sull’invito finale al sovrano ad abbandonare la posizione di dominio, che porta solo dolore, lasciandosi invece andare nelle braccia dell’amato, fino a ritornare bambino e figlio, con un rovesciamento di ruoli tipico in Testori.

Al pianto del re
che può offrire
un semplice soldato?

Lascia il tuo trono,
deponi il manto, la corona,
Così, senza più niente,
ritorni in braccio a me:
sei figlio,
mio erede,
mio bambino.
(Testori 1997: 783)

6. La metafora della volpe

Il nucleo tematico centrato sul rapporto padre/figlio viene poi spesso arricchito dall’incontro con un’altra ricorrente metafora testoriana. E’ questo il caso, per esempio, di una poesia da A te (1972-3), che si apre con la metafora estesa della volpe, colta nel momento in cui prova a lasciare la tana per avventurarsi nel mondo, venendone, però, immediatamente respinta e costretta a rifugiarsi di nuovo terrorizzata nel nascondiglio. L’impossibilità della volpe di entrare a pieno nella vita ed essere veramente accettata dal mondo, diventa figura della condanna di ogni esistenza umana, in piena sintonia con la disperazione di Amleto/Ambleto nel suo ostinato interrogarsi sul senso della vita, e col suo divorante rancore verso la ‘piramida’ di corruzione e potere che schiaccia tutto e tutti.

Il tuo muso di volpe
che usciva per un momento
dalla tana
e poi subito spaurito
era quello di un figlio
nato per caso
che non voleva capire
d’essere in questa terra
un disperato, un evaso.
(Testori 1997: 934)

La metafora della volpe, così centrale per la poetica di Testori, e qui sottilmente associata ad Amleto attraverso il filtro del rapporto padre/figlio, è presente solo in maniera incidentale nella tragedia di Shakespeare, benché, a una lettura più attenta, la marginalità sia poi più apparente che sostanziale.  La metafora, infatti, appare solo nel verso conclusivo dell’atto IV, scena 2, dell’Amleto, dove introduce, però, una analogia significativa.

HAMLET: [...] The king is a thing
GUILDENSTERN: A thing, my lord?
HAMLET: Of nothing. Bring me to him. Hide, fox, and all after.

Se in apparenza il riferimento alla volpe sembra completamente fuori contesto, e quindi può suonare solo come una naturale continuazione della presunta pazzia di Amleto per disorientare Rosencrantz e Guildenstern, in realtà l’immagine metaforicamente allude al cosiddetto gioco del nascondino, in cui un giocatore, la volpe, deve nascondersi, e tutti gli altri, senza tregua, le danno la caccia. Ed è proprio in questo senso che il riferimento intertestuale può diventare di grande pregnanza, e spiega il rilievo che la metafora assume nella poetica testoriana.

Se la metafora della volpe non è presente nella sceneggiatura del 1970, appare comunque due volte in Per sempre (1970), prima associata con la neve e un paesaggio invernale e poi con l’idea della caccia e il ricovero disperato nella tana per morire. Tuttavia, è nell’Ambleto che la metafora diventa centrale e acquista in complessità. La volpe è per la prima volta nominata dal Franzese, il personaggio che in questo nuovo testo prende il posto di Orazio e che è chiaramente in un rapporto di tenero amore col protagonista. Il Franzese evoca la volpe mentre sta sforzandosi di sostenere Ambleto nella sua vertiginosa regressione nello sperma del padre, invitando l’amico a ricordare come anche la volpe una volta avesse perso ogni speranza, proprio come nell’immagine centrale della poesia di A te. La frase rimane interrotta, ma chiaramente la volpe viene introdotta adesso come simbolo di perseveranza e resistenza. Del resto, in una scena successiva, proprio la volpe emblematicamente incarna il ricordo del primo dolce incontro con il Franzese. Come Ambleto racconta alla madre, il giovane Franzese, bello come un angelo, gli era apparso in un paesaggio ammantato di silenzio e imbiancantato di neve (altro simbolo ricorrente in Testori), in cui Ambleto disperato andava cercando il rifugio estremo e la pace perenne. E il Franzese teneva una volpe ferita fra le braccia. L’animale era stato colpito da un cacciatore, ma quella volta il Franzese era riuscito a salvarla e, così facendo, a salvare lo stesso Ambleto (Testori 1997: 1183 e 1195).

La volpe è inoltre oggetto di una delle canzoni inedite (non presenti nel testo Rizzoli), interpretate dal Franzese nella prima versione in teatro: Volpe d’amore (Testori 1977: 1537). Infine, la volpe appare ancora nel dialogo conclusivo della tragedia, poco prima della morte del protagonista. Ambleto morente è a terra, caduto dal trono, e si stringe alle gambe dell’amato Franzese, a cui ormai si rivolge come figlio. ‘Filius falsus che imperò sei più vero de un filius che fudesse istato veramente vero.’ E il Franzese, con la stessa solennità e con la stessa formula, risponde ‘Pater meus de me, meus et per sempre’. Così si conclude il tormentato e continuo scambio di ruoli, in cui si è lungamente dibattuto Amleto/Ambleto/Testori. La missione è stata compiuta,‘la piramida si è tutta spetasciata’, e con essa tutte le figure paterne che alla piramide facevano capo, cominciando proprio con ‘Lui’, con Dio Padre, fino al padre-spettro che chiedeva di salvarla. Per compiere la missione era però necessario distruggere anche la propria vita, come rivela la ormai dichiarata identificazione fra Ambleto e la volpe, ‘sta vorta la volpe ha dovuto morire’ (Testori 1997: 1227-28). Amleto/Ambleto è a questo punto ancor più un orfano, ma, paradossalmente, nell’istante in cui riesce a diventare orfano di tutti i padri, e pur dovendo annientare se stesso, può comunque finalmente raggiungere la vera relazione padre-figlio.

7. Un migrare infinito: Amleto/Ambleto/Testori

Il viaggio di Amleto/Ambleto/Testori sembrerebbe, quindi, arrivato a una sua conclusione. Amleto, però, è un’opera troppo grande, troppo amata da Testori per poter definitivamente chiudere il rapporto passionale che lo lega a questo testo. Soprattutto il suo protagonista, Amleto, è molto di più di un semplice personaggio mitico per Testori. E’ una figura viva a tutti gli effetti, e che quindi necessariamente non può cessare di vivere, né tanto meno fissarsi e fermarsi in un solo testo. Come spiega lo stesso Testori, l’artista lo ha preso ‘come si prende un personaggio vivente’ (Testori 2003b: 23). Ed è quindi naturale che una tale presenza non possa davvero essere costretta entro limiti rigidi o confini di qualsiasi natura. Tuttavia, è importante capire che quello dell’Amleto testoriano non è uno spaziare libero, un andare alla deriva, trascinato sempre più lontano da un evolversi tormentato e instancabile. Il legame con il testo di partenza non viene, infatti, mai veramente a spezzarsi; piuttosto si ripropone continuamente, ma in forme sempre diverse, innescando una dinamica evolutiva che, in piena logica benjaminiana, investe entrambi i poli del processo traduttivo, pur senza chiudere il rapporto. Per Benjamin, infatti, sia la traduzione, sia l’originale sono realtà fluide, in continua evoluzione: ‘For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change.’ (1923/2000: 17).

Come già in parte osservato a proposito del breve componimento poetico Al pianto del re in Per sempre, per Testori, in effetti, l’attrazione per il protagonista è inscindibile dalla frequentazione e dall’amore per Amleto (‘Il testo che io amo di più’, Doninelli 1993: 51), opera che Testori non smette mai di frequentare, e a cui continuamente ritorna, anche dopo radicali rivisitazioni e anzi, si potrebbe dire, a prescindere da esse. Così, il riprendere in mano il testo porta a nuove e inattese esplorazioni e sfaccettature di un Amleto testoriano, che sempre di più appare ‘debitore a Shakespeare di tutto e di niente’, per dirla ancora una volta con Cesare Garboli (Testori 2003b: 268).

Molto interessante appare in tal senso questo lapidario testo poetico ancora da Per sempre (1970).

Stringimi il teschio
nella mano.

Quando non avrò carne
ti dirò ancora:
(Testori 1997:  834)

Forte e immediato è il riferimento intertestuale alla famosa scena di Amleto che stringe in mano il teschio dell’amato giullare Yorick, all’inizio dell’Atto V nel testo di Shakespeare. L’episodio di Yorick è in realtà qui condensato in pochissimi versi, richiamandone i soli elementi essenziali, che tuttavia sono collocati in posizione di particolare rilievo:‘stringimi’, l’imperativo che apre il componimento, ed è poi legato a ‘il teschio’ e a ‘la mano’, entrambi in posizione di fine verso. L’immagine del teschio è poi ripresa dalla metonimia all’inizio del secondo periodo,‘quando non avrò carne’ (perdendo la carne, per effetto della morte, una testa diventa un teschio), mentre ‘mano’ rima con le parole conclusive, ‘t’amo’, che, poi, è una estrema e felicissima sintesi della memoria che, nel testo shakespeariano, Amleto ancora conserva del suo vecchio giullare. Però, a differenza della scena di riferimento in Amleto, qui i ruoli appaiono invertiti, visto che a parlare non è il giovane principe, ma il teschio stesso di Yorick. L’identificazione creata dall’uso della prima persona singolare questa volta è dunque con il teschio, e non con la figura di Amleto che lo sta tenendo in mano.

Questa scena di Amleto in mezzo alle tombe, o meglio l’immagine di lui con in mano il teschio, è di tutta la tragedia di Shakespeare forse quella che più è entrata nell’immaginario collettivo. Nella fantasia popolare la figura di Amleto è in effetti costantemente associata al teschio. Eppure, di questa scena non v’è traccia alcuna nella scenneggiatura del 1970, e neppure due anni dopo nell’Ambleto. Appare quindi ancora più significativo incontrare di nuovo l’eco di questo episodio in una delle ultime poesie di Testori.  Amleto, sia l'Amleto shakespeariano (e proprio con riferimento alla scena col teschio), sia il di lui ‘figlio’, Ambleto, permeano infatti una delle poesie scritte da Testori nel 1992, poco prima della morte, come commento a una raccolta di incisioni di Samuele Gabai.[5] Ancora una volta è il teschio a introdurre il testo, a guisa di memento mori per l'uomo, ma anche come immagine ultima della vita stessa.

La muta crepa
della crapa,
la crapa,
la sua crepa,
il frantumarsi
degli ossi arsi
                nella man d’Amleto...
o, così vicino com’è
a Lombardia, Ambleto?
D’una vita
il resto, il testo
e il final feto...

8. Oltre la parola

In realtà, l’eco della scena con Amleto e il teschio di Yorick non è assente dall’universo artistico di Testori anche nel periodo tra fine anni Sessanta e inizio anni Settanta. Semplicemente va cercato ben al di là dei due grandi momenti di incontro diretto con Shakespeare, la sceneggiatura del 1970 e l’Ambleto, e addirittura al di là della stessa pagina scritta. Infatti, proprio in quegli anni, oltrepassando i confini semiotici della letteratura, il tormentato e infinito rapporto Testori/Amleto approda alla pittura, in ben due quadri. Sono le due grandi tele ad olio (220 x 150 cm.) che Testori, all’interno dei suoi cataloghi autografi tra il 1970 e il 1972, definisce ‘un dittico’,  assegnando loro il titolo di Ragazzo di schiena col teschio e Ragazzo seduto col teschio (Archivio Testori). Entrambe le tele (oggi conservate in collezione privata) furono presentate nel 1971 nella mostra personale allestita presso la Galleria Galatea di Torino, una tappa fondamentale per Testori, da lui infatti preparata con moltissima cura. Il primo dei due oli su tela, Ragazzo di schiena col teschio, è stato poi ripetutamente esposto anche in varie mostre dopo la morte del Maestro, fino ad essere addirittura scelto come copertina per il volume che accompagna la mostra I segreti di Milano nel 2003-4. Doveva essere, dunque, un quadro particolarmente caro a Testori, come confermato dal fatto che l’artista lo ha voluto, assieme a Ritratto di Daniele/Bar (collezione privata), per una ben conosciuta composizione fotografica scattata durante un servizio curato nel suo studio, sempre nei primi anni Settanta (in Testori 2013: 6, e anche in Archivio Testori, allegato a Ragazzo seduto col teschio).

Figure 2

I critici hanno sottolineato il carattere non realistico, né tanto meno narrativo, del Ragazzo di schiena col teschio, come del resto di tutte le altre tele del grande ciclo dei Pugilatori, presentate pure nella mostra della Galleria Galatea di Torino. Il ‘bianco purificante o, meglio, disinfettante’ che avvolge la figura, assieme a ‘l’uso astratto e non mimetico del colore, che si condensa [...] in tasselli regolari che ben poco hanno di naturalistico’, potrebbero suggerire una forza espressiva volutamente contenuta.

Nei suoi dipinti, Testori sembra piuttosto interessato a dar corpo a quel ‘abbacinamento della bellezza’, di cui più volte parla [...] l’immagine ha qualcosa di oleografico e non è la narrazione. (Testori 2013: 13)

Eppure, se di ‘abbacinamento della bellezza’ si deve parlare anche per questa tela, il risultato non è certo una rappresentazione di maniera. Uno sguardo più attento non tarda a cogliere nel dipinto un gioco sottile e personalissimo di richiami e di contrasti, che innescano, anche a livello plastico (topologico ed edeitico), dinamiche tensionali che disperdono ogni eventuale percezione dell’opera come testo chiuso e statico.

Già a livello figurativo la dinamica si rivela più complessa. La coppia antonimica giovane bello (in secondo piano, di spalle, ma centrale e dominante),  e teschio (in primo piano, di fronte, però in basso a sinistra) ripropone, è vero, il classico memento mori, con l’inevitabile richiamo al futuro di morte e decomposizione, destino tragico di ogni uomo. Tuttavia, sia il teschio, sia la nera testa di capelli del giovane sono in posizione periferica, mentre al centro è il suo statuario fondo schiena. Il forte richiamo interstestuale ‘al sempre imprescindibile Géricault’ (Dall’Ombra in Testori 2013: 15) ne accresce l’indubitabile fascino, mentre al contempo problematizza la dinamica vita-morte, introducendo mirabilmente anche Eros, altro tòpos centrale in Testori.

La tela è inoltre caratterizzata da significative tensioni direzionali.  E’ vero che il dipinto potrebbe suggerire una struttura ben definita e priva di problematicità, con l’asse orizzontale marcato dalla linea superiore delle due gambe, aperte e fortemente divaricate, che individuano nel quadro due chiare zone, alto/basso, ciascuna doppiamente definita, per una certa coerenza figurativa. La parte alta del quadro corrisponde alla parte alta del corpo e della sedia, ed è caratterizzata da assenza di oggetti; in maniera conforme, la parte bassa del quadro presenta la parte inferiore del corpo e della sedia, e, a differenza della metà superiore della tela, presenta anche un mobile e un teschio. Quest’ultimo, poi, già di per sé, in quanto simbolo di morte, evoca la terra, e quindi tutto ciò che è basso. Il contrasto basso/alto è infine confermato anche a livello eidetico: prevalenza della linearità e dei colori rossi nella parte bassa, predominanza del ‘bianco purificante’ e delle linee curve e spezzate nella parte alta.

Tuttavia, le gambe aperte si proiettano lateralmente verso il fuori, con la gamba destra che materialmente invade il fuori campo. E la loro marcata vettorialità di fuga centrifuga è controbilanciata da una non meno significativa spinta centripeta, innescata dalla centralità di quello scultoreo fondo schiena. E’ il fulcro da cui orizzontalmente fuggono, ma, in un certo senso, anche convergono, le gambe. Ed è lo stesso fulcro su cui si innesca verticalmente la non meno significativa  sinuosità del torso del giovane, obliquo e flessuoso,  che a sua volta proietta il quadro verso l’alto.

La tela, pur rappresetando un giovane seduto e a riposo, gli attribuisce in realtà una forma dinamica, aperta e, in questo senso, davvero proiettata verso la vita. E’ vero che la testa, lievemente piegata, e le braccia, che non si vedono, ma si intuisce essere raccolte sul davanti, suggeriscono piuttosto riflessione e ripiegamento su di sé. Tuttavia, il ragazzo non sta guardando il teschio, ma, come la folta macchia nera delle ciglia rivela, il suo sguardo è anch’esso proiettato verso il fuori, a sinistra, con un movimento senza fine verso il fondo bianco, come immerso nell’altrove e nel dopo, nel post. Anche il teschio guarda: a differenza del giovane, è rivolto davanti, verso destra e di tre quarti, ma anche lui si proietta verso il fuori del quadro, nella direzione che è poi quella di chi il quadro sta creando. Le tensioni innescate dalla non convergenza degli sguardi nel quadro, e la proiezione verso il fuori e verso l’oltre, ‘istituiscono il quadro come un segmento di questo gesto cretore/ricreatore che è la scrittura/lettura’ (Corrain 1999: 78), rendendo, dunque, aperto il dialogo, con un chiaro coinvolgimento di chi dentro la tela non è, ma che la tela invece chiama in causa.[6]

In questa prospettiva diventa rivelatrice la già menzionata foto nello studio. Qui Testori entra direttamente nella composizione, quasi una versione moderna del commentator di tanta pittura rinascimentale, autore dei due quadri raffigurati nella foto (ma certamente anche coautore della stessa composizione fotografica); soggetto della foto (la foto è fondamentalmente un autoritratto), ma anche suo interprete al medesimo tempo. Il teschio è nella stessa posizione che ha nel quadro, in basso a sinistra e in primissimo piano, ma nella foto è uscito dal quadro per entrare nella nostra realtà. Grazie alla sua collocazione nella foto, alle spalle del pittore, lo sguardo del personaggio dipinto nell’altro quadro (Daniele), proiettandosi davanti e fuori, appare rivolto proprio al cranio. E’ una foto da studio, e quindi molto attentamente costruita. Come già rilevato, la foto è un autoritratto, e in questo senso, quindi, affermazione di identità, ma allo stesso tempo anche ricerca. Testori assume la stessa posizione di Daniele nel quadro, per cui proprio come il giovane Daniele alle sue spalle, guarda anche lui in direzione del teschio. Tuttavia, a differenza di Daniele, Testori trapassa il teschio. Il suo sguardo è in realtà assente, o meglio, è rivolto fuori della foto, attraverso, e oltre il teschio, verso l’infinito. La ricerca della verità, l’interrogarsi continuo dell’uomo sul significato dell’esistenza e del dolore, sembra dirci qui Testori, non può concludersi col teschio come  assoluta negazione e annichilimento della vita. Ma questo è, del resto, lo stesso lacerato ed eterno discorso che l’artista sta portando avanti attraverso la pagina scritta.

Emblematiche per sofferenza, ma anche per volontà di perseguire sempre la verità, vengono alla mente le parole del saggio L’orafo fedele e disperato, dedicato da Testori nel 1978 alla serie dei Teschi dell’amico pittore Ennio Morlotti. E non meno emblematicamente vi si ritrova il richiamo ad Amleto:

meglio è vivere fino all’ultimo soffio o alito del proprio destino: pianta; animale; uomo. E’ infatti, allora, proprio e solo allora, che il dolore, la fatica, il silente strazio di una ricerca senza pace fanno rotolare sulla pagina o sulla tela il frutto insperato; ove pur fosse questo: il nostro umano teschio. Vi bisbigliano attorno l’eterne parole d’Amleto. (In Testori 2002: 173-4).

Il teschio viene dunque elevato a vero correlativo oggettivo delle ‘eterne parole d’Amleto’, che, come personaggio, rimane legatissimo a Shakespeare, ma, come creatura entrata a pieno titolo nell’universo artistico testoriano, è inscindibile da un’inarrestabile evoluzione. Testori infatti aggiunge:

A memento e testimonianza che, anche nei nostri disfatti anni, qualcuno pensò che la vita è soprattutto meditazione sulla sua fine [...] Amleto docet; e, nelle misure dell’infimo, anche l’Amleto con l’intoppico della bi [...]. (In Testori 2002: 175)

Non possono rimanere dubbi, a questo punto, sulla natura intima, carnale, che lega Testori ad Amleto, come figura emblematica, ma pure come testo da amare e quindi sempre rileggere e tradurre. Il suo continuo interesse, il continuo ritornare al personaggio e alla pagina di Shakespeare, ma anche le coraggiose rivisitazioni, non hanno davvero niente della matrice intellettualistica, né tanto meno rappresentano un piegarsi a tendenze culturali alla moda, come Testori del resto spesso rivendica con forza.

9. Fluidità, ambiguità e resistenza nell’Amleto testoriano

Abbiamo già avuto occasione di ricordare che Testori, in particolare  proprio nel caso di Amleto,  è scettico rispetto alla traduzione, quando la traduzione venga concepita esclusivamente come processo di trasferimento interlinguistico. Testori, con Amleto, sembra percepire chiaramente la resistenza alla traduzione da parte del testo, e ancor più del personaggio, confermato da quel suo continuo riprendere la pagina shakespeariana e riprovarci in forme e modi sempre diversi, senza però mai poter concludere la sua ricerca. In effetti, come abbiamo visto, il rapporto che lega Testori ad Amleto è molto complesso ed articolato, sfidando i limiti di definizioni o classificazioni rigide. In questo personalissimo inseguimento testoriano, vengono ampiamente superati e addirittura svuotati i confini della traduzione nella sua accezione classica di migrazione da un testo di partenza a un testo di arrivo, e questo anche includendo la traduzione intersemiotica (Jakobson 1959/2000: 114).[7]  Certamente opere come la sceneggiatura filmica del 1970, ma ancor più la tela del Ragazzo di schiena col teschio, se lette singolarmente nel loro rapporto col testo shakespeariano, rimangono interessanti esempi di traduzione intersemiotica, che comunque evidenzierebbero lo spaziare del discorso testoriano oltre i confini della trasposizione interlinguistica. Tuttavia, da sole, non riuscirebbero a illuminare l’esperienza traduttiva nella sua totalità: in questo caso, infatti, se limitata al rapporto binario testo fonte/traduzione intersemiotica, la riflessione critica, rimarrebbe inevitabilmente ben lontana da cogliere il complesso migrare dell’Amleto testoriano.

D’altra parte, è anche vero che in Testori l’evoluzione di Amleto non diventa mai pastiche  postmoderno, né un viaggiare alla deriva, in un allontanarsi infinito e progressivo dalle origini. Gli scarni testi poetici da Per sempre, così come la tela ad olio del giovane seduto col teschio, pur vicini temporalmente alla sceneggiatura del film su Amleto e alla rivisitazione teatrale dell’Ambleto, rivelano un rapporto a stella rispetto al nucleo ispiratore, piuttosto che un viaggio lineare di rilettura e di allontanamento. Come abbiamo visto, Testori, nella sua lunga visitazione dello splenetico personaggio, non taglia mai il contatto vitale con l’Amleto di Shakespeare.

Questa è la sua eccezionalità, e, proprio in tal senso, l’esperienza testoriana può essere definita di natura traduttiva. Certo, è una relazione traduttiva particolare, che non può trovare piena collocazione neppure nell’ambito delle cosiddette riletture. Il personalissimo incontro con il nucleo profondo dell’Amleto, è così totalizzante che in Testori il rapporto traduttivo si confonde e approda nella scrittura.

Perché allora sentivo che quelle figure [Amleto, Macbeth, Edipo] erano vive, sono vive, appartengono all'uomo, alla sua storia, alla sua coscienza. E in essi sentivo anche il coagularsi di tre momenti della mia esperienza, il mio cammino progressivo fino alla sfida ultima. Allora li ho presi. Li ho presi come si prende un personaggio vivente, senza fare tutte le riletture che mi hanno poi attribuito. (Testori 2003b: 23).

Amleto, dunque, come personaggio vivente. Ma allora, in quanto persona viva, non è più solo oggetto di traduzione, bensì ne è anche soggetto. Nell’eterno dialogo/inseguimento fra Testori e Amleto, il personaggio prende vita e incarna la condizione stessa del migrante. Come il migrante, anche Amleto si trova dunque con Testori a vivere in una continua trasposizione. Ma è una  condizione dove il personaggio anche interagisce, a sua volta stimolando e fecondando: da testo a testo, dal palcoscenico  teatrale a quello filmico, dalla prosa alla poesia, dalla scrittura alla pittura. In questo senso, Amleto da oggetto diventa anche attore e co-autore dello stesso processo traduttivo, là dove il concetto di traduzione è espanso e diviene metafora di un più universale ed esistenziale processo di continua trasposizione: un dislocamento in cui, senza linearità cronologica, si prendono, si mettono in gioco, si ibridizzano e si negoziano, dimensioni diverse, che risultano pertanto sempre altre. E’ un incessante ricercare la traduzione, paradossalmente vivendo allo stesso tempo la lacerazione del lottarvi contro. Così Amleto/Testori finisce per diventare il soggetto di una personalissima esperienza di resistant translation nel solco del pensiero di Homi Bhabha.

Fluidità, ambiguità, trasformazione continua: è quanto, del resto, suggerisce l’emblematico titolo scelto da Testori per il suo ultimo incontro teatrale con Amleto, Post-Hamlet, un titolo che, nell’evocare l’Ur-Hamlet da cui si è mossa la tragedia shakespeariana, invita per contrasto a guardare indietro, al prima di Shakespeare. L’andare oltre Shakespeare (Testori, Dell’Amleto: 14), ma guardando anche prima di Shakespeare, mette in rilievo la circolarità e il continuum di un processo, che nell’incessante coinvolgere e fondere traduzione e scrittura sembra davvero aprirsi all’infinito.

La focalizzazione sul continnum traduttivo, più che sul singolo prodotto, amplifica necessariamente lo sguardo nella lettura, forzando i confini in entrambe le direzioni del prima e del dopo. Il concetto di traduzione come processo, ma anche come metafora esistenziale, chiama in campo ancora una volta il controverso paradigma di cultural translation, visto che, come evidenzia Anthony Pym (2010: 144), col termine ampio di cultural translation si tende a esprimere un processo traduttivo in cui non c’è un testo di partenza, e generalmente neppure un testo di arrivo, fissi.

10. Conclusione

In apertura di articolo abbiamo ricordato come cultural translation non sia un chiaro modello teorico, e quindi sia potuto risultare attaccato e attaccabile nell’ambito di Translation Studies. Tuttavia, pur rimanendo nella consapevolezza dei limiti di indagine proposti in questo studio di caso, è innegabile l’impulso che dal paradigma cultural translation può derivare per l’esplorazione e interpretazione di esperienze traduttive complesse. E’ infatti grazie a concetti quali traduzione come continuum, o come resistant translation, che fondamentalmente questo studio di caso di critica della traduzione individua la chiave di lettura dell’Amleto testoriano. Rispondendo in modo affermativo al dubbio sulla legittimità di considerare ancora di natura traduttiva un legame artista/personaggio/testo così emblematico come quello qui analizzato, la lettura dell’Amleto testoriano mostra le possibilità analitico-interpretative che possono scaturire da un concetto di traduzione meno esclusivamente focalizzato sul rapporto fra singoli testi. Nell’ottica di un approccio traduttivo aperto alla complessità, l’infinito e poliedrico inseguimento testoriano può così essere colto come un modello paradigmatico della fluidità e inafferrabilità dei confini fra traduzione e scrittura.

A Homi Bhabba, cediamo, dunque la parola, prendendone in prestito un brano di grande efficacia evocativa, per applicarlo al nostro contesto e per cercare una formula di sintesi che, nella condizione dell’ibrido e dell’ambiguità, riesca a cogliere anche la straordinarietà del rapporto fra Testori e Amleto.

If hybridity is heresy, then to blaspheme is to dream. To dream not of the past or present, nor the continuous present […] it is the dream of translation as ‘survival’, as Derrida translates the ‘time’ of Benjamin’s concept of the after-life, as sur-vivre, the act of living on borderlines […] an empowering condition of hybridity; an emergence that turns ‘return’ into reinscription and re-description; an iteration that is not belated, but ironic and insurgent. (Bhabha 2004: 324. Enfasi nel testo)

Attraverso il loro intimissimo rapporto, Testori e Amleto vivono entrambi sui margini, sui confini, e la loro sofferta simbiosi incarna addirittura l’essenza dell’ibrido. Testori, infatti, non solo porta Amleto (ed è a sua volta anche portato) a trasgredire e confondere i confini culturali, temporali e spaziali. Assieme all’artista lombardo, Amleto resiste alla traduzione e giunge a violare altre barriere non meno cristallizzate: dal genere (Amleto è omosessuale) al canone artistico (differenze fra generi letterari e codici semiotici), nonché lo stesso limite fra traduzione e scrittura creativa, fino a rendere vago il confine fra autore e personaggio. Testori non potrebbe davvero offrire una dimostrazione più efficace di come lo splenetico principe possa continuare a essere pienamente vivo; possa, in altre parole, űberleben, nella ricchissima ambiguità di un processo creativo, eternamente in bilico fra traduzione e scrittura.


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Bhabha, Homi (2004) The Location of Culture. London, Routledge.

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Calabrese, Omar (2006) Come si legge un’opera d’arte. Milano, Mondadori Università.

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Conway, Kyle (2012) “A Conceptual and Empirical Approach to Cultural Translation”, Translation Studies 5, no.3: 264-279. DOI:10.1080/14781700.2012.701938.

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---- (1991) Traduzione della prima lettera ai Corinti. Milano, Longanesi.

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[1] La letteratura teorica su cultural translation, anche nel solo ambito traduttivo, è molto ampia. In particolare si ricorda il forum sull’argomento aperto nel 2009 dall’intervento di Boris Buden e Stefan Nowotny su Translation Studies (2:2, 196-219), con vari altri autorevoli contributi. Il forum è rimasto aperto e la discussione si è protratta nel 2010 in altri due numeri della rivista: 3:1, 94-110; 3:3, 349-360.  Cfr. anche il capitolo dedicato all’argomento da Anthony Pym in Exploring Translation Theories (2010: 143-164) e il suo articolo ‘On Empiricism and Bad Philosophy in Translation Studies’, sempre dello stesso anno. La rivista Translation Studies non ha smesso di seguire la riflessione sul tema, come dimostrano gli importanti interventi di Kyle Conway (2012) e di Sarah Maitland (2016).

[2] Testori racconta: ‘Il programma era ambizioso: volevamo allestire l’Amleto di Shakespeare presso il santuario di Campoè, che si trova in mezzo ai boschi. La scena fu posta tra i due pilastri del cancello del santuario, con i fari di due automobili, dietro, che la illuminavano. Era piuttosto suggestivo, devo dire, nonostante la pochezza degli attori, soprattutto nella scena del funerale di Ofelia che noi avevamo trasformato in una specie di processione. Con la resina degli alberi avevamo fatto delle torce [...] Fu un successone.’ (Doninelli 1993: 43)

[3] La serie dei dieci disegni dei costumi è stata poi presentata integralmente, e giustamente valorizzata, nella mostra  I segreti di Milano del 2003.

[4] Nel 1983, Testori riprende ancora una volta Amleto nel Post-Hamlet, che nel richiamare il personaggio di Shakespeare direttamente col nome originario, 'Hamlet', lo dichiara però anche superato, passato. Testori presenta infatti una lettura, per molti versi, ancora più radicale ed estrema. Dopo l'eroe shakespeariano della vendetta, del dubbio e del silenzio, e dopo l'evangelismo anarchico dell'anti-eroe Ambleto, questo terzo Hamlet, che rimane siginificativamente assente dal palcoscenico, è l'eroe positivo che accetta il martirio per guidare una comunità dispersa, vere pecore senza pastore, all'incontro col Padre. Hamlet, quindi, come figura Christi che si immola per lavare col sangue l'omicidio del Padre, che è poi l'omicidio perpetuato da una società globalizzata che idolatra la scienza e la tecnologia.

[5] La poesia è stata pubblicata postuma nel 1994 nel volume Segno della gloria.

[6] Cfr. in particolare il capitolo ‘Lo sguardo in pittura: un’economia dell’enunciazione’ in Omar Calabrese, Come si legge un’opera d’arte, 2006: 31-39; e anche Lucia Corrain, Semiotiche della pittura (2004).

[7] La nota classificazione di Jakobson individua tre tipologie di interpretazione di un segno verbale, che può essere tradotto in altri segni della stessa lingua (traduzione intralinguistica), in un’altra lingua (traduzione interlinguistica o traduzione propria), o in un diverso sistema di simboli non verbali (traduzione intersemiotica).

About the author(s)

Anna Fochi has got her M.A. at Pisa University, Italy, and a Ph. D. in Translation Studies at Glasgow University, UK. After a three-year co-operation with Glasgow University, she is teaching Italian and translation at the School of European Studies of Cardiff University, UK. Main fields of interest: translation studies and literary studies (English and Italian). Publications: chapters in edited books on translation studies and articles in Translation Studies (Routledge), Westerly, Studi di filologia e letteratura, Italianistica, Critica letteraria, Contesti, Lingua e letteratura. Editor and translator of an anthology of John Keats’s letters (Milano: Oscar Mondadori 2001).

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

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Machine translation evaluation through post-editing measures in audio description

By Anna Fernández Torné (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain)

Abstract & Keywords

The number of accessible audiovisual products and the pace at which audiovisual content is made accessible need to be increased, reducing costs whenever possible. The implementation of different technologies which are already available in the translation field, specifically machine translation technologies, could help reach this goal in audio description for the blind and partially sighted. Measuring machine translation quality is essential when selecting the most appropriate machine translation engine to be implemented in the audio description field for the English-Catalan language combination. Automatic metrics and human assessments are often used for this purpose in any specific domain and language pair. This article proposes a methodology based on both objective and subjective measures for the evaluation of five different and free online machine translation systems. Their raw machine translation outputs and the post-editing effort that is involved are assessed using eight different scores. Results show that there are clear quality differences among the systems assessed and that one of them is the best rated in six out of the eight evaluation measures used. This engine would therefore yield the best freely machine-translated audio descriptions in Catalan presumably reducing the audio description process turnaround and costs.

Keywords: accessibility, media accessibility, audio description ad, audiovisual translation, machine assisted translation, post-editing, Catalan language

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Linguistic and sensorial media accessibility has become part of the European Union agenda in recent years. Cultural and linguistic diversity is being promoted and laws have been passed in different EU countries to ensure a minimum number of audiovisual products are being made accessible for people with hearing or visual disabilities (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2014). Therefore, there is an urge to provide subtitled—both for those that are not hearing impaired and for the deaf and hard of hearing—and audio described products.

Creating subtitles and audio descriptions (AD) from scratch is a time consuming task with an economic impact which not all content providers can—or are willing to— undertake. Further, and linked to the pressure to reduce the costs of making accessible an ever-increasing volume of audiovisual content are the demands to meet shorter deadlines. In order to deal with this threefold issue —increasing volumes, lowering prices and shortened timeframes—, the translation of subtitles from a prepared English template (Georgakopoulou 2010) and the translation of AD scripts (Jankowska 2015) have been tried and proved as an efficient solution.

Applying new technologies, such as translation memory (TM) tools and machine translation (MT), has also been proved effective and profitable in many translation areas in which texts are more repetitive and predictable (technical texts, for instance) by increasing productivity and improving terminology consistency (Choudhury and McConnell 2013). However, the use of TM tools is not at all generalised in the domain of audiovisual translation (AVT) (Hanoulle 2015) and the implementation of MT is opposed by many of its main actors, that is audiovisual translators, who argue that machines will never be able to deliver human-like quality and that it would only lead to lower prices, as has happened with the implementation of TM tools (Bowker and Fisher 2010). However, these prejudices seem to be slowly dissipating in view of their clear usefulness and improved quality results, particularly in the subtitling field (Georgakopoulou 2011).

Considering their potential, researchers in AVT have begun to dig into the possibilities of implementing different technologies to try to allow for higher accessibility. Some projects relating to MT and subtitling have been funded, but very little research has yet been carried out regarding AD and the application of MT, in spite of Salway's conclusions (2004: 6) that '[t]he relatively simple nature of the language used in audio description (simple that is say compared to a novel), may mean automatic translation systems fair [sic] better than usual'. Thus, my interest as a researcher is to present a first approach to this new-born research area and to examine whether MT can successfully be used in the AD arena in the Catalan context. Therefore, and according to Temizöz's (2012: 1) report on 'empirical studies on machine translation and the postediting of MT output', the novelty of my work lies mainly in the 'type of text' covered (AD).

My ultimate aim is to compare the effort in three different scenarios: when creating an AD (that is, when translating the visuals into words); when translating an already existing AD (in this case, from English into Catalan); and when post-editing a machine-translated AD, again from English into Catalan. However, when post-editing machine-translated ADs, it is obvious that the choice of the MT engine will have a direct impact on the raw MT output and the subsequent post-editing (PE) effort. This is why a pre-test was carried out in order to select the best engine available for my language pair.

This pre-test is what is described in this article, focusing on the methodology adopted and the various subjective and objective measures used. Assessing the quality of the resulting post-edited versions is beyond the scope of this paper.

This article presents first a short review of the existing work related to human translation and MT in the audiovisual fields of subtitling and AD. It then describes the set-up of the experiment, including the participants involved, the test data used, and the MT engines analysed. It also details the MT output evaluation tasks performed by the testers and the PE tool chosen, followed by the actual development of the pre-test. Next it explains the statistical methods used and discusses the results obtained. It finally presents the conclusions and assesses the opportunities for further research in this field.

Machine-translated audio description: related work

Before contemplating the post-editing of machine-translated ADs, a closer look into the controversy around their human translation is needed. In line with some current practices and working processes in the subtitling market (Georgakopoulou 2010), several researchers defend not only the viability of translating AD scripts (Jankowska 2015; Matamala 2006; Salway 2004), but also the necessity (López Vera 2006).

There are also critics to this proposal: Hyks (2005: 8) argues that 'translating and rewording can sometimes take as long if not longer than starting from scratch' and that '[t]he fact that some languages use many more or sometimes fewer words to express an idea, can drastically affect timings'. Rodríguez Posadas and Sánchez Agudo’s (2008) opinion is much more categorical. They talk about 'putting a foreign culture before the Spanish (or the Spanish blind people’s) culture' (ibid.: 8) and about a 'lack of respect for the blind' (ibid.: 16), and argue that translating AD scripts would be more expensive since it would involve not only the translator but also a dialogue writer.

Be it as it may, Remael and Vercauteren (2010: 157) maintain that 'AD translation does happen' and claim that it 'will increase in the (near) future, if only because it may be perceived as a cost-cutting factor by international translation companies, film producers and distributors'. In this sense, it must be stated that this is no longer a mere perception. As a result of the research conducted by Jankowska (2015), it has been proved that visually impaired people accept translated ADs and that it is a less time-consuming and cheaper process than creating them from scratch.

As far as MT is concerned, its implementation has been researched in the subtitling domain as a possible solution. Popowich, McFetridge, Turcato and Toole (2000) were pioneers in presenting a rule-based MT system that provided the translation of closed captions from English into Spanish and concluded that the subtitling domain was already appropriate for the development state of MT systems at that time.

Several European projects have since been developed. MUSA (2002-2004) aimed at 'the creation of a multimodal multilingual system that converts audio streams into text transcriptions, generates subtitles from these transcriptions and then translates the subtitles in other languages' (Languages and the Media 2004: 3). Not long afterwards, eTITLE (2003-2005) was launched. It presented a system that combined MT with TM technologies in the subtitling environment in several linguistic combinations, including English to Catalan. SUMAT (2011-2014) offered an on-line service for subtitling by MT. Its final report stated that results were 'quite positive when measuring quality in terms of objective metrics and rating by professional users, with a significant portion of MT output deemed to be of a sufficient quality to reach professional quality standards through minimal to medium PE effort. Productivity measurement also indicated time gains across the board' (Del Pozo 2014: 40). In turn, the EU-BRIDGE project developed the automatic transcription of TV shows to subtitle them and translate the subtitles into multiple languages.

Apart from these EU funded projects, in the academic sphere O’Hagan (2003) aimed at knowing if language technology could be applied to subtitling, for which she tested 'the usability of freely available MT for creating subtitles mainly by non-professional subtitlers' (ibid.: 14). The experiment demonstrated that 'a large proportion of the raw MT outputs of the LOTR [Lord of the Rings] English subtitles could be usable as a pure aid to non-English speaking viewers under certain circumstances' (ibid.: 14–15), implying that there was a clear scope for potential.

The research by O'Hagan inspired a project developed by Armstrong et al. (2006) to test the feasibility of using a trained example-based MT (EBMT) engine to translate subtitles for the German-English language pair in both directions.

Volk (2009), in turn, explored the application of a trained statistical MT system to translate subtitles in Scandinavian languages. The SMT system was trained with a very large parallel corpus of over 5 million subtitles and results indicated that the machine-translated subtitles were of good quality. Moreover, the translation process was proved to be considerably shortened by the use of such a trained MT system.

De Sousa, Aziz and Specia (2011) went one step further: they assessed the effort involved in translating subtitles manually from English into Portuguese compared to post-editing subtitles which had been automatically translated with the help of CAT tools in the same language pair. They used time as the objective measure for PE effort and their experiments showed that post-editing was much faster than translating subtitles ex novo.

However, the implementation of MT in the AD domain has not yet been studied in depth. To the best of my knowledge, only the Master's dissertation by Ortiz-Boix (2012) is devoted to AD and the application of MT. The author compared the quality of machine-translated ADs from Catalan into Spanish based on error analysis. Two free online MT engines without any specific training were used. Google Translate was used as an example of a statistical engine, that is based on statistical models generated after analysing bilingual corpora, and Apertium was used as an example of rule-based engine, that is based on linguistic rules regarding the source and the target languages. The results of these preliminary tests showed that Google Translate made far fewer mistakes than Apertium and proved that applying MT to filmic ADs from Catalan into Spanish would be viable provided that a post-editing by a human was performed before voicing the AD.

Ortiz-Boix’s study was carried out within the framework of the ALST (Linguistic and sensorial accessibility) project. This project researches the application of three technologies, including speech recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis, to two oral modes of audiovisual translation, that is, voice-over and AD. The ALST project is where my research is situated, focusing on MT applied to the audio description of feature films as an example of sensorial accessibility. 

Experimental Set-Up

Various aspects related to the study design are described next.


The sample construction was based on one single criterion: participants should be professional translators in the English-Catalan language combination. No professional audio describers were sought for two main reasons. Firstly, audio description is an intersemiotic activity, not necessarily involving an interlinguistic translation, hence not all professional audio describers, either in Catalan or in any other language, are necessarily professional translators. Secondly, since the tasks involved assessing the quality of the raw MT output and transforming it into fit-for-purpose translations, participants had to be professional translators in these languages. No real skills in AD—not even synchronising and adjusting AD units was required—were needed here for the purposes of this test, where the main task was the quality assessment of 5 different MT systems. Therefore, participants were not subjected to any additional requirement.

In the end, the sample was made up of five volunteers: 3 women and 2 men[1], who fulfilled the previous requirements. They were all professional and personal contacts of the researcher and were directly invited via phone call. They were native Catalan speakers and their ages ranged from 24 to 45. None of them had worked professionally in the post-editing of machine-translated texts, providing a homogeneous sample in this regard.

Test data

Since the study aimed to analyse the performance of MT in the field of AD, an AD excerpt had to be chosen. In the selection of the audiovisual product several factors were considered. In the first instance, this experiment is part of a wider project in which other technologies, such as text-to-speech (TTS) in the Catalan context, have been tested. Therefore, a film that had already been audio described both in Catalan (for the TTS AD experiments in which the TTS was compared to the human voiced AD) and in English (for the MT tests) was required. Since my intended target audience were adults and no particular film genre was to be favoured, animated children films were disregarded and a dubbed fiction film belonging to a 'miscellaneous' category according to Salway, Tomadaki and Vassiliou's (2004) classification was chosen: Closer (Nichols 2004).

A short clip was selected to minimise participants' fatigue and boredom and to limit the experiment duration. An exhaustive analysis of the film, the AD script and the individual AD units was carried out, and a neutral clip in terms of content (having no potentially distracting such as sex scenes and/or offensive content) and with an AD density of 240 words (1,320 characters distributed among 14 different AD units in 3.09 minutes) was chosen (see Table A.1).

MT engines selection

Although MT performs better with engines that 'are trained with domain-specific memories and glossaries, and work on texts that have been pre-edited following controlled language guidelines' (García 2011: 218), the spirit of the project was to propose a solution that could be used as widely as possible. Therefore, it was decided that only free online MT engines would be used.

A thorough search of the available free online MT engines in the required language pair, that is from English into Catalan, was conducted, and the following engines were found[2]:

  • Yandex Translate, by Yandex
  • Google Translate, by Google
  • Apertium, by Universitat d'Alacant
  • Lucy Kwik Translator, by Lucy Software and Services GmbH
  • Bing Translator, by Microsoft

This selection included statistically based (Bing Translator, Google Translate and Yandex Translate) and rule-based systems (Apertium and Lucy Kwik Translator). However, no hybrid MT system could be provided, which would have meant a full and comprehensive representation of the current MT models.

The systems will be anonymised in the rest of the article by randomly naming them A to E.

Methodology for MT output quality evaluation

Assessing the quality of MT engines' output poses a major challenge since different approaches exist both in the industry and in the research sphere, and there is no consensus as to which are the best practices.

Both human and automatic measures have been proposed. The most frequent human evaluation measures are sentence-level annotations and include: ranking task (Callison-Burch et al. 2012), error classification (Federmann 2012), PE tasks (either selecting the translation output which is easiest to post-edit or post-editing all outputs) (Popovic et al. 2013), quality estimation (also called expected PE effort) (Federmann 2012; Specia 2011), perceived PE effort (De Sousa, Aziz, and Specia 2011), PE time (Specia 2011), adequacy (Chatzitheodorou and Chatzistamatis 2013), and fluency (Koehn and Monz 2006; Koponen 2010).

Automatic metrics include BLEU (Papineni, Roukos, Ward and Zhu 2002), NIST (Doddington 2002), METEOR (Lavie and Agarwal 2007), and TER (Snover, Dorr, Schwartz, Micciulla and Makhoul 2006), among many others, and are deemed to be 'an imperfect substitute for human assessment of translation quality' (Callison-Burch et al. 2012: 11). However, their use is widely spread because they are easier to implement, faster and cheaper than human evaluation.

In this experiment the focus was on human judgements, both objective and subjective, but automatic metrics were calculated to provide additional data. Thus, the evaluation model resulted in eight scores (see Table 1):








PE time



PE necessity

PE difficulty

MT output adequacy

MT output fluency

MT output ranking

Table 1. Evaluation model

On the one hand, Human-targeted Translation Edit Rate (HTER), PE time, PE necessity and PE difficulty were all measurements of the PE effort which each raw MT output required to become a fit-for-purpose translation. On the other hand, Human-targeted Bilingual Evaluation Understudy (HBLEU), MT adequacy, MT fluency and MT ranking focused exclusively on the raw MT output itself.

All objective measures were obtained automatically. HBLEU measured the closeness of a MT to its post-edited versions (Del Pozo 2014). Thus, the higher the HBLEU score of a raw MT output, the closer it was to a professional human translation and therefore it was considered to be better. Its metric ranges from 0 to 1.

HTER measured the distance 'between machine translations and their post-edited versions' (Specia 2011: 74). It counted the number of edits performed to the MT text, including substitutions, shifts, insertions and deletions, divided by the number of words in the post-edited text used as reference. Thus, the more edits performed to a raw MT text (that is, the higher the HTER score), the more effort the PE process was supposed to involve. Its metric also ranges from 0 to 1.

The PE time referred to the total time spent in the post-editing of each AD unit. Again, the more time spent in post-editing, the more effort it was supposed to involve.

In relation to the subjective human assessments, and following Graham, Baldwin, Moffat, and Zobel (2013), four of them (that is all but the ranking task) were presented to participants in the form of 5-point Likert scales to be evaluated according to the participant's level of agreement or disagreement with the given statement. Higher scores represented better results since the statements proposed to participants were formulated so that 'strongly agreeing' (5) or 'agreeing' (4) with them were the most positive answers.

PE necessity assessed to which extent the raw MT output needed to be post-edited in order to obtain a fit-for-purpose target text. As shown in Figure 1, the statement presented to participants was: 'The MT text required no post-editing'. This assessment was meant to be the equivalent to the quality estimation judgement (Federmann 2012) or the expected PE effort appraisal, by which the annotator must decide on the acceptability of a raw MT output in its present condition (Specia 2011).

PE difficulty referred to how difficult post-editing the raw MT output had been. The statement presented to participants was: 'The MT text was easy to post-edit'. This score was inspired by the scale for human translation evaluation in De Sousa, Aziz and Specia (2011) and was related to the perceived PE effort, by which the annotator must assess the effort they have put into post-editing a segment.

The adequacy assessment aimed 'to determine the extent to which all of the content of a text is conveyed, regardless of the quality of the language in the candidate translation' (Chatzitheodorou and Chatzistamatis 2013: 87). The statement presented to participants was: 'All the information in the source text was present in the MT text'.

The fluency judgement (Koehn and Monz 2006; Koponen 2010) tried to convey to what extent a translation flowed naturally and was considered genuine in the target language, without taking into account whether the information was correct and complete in relation to the original text. The statement presented to participants was: 'The MT text is fluent Catalan'.


Figure 1

Figure 1. Subjective assessments per AD unit


Finally, the ranking of the raw MT outputs was intended to obtain a classification of each AD unit according to their global quality. Participants were asked to '[r]ank the translation from best to worst, assigning numbers to each unit from 5 (best) to 1 (worst) in the left column', as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2

Figure 2. Ranking of raw MT outputs

PE tool selection

Many PE tools, such as Appraise (Federmann 2012), ACCEPT (Roturier, Mitchell, and Silva 2013), TransCenter (Denkowski and Lavie 2012) and PET (Aziz, De Sousa and Specia 2012), among others, were analysed in order to select the most adequate one for my purposes. Since none of the tools included video and audio options, the AD units could not be accompanied by the real context they were to be inserted in. However, for the aim of this particular test, it was not deemed essential, as no synchronisation or adjustment of the target AD units were asked to the participants.

PET was finally selected for it was a standalone tool and it was absolutely customisable, particularly as far as the assessment questions were concerned. It also allowed for the storage of many other indicators for each AD unit, such as the PE and assessing times, and several edit operations, among others.


The experiment was carried out in a real-world environment, which meant that ecological validity was favoured to the detriment of a tighter controlled environment. Participants were informed via email of the tasks to be carried out in a four-hour session.

The test developed as follows. After reading a participant information sheet and signing a consent form approved by the University Ethical Committee, participants were told to download the PE tool and to follow a short training session on the tool. The Catalan dubbed version of the clip with the English AD included in the silent gaps as subtitles was provided for them to watch it. They were next given the script of both the Catalan dialogues and the English AD which they would have to post-edit in written form. They were then told to start the PE tasks. They were allowed to use any resources deemed necessary for the revision (dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on) and they were instructed not to time-code the AD units. Specific guidelines inspired by the works of O’Brien (2010), De Sousa, Aziz, and Specia (2011), Specia (2011), TAUS and CNGL (2010) and Housley (2012), were also provided:

  • Perform the minimum amount of editing necessary to make the AD translation ready for voicing retaining as much raw translation as possible
  • Aim for a grammatically, syntactically and semantically correct translation.
  • Ensure that no information has been accidentally added or omitted.
  • Ensure that the message transferred is accurate.
  • Ensure that key terminology is translated correctly.
  • Basic rules regarding spelling, punctuation and hyphenation apply.

Each participant post-edited five different raw MT versions of the selected AD script excerpt. The order in which MT systems were presented to the participants was balanced to compensate for both the learning effect and the fatigue of the annotators. As indicated above, the excerpt to be post-edited contained 14 AD units, each unit containing one or more sentences[3]. After post-editing each unit, participants were asked to provide their evaluations on PE difficulty, PE necessity, MT adequacy and MT fluency, while PE time was automatically calculated by the PE software.

Next, they were asked to rank the translations by assigning numbers to each unit from 5 (best) to 1 (worst). The source English AD unit was displayed, followed by its five different MT versions. The order of the systems was randomised in each unit to prevent any unintentional bias by the participants in relation to a particular system.

Finally, they were asked to fill in a post-questionnaire on participant demographics and subjective opinions. A post-questionnaire was considered more suitable due to the length and complexity of the test.

Statistical methods

Descriptive statistics (mean, median and standard deviation) were computed for the quantitative variables. For the categorical variables —PE necessity, PE difficulty, MT adequacy, MT fluency and MT ranking— percentages were used.

As for the inferential statistics, two different models were applied. On the one hand, a multinomial model with repeated measures was established for each categorical variable with MT system as the explanatory variable. On the other hand, a generalized linear model was established for PE time with MT system as the independent variable.

All results were obtained using SAS, v 9.3 (SAS Institute Inc, USA). For the decisions, significance level was fixed at 0.05.


The best MT system should be the one obtaining the highest HBLEU, the lowest HTER, the lowest PE time, the highest PE necessity, PE difficulty, MT adequacy and MT fluency scores, and the highest position in the ranking. Next, results for each of the items are discussed.


HBLEU metrics were obtained using the Language StudioTM Pro Desktop Tools package, by Asia Online. Table 2 shows that D obtained the highest scores. Therefore, its raw MT output can be considered the best version.












Table 2. HBLEU scores

These scores are deemed to be high. However, as stated by Del Pozo (2014), '[a]s hBLEU scores are measured on post-edited files, they are expected to be higher than the BLEU scores on test sets, as there should be a higher amount of common n-grams in a transformed (that is post-edited) reference text than in an independently translated reference' (p. 22).


HTER metrics were obtained using the Language StudioTM Pro Desktop Tools package, by Asia Online. Table 3 shows that D presented the lowest score, which means that its MT outputs were the ones which needed less editing to get to a fit-for-purpose solution.












Table 3. HTER scores

PE time

When comparing the MT engines in terms of the time needed to post-edit their outputs, B produced the translations that required less time to be post-edited, followed by E, D, A and C, that is B obtained the best results (see Figure 3). On average, post-editing an AD unit translated by B took 60 per cent of the time of post-editing one translated by C. C also rendered the highest variability in the PE time (stdev=89.68).

Still, no statistically significant differences were found among the systems. This means that from a statistical point of view no particular MT system could be considered best.


Figure 3

Figure 3. Mean and median PE times per system with standard deviation error bars

PE necessity

According to Figure 4, which shows the frequency of each score for the PE necessity assessment, more than 44 per cent of the AD units translated by D obtained a higher score (scores 4 and 5), that is participants agreed and strongly agreed with the statement 'The MT text required no post-editing' on 32 occasions out of 70. No other system obtained such good results, with E getting higher scores only in 31 per cent of the sentences (22 out of 70), C in 22 per cent of them (16 out of 70), B in 13 per cent of them (9 out of 70), and A in 4 per cent of them (3 out of 70).


Figure 4

Figure 4. PE necessity scores frequency

Differences between D and all other MT systems were statistically significant. The odds of obtaining higher scores in D was higher than in any other system, which means that D could be considered the best one as far as PE necessity is concerned (see Table A.2).

PE difficulty

PE difficulty scores showed that, although some PE was needed in many occasions, correcting the sentences to get a fit-for-purpose target text was not considered to be a difficult task in most cases.

Figure 5 shows the frequency of each score for the PE difficulty assessment. D obtained the highest frequency for 4 and 5 scores (87 per cent, 61 sentences out of 70), closely followed by E (81 per cent, 57 sentences out of 70), B (73 per cent, 51 out of 70), C (71 per cent, 50 sentences out of 70) and A (36 per cent, 25 out of 70).

In addition, it is worth noticing that no participants assessed D with a 1 score, which means that in no case participants strongly disagreed with the statement 'The MT text was easy to post-edit'. This highlights the fact that none of the sentences translated by D was found very difficult to post-edit by the participants, which did not happen with any other MT engine.


Figure 5

Figure 5. PE difficulty scores frequency

D obtained statistically better scores than B, C, E and A. Thus, D is considered to have the best scores in terms of PE difficulty (see Table A.3).


Taking into account the amount of information of the source actually conveyed in the target text, participants considered that D's MT output presented all or almost all the information of the source AD unit in 69 per cent of the cases (48 out of 70). Figure 6 also shows that D had the highest frequency of 5-score occurrences and the lowest frequency of 2-score occurrences.

Descriptive statistics match with inferential statistics in that D has statistically higher scores than A, B and C, but it is not statistically different from E (see Table A.4).


Figure 6

Figure 6. Adequacy scores frequency


In terms of fluency, results were quite similar to those of adequacy. Figure 7 shows that D presented the highest frequency of higher scores (65 per cent, 55 out of 70) and the lowest frequency of 1and 2-score occurrences (16 per cent, 11 out of 70), with a total of 20 raw MT outputs being considered fluent Catalan. Inferential statistics, again, confirm these results: D obtained statistically the highest scores (see Table A.5).


Figure 7

Figure 7. Fluency scores frequency


According to Figure 8, 56 per cent of D's raw MT outputs ranked the best ones (39 out of 70), with none of its translations being ranked the worst. These results were statistically confirmed (see Table A.6).


Figure 8

Figure 8. Ranking scores frequency

Conclusions and further research

The aim of the experiment presented in this paper was to propose and implement a methodology which would allow for the selection of the best MT engine to be used in the AD field for the English-Catalan language pair. Participants performed the PE of each MT engine output for the AD script of a 3-minute-long clip and assessed the 14 AD units in terms of PE necessity, PE difficulty, MT adequacy and MT fluency. They also ranked the MT segments from best to worst, and HBLEU, PE time and HTER were automatically computed.

In view of the results exposed above, D was found to be the best MT engine in four out of the five subjective human assessments used in the evaluation (highest PE necessity, PE difficulty and MT fluency scores, and ranking), with the last of the assessments, that is adequacy, presenting higher scores than 3 of the remaining MT systems. In relation to the objective assessments, D also obtained the highest HBLEU scores and outperformed the remaining MT systems in terms of the number of edits needed to get a fit-for-purpose translation. It was just in the PE time score where no statistically significant differences could be found among the MT systems being studied.

However, the study has several limitations, which gives scope for further research and improvement. The first constraint is the number of participants. Increasing it would be desirable to attain a more thorough evaluation, but this was approached as a test previous to the main experiment (Fernández-Torné forthcoming) in which a small sample of five participants was preferred to a subjective decision by the researcher. A second restraint is the test data. Including different AD data sources, such as clips from other film genres, series and documentaries, would also improve the reliability of the test results. In relation to the experimental design, trying to further reduce fatigue in participants by avoiding repetition inasmuch as possible would also be advisable. Other automatic metrics apart from HBLEU and HTER could also be computed for the sake of balancing automatic metrics and human assessments.

Despite these limitations, this article has provided a methodological framework for the evaluation of MT engines in the audiovisual translation field, and more specifically in AD that can be replicated in the future. Needless to say that the study of MT in AVT, and more specifically in AD, is in its infancy, and there are many research possibilities to be explored. For instance, it would be interesting to prove if pre-editing the source texts in the AD field would actually influence on the PE effort, as stated by O'Brien (2010) in other translation domains.

It would also be interesting to see whether the professional profile of the participants, that is having previous professional experience in MT PE or in AD creation, would have an impact on the assessment and final selection of the MT system. As far as the PE instructions are concerned, including the synchronisation (time-coding) and adjustment of the post-edited AD units should also be taken into account, since it is an essential part in AD. In this sense, the development of a PE tool with audiovisual capabilities would actually be much recommended.

Additionally, it would be worth researching the performance of D compared to other MT systems specifically trained with data belonging to the AD domain. As stated by Groves, '[t]he quality of MT is highly dependent on the quality of the data used for training' (2011, min. 5.20). Establishing an English-to-Catalan AD corpus would be basic, for which as many English ADs as possible should need to have been previously translated into Catalan. In the absence of such AD translations corpus, the translations of the audiovisual products' scripts could be used to feed the MT systems.

All in all, the test has evaluated the quality of five MT systems by means of automatic metrics and human assessments. Results show that there are clear quality differences among the systems assessed and that D is the best rated in six out of the eight evaluation measures used. This engine would therefore yield the best freely machine-translated ADs in Catalan presumably reducing the AD process turnaround time and costs when compared with the standard process of AD creation. This is what will be researched in our next experiment.


AD unit


Duration (seconds)




A professional camera rests on its tripod. A woman peering down through the viewfinder lifts her head.





Dan sits stiffly on a stool in front of a screen. The beautiful photographer turns away.





Dressed all in black, Dan puts back his cigarette packet back in his jacket pocket and eyeing the photographer, who is in her thirties, tall and slim, with a chiselled large-featured face. He sits back down. She studies him with a glint in her eye.





She smiles warmly.





She nods. Dan stares steadily at her unsmiling. As she turns away again he gets to his feet and crosses the studio.





Dan looks at some of her photos, which hang on the walls. They are mainly of people.





Dan wanders back towards the stool and sits.





She looks coolly at him.





He straightens his back as she continues to take pictures. She tilts her head to one side regarding him thoughtfully.





He raises them again flashing a smile. The photographer steps purposefully towards him and adjusts his tie. He looks up at her.





She goes back to her camera and looks through the viewfinder at Dan. Then lifts her head to look directly at him.





He stands. She raises the camera on the tripod.





Dan's piercing eyes dart to one side then fall on the photographer, who meets his gaze and smiles softly, her eyes glistening.





Her smile gone, she stands motionless, her eyes still fixed on him.




Table A.1. Selected clip for the test



Pr > |t|


D vs A



D vs B



D vs C



D vs E



Table A.2. PE necessity odds ratio (OR) table



Pr > |t|


D vs A



D vs B



D vs C



D vs E



E vs A



E vs B



E vs C



Table A.3. PE difficulty odds ratio (OR) table



Pr > |t|


D vs A



D vs B



D vs C



D vs E



Table A.4. MT adequacy odds ratio (OR) table



Pr > |t|


D vs A



D vs B



D vs C



D vs E



Table A.5. MT fluency odds ratio (OR) table



Pr > |t|


D vs A



D vs B



D vs C



D vs E



Table A.6. Ranking odds ratio (OR) table


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Rodríguez Posadas, Gala, and Carmen Sánchez Agudo (2007) “Traducción de guiones audiodescriptivos: doble traducción, doble traición” in AMADIS '07 Congress of the Centro Español de Subtitulado y Audiodescripción (CESyA), no editors, Granada, CESyA: no page numbers.

Roturier, Johann, Mitchell, Linda, and David Silva (2013) “The ACCEPT post-editing environment: a flexible and customisable online tool to perform and analyse machine translation post-editing” in Proceedings of the Machine Translation Summit XIV Workshop on Post-editing Technology and Practice, Sharon O’Brien, Michel Simard, and Lucia Specia (eds), Nice, AMTA: 119-128.

Salway, Andrew (2004) “AuDesc system specification and prototypes”, TIWO: Television in Words), Guildford, University of Surrey.

Salway, Andrew, Tomadaki, Elia, and Andrew Vassiliou (2004) “Building and analysing a corpus of audio description scripts”, TIWO: Television in Words, Guildford, University of Surrey.

Snover, Mathew, Dorr, Bonnie, Schwartz, Richard, Micciulla, Linnea, and John Makhoul (2006) “A study of translation edit rate with targeted human annotation” in Proceedings of the Seventh Conference of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas, Laurie Gerber et al. (eds), Cambridge, AMTA: 223–231.

Specia, Lucia (2011) “Exploiting objective annotations for measuring translation post-editing effort” in Proceedings of the 15th Conference of the European Association for Machine Translation, Mikel L. Forcada, Heidi Depraetere, and Vincent Vandeghinste (eds), Leuven, EAMT: 73–80.

TAUS and CNGL (2010) Machine translation postediting guidelines, De Rijp, TAUS.

Temizöz, Özlem (2012) Machine translation and postediting, Herentals, European Society for Translation Studies.

Volk, Martin (2009) “The automatic translation of film subtitles. A machine translation success story?”, JLCL 24, no. 3: 113–125.


[1] Although five evaluators may seem a low number, it is in line with current research in MT (Specia 2011; O'Brien 2011).

[2] Search performed in September 2013.

[3] The analysis was decided to be at the AD-unit level since this is how an AD is divided semantically. Participants could therefore combine several sentences included in one source AD unit or split one sentence of the source AD unit into several target sentences when post-editing according to their needs.

About the author(s)

Anna Fernández-Torné holds a MA in Audiovisual Translation (UAB), MA in Language Consultancy in the Media (UAB) and a European MA in Audiovisual Translation (Parma University). Her research centres on audio description and technologies, both text-to-speech and machine translation. She has been a freelance translator since 2004, specialising in audiovisual translation, and lectures at the MA in Audiovisual Translation at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

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Call for Chapters: Redefining Translation and Interpretation in Cultural Evolution

By The Editors


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By Christopher Taylor (University of Trieste, Italy)

Keywords: audiovisual translation

©inTRAlinea & Christopher Taylor (2016).
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
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The present volume contains eight diverse approaches, by eight scholars from various European countries, to the analysis of a single audiovisual text entitled In Excelsis Deo. The text is in fact Episode Ten of the highly successful American television series The West Wing and while it contains inevitable intertextual connections with preceding and subsequent episodes (the chief of staff’s drug problems, Christmas preparations at the White House, the tragic murder of a gay schoolboy, some barely hatched love stories), it also features a self-contained story of a Korean War veteran who is given an unofficial military funeral through the machinations of a member of the White House staff. The analysis of this text, which is particularly rich in the kind of linguistic, semantic, pragmatic, cultural and technical challenges found in audiovisual translation (AVT), will also embrace the important area of audiovisual access for the sensorially disabled, namely the deaf and hard of hearing and the blind and sight-impaired. Through a process of careful re-examination and coordinated analysis, it is hoped that the similar or diverse methodologies, priorities or perceptions that emerge from the various contributions will provide stimuli for anyone working in the AVT sector, especially those in the media industry and in higher education.

The editor’s idea of subjecting a single text to examination on several related fronts first arose after reading Mann & Thompson’s 1992 book ‘Discourse Description: diverse linguistic analyses of a fund-raising text’, in which the authors invited a dozen or so renowned linguists to analyse the same text (Zero Population Growth – a letter seeking donations for a cause) in their own different ways. The result was 409 pages of analysis of a text running one and a half pages.

The idea of doing the same thing with a multimodal film text, by inviting a number of  noted experts in the field to contribute, marks a new departure in the area of audiovisual texts and translation. The analyses should be even more exhaustive than those collated in the Mann-Thompson volume as attempts are made to find a way through the web of semiotic resources that reflect the thoughts and ideas of the audiovisual text’s creator and how meaning is made through the various semiotic modes represented.

Thus the main objective is to investigate to what extent different approaches to the analysis of the text, whether for translation purposes, didactic considerations, linguistic description, and so on, reveal similar or diverse methodologies, priorities or perceptions.

In other words it will be interesting to see, for example, how the eye-tracker looks at the text, or at least how someone looks at the text when wearing their eye-tracking hat, or how the linguist looks at the text, how the translator looks at the text, how the subtitler or dubber looks at the text, how the audiodescriber looks at the text, and so on.

Those familiar with the ‘Pear Tree’ project (Mazur and Kruger, 2012) will have seen, for example, how cultural perspectives can affect the perception of a film, and it will be interesting to see how the preparation of translations into different languages may require different approaches and techniques, and how the hierarchy of superordinate and subordinate elements may change.

Whatever the purpose of the analysis, examining such variables as patterns, complexity, register, rhetorical structures, cohesive devices, functions, and so on, has provided us with a great deal of material to compare and confront. Conclusions have been drawn and we are now in a position to at least offer guidelines to others embarking on the various tasks that are the subject of the separate chapters.

Thus the main cohesive structure of the volume revolves around the idea of the single text, as a search is made for a common thread, or threads, running through the various analyses. Is there substantial agreement as to what constitute the key elements in the multimodal whole, whatever the purpose of the inquiry, or is it the case that for a particular purpose certain semantic resources are prioritised? What general principles are discernible in a single text token?

The present-day reliance on rapid communication and the preponderance of multimodal and multimedia products over all other forms of communication in this ‘iconic age’, all fueled by the digital revolution, has led to a vastly increased need to mediate between countries, media, languages and cultures. This phenomenon is particularly relevant in Europe with its mix of languages and cultures and its massive use of audiovisual material of all kinds. The sheer size of this phenomenon imposes a huge burden on the translation industry, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the attempt to provide access to AVT products for all European citizens by breaking down the linguistic and cultural barriers.

This question of accessibility has gained further relevance more recently where attention has turned to subjects such as subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH) and audiodescription for the blind and sight-impaired. Most European governments have pledged to provide audiovisual access to these groups but progress is often slow and in many countries the process is still in its infancy. This aspect will be addressed both in terms of same-language intralingual transposition and interlingual translation through, for example, audiosubtitles for the blind.

Until recently many practitioners of AVT were self-taught and either had talent or not. Accordingly they became either well-reputed professionals or perpetrators of the often very poor translations that have even been the object of ridicule in, for example, web-site exchanges. Finally, in more recent times, practitioners are beginning to be recruited from among newly-emerging university graduates with AVT experience, those who have followed courses based on local and/or internationally published material and who have benefitted from the expertise of a still fairly restricted number  of qualified teachers. Given the enormous interest now shown in the field, and the predicted boom in the number of AVT courses being offered in higher education, it is time to produce some scientifically based reasoning and some proposals that will provide the basis for a coherent body of reference to be used in undergraduate as well as post-graduate university courses.

This body of research is designed to give some more impetus to the current rise in interest regarding AVT and first and foremost, to shed light on the processes involved in translating a television series. It is also hoped, however, that the fallout from this work may be useful directly or indirectly to all end-users of audiovisual translation, whether they be television viewers, cinema audiences, deaf and blind subjects, web navigators, and so on. The material is also aimed more generally at the media companies and service providers, and to teachers and students in higher education.

The partners in this initiative, all established experts in the field of audiovisual translation, many of whom have also worked in the industry as screen translators, subtitlers or audiodescribers, hope to fill a gap that is currently missing in the audiovisual sector. They wish to achieve a comprehensive understanding of what lies at the core of successful audiovisual translation, whether it be for dubbing, subtitling or voice-over, and what is really required of subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) and audiodescription for the blind. The objectives therefore, as explained above, are to analyse a single text from a variety of linguistic, cultural and practical viewpoints with a view to achieving a greater understanding of what constitutes audiovisual translation and transposition and secondly to create an illustrated methodology for students and practitioners of AVT. The contents of the work should impact on the current audiovisual scenario across Europe by promoting high standards, quality assurance and standardized procedures to ensure best practices in all countries.

The contributions

As the ‘West Wing’ text has been analysed by eight audiovisual translation (AVT) experts from universities throughout Europe and from various disciplines (linguistics, translation, psychology, IT, media studies) it has involved seven different language/culture combinations, each concentrating on a particular aspect of AVT. From the language point of view, the work consists of considered analyses and reasoned proposals for translation into Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Swedish, Polish and Croatian. Grafted onto these language combinations the following aspects are analysed: dubbing strategies and techniques, subtitling strategies and techniques, including the involvement of professionals, voiceover, the didactic ramifications of AVT, the use of eye-tracking technology in subtitle production, audiodescription for the blind and partially sighted, audiosubtitling, subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, multimodal text analysis, dialogue analysis, the examination of intercultural issues, the question of ‘re-speaking’ as an AVT mode, and a consideration of the feasibility of creating a film referencing system that traces and categorises visual elements in the same way as verbal elements.

The major innovation to be found in this volume is that such a large number of experts from different countries have never before carried out an analysis of a single multimodal text. The text in question has been chosen carefully because of the array of features it contains that challenge the audiovisual translator. It contains high speed dialogue, culture-bound references, witticisms, well-rounded characters, all the conventional ingredients of the television series as a genre, the meta-language of the voiceovers, a host of important and effective visual references, pathos and continuity.

The countries represented by the contributors to the volume have been chosen taking into consideration the different translation traditions in Europe: dubbing, subtitling, voice-over, which is key to the development of respective accessibility strategies.

Pilar Orero approaches the question of accessibility for the sensorially disabled, more specifically audiodescription for the blind and sight-impaired population. She makes the important point that certain television series, of which ‘The West Wing’ is a recognized example, have now received considerable critical acclaim as well as enormous commercial success. It is therefore important that access be provided for the sensorially disabled to these products, though this is still often lacking. In particular Orero looks at three aspects of the episode In Excelsis Deo, namely character, location and plot. For the blind audience the identification of the main characters, the clarifying of the various settings and then the following of the plot, both the ‘stand-alone’ story of the Korean War veteran and the other stories which are carried over from previous episodes, are fundamental reference points. For example, the key character in this episode, Toby Ziegler, is introduced in the opening scene and his position in the White House hierarchy needs to be quickly established. Other main characters are also present at the beginning of the episode. The locations are all in Washington D.C. and the connection between the institutional settings (The White House, the Korean War Memorial, Arlington Cemetery) and other places (a call girl’s flat, a makeshift camp for derelicts, a bookshop) needs to be made clear. The dialogue list/screenplay of the episode, while by no means an exact substitute for an AD, can provide useful information of this type and a careful study of its contents, and also the director’s indications, can lead to identifying the most important features to include in the description.

As is typical of such series every episode begins with a resumé of what has gone before. Orero suggests that this time, along with the succeeding scrolling of the credits, is an opportune moment for an introductory element to precede the audiodescription (AD). Even if this inevitably means a certain amount of overlap with the spoken words, this kind of ‘invasion’ is justified in these circumstances. Intertitles giving information on times and places, should be read aloud in accordance with all current guidelines. Treading the controversial waters of how much subjectivity or personal interpretation to include in the AD, Orero suggests that Toby Ziegler’s feelings towards the dead veteran should be made explicit, as this is the leitmotif of the whole mini-story.

Frederic Chaume takes a look at the Spanish dubbed version of In Excelsis Deo and begins by explaining that the translated version of The West Wing ‘has been acknowledged as one of the best dubbings of a drama series in that country’. This reflects, as he points out, the excellent technical work and excellent acting of the original. He dissects the translation, the dubbing and the final Spanish performance, going through all the elements that a translator for dubbing should know about. It is, as he says, a stereotypical text for  teaching. The main basis for the analysis is the concept of norms that dubbers follow and that audiences expect and recognize. Although ‘no empirical evidence has shown what a good dubbing is’, those who work in the industry or in the AVT teaching profession point to certain yardsticks such as lip synchrony, isochrony, natural dialogue production, ideational and interpersonal meaning, iconographic equivalence, fidelity, and so on. and these are all covered by Chaume in relation to The West Wing.

The ‘tricks of the trade’ are illustrated in terms, for example, of bilabial substitution – at a certain point the word ‘padre’ is introduced, because it is phonetically equivalent, regardless of the fact that there is no mention of a ‘father’ in the original script -  and this replacement is justified. Chaume is essentially very complimentary towards the whole dubbing performance in In Excelsis Deo, though he also points out examples of errors, mismatching and calquing. These, however, are explained in terms of the inevitable traps of ‘dubbese’. He also indicates the importance of the ‘walk and talk’ strategy used in the original in every episode and which is picked up by other authors in this volume (Orero, Perego).

Kristijan Nikolić takes a critical look at the subtitled version of In Excelsis Dio in Croatian. He begins by interviewing the actual subtitler, who worked on almost the whole series of The West Wing for the Croatian national broadcaster. The interviewee confirmed that subtitling a fast-paced, culture-bound TV series with some similarities to documentary formats, posed considerable challenges to the translator/subtitler. The first crucial point to emerge from the subtitler’s point of view is that the very first episode is the most difficult, in that it is necessary to ease into the series in order to understand how to shape things as the series progresses. It is then important to make decisions as to how to deal with the many cultural references, that is to leave them in English, find a Croatian equivalent, translate the terms literally or eliminate them entirely.

Nikolić, who then takes up the analysis, refers to Pedersen’s categories of cultural expressions (see this volume) namely ECRS (extra-linguistic cultural references) and to Diaz-Cintas and Remael’s distinction between total and partial reduction when time constraints compel the subtitler to find space in the densely packed dialogue. He asks the crucial question of how the subtitler can decide? In agreement with the interviewed professional, he emphasises the importance of having or finding knowledge of the source text culture as it applies to the series in question. In this case it is important to know, for example, that Medical School is not medicinska škola (nursing school) and that the Secretary of Labour in America is equivalent to a minister in the Croatian political system.

Another question to arise is that of the use of acronyms and abbreviations such as the NSA (National Security Agency). Bodies of this kind rarely have an exact equivalent in other cultures and political systems and the subtitler may be tempted to leave it out or paraphrase it. Yet, as in this case, if the term, both in its abbreviated and full form, is referred to repeatedly, it will then be necessary to go back and make sure the reference is clear. Examples such as those outlined above, and an interesting instance of how to translate gay in a language that has no equivalent register, form part of a rounded analysis of the difficulties involved in subtitling In Excelsis Deo in Croatian.

Delia Chiaro, while discussing the Italian dubbed version of In Excelsis Deo, points out that the series was not a huge success in Italy, perhaps due to unfortunate timing and the fact that the subject matter might not have attracted a large audience. Nonetheless the series was translated by several television companies and Chiaro takes a critical look at a number of the translation solutions attempted. She identifies examples of dubbese such as the now standard translation of the English language wedding vow “I do” with ‘Lo voglio”. The choice is based on lip synchronization but is simply not said at Italian wedding services.

Chiaro correctly devotes considerable attention to the question of terms of address and the perennial problem of pronoun use when translating from English into languages that make a register distinction depending on who the interlocutors are. She examines this usage with reference to a number of one-to-one relationships that are a constant feature of the series and in need of careful handling.

In discussing the handling of culture-bound terms, she introduces the concept of chunking up, or down, or sideways (Katan, 2004) and her own concept of “lingua-cultural drops in translational voltage”. These terms refer to the choices translators make to either use a hyperonym to deal with a specific term e.g., ‘medaglia/medal’ for ‘purple heart’ or vice versa when ‘Christmas services’ is substituted with a more specific ‘messa di natale/Christmas Mass’, or use a target language equivalent or leave the term untranslated as is the case with real names.

Finally, while generally applauding the work of the Italian ‘dialoghista’, who Chiaro interviewed for this chapter, she makes some specific criticisms. For example, there is a flattening effect in some stretches of discourse, there is censorship in the translation of the term ‘hooker’, and the voice chosen for the child who addresses the President is much more ‘childlike’ than in the original. But what emerges from this chapter is an accurate picture of what goes on in the mind of the translator and what happens in the dubbing studio.

Iwona Mazur and Agnieszka Chmiel tackle the question of voice-over, a translation mode used in their native Poland, and in other countries particularly in eastern Europe, for TV fiction as well as for documentaries, news features and so on. They rightly lament the fact that voice-over had long been considered a poor relation in the audiovisual translation world, but point out that it has now gained its rightful place alongside subtitling and dubbing as a translation mode worthy of study. Nevertheless, they also point out how certain voice-over practices are criticized in the West, such as the use of a single male voice to cover all characters in a film, a usage that caused an American critic to wonder why Marilyn Monroe flirted breathily in a thick baritone voice.

The authors explain how the usual voice-over practice was to allow the original speaker to begin talking and then come in several seconds later with the translation and to end the voice-over a couple of seconds before the speaker completed his or her talk. In the meantime the volume would be turned down to allow the translated version to be heard. This is still largely the case everywhere that voice-over is used, but Mazur and Chmiel report that in Poland the volume is now being kept quite high throughout the voice-over. They also quote Woźniak’s use of the term voice-in-between referring to the practice of inserting the voice-over between gaps in the discourse, as an alternative approach.

The authors then turn their attention to the voiced over Polish version of In Excelsis Deo. Intriguingly the Polish title for The West Wing translates as Presidential Poker. They discuss the particular problems that voice-over translators have to face, some of which are common to all types of audiovisual translation, while others are specific to this genre. They discover that the Polish version is 31% shorter in terms of the numbers of characters. This is due to the usual need to omit, to reduce, to create isochrony and to remain within strict time limits, but the idea of measuring this discrepancy in terms of characters is interesting. Polish lexical items are longer than English words and a simple word count might have skewed the results.

They also note that the type-token ratio is higher in Polish, which at first sight may seem surprising but, as they explain, this can be put down to the inflected nature of Polish and the counting of lemmas. The authors then concentrate on the problem of culture-bound terms, metaphor, irony and other ‘critical points’ and discuss the strategies adopted ranging from normalization to foreignisation, the former being the most used, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of this particular example of voice-over. Mazur and Chmiel also talked to a professional audiovisual translator about this text, which provided  a useful perspective on the topic.

Jan Pedersen begins his chapter by discussing the ever fewer differences remaining between subtitling norms in the Scandinavian countries, such as the preponderance of one-liners in Denmark as opposed to the preference for two-liners in Sweden. However, he analyzes the text In Excelsis Deo according to the current Swedish specifications, focusing in particular on cultural questions.

As an academic researcher in Stockholm, as well as being a professional subtitler, Pedersen has developed his own method of dealing with culture-bound translation problems, the bain of all translators, and which he refers to as extralinguistic cultural references (ECRs). His ‘toolkit’ for dealing with ECRs is based on a taxonomy of seven basic strategies which, he claims, can enable a competent subtitler to solve any cultural conundrum or ‘crisis point’ (cf. Gottlieb’s ten strategies for all subtitling problems). These strategies range from the more straightforward approaches of retention, direct translation and the use of ‘official’ equivalents, to the trickier options of generalization, specification and substitution. Omission is also considered a valid option in certain circumstances, mostly dictated by time and space constraints. Examples are provided of all these strategies as well as a consideration of what Pedersen calls ‘influencing parameters’. The latter explain why culture-bound terms need to be rendered in one particular way instead of another. Again examples are provided in terms of transculturality (how familiar are the ECRs in both source and target cultures), centrality (how salient is the ECR at macro or micro level), polysemiotics (the interplay between image and dialogue in the identification of an ECR) and paralinguistic factors such as audience type, time of viewing, national translation norms, etc.). Pedersen ends his chapter with a number of particularly thorny examples, especially concerning one case where there is an evident error in the original script.

Elisa Perego also discusses the walk-and-talk phenomenon in her chapter but starts from a consideration of script writing. After extolling the merits of Aaron Sorkin as a screenplay writer, a view shared by audiences and critics alike, she points out how it is here that The West Wing gains its specificity. She uses the expression ‘strong urgency’ to describe the spoken dialogues that run through the whole series. While no attempt is made by Sorkin to reproduce natural dialogue, the characters are rendered believable by skilful scriptwriting. These are high-powered government officials and they are provided with the fast-paced, at times witty, repartee that marks them out as important, intelligent and efficient operatives. As Perego says, ‘they treat every single word as a precious component, making them count’ and adhering faithfully to the Gricean maxims of brevity, truth, relevance and clarity.

Her linguistic analysis of the walk-and-talk process highlights how the frequent use of substitutions and ellipsis in particular scenes follows from the fact that the script has been so carefully prepared that everything that is said is built on what a previous speaker has said, and this within a shared physical context and with shared background knowledge. Clear examples are provided to support these and other findings.

Finally Perego turns her attention to the problems this kind of language use poses for audiovisual translators and for audio describers for a blind audience. For dubbing, the fast-moving dialogue can be tailored in the studio and actors can be couched in fast delivery. But for subtitlers the time constraints and rapid switching of characters creates difficulties, and important decisions have to be made regarding elements that can be sacrificed while maintaining the ‘strong urgency’ effect. Audio description relies on gaps in the dialogue in order to be able to verbalise important visual elements. These gaps are often non-existent, so how can it be done? With these problems in mind Perego ends her chapter with the thought that observing how different audiovisual translators face these difficulties may help us determine whether audiovisual translation strategies are homogeneous or depend on the language combination in question. Food for thought.

Anthony Baldry, following on from his ground-breaking work on multimodal transcriptions and his MCA relational database, turns his attention to The West Wing episode In Excelsis Deo to introduce some new ideas on semiotic referencing systems. He begins by posing the question “Why is it that film analysts and their readers do not use a referencing system which indexes the visual components of a film systematically on a par with the referencing found in a film script or transcript?” He discusses the interplay of screenplays, storyboards and transcriptions of films, perhaps written by amateur enthusiasts, in terms of their providing a single integrated multimodal transcript. His basic aim is to provide a tool for multimodal text analysts to be able to locate where a specific effect occurs and to identify recurrent patterns in multimodal texts. There are many scenes and extracts in the episode in question that rely exclusively, or largely, on visual input, particularly the poignant final scene where the camera switches between a White House carol service and an official Arlington Cemetery burial. The salient reference points are purely visual but descriptions of such scenes remain verbal. Baldry suggests that we as viewers think in both linguistic and visual terms when watching a film or television series, yet although a film is a ‘visual story’ the screenplay is still incontrovertibly a written artefact. It may contain written instructions as to what can be seen (it is a dark night and Mary is feeling the cold as she watches the train enter the station), but it is still locked in the confines of a page, be it paper or electronic. However, Baldry points out that the use of storyboards and animatics mark a beginning in providing visual instructions to a film director and bring him or her closer to a dual approach to the story.

This conundrum of how to describe/analyse/translate multimodal texts by using only the linguistic medium has been bothering scholars for some time. Anthony Baldry has been at the forefront of studies to obviate the verbal bias for many years and this chapter represents one of his latest forays into the field. With each new approach, as he gets nearer to perfecting the ‘multisemiotic transcriptions as film referencing systems’, which is also the title of this chapter, we all get nearer to being able to make more complete sense of multimodal texts.


Katan, David (2004) Translating Cultures: an introduction for translators, interpreters and mediators, Manchester, St. Jerome.

Mazur, Iwona, and Jan Louis Kruger (eds) (2012) Pear Stories and Audio Description, Special Issue Perspectives, Vol 20, Issue 1.

About the author(s)

Christopher Taylor is full professor of English Language and Translation in the Department of Law and Languages at the University of Trieste. He is also Director of the University Language Centre in Trieste and was President of the national association (AICLU) from 2007 to 2010. He has worked in the field of translation for many years now as his many articles and books ─ e.g. Language to Language, Cambridge University Press, 1998 ─ on the subject demonstrate. Film translation, in its many aspects, has been his major pursuit in recent years with significant publications relating to such issues as dubbing, subtitling and localisation, and more recently audiovisual translation for the deaf and audio description for the blind. These studies adopt a variety of approaches including, among many others, statistical analyses of film scripts, the development of multimodal corpus-based approaches, word-based studies of feature films, soap operas, documentaries and many other film genres as well as reflections on the didactic potential of subtitling and screen translation in general. His numerous publications in this field include: Multimodal Transcriptions in the Analysis, Translation and Subtitling of Italian Films in the special issue of The Translator on Screen Translation; I knew you’d say that!”: a consideration of the predictability of language use in film, 2009. in L. Zybatow (ed.), Translation: Neue Entwicklungen in Theorie und Praxis, Frankfurt: Peter Lang. pp.173-186; and Multimodal Text Analysis and Subtitling in ‘Perspectives on Multimodality’ edited by Ventola, Charles and Kaltenbacher. In 2012 he published with Elisa Perego the volume Tradurre l’audiovisivo. He has both participated in and organised numerous international conferences including Tradurre il Cinema in Trieste, the Convegno Nazionale AICLU in Trieste and the European Systemic Functional Linguistics Conference & Workshop in Gorizia. He has also been national coordinator of the Italian research projects Linguatel and Didactas. He has recently coordinated a European Union project ADLAB (Audio description: lifelong access for the blind).

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‘Walk and Talk’ in Italian

Dubbing Cool Politics

By Delia Chiaro (University of Bologna, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

This study examines the reasons why the television series The West Wing did not have the huge success in Italy that it had had elsewhere.  Over and above the supposition that the series lacked in appeal for simple marketing mistakes such as poor scheduling and the public’s lack of engagement with matters of US politics, it is likely that issues concerning translation may have also had an adverse impact. One of the hardest hurdles facing the translator of the series concerned the management of dialogue that often consisted of witty repartee delivered at fast speed while actors were on the move ‘walking and talking’. Following a brief and critical overview of the Italian dub of the episode In Excelsis Deo, a variety of lingua-cultural issues that the translation and dub had to deal with will be explored. An interview with the dubbing translator reveals how references to sex, violence and religion are flattened throughout the original script’s to the Italian screen.

Keywords: dubbing, censorship, verbally-expressed humour, US television series

©inTRAlinea & Delia Chiaro (2016).
"‘Walk and Talk’ in Italian"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
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1. Introduction

Seasons 1–4 of The West Wing were first broadcast in Italy in July 2002 by Rete 4, one of the privately owned Mediaset channels. Later, in 2004, Fox, a channel available on the Sky Italia pay TV package, broadcast re-runs followed by the fifth season in 2007. In 2009 and 2010, Premium (Mediaset’s pay TV package) channel Steel aired Seasons 6 and 7. Between 2009 and 2010 The West Wing returned to Rete 4 where Seasons 5 to7 were broadcast once more. In 2012, Sky Italia and digital channel Arturo re-ran the entire series from scratch.

Despite its huge success in the US earned, amongst other things, for its cutting edge style portraying a ‘politics is cool’ ethos, the Italian version passed by the general public largely unnoticed. A potential reason for its debacle in Italy may well lie in the concerns of the series that are extremely technical and highly specific to US politics and thus possibly of interest only to those knowledgeable and taken with such matters. Like numerous contemporary serial dramas, each episode of The West Wing consists of a main plot stretching over an entire season or more that simultaneously encompasses smaller storylines which begin and end within a single episode as well as sub-plots which continue across several episodes. While the main story line is indeed concerned with complex matters of US politics, the subplots are often not directly connected with politics at all, in fact, typically they will touch upon a number of personal or social issues such as homosexuality or drug and alcohol abuse. Furthermore a number of romantic storylines, e.g., Josh and Donna; Danny and C.J.; Sam and Laurie and so on,  that presumably make the series appealing to a wider public, nevertheless did not manage to attract Italian viewers to the series.

However, apart from its extreme cultural specificity regarding highly complex political operations  that may not especially attract mainstream Italian audiences, scheduling was to some extent mishandled too. In fact, a possible reason for the series being overlooked could well be because it was broadcast at very inconvenient times. For example, Season 7 was screened between 5 and 6 a.m. followed by re-runs at 2 a.m. – hardly prime time viewing. Furthermore, episodes were frequently cancelled and time slots changed without warning, thus making recording difficult. Typically for Italy, apart from inappropriate viewing times, The West Wing  (TWW) was screened in a way that was out of step on a monthly and yearly basis too. In fact, scheduling of episodes was such that Season 1 went out during the month of July, so that the Christmas episode In Excelsis DeoBuon natale Presidente[1] (‘Merry Christmas Mr. President’) was likely to have been broadcast at the height of summer and thus quite out of tune with surrounding reality. This is not at all unusual on Italian TV where Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes of series are often broadcast in high summer but such programming simply reflects an indication of carelessness and lack of regard for audiences.[2] Yet, Italian trailers publicized TWW as the highly acclaimed series which it was, making the reason for the total mismanagement that appears to have ensued rather bewildering. Additionally, even for night owls, the translation of the title may well have been misleading, especially for older viewers. The Italian version was broadcast as West Wing – Tutti gli Uomini del Presidente thus picking up on Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 award-winning movie All the President’s Men in which reporters Woodward and Bernstein, respectively played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, unearth material that led to the Watergate scandal. Of course, TWW does not take place in the offices of The Washington Post  but, as the title suggests, in the West Wing of the White House, something which may have been disappointing for someone expecting to watch a modern thriller. However, the Italian title follows a consolidated norm that involves a) keeping the original title without the article which is b) followed by an explanatory phrase as in Desperate Housewives that becomes Desperate Housewives: I Segreti di Wisteria Lane –‘the secrets of Wisteria Lane;’ ER – ER: Medici in Prima Linea –‘Doctors on the Front Line’ and so on

The Italian dubbing process normally consists of four basic steps; firstly the script is translated; secondly the translated dialogue is adapted so that it sounds like natural sounding Italian that matches the lip movements of the source language actors; thirdly dubbing actors record the new script, and finally it is mixed into the original soundtrack (for a fuller description of the process see Chiaro 2009, 144—6). The adaptation  for the dub of Season One was carried out by a highly experienced AIDAC[3] associate Daniela Altomonte who accepted to be interviewed and whose comments on the translation strategies and lingua-cultural choices adopted for this particular episode are reported wherever relevant throughout this chapter. Altomonte, a dialoghista  or ‘dubbing translator’ whose task it is to make sure that the target dialogue sounds natural, worked, as is the norm in Italy, from a word-to-word translation of the original script produced by a translator. In the case of TWW, the scripts were translated by Alessandro Rossi, an expert not only in translation, but more significantly, someone who is highly conversant in geo-politics and the US constitution. Thus, this first season benefitted from the know-how and experience of two top-class professionals and it is indeed a pity that their talent and efforts went largely to waste.[4]

This chapter begins by reviewing the Italian version of In Excelsis Deo (IED) with regard to issues pertaining to the translation of lingua-specific features such as terms of address, greetings, fillers and so on, after which the area of the culture-specificity of the episode and its impact on the dubbed version is examined. Subsequently, features that overlap language and culture, namely idioms and verbally expressed humour will be also be examined. Finally, a brief discussion of censorship will precede the conclusion and closing remarks.

2. Dubbing lingua-specific features in In Excelsis Deo

Doppiagese or ‘dubbese’ is the term used to describe a variety of Italian that is adopted in the (Italian) dubbed dialogues of filmic products (see Antonini and Chiaro 2004 and Bucaria and Chiaro 2007: 95). While the term is not supposed to be in any way disparaging, it is worth highlighting that Italian dubbing does, however, adhere to conventions that often result in expressions that do not exist in naturally occurring Italian (see Pavesi 1994;  Chiaro 2008; Antonini and Chiaro 2009). To quote a common example, fictional wedding vows translated from English filmic products in which the bride and groom are asked if they will take their partner to be their ‘lawful wedded husband/wife’[5] to which the traditional response is ‘I do;’ in Italian, for reasons of lip synchronization ‘I do’ becomes lo voglio—literally, ‘I want it.’ In a real-life Italian wedding ceremony the reply would be a straightforward  — ‘yes’. However, although viewers are aware that much dubbese is essentially atypical and unlike naturally occurring Italian, research shows that they are willing to accept it as part and parcel of the general suspension of disbelief undertaken when partaking in filmic products (see Antonini and Chiaro 2009). Significantly, filmic products produced in Italy and in Italian tend to follow the norm that is present in dubbed dialogues with an inclination for script-writers to prefer the dubbese formula lo voglio to a more realistic in autochthonous filmic materials too.[6] This is not surprising considering the large number of products imported from the US that are translated from English with the result that Italians are exposed to a vast quantity of dubbese. It thus stands to reason that not only Italian filmic products, but also naturally occurring Italian is to some extent influenced by dubbese.

In IED, as in any other Italian dub, the most significant pragma-grammatical modifications occur in the area of terms of address and in the huge area of seemingly minor words and phrases that span from expressions of agreement and disagreement to greetings, ubiquitous fillers and beyond (see Pavesi 1996).

2.1. Terms of address

The fact that English does not have a specific personal pronoun with which to express politeness, courtesy and social distancing, nor a specific one to denote familiarity, creates the need for firm translational strategies in filmic products in languages such as Italian, French, German and so on which do have a pronominal system to denote social distance, vicinity, or politeness. In the absence of personal pronouns dedicated to politeness and distancing, audiovisual translation needs to take into account the way in which English uses a wide range of terms of endearment, titles, names and so on, so that viewers can capture the intended societal dynamics that exist between speakers (see Pavesi 1996). In this particular series, choosing between the more polite and distancing Lei form (third person singular) and the more familiar tu form (second person singular)  is especially problematic because the characters are part of a team operating in a physically close working environment which includes the most powerful person in the world, the President of the US. Not only do people of various levels of rank work shoulder to shoulder with the President  but in an enclosed space, emotional relationships of various intensities are fostered between people who, nonetheless, differ in their workplace roles and, consequently, social status. Additionally, English has a predilection for the copious use of first names in conversation (see Pavesi ibidem) thus rendering it seemingly a more informal language than Italian, a language in which it is not common to repeat the name of one’s interlocutor while conversing. This complexity needs to be negotiated in the pursuit of a convincing dub.

According to Altomonte it was initially decided that all characters would use the polite Lei form when addressing the President while he would use the more familiar tu form when addressing them. Furthermore,  Altomonte adds, that with IED being one of the earliest episodes, it may have been aired containing inaccuracies in the area of terms of address. Basically, a strategy for handling terms of address is primarily  proposed by the dubbing translator, after which it is the task of the dubbing supervisor to have the final say on what is actually aired.[7] This episode, in fact, contains several cases of inappropriate distancing between characters through use of the ‘wrong’ pronoun as well as instances of shifts made by speakers who sometimes move from Lei to tu in a seemingly haphazard manner although it is difficult to understand whether the choice is a deliberate translational strategy or, indeed an inaccuracy. Furthermore, the Italian dub is generally lacking in the texture of nuances created through the diverse modes of allocution present in the original.

In Italian, asymmetrical relationships (e.g. doctor/patient; bank manager/customer; teacher/student and so on) require either that both parties use the polite Lei form, although the elder or more socially empowered of the speakers (such as a teacher in the classroom or a doctor or nurse with an elderly or very young patient) may use the tu form. However, the President’s team of workers are mostly all on first name terms with each other despite the hierarchy existing between them and this reflects the familiarity and intimacy nurtured in many of the workplace relationships depicted.  

Leo - Chief of Staff

The relationship between President Bartlet and his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, is one of companionship as they share details about each other’s private lives and obviously have a rapport that goes beyond the workplace – in this episode, for example, Bartlet invites Leo to spend Christmas with him and his family. Interestingly, despite their close friendship, Leo addresses Bartlet as ‘Mr. President’ and ‘Sir’ while Bartlet addresses Leo by name. In a sense, the English reflects the asymmetrical power relationship that exists over and above the fact that the two are clearly close friends. Leo’s reverence  towards Bartlet also highlights his professionalism and respect for his friend who also happens to be the President of the US. The Italian dub opts for a different linguistic relationship between the two, with Leo using the informal tu form with the President and addressing him with his nickname ‘Jed’ where the English consistently adopts ‘Mr. President’  thus reflecting a relationship of equal standing, which, in a sense is not far from the true nature of their bond.

The same distance is also maintained in the Italian dub of the  interaction between Leo and Press Secretary C.J. by having them interact with each other using the Lei form despite the fact that in the original they are on first name terms and are clearly friends – C.J. offers to cook for Leo at Christmas, implying that they are on very familiar terms.  However Leo does not accept her offer replying jokingly ‘What are you, my mother?’ The Italian dub ‘Lei non è mica mia madre –You are not my mother’ mixes two registers, namely the formality of  Lei with the very colloquial mica – literally ‘at all’) and thus,  besides not being funny, is quite inappropriate under the circumstances. Again, another inapt use of distancing Lei occurs in Leo’s use of this form when addressing his deputy Josh Lyman and  Sam Seaborne, Deputy Communications Officer.  Although Josh and Sam are Leo’s assistants, they are so close to Leo that they go out of their way in an attempt to prevent a scandal breaking out regarding Leo’s past drinking problem and experiences in rehab. In a discussion regarding the somewhat unethical methods used by Josh and Sam in doing so, Leo’s use of the Lei form is quite untimely.

The Italian dub also has to deal with the way Leo’s other subordinates relate to him language-wise. Margaret, his assistant, is verbally very much his equal. In a scene in which she is bossing Leo into signing a pile of Christmas cards, at one point Leo snaps ‘Who the hell is this guy and why do I care if he has a Merry Christmas?’ to which Margaret responds ‘Just sign the damn thing.’ The retort is one of familiarity and lacking in the reserve that one would normally use when addressing a superior. The Italian dub reflects quite the opposite spirit: ‘Lei pensi a firmare e basta – Just sign it, end of’ [basta literally means ‘enough’]. Notably, the Italian is also softened by removing the word ‘damn’ (see 5).  Like  Margaret, many others also use the Lei form when addressing Leo even  though their relationship in English is one of familiarity. For example, when Leo sees reporter Danny Concannon holding a goldfish and remarks ‘That’s a nice goldfish?’  Danny replies ‘Isn’t it?’ which in the Italian dub becomes the polite form ‘Trova?’ (literally ‘Do you find?) thus accentuating distance.

Josh and Donna

In the first series of TWW the relationship between Josh and Donna, his personal assistant is clearly hovering on the verge of romance, thus, despite its asymmetrical nature, dialogues between the couple reflect their equal standing at least in terms of emotional commitment. In fact, Josh and Donna partake in much flirtatious verbal sparring which contains no signals of asymmetry in the original, while the dub has Donna adopt the Lei form more typical of a P.A. talking to her boss. The three utterances in Table 1 have been extracted from a scene in which Donna gives Josh her Christmas present wish list – an action which clearly denotes familiarity as people do not generally hand out wish lists to strangers or to their superior at work. The original utterances are relaxed and highly colloquial ‘Just feel free…’; ‘Where you going?’ and ‘So you’ll think about…’  The dub, on the other hand, contains a more formal use of language including the use of subjunctive imperatives pertaining to the Lei form, such as Scelga –‘pray choose’ in place of ‘just choose;’ se vuole – ‘should you want to’  for ‘feel free’ and so on  thus much more distancing than the source dialogue and consequently less appropriate under the circumstances.

 Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation

Just pick something off the list, and, you know, feel free to pick two things.

Scelga una cosa dalla lista. Ma se vuole può scegliere due.

Pray, choose something from the list. You may choose two if you wish.

Where you going?

Dove va?

Where you going, pray?

So you’ll think about the skis?

Non dimentichi gli sci!

Pray, do not forget the skis!

Table 1. Donna addressing Josh

When Josh gives Donna her Christmas present, a book on skiing, she is clearly moved by what he has written in a note inside and the couple give each other a tight hug. As can be seen in Table 2, the couple adopt a familiar style which, is only partly reflected in the Italian. For example, Josh uses the familiar tu form when addressing her and he calls her Dony an abbreviation of her name and an invented term of endearment.[8] In Italian donna is the word for ‘woman’ so it does sound odd when used as a first name in dubs as it may sound as though the speaker is calling his/her interlocutor ‘Woman’ a disparaging form of address. However the diminutive Dony does sound most peculiar.  Furthermore, Donna does not mirror Josh’s familiarity but continues to use the Lei form which is clearly odd and inappropriate under the circumstances.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


Donna, don’t get emotional. Donna, don’'t get... You know, let's try and maintain some sort of...

Non c’è bisogno che ti commuovi Dony, ti prego, non fare così… Dony…cerchiamo di mantenere un certo…

You needn’t get emotional Dony, I beg of you, don’t get…Dony… let's try and maintain some…


You see!? You spend most of our time being, you know, you. And then you write something like this to me. Thank you.

Ma tu guarda!… Lei passa le giornate ad essere…insomma…se stesso…e poi mi scrive una dedica così!…Grazie!

You see. You spend your days being…yourself…and then you write me a dedication like this. Thank you.

Table 2. Josh and Donna


Toby is Communications Director and hence a very important and powerful figure at the White House, however, as stated previously, professional roles often merge with emotional relationships, as well as a variety of other variables which are, of course, reflected in the dialogues. Dolores Landingham, the President’s executive secretary is an elderly woman who is clearly respected by Toby both because of her professional standing as well as her age and gender. However, in one of the final scenes of IED, Mrs. Landingham, who is never addressed by her first name by any of the members of staff, manages to treat Toby like a child while maintaining politeness. She addresses him as ‘Toby’ while he addresses her as ‘Mrs. Landingham’ (my italics). Furthermore, Mrs. Landingham tells Toby what he ‘should not have done’ scolding him like one would a naughty child, repeating his name while she does so (see Table 3) ‘You shouldn’t have done that Toby.’ Toby meanwhile hangs his head in shame just like a small child caught by a parent doing something against the rules. The Italian dub has Mrs. Landingham use the polite Lei form and while she still dresses Toby down, she treats him as a peer, an adult rather than a child. It becomes an admonishment rather than a telling-off.

The very  last line in the episode is uttered by Mrs. Landingham: ‘Toby, I’d like to come along’ which in Italian becomes a much more formal request  ‘Toby? Le dispiace se vengo anch’io?— Toby, would you mind if I come too.’ Mrs. Landingham is already dressed and has decided to go to the funeral; Toby has no choice in the matter as she is the more dominant of the two. The Italian dub suggests the reverse.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation

Mrs. Landingham

Good morning Toby.

Buongiorno Toby.

Good morning Toby.


Good morning Mrs. Landingham. Buongiorno, signora Landingham. Good morning Mrs. Landingham.
Mrs. Landingham The President would like to see you. Il Presidente le vuole parlare. The President would like to talk to you.
Toby I know

Lo so

I know

Mrs. Landingham

Did you use his name to arrange a military funeral for a homeless veteran? Ha usato il suo nome per predisporre un funerale militare per un veterano senzatetto? Did you use his name to arrange a military funeral for a homeless veteran?
Toby Yes Yes
Mrs. Landingham You shouldn't have done that Toby.

Non lo avrebbe dovuto fare.

You shouldn't have done that.


I know Lo so I know
Mrs. Landingham You absolutely should not have done that. Sarebbe stato molto meglio se non lo avesse fatto. It would have been preferable if you had not done that.
Toby I know

Lo so

I know

Table 3. Toby and Mrs. Landingham

In the scene at the Korean War Memorial, where Toby has been summoned by the DC police, his neutral ‘Excuse me’ upon first approaching the police officer is translated with the polite form Mi scusi presumably in reverence of the official’s social status. Whereas in the original, Toby is quite relaxed with the police officer, in the dub he is much more courteous and distanced.  Toby’s lax uses of ‘yeah’ – are translated with a polite prego (literally ‘pray’) and an insertion of the Lei form while a casual ‘listen’ with the 3rd person singular polite imperative senta.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


Yeah…Listen, this isn’t a crime scene, is it?

Prego / Senta non si tratta di omicidio, vero?

Pray, this isn’t homicide ,is it?






Yeah, thanks

Grazie a Lei

Thank you to you

Table 4a and b. Toby and the police officer

Mrs Landingham

One of the most emotional and significant scenes in the episode is the one in which Mrs Landingham recounts the loss of her twin boys in Vietnam to the President’s Personal Aide the twenty-something Charlie Young. In this scene, Mrs Landingham addresses Charlie using the Lei form, an odd choice considering Charlie’s age, but also the circumstances. Once more we have a situation of high intimacy (as with Josh and Donna above) in which one of the speakers who is bearing her soul simultaneously maintains social distance to someone who could be her grandson,  through the choice of form of address.

Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation

You know, they were so young, Charlie, they were your age. It’s hard when that happens so far away, you know

Charlie…avevano la sua età. Sa, è brutto quando queste cose accadono

Charlie…they were your age. You know [polite form], it’s horrible when these things happen…

Table 5. Mrs Landingham and Charlie

2.2. Terms of agreement and disagreement

Much has been written regarding the Italian dub of the term ‘yes’ (see e.g.,  Pavesi 1994, 1996; Antonini and Chiaro 2009.) Owing to issues regarding lip sync, in which it would be wide of the mark to replace spread lipped, semi-closed mouthed with a round lipped, wide mouthed ‘yes’ or ‘yeah,’ it has become customary to dub the term with già. The choice of già is so common that it also occurs when lip synch is not an issue, such as when dubbing from Spanish which has the same word for ‘yes’ as Italian. There are, however, several variations to the già solution. IED contains esatto, certo, giusto, prego – ‘exactly’, ‘certainly’, ‘right’, ‘please’ and even itself despite Altomonte’s declared preference for the term già.[9]

The casual ‘nope’ on the other hand is consistently translated with a more formal no.


The informal greeting ‘Hey’ is regularly substituted with ciao although the Italian script does suggest ehi on one occasion which is ignored in the actual recording. Ehi is frequently used in Italian dubbese, presumably because of the good lip synch with ‘Hey,’ while not being totally absent in naturally occurring Italian, although used with a stronger function than a simple familiar greeting i.e., it may indicate surprise at seeing someone or else it can be used even to warn or reprimand someone, a sort of ‘Hey, watch out!’

2.4. Fillers

Generally speaking fillers are omitted in the dub of IED. Nine occurrences of ‘you know’ are absent in the dub thus rendering the Italian conversation less hesitant, lacking in repetition, redundancies and false starts – in other words less natural sounding. If we consider, for example, Mrs. Landingham’s description of how her twin sons were killed in Vietnam (Table 5) while the dub is equally (if not more) passionate than the original as the lack of uncertainty provided by ‘you know’ is substituted with extra pausing and more dramatic acting. However, the second occurrence of ‘you know’ in the reported exchange, is shifted to the head of the utterance in the dub and translated with a very literal, as well as polite and distancing ‘you know,’ i.e., sa. Rather than a filler which allows the speaker to mentally clarify what she is about to say next, the Italian sa gives the utterance a more explanatory function.

Despite the fact that the term ‘OK’ is common in naturally occurring Italian and would facilitate lip-synch, the term generally become capisco – ‘I understand’ – a clearly more formal choice than the original. The term ‘no way’ also becomes more formal with scordatelo — ‘forget it.’

3. Culture specific references

Culture specific references refer to entities that are typical of one particular culture and that culture alone, however, it is essential to bear in  mind that these references can occur in different forms, in other words they may be completely or chiefly visual (for example the screen shot of the skyline of a city);  completely verbal (for example references to units of measure or currency, to a well-known personality and so on) or else a combination of verbal and visual such as a reporter commenting on a game of American football as it happens on screen. Referring to written English, Leppihalme (1997) labeled these entities ‘culture bumps’ precisely because they often cause a jolt or a bump in the non-native speaker’s cognition in an otherwise smooth running text. Transferring the concept of culture bumps to translation, these features will cause the translator to compromise strongly with the reader – or, in our case, the viewer who may well have to come to terms with a mismatch between what s/he sees and what s/he hears(dub) and/or reads (sub). Thus Antonini and Chiaro choose the metaphor of electrical current and talk of ‘lingua-cultural drops in translational voltage’ to describe the discrepancy between what the audience sees on screen and the words they hear and/or see (according to whether they are enjoying dubbing or subtitling) and go on to classify culture specific references into ten specific categories namely:  institutions (e.g. judiciary, police, political and military); educational; place names; units of measurement; monetary systems; national sports and pastimes; food and drink; holidays and festivities;  books, films and TV programs; celebrities and personalities (2004: 39). As in any imported series, TWW and, of course, the episode at issue, is choc-a-block with not only, US culture specificity, but, to complicate matters, White House culture specificity too.

Thus, as might be expected, IED contains references to US place names, its monetary system, festivities (in this case the episode takes place in the two days before Christmas), food and drink, celebrities and personalities, but more importantly to issues pertaining to law enforcement and matters regarding the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In order to deal with these references the  dubbing translator, Daniela Altomonte, largely opted for the strategy of replacing the reference with a hyperonym belonging to the same semantic field as the original reference – a strategy that Katan labels ‘chunking upwards’ (2004:147). The decision to choose this strategy is to help out the viewer who, according to Altomonte  is ‘ignorante e distratto’ – ‘uninformed and unfocused’ and needs relevant information to be conveyed efficiently even if lacking in detail. A more specific translational choice represented by chunking either ‘downwards’ or ‘sideways,’ (i.e.; respectively translating with more specific references or same level equivalents in the target language),  ‘non arriva all’orrecchio dello spettatore’ – ‘will not reach the viewer’s ear.’ Furthermore, Altomonte also claims that it is the ‘duty’ of the dubbing translator to allow viewers to relax in their cinema seat or armchair at home therefore, if they start asking themselves questions,  they will miss part of the film.[10]  In other words viewers require ‘un aggancio immediato’ – ‘[need to be] hooked right away.’

3.1.Visual culture-specificity

Hard as it is to extrapolate the purely visual from the verbal in a poly-semiotic text, Italian viewers are in fact presented with a number of visuals which will be perceived on the one hand as foreign, but at the same time extremely familiar owing to the fact that they are likely to have a wide experience of other filmic products representing similar sights. The Christmas atmosphere, conveyed by the predominance of the color red and the ubiquitous decorations present in the episode (trees, lights, wreaths, gift packages and so on) exemplify this. And it is the very lushness of US Christmas with which viewers will be familiar from other screen products that to the European common imaginary, render the entire background particular to Yuletide in North America and North America alone.

3.2.Visual culture-specificity with verbal anchoring

The significance and the visual impact of the scenes set at the Korean War Memorial and at Section 43 of Arlington Cemetery are likely to remain quite foreign to Italian viewers, yet of course, in order to appreciate the episode in its entirety, comprehension is essential. Viewers need to understand that Toby may also be a veteran, possibly (judging from his age) from Vietnam,  as well as the link with Mrs. Landingham who, we learn later on in the episode lost her twin sons in the same war.

The ironic choice of the choir in the Mural Room singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ to accompany the juxtaposition of the Christmas Eve celebrations and the military funeral is another essential feature for a complete understanding of the episode. As the funeral takes place with the military salute, the rifle shots and the intricate folding of the star spangled banner that had covered the casket, knowing viewers will capture the link between the carol about a little drummer boy visiting the infant Jesus in Bethlehem with the ‘rup pum pum pum’ chorus that evokes the drums of war. The scene at the cold winter cemetery is continually juxtaposed with the warmth of the Mural Room and the choir, the Christmas decorations, the red and the gold.  This combination of visuals and sounds creates a bitter-sweet irony of contrasts regarding giving and taking; joy and grief; birth and death— themes that overlap and recall the storyline of the episode.

3.3.Verbally expressed culture-specificity

Several lexical items specifically pertaining to the semantic field of US warfare have been chunked upwards in the translation. For example, the very culture-specific Purple Heart medal awarded to soldiers wounded or killed in war is replaced with the more generic medaglia al valore – ‘medal for bravery’ and references to V.A. become a very general ‘Associazione veterani’ which, however, being visually anchored with the scene at the War Memorial coupled with references to Korea should clarify the allusion. The same strategy is adopted to replace the specific ‘IRS’ (Internal Revenue Service) with ‘Ufficio Imposte  tax office;’ and  ‘The Goodwill’ with beneficenza – ‘charity.’ Similarly, the reference to ‘Georgetown’ becomes a generic ‘università –university’ while  ‘carolers’ becomes a more non-specific coro – ‘choir,’ and ‘index cards’ that are typically used by US schoolchildren as prompts are transformed into standard  fogli – ‘sheets.’

However, chunking sideways has been generally preferred more than chunking upwards with many references left in the original. All the personalities mentioned, i.e., Al Roker, Jose Feliciano, Sammy Sosa and Stephen J. Gould remain, although the dubbing translator did add explanatory footnotes for the actors and dubbing supervisor. The ‘coroner’ remains the same – presumably Italians have seen enough police genre products to know what a coroner does. Furthermore, a sarcastic reference to the Keystone Cops – ‘Like I’m not gonna have enough problems without the Keystone Cops’ becomes a much weaker (and unhumorous see 4.2.) E sia l’ultima volta che vi mettete a giocare agli investigatori – ‘and let this be the last time you play at detectives.’ Notice too the change of registers as we go from the colloquial ‘Like I’m not gonna…’ to the formal (i.e., subjunctive) ‘that this be…’

Using explicitation is another frequent ploy. We find that  ‘Ten bucks’ becomes molto economico – ‘very cheap;’ ‘The DC Police’ La polizia di Washington ‘the Washington police’ and  references to the north-easterly wind ‘off the Chesapeake’ is translated with Vento freddo e umido…da nord est – ‘Cold, damp wind from the north-east.’

Furthermore, there are two interesting translational compromises regarding the domestication of two cultural usages. The first refers to the US/UK custom of sending flowers to the bereaved. In this episode the flowers sent by President Bartlet to the family of a young victim of violence are substituted with un telegramma – ‘a telegram.’ Secondly, a reference to the President attending ‘Christmas services’ is substituted with la messa di natale – Christmas mass. Interestingly, Jed Bartlett is indeed a devout Roman Catholic, but presumably his press officer, CJ, had deliberately kept her press release neutral.

4. Borderline features

Certain lingua-cultural features of the dialogues undoubtedly do not conform to the categories discussed in sections 2 and 3. Idioms, metaphors, allusions and humour,  along with songs, poems, rhymes and gestures, require viewers to be familiar with a number of ‘knowledge resources’ (Attardo 1994) which clearly crosscut both language and culture. The two main types of borderline features found in IED are idioms and witticisms.

4.1 Idiomaticity

IED is brimming with idiomatic expressions, many of which are extremely up to date and tending towards slang. It is this very idiomaticity which gives the dialogues verve and contributes to the rapid ‘walking and talking’ for which the series is famous. This idiomaticity is mainly flattened in the dub which is delivered, as in most Italian products, slowly and pronounced with almost artificial clarity. One of the features which causes flattening (see 6) – that is the absence of linguistic particularities – is indeed the disappearance of idioms in favor of less poetic language.

From the teaser right to the end of the episode, audiences witness heavily idiomatic English. For example, the teaser  begins with members of staff walking and discussing plans for the Christmas celebrations when Sam makes a reference to the new millennium as ‘[the ]Pageant of peace, season of hope, coming of the new millennium.’ The ironic remark is translated with a straightforward ‘Provi a chiedermi qualunque cosa sull’avvento del Nuovo Millennio – ‘Try and ask me anything about the coming of the new millennium’ thereby omitting the clever idiomatic expressions of the original. And while there are plenty of similar omissions, there are also convincing substitutions. For example, one of the secondary storylines in this episode regards the issue of what could be the right punishment for committers of hate crimes. C.J. openly expresses her opinion that perpetrators should be punished more severely than others and she is reprimanded both by Leo and Sam and advised to neutralize her comments in public.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


You told me to float a test balloon.

Mi ha detto di sondare il terreno.


You told me to test the ground.


Float it. Don't shove it down anyone's throat. I don't know which way we're gonna come down on this.

Certo, invece lei è partita per le Crociate! Non so come usciremo da questa storia.

Yes, but you set off on a Crusade! I don’t know how we’ll get out of this story.

Table 6. Leo and C.J.

C.J.’s  ‘float the test balloon’ metaphor is picked up with Leo’s retort ‘Float it…’ which is lost in the translation in which the idiom is substituted with a perfectly adequate Italian idiom sondare il terreno, literally ‘to test the ground.’ Interestingly, in this exchange, the forceful idiom used by Leo ‘shoving [it] down people’s throats’ is softened with the Italian ‘Crusades’ metaphor (see the discussion on censorship in 5). Again, earlier in the episode, when Sam had also told C.J. to be more impartial about the subject, especially in public, he uses a motoring metaphor ‘putting your foot on the gas’ when telling her to go easy:


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


I'm not sure I'd put my foot on the gas so hard with hate crimes legislation.

Ci sei andata giù pesante sulla riforma della legislazione.


You went down heavily on the reform of the legislation.


First of all, I barely grazed the gas. Second of all, why not?

Primo, non ci sono andata giù pesante, secondo, perché non avrei dovuto?

Firstly, I did not go down heavily, secondly, why shouldn’t I have?

Table 7. Sam and C.J.

Now, what is interesting about English idioms is that the speakers tend to allude to, play and tamper with them rather than utter them in their entirety. So, when C.J. is advised not to put her foot on the gas so hard, she cleverly replies that she ‘barely grazed’ it. She is also able to pick up the metaphor further on in the interaction with ‘Ah. I'll keep my foot off the gas.’ The dub uses the metaphor andare giù pesante – literally ‘to fall down heavily’ –  with which Italian C.J is unable to play, but simply repeat in its totality and this diminishes the effect of the verbal repartee.

Again, in the closing lines of the episode, when Toby is being reprimanded by the President for having used his name to arrange an honor guard funeral and tries to justify himself by saying that Hufnagle had been ‘a  Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh. The guy got better treatment at Panmunjong’, Bartlet replies: ‘Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless Veteran would come out of the woodworks?’ Both the ‘pulling strings’ and the ‘woodworks’ metaphors are omitted in the dub – ‘Se cominciamo ad occuparci di queste cose tutti i veterani senza tetto reclameranno qualcosa – if we start looking after all these things all the homeless veterans will want something.’ This is not to criticize the solution, but simply to say that the interaction is lacking its intended dynamism.

4.2. Humour

TWW is typical of contemporary US serials which, while belonging to one particular TV genre, will tend to incorporate features pertaining to other genres creating a product which can be labeled ‘mixed-genre.’ For example, with a medical drama series such as House M.D. (FOX, 2004 – 2012, US) which clearly deals with medical professionals, hospitals and surgeries – things which are by nature linked to sickness and disease, it naturally follows that such a series will predictably play upon emotions such as tension and anxiety – and it does. However, in places House M.D. is also both visually and verbally funny. This mixture of genres occurs in many other dramatic series such as, for example, The Sopranos (HBO,1999-2007, US) a series containing much violence and The Big C , a series about a woman who has terminal cancer (Sony, 2010-13, US). Both series not only include instances of verbal humour, but many comic interludes too. Vice versa, lighter series such as Ally MacBeal (FOX, 1997-2002, US) and Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004, US), contain their share of drama by dealing, for example, with issues such as cancer and death within a predominantly comedic framework. No longer strictly confined to drama or romance, series now habitually tend to expose viewers to a rollercoaster of divergent emotions constantly contrasting drama with a substantial amount of both visual and verbal humour. And TWW is no different with much light relief provided by the characters’ verbal repartee.

However, the verbally expressed humour in IED is never of the punning, double entendre variety but rather of numerous instances of irony and above all, of abundant good lines. A good line is a clever witticism or a sharp and clever remark which is not necessarily dependent either on linguistic or cultural ambiguity. Cinematic and TV dialogues are full of such lines. Good lines are possibly unlikely to arise in naturally occurring conversation, but on screen, leading actors and ‘good guys’ definitely get to utter them. A good line can be exemplified in the famous ‘You talkin' to me? Well, I’m the only one here’ uttered by Travis Bickle/ Robert De Niro; (Martin Scorsese Taxi Driver; 1976; US) as he looks at himself in the mirror. Travis Bickle talking to his image in a mirror is certainly odd, but purely in terms of language it would be hard to spot any verbal ambiguity in the utterance itself. While being incongruous with reality, it would be difficult to justify these good lines in terms of linguistic ambiguity and therefore unlike puns they present no particular translational challenges.

4.2. Irony

Unlike the verbal acrobatics necessary to create puns, irony, in linguistic terms is quite straightforward to contruct and should therefore create few translational problems (see Chiaro 2010). This is not to imply that irony itself, as a trope, is in any way simplistic. If it were then readers and recipients of irony in general would not be deceived into taking it at face value. In fact, the ambiguity of irony lies in its indistinctness and the way in which it subverts  truth values and conversational maxims. However, it appears that despite its linguistic simplicity translating irony is  not always as straightforward as it would seem. For example, Toby decides to arrange a state funeral for Hufnagle, the homeless veteran, and while he  is on the phone trying to get through to the right office he is interrupted by White House Media Consultant, Mandy. Toby is about to lose his patience with the operator when Mandy says ‘This might seem trivial under the circumstances’ and then tells him that the Santa hats for the Christmas celebrations clash with the Dickensian costumes. Toby replies ‘It might seem trivial?’ This ironic remark is totally lost in the dub as it is translated with the curt and dismissive ‘Ti aspetti che faccia qualcosa?— You expect me to do something?’

At other times, however, the irony is successfully retained. For example when Bartlet decides to go Christmas shopping in a place called ‘Rare Books’ when asked if he knew what they sold there, Josh replies ‘Fishing tackle?’ and the President retorts ‘Funny boy.’ The irony is retained in the translation, especially in the President’s ironic Che simpatico! Again when Josh and Sam try and convince Laurie to give them names of her Republican clients, shocked by the request she looks at Josh and says ‘So you’re the brains of the outfit.’ An ironic idiom which in Italian becomes ‘allora la mente del gruppo sei tu — the mind of the group’ which is as equally ironic although less idiomatic.

4.3 Good lines

However, it is the good lines which make most of the humour in the episode. Josh and Donna’s banter consists of fast-talking, witty teasing and there are copious examples in the episode. For example, Table 8a reports an interaction in which Josh typically torments Donna by telling her straight out that he has not bought her a Christmas present, to which she replies ironically that she knows that he has been ‘agonizing’ over the matter. Josh picks up Donna’s irony and agrees adding that he is also agonizing over how to find 10 dollars to pay for it. However, the line ‘That and how I scrape together the ten bucks’ is not ironic, but simply a clever response to Donna’s irony. The dub is less neat than the original as, although Donna’s irony remains, Josh’s retort is much weaker as ‘tra l’altro –among other things’, lacks in the cohesion created by Josh’s ‘That and how…’.  Table 8b reports another witty exchange between the would-be lovers. This time Josh’s good line, referring to Donna’s expression is ‘Like I just killed your hamster?’ – the hamster is for some reason replaced with a cat in the dub.. Another good line, this time uttered by Donna, occurs after she receives the book and while they are hugging (see 2.1.1ii ) she defuses the embarrassing situation with ‘Skis would have killed you?’ The Italian dub  ‘Gli sci erano fuori discussione? – Skis were out of the question?’ is more formal but possibly just as incongruous.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


As you can see I have not yet bought your Christmas present.

Come vedi non ti ho ancora comprato il regalo.

As you can see I have not yet bought your Christmas present.


Yes, and I know you're agonizing over how to best express your appreciation and affection for me at this time of the year.

Mi rendo conto che (per lei) non sarà facile trovare qualcosa che possa esprimere l’affetto e la riconoscenza che prova per me.

I understand that for you it can’t be easy to find something that can express the affection and appreciation you feel for me.


That and how I scrape together the ten bucks.

E che tra l’altro dev’essere anche molto economico.

And which, among other things, has to be very cheap.

Table 8a. Josh and Donna’s banter a)


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


Could you stop looking at me with the face?

La vuoi smettere di guardarmi con quella faccia?

Could you stop looking at me with that face.


It’s my face.

Ho solo questa..

I only have this one.


Like I just killed your hamster?

Sembra che ti ho ucciso il gatto.

It’s as though I’ve killed your cat.

Table 8b. Josh and Donna’s banter b)

5. Censorship

Regarding issues of censorship on Italian TV, research shows that products tend to undergo substantial editing via translation of features such as taboo words, references to sexual practices, death and religion (see Bucaria 2007, Chiaro 2007). According to Altomonte ‘La censura in tivù viene imposta –Censorship is enforced on TV [scriptwriters/dubbing translators]’ adding that the Mediaset group is more lenient than state owned RAI regarding language that might be considered distasteful.  Altomonte goes on to exemplify that the term puttana – Italian for ‘whore’– is forbidden on RAI channels yet her own adaptation of IED, commissioned by Mediaset, includes this very term in her original copy in place of the term ‘hooker’ uttered by Josh to high class sex worker, Laurie. However, the term that is actually adopted in the dub is not the less refined puttana but the higher register, and more neutral term, prostituta.  In the same scene, the reference to ‘kinky sex’ is also neutralized in Italian with certi giochetti, a euphemism literally meaning ‘certain little games’. Another example of censorship occurring to the adapted script, (i.e., unknown to the dubbing translator and thus changed without consultation), is the case of the exclamation ‘Oh, Jeez’ which appears as Oh Gesù in the copy, but is neutralized to Oh no! on screen.

One of the themes in this episode regards the debate on hate crime legislation.  The concept of ‘hate crime’ itself is softened in Italian to become crimini di intolleranza ‘intolerance crimes’ – needless to say the concept of hatred is more adverse than that of intolerance. An important sub-story of the episode regards the death of a ‘gay high school senior,’ Lowell Lydell, who was ‘…beaten up, then they stripped him naked, tied him to a tree and threw rocks and bottles at his head’ (see Table 9). The Italian version is much weaker than the original as the violence described is lacking in the force provided, first, by the additional ‘naked’ present in the original that is eliminated in the dub. Second, the syntactic structure of the target utterance defuses the dynamism of the ‘stoning’ which is aimed at the victim’s head and not, as the target text suggests, randomly towards any part of his body. Again ‘rocks’ are bigger and heavier than ‘stones’ yet the dub sassate suggests that sassi – ‘stones’ were used and not pietre – ‘rocks’.  Altomonte claims that the reduction was necessary owing to ‘lack of space’ and that the four actions are ‘very lengthy’ to express in Italian and justifies her choice ‘the lesser of two evils’ (il male minore)– the greater evil being a longer more complete, possibly out of sync, albeit more powerful description, against a synthetic one with good timing even though rather less forceful.[11] Again, at a press conference C.J. expresses her controversial opinion regarding hate crime legislation referring to Lydell’s having ‘got his brains beaten out.’ This phrase is moderated  in the dub by the neutral ‘subisse l’agressione –underwent aggression.’  This moderation is not only created by the choice of a semantically ‘weaker’  (and, of course, unspecific) noun agressione, but also through a less forceful syntactic structure consisting of the curt verbal phrase,  subisse l’agressione. The final result is that the  Italian version lacks in graphic impact. Thus, combined with the term ‘hate crime’ used by the reporter substituted with the euphemism questo tipo di crimine -- ‘this kind of crime’ followed by a simple ‘aggression’ in the response, we have a censored dialogue.


Original Dialogue

Italian Dub

Back Translation


[Lowell Lydell was] ‘…beaten up, then they stripped him naked, tied him to a tree and threw rocks and bottles at his head.’

Prima è stato picchiato … poi spogliato, legato ad un albero; l’hanno preso a sassate e gli hanno rotto delle bottiglie in testa.

‘First he was beaten … then stripped, tied to a tree; they threw stones at him and broke bottles over his head

Bobbi (a reporter)

Do you think that this will revisit the debate on hate crime legislation?

Verrà rivista la legislazione su questo tipo di crimine?

Will the legislation on this type of crime be revisited?


Yes, I do. Though I suppose the best time to do that would have been the day before Lowell Lydell got his brains beaten out and not the day after. Who's next?

Immagino di si. Anche se forse si sarebbe dovuto fare prima che Lowell Lydell subisse l’aggressione, non dopo. Altre domande?

I imagine so. Even if it should have been done before Lowell Lydell underwent aggression, not after. Any more questions?

Table 9. C.J.

However, while Altomonte cannot be deemed responsible for the bowdlerization of the term puttana and the exclamation Oh Gesù discussed above, it would appear that in this case, we are looking at a case of self-censorship, albeit ‘necessary’ according to the dubbing translator.  Other small ‘cuts’ can be seen in the disappearance of words, minor taboo items such as ‘hell’, ‘damn’ and so on (see 2.1.1 i)

There is however, one example of compensation in the episode when Danny and C.J. finally manage to arrange a dinner date. C.J. declares ‘You understand we’re having dinner, right?’ in which it is perfectly clear from her intonation and demeanor that she is excluding a sexual encounter. The dub, on the other hand, explicitates the underlying meaning of her utterance with Non finiremo a letto. – ‘we won’t end up in bed.’ Compensation yes, yet it weakens the cat and mouse courtship inherent to the couple’s ambiguous repartee.

6. Dubbing walk and talk

The highly favored ‘walk and talk’ technique (see Perego in this issue) in which film or TV characters converse while walking from one place to another clearly complicates the job of those involved in the process of its dub. One of the features of walk and talk is that dialogue often tends to be less than clear simply because the actors are walking and thus the audio recording that has to deal with a different breathing pattern from that of the more static ‘talking heads.’ Translating walk and talk for the screen is extremely challenging. Subtitles will need to find a compromise between the speed of delivery and viewers’ required reading times which will inevitably lead to vast reduction and audiences having to guess that they are missing much of the verbal action. Dubbing, on the other hand, should ideally have actors deliver dialogues on the go so as to retain the tempo of people on the move, but of course, given the cramped space of the average dubbing booth, this is surely out of the question. But the main problem with the Italian dub of IED is the same problem of most Italian dubs, namely that the language is too clear, too formal, too artificial. These three features coupled with the same voices across numerous products is what gives strength to critics of (Italian) dubbing.

In fact, one of the criticisms of this particular episode is indeed one linked with voice quality. For example, Jessica Hodges, the pretty little girl that the President picks on to ask a question is dubbed in a very high-pitched stereotypical child’s voice whereas in English, third grade Jessica has quite a mature way of speaking. She is, of course, a young child with a young child’s voice, but the dub gives her an overly childlike, unnatural way of speaking. Similarly, instances of laughter are overacted and in general, dialogues tend to be slightly off key, in the sense of being more histrionic than necessary. And this is the true difficulty with the Italian dubbing of US products. The laid-back acting style of north American actors is often substituted with performances on the brink of being over-the top. Furthermore, with dubbing actors re-cycling themselves across a variety of different genres, audiences soon become familiar with their voices so that, if one was to turn one’s back on the TV screen, it would be hard to distinguish between a product aimed at teens and one aimed at adults – not only, but it is certainly possible to discern a dubbed product from a home-made one. It is in this sense that dubbing has a flattening effect. However, despite these drawbacks, the dub of IED is a very good one, as we have seen, with perfectly adequate solutions for thorny problems such as idioms and humour.

7. Conclusion

For reasons ranging from poor scheduling to the public’s lack of engagement with matters of US politics The West Wing did not have the huge success in Italy that it had had elsewhere. This chapter provides a brief and critical overview of the Italian dub of the episode In Excelsis Deo, examining a variety of lingua-cultural issues that the translation and dub had to deal with. It also discusses censorship and the overall effect of  managing dialogue consisting of witty repartee delivered at fast speed.

Despite the fact that dubbing, by default has a flattening effect on the original dialogue as social, regional and idiosyncratic linguistic variation disappears in favor of a more standard form of language, overall, the dub of In Excelsis Deo is successful. It succeeds in involving the viewer in the narration. And even if matters regarding US legislation on hate crime and the ins-and-outs of Lillenfield’s scheming may not be perfectly clear to Italian audiences, who is to say that they are any more comprehensible to English-speaking audiences? After all, how many native speaker viewers of House M.D. really understand the medical jargon? And is Tony Soprano’s wheeling and dealing patently clear to all? White House politics is probably no different – the most important thing is for audiences to engage in the plot which, when all is said and done, recycles the same narratives as always but in a fresh and exciting form and framework. And if the politics is less than transparent, it may be worth reflecting on Egoyan and Balfour’s well known quote: ‘Every film is a foreign film’ and so is every serial.


Antonini, Rachele and Delia Chiaro (2009) “The Perception of Dubbing by Italian Audiences”, in Audiovisual Translation: Language Transfer on Screen, Jorge Díaz Cintas and Gunilla Anderman (eds), London, Macmillan Palgrave: 97—114.

Antonini, Rachele and Delia Chiaro (2004) “The quality of dubbed television programmes in Italy: The experimental design of an empirical study” in Cross-Cultural Encounters: Linguistic Perspectives, Marina Bondi and Nick Maxwell (eds), Rome, Officina Edizioni: 33—44.

Attardo, Salvatore (1994) Linguistic Theories of Humor, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter.

Bucaria, Chiara (2007)  “Humour and other catastrophes: dealing with the translation of mixed TV genres”, Linguistica Antverpiensa. Special Issue Audiovisual Translation: A Tool for Social Integration, 6: 235—54.

Bucaria, Chiara and Delia Chiaro (2007) “End-user Perception of Screen Translation: The Case of Italian Dubbing”, Tradterm, 13: 91—118.

Chiaro, Delia (2007) Not in front of the children, an analysis of sex on screen in Italy”, Linguistica Antverpiensa. Special Issue Audiovisual Translation: A Tool for Social Integration, 6: 255—76.

Chiaro, Delia (2008)   “Issues of Quality in Screen Translation: Problems and Solutions’’ in Between Text and Image: Updating Research in Screen Translation, Delia Chiaro, Christine Heiss and Chiara Bucaria (eds), Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

Chiaro, Delia (2009)  “Issues in Audiovisual Translation”, in The Routledge Companion to Translation Studies, Jeremy Munday (ed.), London, Routledge:  141—165.

Chiaro, Delia (2010) “Translation and Humour, Humour and Translation” in Translating Humour in Literature, Delia Chiaro (ed.), London, Bloomsbury.

Katan, David (2004) Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators, Manchester, St. Jerome.

Leppihalme, Rivta (1997),  Culture Bumps, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Pavesi, Maria (1994), “Osservazioni sulla (socio)linguistica del doppiaggio” in Il Doppiaggio. Trasposizioni Linguistiche e Culturali, Raffaella Baccolini, Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli and Laura Gavioli (eds.), Bologna, CLUEB: 129—142.

Pavesi, Maria (1996), “L’allocuzione nel doppiaggio dall’inglese all’italiano”, in Traduzione multimediale per il cinema, la televisione e la scena, Christine  Heiss, Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli (eds.), Bologna, CLUEB: 117—130.


[1] The original adaptation initially suggested the title  Buon natale, Presidente! — literally ‘Merry Christmas (Mr.) President’—  followed by a secondary title Veterano Toby — ‘Veteran Toby’ —  but the final choice went to Buon Natale Presidente (see the DVD on sale in Italy: West Wing : Tutti gli uomini del presidente – Prima stagione. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment). Naturally, the allusion to the chorus of the carol Angels from the realms of glory is not retained in the translated title so that all references to the death of Hufnagle and the Landingham twins will thus be missed.

[2] Several blogs and forums express disappointment regarding the mishandling of the series in Italy;  see especially: and  — both sites accessed 20 October 2011.

[3] Associazione Italiana Dialoghisti Adattatori Cinetelevisivi:

[4] I would like to thank Francesca Altomonte for allowing me to have access to the original transcription and to the ‘work-in-progress’ notes of her adaptation of In Excelsis Deo and also for generously contributing with her invaluable thoughts and opinions and, most of all, for her time.

[5] The traditional vows are : ‘(Bride’s Name), do you take (Groom’s Name) for your lawful wedded husband, to live in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love, hono(u)r, comfort, and cherish him from this day forward, forsaking all others, keeping only unto him for as long as you both shall live?’

[6] For a tongue-in-cheek clip that illustrates the conventions of Italian dubbese see

Accessed 25 October 2011.

[7] The dubbing supervisor or direttore di doppiaggio for the first series of The West Wing is Silvia Pepitoni.

[8] It is quite common for Italians to invent affectionate forms of address simply by adding an /i/’ (transcribed with a ‘y’) at the end of a name  e.g. Reby, Mery, Ketty, Patty, Roby, Giusy , and so on

[9] It has been noted that while not reflecting naturally occurring Italian, già is commonly adopted in Italian filmic fictional products too, thus indicating the influence and overflow of dubbese in Italy.

[10] Ho il dovere di dialoghista di fare rilassare lo spettatore in poltrona al cinema o a casa … se la persona si pone la domanda si perderebbe una parte del fil– It is my duty as a dubbing translator to allow the viewer to relax in their armchair at home or at the cinema …if people ask questions they will miss a part of the film.’ (my translation).

[11] …non c’era lo spazio … che fosse ritmicamente corretto … quattro azioni lunghissime in italiano. Scelgo il male minore … lo spettatore immagina la scena , è vero che è ancora più brutta ma è il male minore.  – ‘there wasn’t enough room … the rhythm was right … four very long actions in Italian. I chose the lesser of two evils … the viewer imagines the scene, it’s true that the scene was even uglier, but this [translation] is the lesser of the two evils’ (my translation).

About the author(s)

Delia Chiaro is Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Bologna’s Department of Interpreting and Translation.
Born, bred and educated in the UK, Delia has spent her entire academic career in Italy where she has combined her passion for film and TV with her interest in visual and verbal ambiguity and duplicity – an interest which has provided her with the perfect excuse to study humour in all shapes and sizes, but especially how it is perceived in translation and its cross-cultural impact.
Since publishing The Language of Jokes: Analysing Verbal Play (Routledge 1992)  she has written extensively on diverse aspects of language and humour, most recently Gender and Humor: Interdisciplinary and International Perspectives (with Raffaella Baccolini, Routledge, New York: 2014) while The Language of Jokes in the Digital Age is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2015. She has been invited to lecture on humour across Europe, Asia and New Zealand.
Beyond academia, her hobbies include running, socialising and socialism.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Delia Chiaro (2016).
"‘Walk and Talk’ in Italian"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Multisemiotic Transcriptions as Film Referencing Systems

By Anthony Baldry (University of Messina, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

Film analysts often rely in their work on the transcripts that fans have produced for a TV series and made available online. However invaluable the labour of love of these dedicated aficionados may be, film analysts’ transcript requirements are not fully met by this type of transcript. Existing online transcriptions of The West Wing TV series are a good example of the difficulties that arise when using them, all of which raises questions about the imbalanced nature of the referencing systems that are used in TV series transcripts. Why, on the one hand, is referencing to characters so systematic and accurate, while reference to time, place and theme at best sporadic? Can transcripts be made more suited to analysts’ needs? Can transcript culture be strengthened? The article investigates these issues proposing new types of transcript that film analysts could usefully use, from both episode and series perspectives, in their investigations of TV series. The paper bases its arguments on detailed comparisons between TV series transcripts and other related genres and concludes that developing a better theoretical framework for the TV transcript genre than those currently available is an essential premise to its future developments as a useful tool for film analysts.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, multimedia translation

©inTRAlinea & Anthony Baldry (2016).
"Multisemiotic Transcriptions as Film Referencing Systems"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

1. Introduction

Transcripts of TV series have seldom been the subject of critical analysis on the part of film analysts despite the use they make of them. Film analysts are, of course, a heterogeneous and constantly growing group, each with different transcript requirements. They include: film critics, as well as those who use TV transcripts for corpus analysis, subtitling, dubbing and audio description. To this, we need to add an increasing number of teachers (foreign language teachers in particular) who use film and TV series transcripts in their classroom teaching and for their students’ project work (Sindoni, 2011, Coccetta, 2016 in press).

However, by far the greatest contingent of film analysts are film buffs and TV series fans. In particular, those of them who write about a TV series or a film in their blogs, forums, wikis and fanzines all rely on transcripts in various forms whether pre-existing transcripts written by others for a specific TV series or simply their own notes containing dialogue snippets they themselves have transcribed. The need to refer accurately to what is said in an episode – often accompanied by admissions that certain details have not been checked – is a further indication of fandom’s understanding of the significance of transcription and, in the author’s opinion, a disguised plea for better transcription practices.

Certainly, fans’ TV episode recaps point to a strong awareness of transcripts and transcribing. Significantly, such recaps are a hybrid genre inspired by visual-verbal precursor genres from the pre-digital age. They owe much to fotoromanzi, the soap opera magazines that allowed you to while away the time during pre-digital train journeys and other forms of travel. However, revisiting a TV series is also a powerful, heart-tugging exercise more in tune with scrapbooks, and the ‘lost’ memories they evoke, when rediscovered after many years in a loft or garage cupboard. As we shall see below, fans' recaps have considerably affected the way online transcripts are evolving as a genre.

Given fandom’s intense activity, it is hardly surprising that the majority of post-airdate TV series transcripts, posted on the Internet, are produced by the fans themselves for use by other fans. The transcript of the In Excelsis Deo’ episode described in this article[1], like other transcriptions of the episodes in The West Wing series, is no exception to this ‘rule’ and is a product of the digital world of virtual communities.

As well as containing the words actually uttered in a particular episode, these transcripts – referred to below as episode transcripts – contain a surprising amount of ‘extra’ information that makes them an invaluable tool for all film analysts: just as no telephone works without a telephone directory and no writer works without dictionaries or reference books, so no film analyst – whether a young kid working on a school media project or a journalist commenting on last night’s episode of a famous TV series – will want to be without a film transcript as a backup, that at the very least, allows significant lines from an episode to be cut-and-pasted rather than (re)transcribed.

Nevertheless, however praiseworthy they may be, fans’ episode transcripts could do a much better job. While their character-related referencing ‒ i.e. who says what ‒ may be systematic and meticulously accurate, on the other hand, other types of referencing are, at best, sporadic. Despite their merits, we should not be blinded by episode transcripts’ limitations. While the growth of the TV transcript genre, as we shall see below, has caused it to distance itself from other types of transcription, such as radio broadcasts, the TV transcript genre has not yet entirely shaken off the conventions inherited from precursor forms of transcript. Three weaknesses, summarised in the next three subsections, stand out.

1.1  Timepoint referencing

While screenplays and film scripts, cannot, by definition, pinpoint the exact moment when an exchange takes place, since they have not yet been turned into films, on the contrary, the mere fact of being post-airdate implies that TV transcripts could include such timepointing. Invariably, they never do.

This first type of omission relates to the way in which what is written in a transcript links up with what is said in the TV episode – or rather the difficulties that the absence of any such links creates for analysts. For example, an analyst might, want to understand how things are said, for example, how an actor’s skilled use of voice quality, facial expressions, eye movements and hand gestures interprets specific words. The potential for enlightenment, and fun, in doing so is, alas, killed off by the difficulties of tracking down where specific words in the transcript are actually uttered in the video. It takes, on average, eight minutes to find the exact location in the West Wing ‘Pilot’ video of the words “rode his bicycle into a tree” and to discover the emotional tones – irony, laughter, sarcasm – with they are actually delivered in the video. No wonder fans’ recaps and podcasts about The West Wing contain apologies about not checking up on specific details. Unconvinced? Use the– link to see how quickly you can find the exact point where these words are pronounced.

Now ask yourself, given that presents — goldfish and books in the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode— are used in The West Wing to construct affective relationships, how long would it take you to reconstruct this particular strategy when examining gender relationships in an entire episode or a whole series? Certainly, transcript tracking — the search-based study of the patterned nature of wordings explored in Part II of this article — requires little time or skill. Word searches, e.g. in the database of pdf transcripts on the West Wing Transcripts website, are all that is needed to identify the whereabouts of all mentions of, say, ‘goldfish’ in The West Wing series and to demonstrate that they are associated with the flirting that goes on between CJ and Danny. Goldfish, it turns out, are sexier than you might think.

While flirtatious overtures are by definition part of all TV soaps, political or otherwise, they are not merely linguistic in nature, involving instead, as already suggested, actors’ skilled use of voice quality, facial expressions and posture. Without a transcript that identifies the exact points where goldfish, and other such devices, occur in a video, video tracking of such overtures (again discussed below in Part II) – takes a very long time. Still unconvinced?

Try reconstructing Danny and C.J.’s flirting in the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode using the following link:

Alas, the ties between transcripts and the videos they transcribe form a far from perfect marriage. Regardless of whether you are investigating The West Wing, Dr. House, Dr. Kildare or Dr. Who, or any other TV series, you will conclude that using a traditional post-airdate transcript to carry out comparative examination of episodes entails constant yet rather awkward switching between video and transcript. Even though in the goldfish case, only three episodes are involved in the entire series, the absence of timepointing – a vital resource when cross-referencing written and spoken forms of dialogue – hinders attempts to understand how verbal exchanges, gestures, mutual gaze, laughter and much more besides are cross-modally blended in a particular episode’s interactions.

1.2. Episode or series? The effects of a TV series’ cult status on transcripts

Fandom knows best. While a TV lecture makes its cultural impact in a single ‘go’, a TV soap (political or otherwise) does so over many years – in some cases over a lifetime. So, fandom means talking about an entire series – not just about individual episodes. This changes the focus from what people say, to what they stand for ‒ their short and long-term convictions and attitudes on particular social issues [2].

Transcripts need to take in the series perspective and do, in part, already do so. The Raspberry Lime Ricki blog ( is a good example of the shift from word-based to theme-based transcription that this perspective entails. In keeping with its mission statement, it provides sweet, tart, and refreshing insights into sexism for the first sixteen episodes of The West Wing, using a misogyny meter to award plus and minus points. The verdict for the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode is:

“Total Misogyny Points: 37. A pretty heavily misogynistic episode”

This type of transcription targets episode meanings rather than character wordings. Within each episode recap, the goal is to track sexist/non-sexist perspectives on women by applying objective criteria, such as the Bechdel test, in a systematic way. The blog’s incorporation of a search mechanism ‒ ‒ allows Ricki’s individual recaps to be tied together, thus transcending the episode perspective and aligning transcription with the series perspective.

Ricki’s own dilemmas about her transcribing technique are eloquent testimony to the changes afoot in transcription practices and fandom’s awareness of this issue:

I started watching and taking notes. Then I went downstairs and watched while doing dishes, so I couldn’t take notes, so I tried to remember after the fact what I’d just watched, and then I started over, and then I took some notes in one notebook and some notes in another and I know a bunch of you are going, “Notes? She’s taking, like, pen and paper notes? For a blog post?” Yes. Hello. I’m a nerd. Welcome to my blog. […] And then I was like, there’s no way I’ll be able to fit the series in one blog post. How about I do season by season? And then I was like, that’s crazy, right?

1.3. Visual and verbal referencing in transcripts

New needs, new types of transcripts. Fans are game-changers in this respect as the third and final ‘issue’ regarding omissions in TV series episode transcripts underscores. Ask yourself: as a film analyst, do you think visually or linguistically about films? Traditionally the transcript genre is conceived of as discourse-oriented, despite the fact that, somewhat ironically, TV series transcripts relate to a story being told visually. As well as a paradox, this is a worrisome omission.

But not for fandom. Despite the risks of possible copyright infringement, fandom’s outlook on this matter can be summarised by the slogan Recap and screencap! Take, for example, the Persephone Magazine. Women. Pop culture. News. Unicorns site, which self-describes as “an online destination for bookish, clever women around the world”. Note the three-way division of the post entitled Ladyghosts: The West Wing, Season 1.10 “In Excelsis Deo”

The first and third parts respectively contain ten and three photos – all presented as realistic moments of high tension and conflict, such as when Laurie shouts in Scene 17 at Josh and Sam to get out of her house.

The second part, on the other hand, relates to Scene 10 in which Mrs. Landingham tells Charlie about the death of her twin sons. This consists of a single still embedded in a (partial) written transcript of the scene. Both are tied together cross-modally by the writer’s comments: “Are we all feeling warm and fuzzy now? Very good. I’ve got you all warmed up so I can yank the rug out from under you” after which the recap focuses on the photo’s highlighting of Mrs. Landingham’s sad eyes – a detail that instigates a change in our perception of the depth of the episode’s (and recap’s) emotional force.

As the Persephone example shows, had the visual element been suppressed − regularly the case with episode transcripts − desired messages could not have been made. So recap and screencap posts come in ‘various shapes and sizes’ but invariably rely on an episode transcript both as a backup and as a source for quotations. Collectively, recap and screencap posts are also an admission of the need for visual-verbal transcripts. However minimally, by linking fragments of online transcripts to photos, they represent a start to the development of multisemiotic TV series transcripts. As such, they, too, are a genre-changing strategy. Further examples that pertain to the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode, such as posts that embed a video clip from the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode, are mentioned below in Part II.

1.4. What this article attempts to do

The TV series transcript is a much-neglected genre deserving more attention than has been the case. In particular, English linguistics needs to eat humble pie and learn from fandom’s example, which has sent out many signals as regards transcription practices – some clearly intentional, others perhaps less so. Collectively, fandom’s experimentation with new forms of transcript creates new perspectives on TV series and different ways of interpreting their social and cultural impact.

It also raises a basic question: whether – as teachers of English, as text and genre analysts, or ‘simply’ as inspired fans – film analysts can really rely on the partial, stop-gap solutions to transcription that, as indicated above, fandom has invented. Are not more thorough, more systematic solutions required?

Below, with reference to the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode, we attempt to address ways in which the transcript experiments described above can be turned into more systematic ‘solutions’ that benefit all film analysts. In other words, research into what TV transcripts are, and what they might be, is viewed as beneficial not only within the confines of specific academic disciplines, such as English linguistics or translation studies, but hopefully well beyond.

Accordingly, Part I of this article (Sections 2 and 3) is concerned with transcript design vis-à-vis individual episodes. In particular, it provides a detailed investigation of some of the possible additional transcripts that can be envisaged for this episode of The West Wing and, by extension, other episodes in this and other TV series.

Part II is concerned with the role that a specific episode plays within a series. All the transcripts proposed are envisaged as parts of series-oriented storyboards. A storyboard is an advanced form of transcript, a dynamic ‘product’ obtained when using simple software tools to interpret codings embedded in separate transcripts. Individual transcripts can thus assembled, dynamically, in different combinations according to the perspective required, and are particularly useful when aggregating data from an entire TV series. Thus the second part of the paper (Sections 4 and 5) investigates the empowerment that series-level analysis brings, suggesting that this dictates the need for a further round of research to establish whether new forms of transcript can help consolidate, fine-grained comparative studies of TV series.

Part III (Sections 6 and 7) contains a brief discussion of, and conclusions about, how a transcript needs to be defined in the Internet age and why transcript theory needs to be worked on more fully.

Part I: New types of transcript: episode level

2. Solving the timepointing issue

The introduction of systematic timepointing can perhaps be best illustrated in terms of three levels of analysis: phase, scene and mini-scene timepointing. Each of these levels reuses (and extends) information in existing episode transcripts, suggesting that, with a little more effort, much more could be achieved when using a transcript.

2.1. Phase timepointing

We may begin with an analysis of Figure 1, an example of a phase transcript. This transcript’s function is to provide an overview of an episode’s major phases that includes reference to the points in the episode video where these occur. The example shown in Figure 1 has added timepoints to information found ‒ though in a rather ‘hidden’ way ‒ in the episode transcript’s Teaser-and-Act referencing system. Specifically, the words in Column 2 have been ‘lifted’ directly from this transcript.

Figure 1 uses the term phases in keeping with phase theory, which points to the organisation of a film in terms of its meaning (Baldry and Thibault, 2001, Baldry 2004 [2015]). This type of transcript functions as a simple and initial overview, a very basic where-to-find it guide. It might well contribute to series level studies in research and teaching projects as it allows overall episode structure to be compared in an entire series or across series, for example, the nature and incidence of night vs. day scenes, camera technique, lighting resources used and so on.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A phase timepoint transcript

However, this is not its main goal. Its real purpose, instead, is as an adjunct to an existing online transcript, a quick-and-dirty solution to avoid the classroom embarrassment and hassle often experienced, for example, by English language teachers when they need to find a specific point in a video during a classroom lesson. As such, it is easily and, above all, quickly constructed. It is a simple a timepointing tool that reuses as much existing information as possible. It includes descriptions of settings, taken from the episode transcript, that teachers (and others) could re-use.

However, Figure 1 clearly illustrates the uneven nature of many online episode transcripts: not everything that should be transcribed, is transcribed. In this case, the transcription of the Prologue is missing, i.e. the initial part of every episode in The West Wing series, where an off-screen speaker announces: Previously on the West Wing and which proceeds with a 30-second visual-verbal recap of previous episodes.

Unlike the credits, containing only written discourse, the Prologue phase in The West Wing includes verbal exchanges – which a transcript ought, by definition and tradition, to transcribe. This omission is all the more surprising as prologues provide thematic continuities that are part of a TV’s soap’s raison d’être.

To highlight this problem, the first row in the transcript in Figure 1 has been intentionally left blank. Given their significance in the series level perspective, Prologues are further discussed in Part II (Section 5) as a way of filling this particular ‘blank’.

2.2. Scene timepointing

Even though they take longer to construct, the majority of film analysts will prefer to use a transcript that incorporates the more traditional notion of scenes. Figure 2 is thus a scene transcript that reconstructs this episode in this way, bearing in mind the need to provide precise timepointing – a must for many analysts. At the very least, a scene transcript provides a support for, if not an alternative to, film analysts’ use of descriptive labels such as the Feliz Navidad scene or the Bookstore scene to identify the various parts of this episode. While the latter are fine when discussing specific scenes in specific episodes, the former are more likely to prevail when the referencing of scene types (such as those relating to Christmas festivities and buying presents) needs to be made across an entire series.


Figure 2

Figure 2: A scene timepoint transcript with location references

However, when constructing scene timepoints (see Figure 2), we come up against another typical ‘omission’ of episode transcripts: the individual scenes are not indexed numerically. However, “All is not lost” (Milton Paradise Lost, Book 1, Line 106). Though not in a numerical form, referencing of each individual scene exists de facto in all the one hundred and fifty-odd episode transcripts on the West Wing Transcripts site, as they contain ‘CUT TO:’ and ‘FADE IN’ ‘markers’ that implicitly define where one scene ends and where a new one starts.  

Meant to be a descriptive device, they are a convenient and time-saving metatextual shortcut when constructing an index for individual scenes in an episode. There are sixteen CUT TO ‘references’ in the transcript in this episode as well as five FADE IN ‘references’ whose existence makes it possible to number scenes using a simple search-and-mark procedure. On this basis, it also becomes possible to work out timepoints and construct a scene transcript such as the one shown in Figure 2 in a systematic way.

A brief comment on the omission of scene numbering in TV series episode transcripts is in order as it appears to be at odds with the tradition in the humanities, which uses scene numbering in printed plays and critical commentaries. No theatre critic would, for example, reference Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say! with a wording that ran along the lines of: ‘part of an imaginary conversation-cum-flashback scene towards the end of the play recalling the night Lady Macbeth and her husband conspired to murder King Duncan in which she incriminates herself to eavesdroppers and reveals the pangs of conscience she had ridiculed in her husband’. As a reference system Macbeth Act 5, Scene 1, Line 26 has stood the test of time in many literary forms including poetry as the reference to Milton above shows.

Bringing scene numbering and scene timepointing together in a single scene transcript makes life much easier though it is, alas, unlikely that fandom will adopt such indexing until the series perspective in transcribing is more fully established. This is despite the fact that we are merely taking a leaf out film-making’s book, where script supervisors (a.k.a. continuity supervisors) are employed to do this housekeeping work:

“recording and accessing all information regarding the screenplay and any scenes which have already been shot.”[It is is their job is] “to keep running totals of scene timings and pages counts in order that the script runs approximately to overall time.”  (

A final comment on this issue. Inherent in the traditional notion of scene is the idea of location. CUT TO and FADE IN ‘references’ are immediately followed in the online transcript by locational co-texts, making it relatively easy to extract the information provided and re-present it systematically in the form of a Location Index.

One such index is embedded as a legend in Figure 2’s scene transcript. It  uses abbreviations that facilitate digital searches across an entire series — useful as described in Section 4 for film analysts whose investigations into scene types in an entire TV series might well start with location patternings (e.g. day vs. night, indoors vs. outdoors and so on).

Hence, potentially as a transcript model, the scene transcript goes beyond the mere emulation of the ‘textual housekeeping’ that characterises film-making and many literary publications and becomes, instead, part of the series level perspective further discussed below in Part II.

2.3. Mini-scene timepointing

When does a scene transcript stop being an adequate solution to the timepointing needs described in Section 1? When do we need a further support? An answer to this question is partly dependent on how deep you need to dig into the dialogue in a TV series. In this respect, the third and final timepointing referencing system proposed here relates to mini-scenes. That the mini-scene is central to The West Wing series is beyond dispute. How the term mini-scene is defined and who needs to analyse them — both essential premises for such transcriptions — is much less clear.

A mini-scene timepoint transcript is likely to be valuable for those researching into text and film theory as it involves a level of detail mostly designed for those concerned with the textual models that underlie the type of discourse used in a TV series. But beware: while it might be thought that only text theorists will explore these lofty heights, the level of detail reached in fans’ discourse analysis says otherwise and represents a constant surprise and example that theorists should heed.

For those unfamiliar with The West Wing series, The West Wing TV series represents an innovation in filming with scenes made up of a series of ‘mini-scenes’ that share the same location:

Historically, dramas devoted an entire scene to communicating a single new plot development, and thus the show moved forward one step at time, one scene at a time. Giving a whole scene to every significant character interchange would make it almost impossible for The West Wing to do multiple plotlines. Therefore Sorkin and Cleveland choose to break single scenes into separate dramatic ‘mini-scenes’ that are unrelated to each other narratively but which share the same time and space. Characters come and go in pairs, each couple intent on its own conversation but each occupying center stage for only a brief moment. (Smith 2003: 127-8)

In other words, The West Wing series is based on a ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ principle, likely to fascinate the fans – and not just those who apply the Bechdel test to find out whether an episode is ‘politically correct’ i.e. whether it contains at least one scene featuring at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man.

This organisational principle raises many questions: Are there never three interactants participating somewhat vocally in an exchange (e.g. bawling out at each other)? Are there never any introspective soliloquies? Is there a ‘three’s company’ rule for visual presence offsetting the ‘two’s company rule’ applied to verbal interaction? What about those mini-scenes where there is no interaction at all? 

Figure 3

Figure 3: A mini-scene timepoint transcript

Figure 3 is a mini-scene transcript (Figure 3) that provides the detail needed to clear up these issues.

First, as we are dealing with people rather than places, this type of transcription re-uses data in the episode transcript to build up a Character Index (Figure 4) in the manner used to create a Location Index. Again, it uses initials rather than full names given the visual convenience that this brings when analysing such transcripts, dynamically, with software tools such as Microsoft Excel or, better still, Microsoft Access with its relational characteristics that accord well with the storyboard principle of assembling specialist transcript tables in diverse ways.

Figure 4 shows how interactions, and turn-taking patterns, can be expressed in terms of abbreviating formulas as CJ+D, in this case a mini-scene consisting of exchanges between CJ Cregg and Danny, where the abbreviation before the plus sign indicates the first character to speak, while the character shown after the plus sign relates to who is addressed and, by implication, who normally continues or completes the verbal interaction. By exclusion, the notation means that the interactants identified in this way are the only ones to speak – though, of course, quite frequently they will not be the only characters present during a mini-scene.

Image 4

Figure 4: Character Index

Already, the Character Index points to the need to envisage more complex dyadic structures than a simple ‘two’s company principle’ as individuals address groups. These interactions can, nevertheless, be transcribed in the same way – as CJ+R, B+CS and B+K where R refers to reporters, CS to carol singers and K to (school) kids and so on.

Additionally, thanks to the Number[Number] annotation, mini-scenes (and their turn-taking patterns) are associated in this type of transcript with scene structure. In this annotation, the number inside the square bracket refers to mini-scene numbering while the number outside relates to the numbering given in the scene transcript (Figure 2). This tells us, for example, that Scene 1 consists of 4 mini-scenes, numbered 1[1] CJ+DN; 1[2] S+LA; 1[3] L+B, 1[4] J+L. Using the Character Index, it is now easy to work out that this particular scene consists of four different pairs of speakers.

Dyad types can also be transcribed. Orange background colouring has been used to indicate combinations of female speakers, which, as Ricki points out, allows this particular episode to pass the Bechdel test. She mentioned one of these – transcribed here as 2[1] MA+CJ –  where Mandy and CJ discuss Dickensian costumes. However, it is not the only one. There is just one other, 5[2] CJ+BR, where CJ and Bobbi discuss hate crime legislation.

A mini-scene transcript thus facilitates analysis of thorny social issues. For example, it helps make the point that while there are just two women-only mini-scenes in this episode, in contrast there many men-only mini-scenes highlighted in bluish-grey. Surprised by this? Maybe not.

Note, however, how background colouring, undertaken in this case manually, but achievable automatically with the right software tools, makes hidden patterning clearly visible. In other words, the reference to ‘multisemiotic transcriptions’ in this article’s title relates, in particular, to the resources used, in addition to language, at the metatextual referencing level, an innovation in TV series transcription whose theoretical status is further discussed in Part III.

Other examples of this form of referencing – a combination of annotational symbols, colouring and the resources provided by tables – are used in the mini-scene transcript shown in Figure 3. They allows us to see, at a glance, that not all mini-scenes in the episode are interactional.

These non-interactional mini-scenes – presented in Figure 3 with background highlighting in green and labelled as [0] for ease of identification in the episode’s overall mini-scene patterning – are scene setters. They frame a scene ensuring the subsequent interactional mini-scenes are bound to each other. Figure 5 gives the full list of types of scene-setters, the most frequent type being establishing shots.

 Image 5

Figure 5: Scene-setter index

The first non-interactional mini-scene, labelled 1[0] PLG, is a good example of the scene setting function of this type of mini-scene. Intriguingly, the desired continuity in Scene 1 – where PLG stands for Prologue – comes not from identification with a specific place or specific time (the classic way of defining a scene) but instead from its recapping of previous episodes. Nevertheless, it is still, a scene setter. It is also non-interactional in the sense that the wording Previously on the West Wing, which follows the combined audio and visual logos (drumbeat + US flag shown against the White House silhouette) is directed to viewers and is not part of an exchange involving the episode’s characters.

Highlighting scene setters visually is a device that allows us to further detect breaks in expected patterns. Indeed, we can see at a glance that six scenes – 5, 6, 8, 12, 19 and 20 – do not begin with a scene setter that ‘smooths’ our way in. Given that a mini-scene transcript, like the other transcripts presented so far, is also a timepoint-based transcript, it is now easier to work out why this is the case.

Take, for instance, Scene 6 which begins abruptly, precisely as it is designed to highlight Bartlet’s irritation with Mandy’s insistence on PR work with journalists at a time when he is simply longing for Yuletide peace and quiet. In other words, the basic unmarked NIMS^IMS pattern in (i.e. non-interactional mini-scenes followed by interactional mini-scenes) is broken up by a marked IMS^IMS pattern. The latter deliberately, and meaningfully, punctuates the former in a contrapuntal way – one of the dialogic ‘special effects’ used throughout The West Wing series.

Similar marked vs. unmarked patterning applies to the small number of cases — sixteen out of over a hundred interactional mini-scenes — where the talk is between three rather than two people. Represented in Figure 3 with background pink highlighting, their distribution is no longer hidden and is instead clear at a glance. We immediately note that their highest incidence occurs — rather unsurprisingly — in Scene 17 where essentially Sam, Josh and Laurie take turns at shouting at each other. Even so, the calmer moments in this scene involve a single addressor and a single addressee, even though three characters are visually present throughout.

On the contrary, in Scene 15, despite the large number of mini-scenes — eleven in all — there are no three-way exchanges even though three people are present for much of its duration. Figure 6 highlights the disjunctive nature (Baldry, 2000) of visual and linguistic interactions in this scene, one of the finest in the episode, and nicely illustrates a basic strategy in The West Wing’s structure: the more the verbal pulls people apart dividing them into two’s, the more the visual pulls them together bonding them into groups.

The fine balancing act between disjunctive and conjunctive elements when analysing what goes on in the verbal and what goes on in the visual (Baldry 2000) may be further appreciated from the analysis given by Charles Papert on the website as regards the shot plans associated with Scene 2 in the In Excelsis Deo episode usually referred to as the Feliz Navidad scene:

The roundy-round at the beginning required very specific timing to get certain lines delivered on-camera--you can see Rob Lowe “helping” clear himself twice. Once off and running through the lobby, it’s a dodging match of Xmas trees, ‘xtras and, uh, xylophones (?) until we get into the relative peace of the final hallway.
On a number of occasions such as this one I had to fly the rig sideways through doorways; although the doors were built slightly oversized from standard, this still left just a few inches on either side of mattebox and mag. With the rig in front of me I would take my best shot and close my eyes as we passed the threshold, hoping we wouldn't clip off any expensive Panabits! (Charles Papert “Feliz Navidad”, Retrieved 17.05.2016)

What this steadicam operator – but also experienced film analyst – calls roundy-round shooting, functions to create a ‘dust cloud’ of characters visually twirling around each other and linguistically quibbling about relatively trivial themes. The mini-scenes in question 2[1-5] involve both three-party and two-party interactions. The whirling and twirling comes to an abrupt end when the characters filing down corridor, as a single visual group, make a sudden about-turn, again as a single visual group when they learn that the Washington police are looking for Toby (mini-scene 2[6]). After, this momentary excursion into something more serious the subsequent mini-scenes 2[7-10] return to trivial themes that culminate in the ‘storm-in-a-teacup conflict’ created by secret service names.

Analysts exploring visual-verbal contrasts in The West Wing, will notice the contrapuntal, disruptive rhythm of Toby’s constant and rather nervous head turning in many parts of Scene 15 e.g. in MS: 15[6-8] reproduced in Figure 6. Sometimes, this occurs in relation to the person being addressed. Sometimes his head turns towards the third person present. Most significantly, at other times he looks at neither, as if stressed out by the circumstances and not knowing who to look at or who to talk to next. In their podcast for this episode – – Andrea Howat and Sallie Gregory, rightly speak of Toby’s ‘visual stumbling’ in this scene, speculating that it contributed to bringing actor Richard Schiff an Emmy award for his interpretation of Toby in this episode.

Figure 6

Figure 6: A fragment from an episode transcript recast as a mini-scene transcript

Figure 6 shows how data from the various transcripts can now be combined and presented systematically in a way that enhances the usefulness of the original episode transcript. It includes scene and mini-scene numbering (MS), timepoint referencing (TP) and indications about the interactants. Note that, the reference to George: (G) in a red font and round brackets indicates where George talks to himself, a break in the overall dialogic pattern in this episode that otherwise rigorously respects turn-taking rules. It is another dialogic special effect, in this case indicating the nature of George’s rambling mind and the tenderness and delicacy that Toby, usually aggressive and blunt in his interactions, needs to adopt when talking to him.

With its focus on the timepointing of mini-scenes, the mini-scene transcript has the merit of facilitating the analyst’s job of understanding the relationship between micro and macro levels in this episode, in other words how details fit into the overall scheme of things. Indeed, we might well conclude that the mini-scene transcript has systematically formalised critical insights that various analysts have perceived vis-à-vis the dialogic organisation of The West Wing series.

Overall, the dialogic structure is characterised by constant change in partners in the very brief short-lived encounters that make up The West Wing’s episodes:

The tracking shot in the West Wing often begins by focusing on a small action, often by a bit player (e.g., carrying a gift basket) or on an object (a small wall decoration). The camera almost immediately picks up one or two of the central characters moving through the White House office space. The camera follows as a couple of principal players march quickly through the hallways, discussing one or more topics. Then one of the characters forks off and is almost immediately replaced by another principal, who initiates another discussion. […] In this way the camera stages a series of pas de deux, with partners pairing off and then cutting in in one prolonged dance. (Smith, 2003:131)

This view tends to assume that the mini-scene is defined by changes in interactional partners. Alas, confounding this perspective is the fact that, with respect to the following or previous mini-scene, about twenty percent of the mini-scenes listed in Figure 3 do not involve such a change. Thanks to the use of yellow background highlighting and italicised purple fonts, this type of mini-scene, its distribution in the episode, and the theoretical inconsistencies this entails can now be spotted ‘a mile off’.

A definition of mini-scene based solely on changes in interactional partners thus runs counter to the overall dynamics of the discourse that pervades the entire episode and series. One example is Scene 7, which adopts the same interactional partners throughout. We might be tempted to argue that this is the one case in the episode where there are no mini-scenes. However, this does not stack up, as there are other scenes where exactly the same happens e.g. Scene 10 and yet others, such as Scenes 13 and 16, where there are only minimal changes in interactional partners, usually a scene closure device at the tail-end of the overall scene.

However, the matter is cleared if we accept that topic-changing by interactants also counts in the definition of a mini-scene – and that it is part of the ‘special dialogic effects’ deployed, as we have hinted at above, in this and other episodes in The West Wing series. On this point, Smith states:

While this reliance on mini-scene is characteristic of The West Wing it is not unique to the series. John Wells’s ER, for instance, also uses mini-scenes to break up the business of an individual scene into separate conversations. However, Sorkin’s dialogue in The West Wing and in his other show Sports Night (1998-2000) is distinctive in that it breaks up single conversation between two characters into multiple topics, thereby conveying information quickly while mirroring the complexity of the West Wing world. (Smith, 2003, p. 128, my emphasis)

This begs the question: Is a mini-scene a structural unit, based on who does the talking, or a functional unit based on what they say and mean? In the following section, we will argue that a mini-scene is usually both, but that occasionally it will be only one or the other. Specifically we will argue that the mini-scenes in this episode can be classified into sub-types, according to the degree to which they are structural and/or functional. In other words, this presupposes a division into: interactions that involve only partner changing vis-à-vis the previous mini-scene; those that involve only topic changing vis-à-vis the previous mini-scene and those (the vast majority) that involve both.

We will also argue that the more a mini-scene acts as a functional unit, the more it will focus on high drama i.e. unplanned moments of contrast and conflict that upset the daily routine in the White House, while the more it is a structural unit, the more it will help planned events to flow smoothly and happily along in the episode. However, in order to grasp this nettle fully, we need a map of how the themes that underlie events in this episode play out.

3. Towards theme-based transcripts

The previous section called for a thematic episode transcript. However, before we discuss the uses to which such a transcript can be put, we need to explain how it is constructed. Figure 7 is a Theme index, providing a summary description of each theme used in Figure 8, which plots out the distribution of interactional mini-scenes in this episode in terms of nine event-related themes – a map of how the multiple plotlines play out in a dynamic storyboard that reveals the way plotlines in one episode interweave with those in the rest of the series.

 Figure 7

Figure 7: Theme Index 

Figure 8 is such a theme transcript. Justifying the selection of themes and their distribution in an episode is never any easy task. What do we include and, more to the point, what do we exclude? Misogyny, for example, though clearly present is, not as it were, a theme that was designed to be pursued in the episode. However, gender relationships and sexually oriented encounters/discourse were intended. Hard as it is to distinguish between intended and unintended, various clues show that such selection is likely to be more objective and less arbitrary than at first sight might seem to be the case. Again, the transcripts we have so far developed give a helping hand as they provide the necessary statistical basis for selection.

First, if we accept that the Prologue is indicative of series level thematics – i.e. beyond what will happen just in the current episode – then we have to include Themes 3 and 6. Similarly, we can use frequency as a criterion for selection. As the bottom line in Figure 8 suggests, Theme 1 accounts for a third of the overall mini-scenes. If we further take first mention into consideration, on the grounds that the first topic in a scene’s interactional encounters is likely to be most significant, we need to include Themes 2 and 4.

This leaves Themes 5, 7, 8 and 9. The discussion about secret service names (Theme 5) and the millennium (Theme 7) are significant precisely because of their triviality. They act, structurally, as dialogic counterfoils to moments that are more serious.

 Figure 8

Figure 8: A theme transcript with mini-scene distribution

Of all the themes, Theme 9, is the least frequent: just one mini-scene 10[2] in which Mrs. Landingham talks about the death of her twin sons. We could, in theory, lump this together with other themes that deal with death, namely Themes 2 and 4. However, we have already noted one fan’s comments on the heart-tugging that goes on in this mini-scene. Another is Howat’s and Gregory’s description of it in their podcast as a ‘killer backstory’.

We have thus included it separately, as it is a very special ‘theme-cum-scene’, both structurally and functionally. It is the point that comes closest to a soliloquy in the entire episode, as Charlie is more an embarrassed listener than a true interactant. It also sets up the linkage with Themes 2 and 4 as Mrs. Landingham poignantly requests Toby to let her come with him to the war veteran’s funeral, the episode’s climax.

This leaves Theme 8 which we have called leave-taking, perhaps the hardest theme of all to justify. Note, however, that while the characters in The West Wing are portrayed as very powerful people, they constantly express a desire to get out of the White House and move into the real world. The stronger this desire, the harder it becomes − as the plot creates barriers that prevent them from doing so.

This is why Bartlet wants to sneak out to the bookstore, why Josh boasts he will be in Bermuda in twenty-four hours and why Toby, desperate to escape the triviality of the Xmas festivities in the White House, becomes impatient on the phone when information is not forthcoming about the more serious matters going on in the world outside.

In this episode, leave-taking is both a how-the-hell-do-we-get-out-of-here existential theme in its own right, as well as a structural device, an exeunt strategy, used by a long line of playwrights (Shakespeare instructs). A detailed mini-scene analysis helps us pursue thematic tracking and, in particular, helps us to understand how the dialogic structuring of mini-scenes interacts with the societal themes presented in the episode.

As Figure 9 (extracted from Figure 6) shows, Scene 9 uses all the different types of mini-scene we have identified above. The transitions from mini-scenes 9[1] to 9[2] and from 9[5] to 9[6] are distinguished from each by the theme change criterion while the transitions from 9[3], to 9[4] and then to 9[5] are distinguished from each other by the interactant partner change criterion. In this scene, only the transition from 9[2] to 9[3] is distinguished by both criteria.

 Figure 9

Figure 9: Thematic tracking

However, this type of transcript helps us to understand that it is not by chance that, in this episode, the words “exit strategy” echo all the way down the White House corridors as the dialogue unfolds. The walk-and-talk action is imbued with leave-taking, which, in part, explains why mini-scenes function in the way that they do. Just as there are scene setters, there are scene closers based on the notion of escape as Figure 10 shows.


Fifure 10

Figure 10: Mini-scene closure

Remarkably, there are also occasions in this episode where exit strategy is both part of the episode’s dialogic structure and its reflection on escapism. Take, for example, Scene 19, which begins abruptly (i.e. with no establishing shot) with a mini-scene involving CJ and the reporters.

Paradoxically, this scene opener is, in fact, a scene closure, a way of telling the reporters (and the audience) that the ‘lid is on’ and that the White House is shutting down for Christmas. However, note the hidden irony in the line shown in red characters, the subtlest of ways of pointing to the constant frustration of the President’s escapist desires and his permanent struggle with his staff in this respect.

Figure 11

Figure 11: Mini-scene exit strategy

These hidden patterns and their constant overlapping is the raison d’être of a post-airdate storyboard, which relies, however, on specialist transcripts that ultimately facilitate its identification of hidden meanings.

As mentioned above such a storyboard is a dynamic structure which uses combinations of the various transcripts we have illustrated so far to assemble patterns in a dynamic way. It helps us grasp the episode’s overall organisation within a TV series. In particular, it can highlight the conflict between public and private persona, the leitmotiv of the episode and the entire series, that many analysts – whether fans, teachers, subtitlers or critics – have tracked down and will, in all probability, want to track further.

Already a theme transcript facilitates tracking, within a single episode, helping us to understand, for example, how information about the stoning and subsequent death of a gay kid in Minnesota, and related ‘hate-crime’ legislation, unfolds in four steps distributed over six mini-scenes:

1) news of the stoning reaches the White House (4[4]);
2) the White House confirms its knowledge to the Press and agrees that crime legislation needs to be revisited (5[2]);
3) news of the boy’s death reaches the White House (8[6]);
4) disputes between the White House staff on how to react emerge, with C.J. in conflict with others, including Danny, a reporter, on the matter (9[1], 18[1,3], 19[2]).

A theme transcript also helps us understand how the three deaths described in the episode are ‘glued’ together in terms of three wars: the death on a park bench of a Korean War veteran; Mrs. Landingham’s twins killed in the Vietnam War and the death of a gay boy, a victim of what is presented as the USA’s domestic Crime War.

In other words, the theme transcript for this episode highlights public/private death and grieving contrasts and, in so doing, is a first step in understanding social hierarchies, a recurrent issue in the series. It does this by revealing how information management functions at both macro (thematic) and micro levels (mini-scene dialogues), as it records the structuring and sequencing of information within the episode’s entire framework.

Done manually this is a chore; however, experience shows that initial manual analysis quickly leads to computer-assisted shortcuts, making the task less daunting than might first appear to be the case. Indeed, a thematics-oriented post-airdate storyboard will be worth the candle if it helps us, for example, to pinpoint in what ways the thematic range of a TV series reflects the upheavals and changes in society in general.

Part II: New types of transcript: series level

In the first part of this paper, we analysed the benefits of introducing timepointing in transcripts that allow phase, scene, mini-scene and thematic perspectives to be explored.

Together they form a referencing system, which in its turn forms a possible basis for computer-based search systems that help analysts contextualize mini-scenes, and in particular specific types of mini-scenes across an entire TV series and thus within higher-order meaning-making units such as scenes, episodes and episode seasons.

When time-based, visually-oriented transcripts of this type will potentially help text analysts locate where a specific effect occurs (and, more significantly, where it recurs) in the overall structure of a film, where a specific transition pops up, how the scenes fit together and even how transcripts can help identify recurrent patterns in face-offs.

By face-offs, we mean confrontations involving real or potential face-threatening acts. As we can see from the dialogue snippets given above and below, face-offs are the hallmark of TV film series: from soap operas that portray everyday events and conflicts of family life to cartoon versions thereof, such as The Simpsons; from whodunit detective stories such as Colombo to science fiction series such as Star Trek and Dr. Who; and from medical dramas such as Dr. House and ER to political dramas such as The West Wing.

More complete referencing systems, and above all timepoints, represent a key move towards fine-grained cross-series comparisons that involve face-offs.

The referencing systems described in this article are, of course, designed to be digital and, therefore, accessible by Internet tools in ways that are compatible with the job that many film analysts have of comparing episodes within the same TV series, or with episodes from other TV series.

Many ideas for possible transcripts may well go beyond the digital resources currently available. As such, they have the status of blueprints for future tools. Even so, progress is being made in this respect. One such example is the MWS-Web tool being developed by a research team, including the author, which provides online supports for film analysts through its capacity to concordance online episode transcripts directly (i.e. without the need to download them) in ways that, as illustrated below, home in on underlying discourse patterns[3].

4. Exploring digital transcripts

Currently, in order to obtain an overview of the thematics of a TV series it is necessary to summarize an episode’s thematics and then link the summaries of individual episodes around a specific theme. This is what many fan sites do including the Raspberry Lime Ricki blog, The West Wing Wiki site, the IMDb ( and many others such as the West Wing Transcripts site.

The following summary is taken from the latter site:

As Christmas Eve approaches, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) eagerly sneaks out of the White House for some last-minute Christmas shopping, while a haunted Toby (Richard Schiff) learns more about a forgotten Korean War hero who died alone on the district’s cold streets wearing a coat that Toby once donated to charity. In other hushed corridors, Sam (Rob Lowe) and Josh (Bradley Whitford) ignore Leo’s (John Spencer) advice and consult Sam’s call girl friend (Lisa Edelstein) concerning her confidential clientele when one political rival hints at exposing Leo’s previous drug problem. C.J. (Allison Janney) wonders aloud about the President’s public response to a notorious hate crime while her personal resolve weakens as persistent reporter, Danny (Timothy Busfield) continues to ask her out.

As Figures 8 and 12 show, this summary describes some of the thematics but not all. It fails in particular to describe their distribution over an episode or a series in relation to the characters who construct and interpret them. When reconstructing thematic patterning in an entire series, an alternative to these summaries is a post-airdate storyboard, a fragment of which is shown in Figure 12.

This shows a three-row representation of how the information given in Figure 8 might well be extracted by software to create a series-level thematic storyboard. Figure 12 gives only one such block, but when completed by similar blocks extracted, for example, from the twenty-two episodes that make up the West Wing’s first season, it becomes possible to grasp thematic patterning more fully.

Figure 12

Figure 12: A row from a series-level thematic storyboard

We thus have a start to a form of transcription that allows us to have the best of both worlds: thematic tracking at episode level but also at series level.

Even so it is still hard to spot Charlie’s ‘bad news’ function in all the three scenes in which he speaks in this episode namely: 1) when in 14[5], he tells the President it is time to leave and get back to duty; 2) when in 8[6] he informs the President about the gay boy’s death; 3) when in 10[2] he triggers Mrs. Landingham’s sad memories about her twin boys’ death on Xmas Eve 1970.

It is even harder to reconstruct the West Wing view of ethnic minorities, which we would expect to be significant in such a politically-oriented series. Charlie, of course, represents an ethnic minority. Apart from him, the only other coloured person with a speaking part in this episode, excluding seven-year old Jeffrey’s one-line exchange with Bartlet in 8[3], is the officer-cum-detective in 3[1] investigating into the war veteran’s death.

The association with death of both these characters is so specific in this episode as to raise suspicions as to whether such a correlation exists over the entire series. This is where a web concordancer ‘comes in handy’. Figure 13 reports part of a quick check-up search using MWS-Web’s concordancing functions that require no downloading of episode transcripts from the web. It thus exemplifies the possibility of associating two recurrent characters and the death theme, in this case Bartlet and Charlie and shows that in the entire West Wing series, there are only three examples of this association for each of these two characters, in other words, suggesting no racial bias at all.

Figure 13

Figure 13: Concordance comparison of co-texts in The West Wing series

At a series level, a storyboard such as the one illustrated in Figure 12, used in conjunction with other tools, allows patterns to be more easily spotted and checked out across an entire TV series. Unlike a transcription, multimodal or otherwise, which helps an analyst to explore a single text, a combined websearch and concordancing approach can help establish patterns that are common to a much larger set of multimodal texts (Baldry 2007:180).

This is just a first step towards understanding (inter)semiotic theme-based patternings in film texts. The construction of hypotheses are somewhat akin to the previsualizations mentioned below in Section 6. Armed with a post-airdate thematic transcript and a tool for searching and concordancing transcript archives, a film analyst now appears to be in a position to check for patterns that extend to the entire series and can think in terms of possible patternings.

This is a further confirmation of the validity of not discarding the current generation of post-airdate transcripts but, instead, of finding ways of using the information they contain to better effect. In this case, the existence of transcripts for entire TV series is essential.

However, this also raises the question about the role of post-airdate transcripts. Specifically, how can they become springboards for further analysis? One way of answering this question might be to explore the search functions of existing transcript archives, such as the West Wing Transcript resource, in terms of individual words or expressions. For example, we might investigate a prominent word in this episode: ‘flamingo’ using the West Wing Transcript’s internal search engine, which produces the result shown in Figure 14.

 Figure 14

Figure 14: Websearch results compared: searching with site tools

While a significant and welcome development, this type of search inevitably confirms the limitations of such sites. For example, no co-text is explicitly provided. The consequence is that, in order to establish that ‘flamingo’ is not a reference to an animal, colour, or other contextually-determined meaning in any of these cases, but is, instead, always the US security service’s code name for one of the characters, C.J., the analyst has to open up each transcript individually and scroll down the script in a pdf document searching for this keyword.

While this is a possible, though awkward, procedure that establishes that all three occurrences of the word ‘flamingo’ do indeed refer to C.J., it becomes an unmanageable solution when using keyword searching to reconstruct thematic structures in The West Wing TV series ‒ the more sophisticated type of searching mentioned above. A search for the word ‘death’, for example, reveals its presence some 70-odd times in The West Wing series, far too many for the analyst to handle by opening up individual transcripts.

A much better way of using episode transcripts lies in reconstructing thematic patternings in combination with the use of an online concordancing tool, such as MWS-Web, designed expressly to search entire web archives and to report findings in a much more complete way. Thus, when we refine the search to ‘Flamingo is a’, the result in the centre of Figure 15 is (correctly) returned by MWS-Web in just one step, without the need to open up many different pdf documents.

 Figure 15

Figure 15: Websearch results compared: searching with MWS-Web

Yet a further step is to compare this for completeness’ sake with a search for ‘Secret Service’ in other online post-airdate transcripts in order to track changing attitudes to Secret Services over time.

For example, in the fifty-odd years of its existence (1963-2013), and hundreds of episodes, an  MWS-Web search of transcripts ( for the entire Dr. Who series reveals only four such references.

Similarly, in the 24-year period (1987-2010) of transcripts for The Simpsons (, again a much longer airtime period than The West Wing (September 22, 1999, to May 14, 2006), there are only five references.

A further ‘twist’ is to compare these results for fictional stories with the real thing: the CNN’s Live Program, which comments on political events, much of it coming from the (real) White House ( In this case there is a much higher incidence of results over a much shorter period, which closely reflects (and in part explains and justifies) the ironic comments made in this episode as regards code names used by the US Secret Service.

Figure 16

Figure 16: Thematic comparisons: Dr. Who, The Simpsons and CNN Live Event

We may conclude that this type of investigation rewards hours of patient transcription. The combination of transcripts and online concordancing tools allows patterns across TV series and news sites to be established very quickly. Without online post-airdate episode transcripts, none of this would be possible, which is why building on them, rather than replacing them, is so important. Creating perspectives that might otherwise have remained hidden is a significant result of this approach.

5. Face-offs: visual and verbal transcription

The combination of tools described in the previous section hints at the possibility of using visual-verbal transcripts to explore significant social and ethical problems, effectively turning computer-assisted transcript analysis into a support for sociolinguistic analysis. Let us explore this hypothesis a little further. Let us suppose that one of a film analyst’s needs is to reconstruct gender and power relationships in a TV Series. How can we respond to the question: Men or women: who’s the boss in The West Wing?

On the upside, the resources available to film analysts on the Internet do not end with transcripts and video clips. Still images of face-to-face dyads appear on YouTube. They highlight the negotiation that takes place between two, rather than three or more, people in The West Wing series that has already been mentioned. They do so verbally and visually.

Web searches, such as the one reproduced in Figure 17, reveal the combined visual-verbal referencing widely used by the YouTube site – a key frame from a clip plus a ‘title’, in this case a quote. This may be a very small step towards combined visual-verbal referencing, but nevertheless one that is recognizable as a ‘step in the right direction’.


Figure 17

Figure 17: Multimodal referencing: verbal quotes + visual thumbnails

On the downside, such searches point to the imperfect and incomplete nature of the referencing that leaves much to be guessed[4]. In this case, for example, the question of who is being quoted, the man or the woman, remains teasingly ambiguous. The post-airdate transcript for The U.S. Poet Laureate episode (Third Season, Episode 61), like the YouTube clip ( itself, clears up who is doing the talking and who is ‘wearing the trousers’, as C.J.’s shouted reply is: So far up your ass!

Visual-verbal summaries are an emergent genre that focus on specific frames. We have already remarked on fans’ scrapbook-like selections of pin-ups with respect to the photo of Mrs. Landingham’s eyes. To this, we now need to add the audio pin-ups of podcasts and the thumbnails that appear in YouTube.

We argue that face shots are thus an emergent visual transcript, analogous to shot plans as regards the comments they draw. There is clearly a need to support the analysis of the In Excelsis Deo episode with a frame-based visual-verbal transcript – at least, for specific scenes.

In particular, within the WestWing series, Scene 1 functions as a summary of some of the conflicts that go beyond individual episodes. This points to the inherent duality that characterises TV series as referring simultaneously both to an entire series as well as to a single episode in a way that, with some exceptions, is not characteristic of feature films, lectures, documentaries and many other genres.

We thus suggest that Scene 1, the Prologue scene in every episode in The West Wing series, is a good candidate, already a professional summary in itself and thus ready for further development as a dedicated visual-verbal face-shot summary.

Figure 18 is a face-shot transcript for the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ Prologue. We note that it does indeed consist of close-ups on faces. In theory, as there are fifteen interactional turns (excluding the narrator), there ought to be a sequence of fifteen face shots, corresponding to each speaker. This is not the case, as we see when we analyse the five main shots, which actually occur – at the timepoints given in seconds in the bottom row of Figure 18.

Figure 18

Figure 18: Face-shot transcript of the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ Prelude

There are three types of exception: first, the camera tends to stay on the ‘victim’ of events and circumstances, in this case most clearly in the first and last frames, which allows the look of disappointment to be firmly fixed in the viewer’s mind. That is, the camera’s fixed position identifies with the victim whether or not s/he is the speaker. This happens, for example, in 1[1] and 1[4]. In the first case, the message is reinforced by Danny’s ludicrous holding of the goldfish bowl complete with goldfish.

Something different happens in Frames 3 and 4 (1[3]), providing a second type of exception. In this two-second mini-scene, the camera aligns with the listener (Bartlet) and looks over his shoulder at (Leo) speaking; it then switches to align with the listener Leo and looks over his shoulder at Bartlet who says just one word because the visual and cognitive focus is still on Leo, one of the main victims in this episode, and who continues to be so visually in 1[4].

Finally, at Second 18, another mini-scene (1[2]) starts, which further sets up the male-female power relationships aspect of the gender relations theme, introduced in (1[1]), but which uses a third type of exception: Here Sam reaches out to grab Laurie’s sandwich, the camera’s focus being on the hand reaching out. This is an anticipation of Sam’s and Josh’s failed attempts to recruit Laurie to their defence of Leo, a matter shown to be beyond them in Scene 17, mainly because Leo and Laurie, too, are portrayed as pawns in political manoeuvrings and hence victims, as well as promoters, of power games. They are like the goldfish in the bowl, looking for exit strategies but are ultimately trapped. 

Part III: Defining a TV series transcript: a question of perspective

Defining a TV series transcript ought to be a fairly straightforward matter. Most dictionary entries will typically explain that a transcript is “a written, printed, or typed copy of words that have been spoken” in radio programmes, court proceedings or political speeches. The rise of speech-to-text software has transformed the work of transcription in medicine and journalism in the Internet age but has not affected the underlying goal, to turn spoken words into written ones.

However, this type of definition stacks up less well with the digital transcripts of TV series whose referencing systems contain a more substantial reference-oriented metatextual level, not mentioned in dictionary definitions, which distinguishes them from many other types of transcript. The virtual communities of the Internet age have accelerated this process – for example in their promotion of visual as well as verbal referencing – placing TV series transcripts on a quite different evolutionary track as compared with other types of transcript.

Progress along this ‘new track’ is likely to grow in the digital age, further realising the TV transcript genre’s multisemiotic potential, at both textual and metatextual levels. In this part of the article, we explore this hypothesis suggesting that pre-airdate genres’ high degree of visual-verbal specialisation could well be paralleled in the digital age by post-airdate genres.

6. Transcripts as a post-airdate genre

Film-making involves a cross-modal, verbal-to-visual transposition from a written to a visual story, a form of ‘translation’, or transposition whose infinite complexity is a good illustration of how Kress’s concept of transduction can be used, in social semiotic theory and beyond, to refer to the remaking of meaning across modes (Kress 1997: 41).

In fact, a TV series transcript is just one of the many text types that are part of the wider set of texts used by different communities in the creation, viewing and interpretation of a TV series. Each of these texts reworks and builds on the meaning of the previous step in the chain. The process of turning a screenwriter’s initial idea into a film is thus the first step in a well-established series of text types that exist in relation to each other in a step-like transition, each dependent on the previous stage in the chain for their existence and each essential input for the subsequent stage.

The starting point is, of course, the screenplay which as:

An exercise in visual storytelling […] isn’t simply a matter of shot selection and composition. […] Only the most inexperienced screenwriter includes camera directions in a screenplay because such things are the responsibility of the director and director of photography once the film is in production. […]  The fundamentally visual nature of film narrative has led to an interesting paradox. The screenwriter must fully imagine the film that he’s writing. But – and here’s where the paradox comes in – only a small part of what the screenwriter imagines should actually appear in the screenplay, which must evoke a sense of place and character rather than catalogue it down to the minutest detail. What’s more, only a small part of what appears in the screenplay will ever make it to the screen in anything like its original form. (Gurskis, 2007: Introduction, xiii)

The film industry uses a stage-by-stage process involving various visual genres, such as shot plans, storyboards, animatics and previsualizations¸ as well as verbal genres that go beyond screenplays. Thus, as well as being turned into the visual genres used mainly by the film crew, a screenplay will also be turned into a film script to be used by actors as a guide to the delivery of their lines.

The left-hand column of Figure 19 shows a small fragment from Sorkin’s final draft of the script for The West Wing ‘Pilot’. Even this is not the final version of the dialogue as the post-airdate transcript, in the right-hand column shows, with its record of what was actually said in the filmed episode.

The contrast exemplified in Figure 19 is particularly revealing. There are obvious similarities between the two texts. Yet despite this, a post-airdate transcript is rather different from a pre-airdate script, in both form and function. With its clear description of the movements of characters with walk-on parts, the pre-airdate script can certainly lay greater claim to being a this-is-what-the-actors do-as-well-as-say representation than the post-airdate type shown on the right-hand side of Figure 1.

More significantly, this comparison shows that, while pre-airdate scripts and post-airdate transcripts may look the same, significantly, they do not do the same job. Nor do they have the same effect. As regards emotional knife-twisting, the final dialogue in the post-airdate transcript is far more biting.

Figure 19

Figure 19: Pre-airdate draft (left) vs. post-airdate transcript (right)

Even so, Figure 19 shows that beyond references to where it takes place, who is present and who walks down the corridor, few visual aspects of this scene are recorded in either the transcript or the script.

With the final draft script, this is not a problem as scripts are not the main source of visual representations of the episode being filmed, a role carried out instead by pre-airdate storyboards, a form of visual transcript that supports the process of turning screenplays into finished films.

Various types of storyboards were, in fact, adopted extensively in the filming of The West Wing. Simon reports:

As in films if a [TV series] production has stunts or FX /special effects, producers and directors may want boards to work them out. Sometimes the openings are boarded. I boarded the first opening for Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All to provide the technicians, who were doing the camera moves and special effects, with a visual of the creator’s idea. Amblin’s seaQuest DSV, The Cape, Star Trek, Babylon S, and The West Wing all used storyboards for special effects and stunt scenes. (Simon 2007: 219)

Indeed, Simon’s account also includes examples of storyboards (not shown here for copyright reasons) used in The West Wing (Simon 2007: 28-9). Storyboards are a sequence of illustrations that guide film-makers when they shoot a scene as they indicate the scene’s dynamics, its unfolding in time. In their turn, they incorporate shot plans, which illustrate spatial dispositions of actors and props, (see, for example, Papert’s description of the shot plan for Feliz Navidad scene given above in Section 2.3).

All this illustrates our observation that these visual forms of transcript, together with a discourse-oriented screenplay, constitute an indispensable set of pre-airdate intertexts collectively guiding the production of films. Though functioning, collectively, as a single, integrated multisemiotic transcript, with cross-referencing mechanisms, each contributes individually, with its own internal coherence, to specific functions in the film-construction process.

From a historical perspective, each also represents a step in the evolution of pre-airdate transcripts. As Simon further notes:

Previz, or previsualization, refers to the use of computer-generated sequences to replicate soon-to-be shot live-action sequences. They are the modern-day animatic. Most previz studios work from storyboards provided by a production, but they do have to produce boards on their own at times.  (Simon 2007: 219)[5]

All this throws light on the issue as to whether the TV series post-airdate transcripts should be defined as an independent genre or part of a set of related genres. Of course, a TV series transcript can never be an entirely independent genre as, somewhat like a film subtitle, it is intrinsically tied to the film it transcribes. However, while the story of pre-airdate visual and verbal transcripts is one of increasing integration and computerization, including sophisticated simulations, on the contrary, the story of post-airdate transcripts appears to lag far behind.

However, appearances are also deceptive. Like pre-airdate texts, TV series transcripts exist in relationship with other texts. They are neither starting points, nor endpoints in the production of post-airdate texts. Alas, in contrast to the planned sequence of pre-airdate texts, with post-airdate texts this relationship is never explicit. It can, however, be detected.

This, however, requires careful detective work that sifts through the texts produced by TV series analysts, fans in particular. Andrea Howat’s and Sallie Gregory’s joint podcast recap of the ‘In Excelsis Deo’ episode, mentioned above in Section 2.3, is instructive in this sense.

Its scene-by-scene commentary of Sorkin’s emotional knife twisting of viewer’s emotions is peppered with ad lib remarks about the need to check up on details of what the dialogue actually says.

The ‘notes’ the podcasters refer to would appear be rather more copious than perhaps they would like us to believe. The extensive and highly accurate quoting of Sorkin’s dialogue suggests their reliance on a written transcript (regardless of who actually wrote it)

The same goes for their reconstruction of the visual story. With great insight, they point out that Josh watches Donna read the note in the Christmas present he gives her and make the following comment:

And then Josh gives Donna the book, the Christmas book and he wrote a note inside. It’s just a wonderful a moment [….] but the best moment is after he gives it, when he leans around his door in his office and watches her read it again. That’s the real kicker of the moment. [..] I don’t know what the note says but watching him watching her that’s what does it. […] And you know that they never do those extra shots for no reason. Like time is money. It always tells part of the story. It’s definitely a building moment.  (Wingin It: The West Wing Podcast series. Podcast 80. Timepoint: 30.48)

Were all the eighty-nine podcasts in the Wingin It: The West Wing Podcast series, all equally insightful and detailed, really based on memories and recollections? The level of detail provided suggests otherwise and implies at the very least that the ‘note taking’ referred to in this podcast series, while not as complex a process as shooting a film, is nevertheless far from unsubstantial.

In keeping with what has been stated in multimodal research about transduction (Kress 1997) and transmedia (Lemke 2013), we note that, in contemporary society, many different text types are constantly being merged and brought in our daily activities, as it were, ‘under one roof’. In this view, we can conceive of a transcript as a master document with a strong potential to interlock with other Internet genres.

8. End points or starting points?

Despite the fact that The West Wing series is dialogue rich, Scene 21, the final scene in the In Excelsis Deo episode, contains no dialogue. As further proof that TV episode transcripts go well beyond the word-only definitions of a transcript, it includes the following summary of  what is going on:

The episode ends with a montage of juxtaposing shots of the military funeral for Walter Hufnagle and the activity in THE MURAL ROOM. Throughout, we can hear the boys’ choir sing ‘Little Drummer Boy.’ The hearse arrives at ARLINGTON CEMETERY, SECTION 43. Toby, Mrs. Landingham, and George get out of the car. George is holding a bouquet of flowers. The honor guard carries the casket to the grave. They begin the ritual of folding the flag that covered the casket. THE MURAL ROOM. Sam and C.J. join Mandy and Bartlet. Then, Charlie and Leo join. ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to shoot their rifles in salute. Toby flinches with the first shot. Mrs. Landingham with the second. THE MURAL ROOM. Donna and Josh join the group. ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to hand the tightly folded flag to Toby who gestures uncomfortably to George, who is then presented with the flag. George gently places the flowers on the casket. They all stand to leave.

The scene lasts for just under 4 minutes which raises questions about this episode’s suitability for disabled viewers – despite the praise usually meted out for The West Wing by the blind and partially sighted:

I grew up on the great classic comedies of the 1970s: “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M.A.S.H.” I spent far too many summer vacation hours lazily watching programs from “Love Boat” to gameshows. […] I was a pretty typical American TV watcher. Yet, there was always a disappointing aspect to TV programs […] There was always the question: “What’s going on?” And too often, there wasn't anyone willing or able to answer it for me. After all, as a blind person, I missed the visual information these programs presented: telltale facial expressions, audience laughter not triggered by dialogue, the silent entrance of a new character and, of course, the complete shift of setting. […] As a consequence, I have what may be unhealthy love for the work of Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter whose shows from “Sports Night,” to “West Wing,” to “Studio 60” were heavily dialogue-driven. (Paul Schroeder, Watching TV Blind: A Love-Hate Relationship. Retrieved 05.05.2106)

There is a clear need, and ample time, for an AD (audio-description) voiceover to be incorporated as part of any AD adaptation of this episode. This will inevitably entail re-use both of the episode transcript (regardless of whether the descriptive summary of Scene 21 reported above is actually used) and, quite possibly the supplementary table transcripts we have provided.

Although concerned with the very different genre of Internet lectures, the adaptation of TED Talks (Cámara and Espasa 2011) to the needs of AD is a good example of the fact that in today’s digital world, a transcript is no longer the final stage in the film-text production chain.

Hence, in their paper, Cámara and Espasa (2011) present what they call AD units which are, in fact, modified table-based versions of original Ted Talk transcripts re-arranged in such a way as to recast and reconstrue them as intermediate texts in the transduction process.

Cámara and Espasa’s goal in their paper is to show how AD adaptation might be achieved. The examples they give are the basis for an analysis of the crucial problems that arise. Specifically, the result of their work is a reworked transcript divided into units, with each unit or step in the meaning-making process represented as a table consisting of rows some of which present what is said in the lecture and others what is shown. Subsequent rows assess the need for AD to describe those visuals not described by the speaker and propose the AD text to be added. 

In some ways, the tables that Cámara and Espasa (2011) provide are akin to the transcripts described above. Quite apart from raising questions about what AD adaptation this West Wing episode would require, they provide further evidence of film analysts’ redefinition of transcripts. Their evidence shows that film transcripts are neither solely end-products, nor solely associated with writing down what was said. They are much more than this.

7. Conclusions

The study of transcripts as a genre is in its infancy. With its rather tentative exploration and exemplification of nascent forms, such as manually produced multisemiotic transcripts and software-produced storyboards, this paper has suggested that transcript culture is changing.

While online repositories of digital videos such as YouTube, TedTalks and the various fan sites quoted all point to the need to take a new look at transcripts, even so changing transcript culture to accommodate specific desiderata, such as timepointing, is no easy task. Typically, the picture is uneven. While TedTalks transcripts are exemplary in this respect, those of TV series are not.

To encourage greater awareness of this unevenness, and the need for adjustments, this article has attempted to describe the wider picture, by taking a step backwards and providing a behind-the scenes view of the complex world of film scripts and transcripts, as this helps to identify and clarify the gap between what most transcripts currently offer and what film analysts really need.

Reference systems used in scripts and transcripts will inevitably evolve and certainly need to do so if they are to meet the needs of today’s sophisticated text management society. This article has thus explored the characteristics of post-airdate TV transcripts in relation to the videos that they transcribe as well as in relation to the pre-airdate genres that guide the film production process.

This helps explain that rather than technical barriers, cultural barriers are a more significant consideration. In particular, the article has suggested the need for research that brings together examples of the awareness (among fans in particular) that the TV transcript genre is unlike many other types of transcript and needs to be rethought.

As well as redefining transcripts, no longer seen as an isolated text type but rather as one that interacts with other related genres, the article has proposed an integrational approach in which old and new work together. In this view, new types of tools, including new forms of transcripts but also computer-generated post-airdate storyboards, support existing post-airdate transcripts in a way that encourages a series-analysis perspective.

However, what in the end matters is whether the reader can reflect on the ideas about, and illustrations of, transcript analysis, as expressed in this article and relate them to the other articles in this Special Issue of Intralinea and, beyond that, to the wider issue of the ways in which our society re-contextualizes films and adapts them through the linguistic and multimodal ‘engineering’ called transcription.

Such reflection could very well extend to an understanding of the underlying processes governing society’s access to texts. This will involve a clear understanding of the functions of support texts (subtitling, audio description, annotating, referencing, storyboarding and so on). Ultimately, this article has attempted to encourage readers to reflect on how these textual processes interact and mutually affect each other from a variety of perspectives.


Francesca Coccetta (University of Venice) Deirdre Kantz (University of Pavia), Ivana Marenzi (Leibniz University of Hannover), Maria Grazia Sindoni (University of Messina) and Chris Taylor (University of Trieste) are thanked for comments on earlier drafts of this article. Any remaining shortcomings and oversights are to be attributed to the author.


Baldry, Anthony (2000) “English in a visual society: comparative and historical dimensions in multimodality and multimediality” in Multimodality and Multimediality in the distance learning age, Anthony Baldry (ed.), Campobasso, Palladino: 41-89.

Baldry, Anthony (2004, [2015]) “Phase and transition, type and instance: patterns in media texts as seen through a multimodal concordancer” in Multimodal Discourse Analysis, London and New York: Continuum, Kay O’Halloran (ed.): 83-108. Reprinted in Sigrid Norris (ed.) Multimodality: Volume II Multimodality – The Beginning of a New Area of Research: 2000–5, London and New York: Routledge.

Baldry, Anthony (2007) “The Role of Multimodal Concordances in Multimodal Corpus Linguistics” in New Directions in the Analysis of Multimodal Discourse, Terry D. Royce and Wendy L. Bowcher (eds), Mahwah, New Jersey, Laurence Erlbaum: 173-93.

Baldry, Anthony and Paul J.Thibault (2001) “Towards Multimodal Corpora.” In Corpora in the description and teaching of English, Guy Aston and Lou Burnard, (eds), Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice.

Baldry, Anthony and Paul J. Thibault (2006) Multimodal transcription and text analysis, London, Equinox.

Cámara, Lidia, and Eva Espasa (2011) “The Audio Description of Scientific Multimedia”, The Translator 17, no. 2: 415-37.

Coccetta, Francesca (2016 in press) Access to Discourse in English through Text Analysis: A Preparatory Guide for Undergraduate Students. Como: Ibis.

Gurskis, Daniel (2007) Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production, Andover, Cengage Learning.

Kress, Gunther (1997) Before Writing: Rethinking the paths to literacy, London and New York, Routledge.

Lemke, Jay (2013) “Transmedia Traversals: Marketing meaning and identity” in Readings in Intersemiosis and Multimedia, Elena Montagna (ed.), Como, Ibis: 13-33.

Li, Stan Z. and Anil K. Jain (eds) (2011) Handbook of Face Recognition. Second Edition, New York, Springer-Verlag.

Lombardo, Linda (2001)Selling it and telling it: a functional approach to the discourse of print ads and TV news, Roma, LUISS Guido Carli.

McCabe, Janet (2013) The West Wing, Detroit (MI), Wayne State University Press.

Simon, Mark (2007) Storyboards: Motion in Art, Third Edition, Oxford and Burlington (MA), Focal Press.

Sindoni, Maria Grazia (2013) Spoken and Written Discourse in Online Interactions. A Multimodal Approach, Como, Ibis.

Smith, Greg M. (2003) “The Left Takes Back the Flag: The Steadicam, the Snippet and the Song in the West Wing’s In Excelsis Deo” in The West Wing: the American presidency as television drama, Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor (eds), Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press:125-35.

Snyder, Joel (2008) “The visual made verbal” in The Didactics of Audiovisual Translation, Jorge Diaz-Cintas (ed.), Amsterdam, John Benjamins: 191-98.

Taibi, Davide, Saniya Chawla, Stefan Dietze, Ivana Marenzi and Besnik Fetahu (2015) “Exploring TED Talks as linked data for education”, British Journal of Educational Technology, bjet.12283/abstract (last access 10.07.2015).

Taylor, Chris and Anthony Baldry (2001) “Computer assisted text analysis and translation: a functional approach in the analysis and translation of advertising texts” in Exploring Translation and Multilingual Text Production Beyond Content, Erich Steiner and Collin Yallop (eds), Berlin and New York, Mouton de Gruyter: 277-305.

Thibault, Paul (2000) “The multimodal transcription of a television advertisement: theory and practice” in Multimodality and Multimediality in the Distance Learning Age, Anthony Baldry (ed.), Campobasso, Palladino: 311-85.

Vasta, Nicoletta (2001) Rallying Voters: New Labour’s verbal-visual strategies, Padua, CEDAM.74


[1] This chapter makes use of transcripts for Episode 1.10 In Excelsis Deo and The West Wing pilot, both of which can be found in the West Wing Searchable Episode Transcripts section of the West Wing Transcripts website (, described there as ‘dedicated to providing a resource for loyal fans of NBC’s The West Wing’. The screenplay script for The West Wing pilot can be found at scripts/West_Wing_Pilot.pdf. Both sites last accessed 09/04/2016.

[2] By definition, TV series fans want to explore the characters’ changing relationships and beliefs over time and talk about them with other fans. In the case of The West Wing, this is transcendental in nature – beyond rather than over time ‒ as fans are still producing their own West Wing stories long after the end of the TV series. See the West Wing Fanfiction Central ( database for stories (fanon) written by fans about the characters appearing in The West Wing series that are extensions to the episodes (canon).

[3] Developed by a team involving the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche (CNR-ITD) Palermo, the L3S Research Center, Leibniz University of Hannover, Dip DISGESI, University of Messina, MWS-Web is the online follow-up to the MWS and MWS-ACE tools developed in the Living Knowledge ( and Act ( projects. For further information contact: Davide Taibi: Sites last accessed 10/07/2015.

[4] Both MWS-Web and West Wing Transcript search engines will locate this quote through the word ‘outrank’, which appears 4 times in the entire series. Though each search tool provides different and very useful information, they perform differently. Of the two, only MWS-Web can ignore the spelling mistake in the quote (‘technichally’) and find the exact line with a single search, that is without the need for secondary searches or query refinement.

[5] As Simon further explains: ‘Storyboards may also be used to test the viability of a finished commercial product without the great expense of shooting it. These drawings are shot on video and edited together just like a live shoot. This footage is then dubbed with music and voices. This is called an animatic […]. The animatic may then be shown to test groups around the country. Productions benefit from boards in many ways. They may cost money in postproduction, but that cost is much less than the hidden expenses caused by a lack of proper planning or any miscommunication’ (Simon, 2007:29). For a side-by-side comparison of an animatic and a finished cartoon and exemplification of the function of animatics as transcripts that define a film’s overall rhythms, in particular, spatial and temporal relationships in narrative sequences, see The Boondocks: The Complete Third Season Episode Clip - Fried Chicken Flu Animatic ( =sqARB4gNj3w). Site last accessed 29/04/2016.

About the author(s)

Anthony Baldry, who joined the University of Messina in 2008 as Full Professor in English language &  translation, has participated in many inter-university projects that have led to publications on: multimodality; multimodal corpus linguistics; digital genres & digital literacy, computer-based text analysis; Internet & its evolution; web-as-multimodal corpus software tools; captioning & subtitling tools; syllabus design; technology-enhanced learning; systemic-functional approaches to text analysis & transcription; testing including self-assessment & computer-managed testing; scientific & medical English.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Anthony Baldry (2016).
"Multisemiotic Transcriptions as Film Referencing Systems"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Dubbing a TV Drama Series

The Case of The West Wing

By Frederic Chaume (Universitat Jaume I, Spain)

Abstract & Keywords

The Spanish dubbing of The West Wing has been acknowledged as one of the best dubbings of a TV drama series in Spain. This article focuses on the dubbing of Episode #10 from The West Wing (1999), entitled “In Excelsis Deo”, a Christmas special episode brimming with cultural references, intertextual references, register switchings, close-ups, and all the ingredients that are usually accounted for in dubbing. This study shows an analysis of the quality of dubbing in just one episode of this mainstream American TV series dubbed into Spanish. In order to do so, a qualitative analysis according to the episode’s adherence to a checklist of dubbing standards, compiled in Chaume (2012), but taken from some other authors (Whitman-Linsen, 1992, among others), has been carried out. 

Keywords: audiovisual translation, dubbing, multimedia translation

©inTRAlinea & Frederic Chaume (2016).
"Dubbing a TV Drama Series"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:


The Spanish dubbing of The West Wing has been acknowledged as one of the best dubbings of a TV drama series in that country (,,, etc.). All seasons were dubbed in Soundtrack (Barcelona), later known as Soundub, and recently acquired by the international company SDI Media, a firm that bought the four Soundub branches in the Iberian peninsula (Madrid, Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela and Lisbon). DVDs distributed in Spain include both the dubbed and subtitled versions of the seven seasons, as well as the usual extra contents.

TV drama series occupy an important share of many TV stations’ listings, and some of them have conquered both film critics and the audience as a quality production. This is the case of The West Wing ( TV series have also recently aroused the interest of researchers in Audiovisual Translation (AVT) with more and more case studies under scrutiny: Herbst (1994), Fuentes Luque (1997/8), Zhao (2002), Bucaria (2007), Baños-Piñero and Chaume (2009), Romero Fresco (2006), (2007) and (2009), Quaglio (2009), which can be added to TV cartoon series which imitate this fiction genre: Martínez Sierra (2008), Botella (2010).

This article focuses on the dubbing of Episode #10 from The West Wing (1999), entitledIn Excelsis Deo”, a Christmas special episode brimming with cultural references, intertextual references, register switchings, close-ups, and all the ingredients that are usually accounted for in dubbing. This episode is the stereotypical candidate to teach dubbing in a classroom, as will become clear in the conclusions after a checklist of dubbing standards is presented and validated. The article could be expanded to consider how the dubbing of Episode #10 compares with other dubbed series in Spain, in order to make a systemic comparison among other similar products, but due to the characteristics of the commission the analysis needs to be restricted to just one episode.

1. Dubbing TV Series

To date, the AVT literature has established a rather simplistic distinction between dubbing and subtitling countries. Especially after the advent of the DVD, one cannot speak about only dubbing and subtitling countries anymore. While it is true that many countries stick to a predominant mode on their screens, most dubbing countries also increasingly do subtitling, and many subtitling countries do dubbing. Not only are cartoons for younger children dubbed around the globe, but there is also an interesting upward trend in dubbing TV series in traditional subtitling countries: Portugal, Denmark and Norway are beginning to dub some teen TV series and teen pics (Chorão 2013; Tveit 2009), and Turkish and South American soap operas are also now dubbed in Greece and in the Arab world.

In Spain, and in most dubbing countries, TV series are generally dubbed, although another interesting upward trend is observed in the replacing of dubbing by voice-over in some productions addressed to teenagers – especially on MTV, in Spain, with well-known examples such as A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (2007-2008), maybe the first reality to be voiced-over on Spanish screens, up to Man vs. Food (2008-), for example. Technically speaking, dubbing consists of replacing the original track where any audiovisual text’s source language dialogues are recorded with another track on which translated dialogues have been recorded in the target language. The remaining tracks are left untouched.

Dubbing TV drama series is nowadays associated with quality production, as films have always been. Canonical and cult TV series are considered to have a similar status to art house movies (Lost 2004-2010, The Mentalist 2008-2015, The Sopranos 1999-2007, The Office 2005-2013, Modern Family 2009, to mention just a few). TV series which have been a success in the US (and to a lesser extent in the UK) are introduced amid much hype on most TV stations around the world. Dubbing these series is then a matter of prestige for dubbing companies. If one takes a look at some Spanish dubbing companies’ web pages, one can immediately notice whether they have been involved with these dubbings, because they are ostentatiously highlighted on their website. TV drama series are considered to be canonical, both because of their success in the US (or the UK) and because of their share ratings in the target culture. Thus, dubbing these series gives prestige to dubbing companies and raises confidence in prospective clients. And this also means that every effort will be made to produce a dubbing according to the prevailing norms of the target culture.

2. Dubbing The West Wing into Spanish

The many agents involved in the postproduction process of dubbing are a factor that should be taken into account when looking at dubbing, as what is presented to the audience is not the responsibility of one single person: producers, film directors, distributors, TV stations, dubbing directors, voice talents, sync assistants, dialogue writers and, last but not least, translators, can have a say in a dubbing. In the case of The West Wing, the Spanish dubbing was carried in Soundtrack (now SDI Media), the translation was carried out by Ricard Sierra, the dialogue writer was José Luis Porras, and the dubbing director was José Luis Campos. Ernesto Aura, Juan Antonio Bernal, Juana Beuter, and Jordi Ribes, among others, have been the voice talents in Spanish.

3. The analysis

Texts – original or translated – are produced according to certain rules or genre conventions within a specific culture and time. In any text, the absence of an expected element may be received by the reader as a negative mechanism. In Translation Studies terminology we usually put it another way: translations are subject to norms. Lip-synching, natural dialogues, coherence between text and image, loyalty to the original text, good acting by voice talents, and a fair sound quality are considered to be the norms guiding canonical dubbings. The lack of lip-synch or isochrony in dubbed films or TV series in a tradition in which synchrony is normative or regulated, the writing of non-credible unrealistic dialogue lines, the lack of coherence between text and images in a dubbing, a noticeable detachment from the meaning of the original version, bad acting on the part of voice talents, and poor sound quality, are all aspects that may turn a dubbed product into a commercial fiasco. Lotman (1982:125) christened this concept with the term ‘minus-mechanism’, although particularly with reference to literary texts. For example, the absence of rhyme in a genre where it would conventionally be present would be a minus-mechanism. In the same way, the macro-genre of audiovisual translated texts also has a specific canon. Translated audiovisual genres (films, television series, cartoons or documentaries) should follow certain specific conventions that help audiences recognise them, and watch them in a particular way, thereby maximising their success.

This article analyses Episode #10 of the TV series The West Wing according to the aforementioned quality standards in dubbing. However, it is not easy to reach a consensus on a list of quality standards, since they will inevitably be subjective. A particular dubbing may work well for some and be a failure for others. A comparison with similar AV products would make the outcomes of this article much more interesting, since these standards could have been checked in a broader corpus. Nevertheless, the analysis of just one episode of this series was the objective of this project.

No empirical evidence has shown what a good dubbing is. The following list of dubbing standards is, then, a tentative proposal and is based on the list presented in Chaume (2012: 14-20).

3.1 Lip-synch

Matching the translation with the onscreen actors’ mouth articulation (lip-synch) and body movements (kinesic synchrony), and especially matching the duration of the original actor’s utterances and pauses with the translation (isochrony) is considered to be a cornerstone of dubbing; in other words, compliance with synchronization norms is mandatory. We might therefore state that a fine red line is crossed when the length of the translation does not match the duration of the dialogue lines uttered by the screen actor or actress. Also, a good dubbing will show a fine lip-synch in close-ups, extreme close-ups and detailed lip shots. However, other lip and even other kinesic synchronies do not break this tacit agreement, despite Fodor’s insistence in his pioneering 1976 study. Fodor advocates replacing bilabial consonants with bilabial consonants, labio-dental consonants with labio-dental consonants, and even rounded vowels with rounded vowels. He also recommends that the dubbing actor should imitate the gestures of the screen actor in order to come as close as possible to the original as far as verbal mimicry is concerned. Fodor’s study (1976:32-36) compares the mouth move­ments of various languages, inhaling and exhaling and head movements but, with the exception of close-ups, extreme close-ups or detailed lip shots, norms described in the professional contexts of European dubbing countries show that his approach is somewhat exaggerated and his advice is not followed in professional practice.

In Episode 10 of The West Wing, isochrony is an absolute priority. All dialogues are finely substituted by Spanish dialogues lasting exactly the same time. Of special interest are close-ups, which have most definitely been translated according to the canon, as far as isochrony is concerned. The close-up of Mrs. Landingham, the mother who lost her twins in Vietnam, is portentous. All sentences and all pauses match her lips perfectly, and this contributes to creating and maintaining the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of dubbing. These sentences are an example of how the duration of Spanish and English sentences is kept the same:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
You know, they were so young, Charlie Sabes, eran tan jóvenes, Charlie
They were your age Tenían tu edad
It’s hard when that happens so far away Es algo muy duro cuando eso pasa tan lejos
Because with the noises and the shooting, they had to be scared Porque con las bombas y los disparos, debían de estar muy asustados
It’s hard to think that, right then, they needed their mother Es duro pensar que justo cuando necesitaban a su madre...

Table 1. Isochrony between length of English and Spanish sentences

As far as lip-synch is concerned, as we know, only labial consonants (including bilabials and labiodentals) and maybe open vowels are looked for in the translation, so that words containing these consonants and vowels replace their counterparts in the original version. Obviously, due to the systemic linguistic differences in a language pair, instead of looking for coined equivalents containing the same consonants – something that is not always possible – translators play with words, and change word order, so that labial consonants appear in the dubbing exactly in the same place where the onscreen actor utters them in the original language. These sentences also prove that lip-syncing is a priority in dubbing:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
I begged them but they wanted to go Su padre y yo les suplicamos
It’s hard when that happens so far away Es algo muy duro cuando eso pasa tan lejos
Because with the noises and the shooting, they had to be scared Porque con las bombas y los disparos, debían de estar muy asustados
It’s hard to think that, right then, they needed their mother Es duro pensar que justo cuando necesitaban a su madre...

Table 2. Lip-synch between labial consonants in English and Spanish sentences

The first example is proof of how creative a translator or a dialogue writer can be. The first bilabial, /b/, is substituted by another bilabial /p/, from “padre”, a word that is not in the original text. The translator, or the dialogue writer, has added this information (it is their mother who begged the twins not to go to the war), but it does not betray the meaning of what is explained in that sequence. Although it was the mother who told her twins not to go to the war, the translator, or the dialogue writer, prefers to say that both their father and mother did, simply because adding the word “father” (“padre”) provides a bilabial in the exact place where the English bilabial /b/ (in “begged”) was. At the same time, it is easy to check that labial consonants rotate, i.e. translators play with all bilabials (/m/ /b/ /p/) and labiodentals (/f/ /v/) to find a good option in the target text. Therefore, the word “far” is substituted by the word “pasa” (“happens”) at exactly the same place, just because “pasa” has a bilabial consonant. Or the verb “be” is substituted for the intensifier “muy” (“very”) for the same reason.

However, this is not usual in TV drama series, and especially in The West Wing, because, on the one hand, there are many (interior) shots against the light and also, close-ups, extreme close-ups and detailed shots of the lips are not the usual types of shots in this series. On the contrary, medium shots and knee-shots (Hollywood shots) are largely preferred. In these shots, lip-sync is not mandatory, and translators and dialogue writers only take isochrony into account, which still has to be complied with. But another striking characteristic of this TV series also reduces the importance of isochrony: most of the time characters talk while they walk. To keep the attention of the audience and to make the series more dynamic and less boring, directors have decided to use a kind of talk-and-go process through all the episodes. It means that the camera has to follow the actors and actresses while they walk, and it also implies that the camera cannot always focus on the characters’ mouths and faces. Therefore, isochrony is not always a constraint in the translation. Nevertheless, when it is, the result has been solved according to the canon, i.e. always matching translated sentences with the onscreen characters’ articulatory movements – as far as dialogues and silences are concerned.

3.2 Credible and realistic dialogue lines

The writing of credible and realistic dialogues, of speech naturalness (Romero-Fresco, 2009), emulating the oral registers of the target language, sometimes involves trespassing the limits of language usage, something which is also a desirable general objective in any translation (such as, for example, avoiding structural and lexical calques in the translation). Translation oscillates between two poles: its adequacy in relation to the source text and its acceptability in the target culture. In the case of translation for dubbing, another key to good dubbing quality is to ensure that the target language sounds realistic, credible, and natural; i.e., dialogues must sound natural in order not to take us away from the storyline. That is to say, the translation must be acceptable according to the canonical standards (norms) of an audiovisual text translated into the target language as far as dialogues and turn-taking are concerned. The aim of achieving the above mentioned suspension of disbelief, or the positive disposition of the audience to ignore the limitations of the medium, must be attained by using an oral register that can be defined as false spontaneous, prefabricated speech (Chaume, 2012; Taylor, 1998). This is not only an issue in dubbing and subtitling; in film production one of the most widespread criticisms of some films is the artificiality of their dialogues.

In our episode, we can easily agree with the idea that target dialogues are credible and natural. There are some good excerpts of register matching and natural short sentences:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
I mean it Va en serio
No, man No, tío
Sure Claro
Sam was a reluctant accomplice Sam lo ha hecho a regañadientes

Table 3. Examples of natural dialogues in Spanish (colloquial register)

Even with high registers, when needed:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
the least embarrassment and turmoil el menor bochorno y alboroto
your absence in the other room is conspicuous su ausencia […] empieza a notarse

Table 4. Examples of natural dialogues in Spanish (formal registers)

These examples show how the translator and the dialogue writer know how to emulate oral discourse: when needed, they substitute colloquial words and phrases for colloquial words and phrases in Spanish (va en serio; no, tío are really good examples of colloquial register in Spanish). But when needed, they can also imitate cultivated registers too, with words that belong to high registers in Spanish, or even to written discourse, like bochorno y alboroto. These words would not sound natural in colloquial exchanges – as turmoil does not either in English – but they do sound appropriate in this situation, both because the situation requires them and because they are equivalents to the English term in terms of register.

There are, however, examples of register mismatching as well:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
I’ve got a crush on you (colloquial) porque me gustas (standard)
dial it down (colloquial) suavices (formal)
a hooker (slang) una puta (taboo)

Table 5. Examples of register mismatching

Whereas the two first examples show a lower register in English (crush and dial down, compared to gustas and suavices respectively), the third one shows a taboo word in Spanish (puta), where the English used a slang word (hooker). Maybe unintentionally, this can balance the final result in terms of tenor of discourse.

Nevertheless, one can also find examples of calques throughout the episode. Some of them are listed in the following table:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
How about a big “Good Morning, Mr. President” when he comes in? ¿Qué tal un gran “Buenos días, Sr. Presidente” cuando entre en la sala?
That sounded weak to me Eso me ha parecido muy suave (instead of eso suena muy bajito)
It’s hard when that happens so far away Es algo muy duro cuando eso pasa tan lejos
You a veteran? ¿Es usted un veterano?
I’m gonna ignore your list Voy a ignorar tu lista
I should get dressed now Ahora tengo que vestirme
Oh, jeez! ¡Oh, vaya!

Table 6. Examples of syntactic and lexical calques

These examples show phrases and sentences that sound awkward in Spanish. The use of articles where they are not needed (un veterano), the syntactic calques, which can be understood, but are totally unnatural in the target language (ahora tengo que vestirme for simply voy a vestirme; es algo tan duro cuando eso pasa lejos for es más duro cuando encima pasa lejosQué tal un gran “Buenos días, Sr. Presidente” cuando entre en la sala instead of Le podéis decir: “Buenos días, Sr. Presidente” cuando entre en la sala), the lexical calques (ignorar, suave) remind the analyst of the fact that this is a dubbing, and dubbing (and translation in general) unavoidably permits the original language to meld with the target language. It is part of translation itself, and only prescriptive eyes would condemn these calques. Obviously, teachers must teach how to write in their target languages without calques, and research can help us know what to avoid, but calques form part of this prefabricated discourse which is an inherent part of dubbing (and of translation in general), and those who know what professional practice is like, also know that this will always happen. And, in fact, it is part of the discourse of dubbing, part of the so-called dubbese, which perhaps is also unconsciously expected in the audience’s minds, or at least, well tolerated when watching a foreign film.

Therefore, prefabricated orality is common to most original and dubbed audiovisual programmes based on a script that is to be interpreted as if it had not been written, especially fictional texts. In the case of dubbing, this prefabricated orality has been termed with the neologism mentioned above: dubbese. The omnipresent dubbese is notorious in this translation as well. Despite the dialogue writer’s skills to avoid a clumsy awkward text, the traces of the original dialogues in the foreign language can always be perceived in the translation.

Constraints on dubbing and subtitling at times involve sacrificing the grammatical correctness of target text dialogues. Hatim and Mason (1997:78-96) show that in subtitling, interpersonal meaning is usually lost: pragmatic meaning encapsulated in pronouns of address, question tags, phatic elements and hesitations, most of them semantically empty, are lost in translation. However, this need not be the case in dubbing, where there is more space to reproduce all interpersonal features. Few hesitations and false starts are appreciated, as happens in the original version, but phatic elements are abundant:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
Did he? (phatic elements) ¿Ah, sí?
Sure Claro
All right? ¿Vale?
Really? ¿De verdad?
You know Ya sabe
It’s a gold fish. Isn’t it? (tag questions) ¿A que sí?
Toby (vocatives) Toby
C.J. C.J.
I’m just saying... (hesitations) Solo estoy diciendo que...
I tried not... Intentaba que no...
I have no way of... No tengo manera de...
I was... Estaba...
You don’t... you don’t know me (repetition) Usted... usted no me conoce

Table 7. Rendering of interpersonal meaning

3.3 Coherence between images and words

It seems obvious that there should be coherence between what is heard and what is seen, i.e., between words and images, and likewise, between the plot, on the one hand, and the dialogues, on the other. This means that the target text should be coherent not only from the semantic, but also from the iconographic, or visual, point of view. By keeping the network of conceptual relations in our text, we can guarantee both loyalty to the content of the source text, and an overall understanding of the target text. Dubbed dialogues may be incoherent not only from a linguistic or semantic perspective, but also from an iconic viewpoint. Remael (2000), Díaz Cintas (2003), and Chaume (2004, 2012) present numerous illustrations of how this coherence is threatened by the constraints at work in dubbing and subtitling.

The translator takes the image into account not only as an analogous component that constrains the translation process, but also as an aid to resolving these very restrictions (Martínez Sierra 2008, 2009). Reduction in subtitling and synchronization in dubbing may force the translator to compromise the degree of cohesion in the target text.

Icons are easily identified in this episode (the American flag, the statues dedicated to soldiers, the tombstones, for example), and others are explained even in the source text (the goldfish, the crackers). Titles and captions are also signs belonging to the linguistic code, but conveyed through the visual channel. Whereas linguistic signs transmitted through the acoustic channel are usually dubbed, linguistic signs transmitted through the visual channel tend to be read aloud, at the same time as the title is shown on screen. This is the norm in Spain. Following the norm, titles and captions in the series are read aloud in all cases:

English Version (captions, not read aloud) Spanish Dubbed Version (read aloud)
In Excelsis Deo In Excelsis Deo (read aloud in Latin)
Thursday December 23, 7.30 a.m. Jueves, 23 de diciembre, 7:30 de la mañana
The West Wing El Ala Oeste de la Casa Blanca

Table 8. Titles and captions



Image 1. Titles and captions

The translation of the series title might seem striking: The West Wing should be translated by El Ala Oeste, but most probably the distributor felt that this would mean nothing to the Spanish audience and decided to add an explicitation, i.e. de la Casa Blanca (literally, of the White House). This is another example of the domesticating process so typical of dubbing and videogames. The words in Latin, [Gloria] In Excelsis Deo, that is, Glory to God in the highest, is the title and beginning of a hymn known also as the Greater Doxology, and according to the Roman Catholic Church, these were the words that the angels used to announce Jesus Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Since this is Latin (closer to Spanish) and belongs to the Christian tradition, translators appropriately decided to keep it in Latin.

Diegetic linguistic signs, i.e. notices belonging to the story, are not read aloud. The following example shows a notice indicating where the action takes place inside the cemetery, and has not been translated:


Image 2. Diegetic notices

3.4 A loyal translation

Loyalty or fidelity to the source text is a concept challenged in some academic circles today, since the cultural turn has shown that ideology can shape the source text meaning and that the hidden or explicit agenda of the market, institutions, agents involved or even the audience, can completely turn a source product into a totally new one in the target language (Vidal Claramonte, 2009; Richart, 2012). Loyalty, however, is usually understood as fidelity to content, form, function, source text effect, or all or any one of the aforementioned, depending on the job in hand (Nord 2014). It is an a priori standard of quality of any audiovisual translation – and of any translation – since consuming the same text in the target language and culture is something taken for granted when consuming a translation. The concepts of loyalty (Nord 1991) and fidelity (Hurtado 1990; Munday 2001) have a long tradition in translation theory. The shift in interest from the source text to the target culture as a reference point in translation assessment has meant that the notion of fidelity has lost ground in the theoretical arena of the discipline, or rather, it is understood as fidelity to the norms governing the target system. However, in general terms, the viewer expects to see the same film that the audience sees in the source language; in other words, that the true story be told in terms of content, and on most occasions, of form, function and effect – and with no censorship.

Interestingly, thresholds of acceptability can once again be noticed in certain settings which would be considered intolerable in others. While the spectator would not consent to changes in the plot and content of an audiovisual work, changes in other areas would be tolerated. These include:

  • acceptance of linguistic censorship and self-censorship – practised to a greater or lesser extent by most television stations and dubbing and subtitling companies, as well as by translators themselves
  • mismatched registers – translations that, because of the inclusion of lexical and structural calques from the source language, sound nowhere near idiomatic; these are particularly overbearing in teen pics and TV series
  • the astonishing changes to some film titles
  • and even the semiotic distortions caused by the use in the translation of certain characteristic features of the target culture (over adaptation) in a typically foreign atmosphere and place.

Since, as has been stated above, drama series have more or less the same status as art films, censorship is not foreseeable in the translation, and over adaptation is not recommended either. A very good example of this foreignising trend, i.e. of rejecting over adaptation, is found when the translator preferred “Santa Claus”, to translate the name Santa, instead of the more local Papá Noel, the most preferred term to refer to Father Christmas in Spanish:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
Who’s playing Santa? Santa Claus (instead of Papá Noel)
Purple Heart (type of medal) Corazón Púrpura (type of medal)

Table 9. Examples of foreignising translation in cultural references

Nonetheless, the general trend in the series seems to localise as many cultural references as possible. In that sense, we can find two different translation solutions in the target text: either finding an explicitation of the reference, or substituting the reference for a local one. These two possibilities are shown in the following examples:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version (explicitation of CR)
Yeah, because of the northeasterly wind off the Chesapeake El viento del noroeste de la bahía
Moroccan spine Tapas de cuero de color marrón
Keystone Kops  (incompetent fictional policemen, featured in silent film comedies) Detectives de pacotilla
They hang around Capitol and P Normalmente suelen estar por la zona norte
Did you know that the recordings of “Feliz Navidad” outsold the recordings of “Merry Christmas”? ¿Sabes que los villancicos en castellano se venden más que los ingleses?


English Version Spanish Dubbed Version (localisation of CR)
The IRS works for me Hacienda trabaja para mí
Little Drummer Boy Cantan el tamborilero

Table 10. Examples of domesticating translation in cultural references

Since reception studies are scarce in audiovisual translation, we still do not know which thresholds of acceptability audiences tolerate, and which they reject. Here perhaps, the reviled concept of audiovisual genre has its raison d’être and will be seen as a useful parameter in defining this threshold: certain audiovisual genres allow what would never be acceptable in others – over adaptation can be found in cartoons more frequently than in TV drama series, lip-synch can be overlooked in cartoons but not so often in TV drama series, etc.

Temperatures are also adapted (83 degrees Fahrenheit has been translated as 28 grados). And the books that the president is browsing in the shop are also translated:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version (localisation of CR)
The Fables of Phaedrus Las Fábulas de Fedrus (though it is Fedro in Spanish)
The Nature of Things La Naturaleza de las Cosas

Table 11. Examples of intertextual references

One can also notice that the titles of the books are mistranslated. The first one, The Fables of Phaedrus, has been translated as Las Fábulas de Fedrus, but the famous classical writer is known as Fedro in Spanish. The second one has a mistake both in English and in Spanish, since the actual name of the book is On the Nature of Things (Sobre la naturaleza de las cosas). These books are only known by people having a classical background, and perhaps both the scriptwriters (and directors) and the translators (or dialogue writers) did not do a thorough research of the names of these books in English and Spanish.

In conclusion, most cultural references are either explained – using a hyperonym or broader term – or they are localised, domesticated, using the equivalent reference in Spanish. Even the term Santa Claus, although sounding foreign, is quite well known and widespread in the target culture.

Mismatched registers have been dealt with above (see 3.2.). But in this section it is mandatory to include mistranslations too. There are just very few of them, something which means that the translation and ulterior dialogue writing has been done carefully:

English Version Spanish Dubbed Version
I guess there were no enough beds for Walter No había ninguna cama para Walter (he takes it for granted)
A crime is a crime Un crimen es un crimen (instead of delito, falta)
President of America Presidente de América (instead of Estados Unidos, but this mistranslation is usual in Spanish, though)
I need to know if she would divulge the name or names of any influential Republican members of Congress… Necesito saber si divulgaría (instead of revelaría, filtraría) los nombres de miembros Republicanos influyentes del Congreso…

Table 12. Examples of translation errors

3.5 Clear sound quality

Other factors fall outside the control of the translator, the dialogue writer and even the dubbing director. The recording and mixing of the translated dialogues put down by the dubbing actors and actresses also seek to achieve a realistic effect and to fulfil the technical and acoustic conventions that characterize the activity of dubbing, which has become conventional over the years. In the case of a TV drama series like The West Wing, and in the case of Spanish dubbing this means that:

  • dialogues from the original version are never heard, not even in the case of a specific paralinguistic feature, such as a cough (when this happens, the spectator notices and is distracted from the film);
  • dialogues were recorded in soundproof studios (as with the source text dialogues, in a process known as editing or post-synchronization), so their acoustic quality is extremely good, which enables the dialogues to be appropriately received; notably, there is always an absence of noise and interferences in the final recording, so that the sound that reaches the viewer is as clear as possible;
  • the volume of the voices is also higher than in normal speech, to facilitate greater comprehension, i.e., there is always a fairly high volume and clear voices with tight articulation;
  • certain sound effects such as reverberation are used in cases in which the characters have their backs to the camera or are at a distance, to create the effect of a slight echo, etc.

The viewer has been conditioned to accept that s/he is watching a film and that in general, s/he will be listening to voices in stereo and with a clarity alien to real-life situations. Even when characters walk off towards the horizon, we can still hear their voices perfectly and understand what they say. We may be shown a completely dark room at the White House, for instance, but the cinematographic illusion has reached the point where, to a great extent, it is accepted that we are able to distinguish the facial features of all characters in the room, and even see their gestures. There are plenty of examples in this series.

When we enter the cinema, we know that what we are going to see/hear is not exactly real, but rather the language of film, with its grammatical rules and its own particular logic (the aforementioned suspension of disbelief). Clear sound quality is part of this.

3.6 Acting

The performance and dramatization of the dialogues is also beyond the control of the translator and the dialogue writer, although the dubbing director and the voice talents have their say in that phase. Conventionally, dubbing actors and actresses – voice talents – are required to perform in such a way that they sound neither faked (overacted) nor monotonous (underacted). Overacting is without a doubt one of the factors that also cause the viewer to cross this tolerance threshold referred to previously in this article. Voice talents, in their enthusiasm to dramatize the target text dialogues, or perhaps also because of their origins and training in the theatre, sometimes emphasize intonations and pronunciations to such an extent that if we hear a conversation from any big screen or television film, without knowing where the sound is coming from, we immediately know that they are cinema or television dialogues, and not real conversation. Whitman-Linsen explains:

[...] role interpretations are overdone, over dramatic, overladen with emotion. The voices sound phony and theatrical and out of keeping with body expression. Everyday conversations are enacted as if they were dealing with tragic deaths of family members and the outbreak of atomic wars. People just do not speak like dubbers seem to imagine they do. Whether aimed at over- or underacting, the criticism is often justified (Whitman-Linsen 1992:47, my emphasis).

Neither overacting nor underacting is the case in The West Wing. Dramatization is done in a very professional way, which is particularly common in drama series and art films. An adequate performance is more easily achievable by ensuring the oral register is realistic in the dialogues. Indeed, the ultimate aim of dubbing is to create a believable final product that seems real, that tricks us as viewers into thinking we are witnessing a credible story, with easily recognised characters and realistic voices. As voices in the industry state: “Good dubbing today looks like the story was recorded in the language you hear” (Wright and Lallo 2009: 219).

The rendering of phonetic performance is impeccable, as occurs with dubbing in general – although in this case, the original does not allow itself features of colloquial pronunciation either.

One striking feature of Spanish dubbing (and of dubbing, in general), is that foreign names are hispanized, as far as phonetics is concerned. Thus, English phonemes which do not exist in Spanish are substituted by Spanish phonemes – sometimes allophones – resembling those phonemes. But the result is really astonishing, since what we hear is the typical Spanish pronunciation of English words. In this line, for example, New Hampshire is pronounced as /níu xampʃi/, and Andrew is pronounced /a:ndrju/, in a Spanish-like fashion.

This study shows an analysis of the quality of dubbing in just one episode of a mainstream American TV series dubbed into Spanish. Inevitably, a quality assessment always implies a subjective viewpoint. In order to avoid this, a qualitative analysis according to the episode’s adherence to a checklist of dubbing standards, compiled in Chaume (2012), but taken from some other authors (Whitman-Linsen, 1992, among others) and from personal experience in professional practice, has been carried out. This analysis can then be replicated.

In general terms, in this episode we are faced with a domesticating dubbing, which keeps some cultural references from the original culture, and which sounds awkward as far as dialogues are concerned sometimes, but which shows a perfect lip-synch, a canonical isochrony, many explicitations and even cultural adaptations to make the plot understood, a neat sound quality, magnificent acting, a loyal translation with very few and irrelevant errors, fresh dialogues and a high level of coherence between what we see and what we hear. In general terms, it corresponds to standard practice in Spain, but this dubbing particularly stands out for its superb acting, fresh dialogues and perfect isochrony, as seen in the analysis. A canonical outcome which can be – and is – considered as a high-quality dubbing according to Spanish dubbing standards.


Baños-Piñero, Rocío, and Frederic Chaume (2009) “Prefabricated Orality. A Challenge in Audiovisual Translation”, Intralinea. Online translation journal 6.

Botella, Carla (2010) El intertexto audiovisual y su traducción: referencias cinematográficas paródicas en Family Guy, PhD diss., Universidad de Alicante, Spain.

Bucaria, Chiara (2007) “Humour and other catastrophes: dealing with the translation of mixed-genre TV series”, Linguistica Antverpiensia, 6: 235-254.

Chaume, Frederic (2004) Cine y Traducción, Madrid, Cátedra.

---- (2012) Audiovisual Translation: Dubbing, London and New York, Routledge.

Chorão, Graça (2013) A Dobragem em Portugal: Novos Paradigmas na Tradução Audiovisual, PhD diss., Universidade de Vigo, Spain.

Díaz Cintas, Jorge (2003) Teoría y práctica de la subtitulación. Inglés-español, Barcelona, Ariel Cine.

Fodor, István (1976) Film Dubbing: Phonetic, Semiotic, Esthetic and Psychological Aspects, Hamburg, Helmut Buske.

Fuentes Luque, Adrián (1997/8) “La traducción de los títulos de películas y series de televisión”, Sendebar 8/9: 107-114.

Hatim, Basil, and Ian Mason (1997) The Translator as Communicator, London, Routledge.

Herbst, Thomas (1994) Linguistische Aspekte der Synchronisation von Fersehserien. Phonetik, Textlinguitik, Übersetzungstheorie, Tübingen, Niemeyer.

Hurtado, Amparo (1990) La notion de fidélité en traduction, Paris, Didier Erudition.

Lotman, Yuri (1982) Estructura del texto artístico, Madrid, Istmo.

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Remael, Aline (2000) A Polysystem Approach to British New Wave Film Adaptation, Screenwriting and Dialogue, PhD diss., Leuven, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

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Romero Fresco, Pablo (2006) “The Spanish dubbese. A case of (un)idiomatic Friends”, Jostrans, 6: 134-151.

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A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (Sally Ann Salsano, Riley McCormick, 2007–2008)

Lost (J.J. AbramsJeffrey LieberDamon Lindelof, 2004–2010)

Man vs. Food (Dan Kornfeld and Tony Biancosino, 2008–)

Modern Family (Steven LevitanChristopher Lloyd, 2009–)

The Mentalist (Bruno Heller, 2008–2015)

The Sopranos (David Chase, 1999–2007)

The Office (Greg DanielsRicky GervaisStephen Merchant, 2005–2013)

The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin, 1999–2006)

About the author(s)

Frederic Chaume is a Professor of Audiovisual Translation at Universitat Jaume I (Castelló, Spain), where he teaches audiovisual translation theory,  dubbing and subtitling; Honorary Professor at University College London (UK), has also been Honorary Professor at Imperial College London (UK) for three years. He has also taught regularly at some European and American universities. He is author of the books Doblatge i subtitulació per a la TV (Eumo, 2003), Cine y Traducción (Cátedra, 2004), Audiovisual Translation: Dubbing (Routledge, 2012), and co-author of Teories Contemporànies de la Traducció (Bromera, 2010). He is also author of the entry “Screen translation: dubbing” in the Elsevier Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics 2nd Edition, “Research Paths in Audiovisual Translation: The Case of Dubbing” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (Routledge, 2012), and “Traducción Audiovisual” in the Diccionario Histórico de la Traducción en España (Gredos, 2009). He has given several invited lectures on audiovisual translation and translation for dubbing in many European and American universities and international translation studies conferences. For the past 25 years he has also been working as a professional translator for TV stations, dubbing and subtitling companies, and film distributors and producers. He coordinates the research group TRAMA since 2007 ( and has been awarded the Berlanga Award for his support to dubbing and his constant university training in this field.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Frederic Chaume (2016).
"Dubbing a TV Drama Series"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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Audio Describing the TV series The West Wing

Towards a Coherent Practice

By Pilar Orero (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain)

Abstract & Keywords

The exercise of audio describing The West Wing offers excellent opportunities to reflect on the accessibility of TV drama series. This genre has great popular acceptance, financial success, and though it belongs to the much maligned popular TV media, has conquered art and film critics as a quality multimedia production. This success has not been matched with the minimum accessibility requirements. The West Wing to mention one -but we could list recent hits such as The Office, The Sopranos, Mad Men, or Lost- is not accessible to the visually impaired. A new horizon opens with NETFLIX new accessibility policy with 100% subtitling and starting to offer audio description in the two new series: Daredevil and Grace and Frankie. TV series have suffered the same fate throughout academia with little research interest, and particularly in Audiovisual Translation: only four studies (Bucaria 2007, Fuentes Luque 1997/8, Herbst 1994, Zhao 2002) have been found to deal with TV series in the free access Bibliography of Translation Studies BITRA[1]. This article was part of a brilliant publication idea by Christopher Taylor. Based on the same audiovisual input -- the Christmas special episode In Excelsis Deo from The West Wing (1999) – many audiovisual methodologies were studied. This contribution focuses on the audio description of TV series in general, and with examples mainly from the abovementioned The West Wing episode. It looks at issues such as: continuity, location, time, characters, emotions, sound, AD function and strategies. [2]

Keywords: audio description, narrative, characters, location, collocation

©inTRAlinea & Pilar Orero (2016).
"Audio Describing the TV series The West Wing"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

1. Accessibilty of TV Drama Series

TV drama series is nowadays associated with quality production and financial performance. TV series share shelves in video clubs alongside art house movies. Gifted scriptwriters, directors and actors are now proud of taking part of a genre which was until recently considered as only light entertainment (Monaco 1977:557). Series which have become a commercial success, as is the case of The Sopranos, enjoy a high recognition amongst critics, and have won numerous awards. Some films have been the departing point for TV series, such as M*A*S*H (Altman 1970), The Godfather (Coppola 1972) or Goodfellas (Scorsese 1990) and vice versa, as is the case for Dr Who with two films Dr Who and the Daleks (Flemyng 1965) and the sequel Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (Flemyng 1966).  This new quality status for TV productions has led to a profitable system of distribution, with the possibility of watching episodes through IPTV (broadband), TV (broadcast) or DVD. International success has also meant a direct impact on media accessibility i.e. language accessibility, if we consider that subtitling is a palliative technique that allows those who have no access to media for language reasons. A good example is that from the TV series Lost (2004-2010), where the final episode was broadcast simultaneously in US and Spain. There was a thirty minute delay in the signal for Spain, to allow for the creation of subtitles. Subtitles translated into Spanish were broadcast live with a considerable time delay, often with omissions. There was an instant complaint on social networks and subtitles received coverage in the national press, where quality issues were the subject of considerable criticism[3]. Interestingly, a new set of subtitles were produced and used for subsequent broadcasts of the programme.

The production of access services to media content is far from being straight forward. Issues are related to the quality in the many translation approaches: dubbing, subtitling, voice-over or accessibility: real live subtitles by respeaking or audio description (AD). Time is also an important consideration. Finally, production and distribution also play a crucial role in the quality of the end product, with different versions of subtitles often produced for the same film or TV series, which vary in relation to the format which is distributed and commercialised: TV live, IPTV (both Video on Demand and Stream Video on Demand), podcast (Hassell 2009), DVD, Blu-ray or from any of the crowdsourcing possibilities such as fansub. In Spain for example, cinema subtitles and DVD subtitles for the same movie are produced by different companies, which leads to different results, the same situation is for audio description with ONCE producing their own closed service and public versions produced by commercial content providers. This situation is not unique in Spain. The Dr Who AD broadcast for TV by BBC was versioned for the DVD release, hence two slightly different ADs are now on offer. This fact should be taken into consideration when studying AD as what is presented in the DVD is not the same as what is broadcast on television, and ultimately not the responsibility of one single person: neither the translator, the audio describer or the voice artist. It is more likely that a team of people have been working in the production chain, and so target text should not be identified with an individual. This is more poignant when the mode of translation is that of revoicing. Dubbing, voice-over and audio description written target texts go through one further process; that of being read by professional voice-talents, who also will on many occasions adapt the text, producing many surprising changes which are often recorded in academic papers holding the translator as the culprit. 

2. The Audio Description of TV Drama Series

Many drama series are audio described, and it may be interesting to report on the work of the BBC a referent for media accessibility. At the time of writing this article, TV series Dr Who, How not to live your life, Doctors, Casualty, the soap opera EastEanders, sitcom series Gavin and Stacy and children’s series such as ChuckleVision or Horrible Histories have AD in real time via broadcast, but also via broadband (IPTV) with free access through the BBC webpage iplayer. Some of those audio descriptions are stored on the iplayer webpage[4], and audio descriptions are also released in in-house produced commercial DVDs. Technical requirements will mean a slight variation in the AD, such as that already mentioned for Dr Who. In some cases, such as the costume drama series Jane Eyre (White, 2006), there was AD in all the episodes broadcast, but on only two episodes on the DVD. Lack of homogeneity in the presentation, availability and the way to tagg accessible services on offer are some issues, and one of the objectives of the EU project Hbb4All ([5] which has been pointed at in many publications (Matamala and Orero 2011, Remael et al 2014). Technology may come to the rescue here. Consuming audiovisual media trough streming has grown both in subscribers and pirates alike, for films and TV series. This is being driven by the broader trends of media consumption over the Internet, increasing broadband penetration, higher download speeds and growth in connected devices[6]. The unification of services under one platform has many advantages, such as offering multiple languages, and also 

The feature which differentiates the AD of TV series from that of film or theatre is continuity. Series are a part of a whole and often ongoing work, while films are self contained and finished – even in sequels. The fact that a production team is behind the whole series, and its potential implication in accessibility, could present the first opportunity for a coherent approach to audio description, rather than the casual approach which is nowadays the norm. Looking at the different narrative units in the episode could offer possible approaches to be considered when audio describing a series.

3. Structure of the episode In Excelsis Deo

One obvious difference for the practical audio description of TV series, compared to that of films, is that series have a different structure from that of a film, and even formal aspects such as credits have a different function (Matamala and Orero 2011, Matamala 2014).

Episodes are dependent units which form a season, which in turn are part of a series, and they have a formal structure which should be understood when considering possible audio description approaches. The drama TV series is organised in the following units: series credits, re-cap, opening credits, three acts, end of episode, final credits and distributor and producing logos. In this section the visual text of each unit is analysed with some general comments regarding audio description.

3.1 Series credits

The episode begins with a sequence, common to all episodes, where an opaque US flag allows for some sunrays to shine and reveal the view of the west wing of the White House, in Washington DC, US. The title at the bottom of the screen reads THE WEST WING.


Sequence 1. Three frames from the opening credits in sequential order

Since this opening is common to all the episodes, it should have a standard AD formula which is repeated for each episode. During this short sequence the theme music can be heard, allowing for audio description to be read on top of the music.

3.2 Re-cap

The frames from Sequence 1 are followed by the re-cap where one can hear spoken: “Previously on the West Wing.” This leaves no time to include any extra information in the form of audio description, though as will be seen in section 4.1 other strategies such as compensation could be adopted. The re cap for this episode contains the following dialogue exchanges:


Sequence 2. Danny walks into J.C. office carrying a goldfish bowl

The dialogue is as follows

C.J. What are you holding?
Danny Josh said you liked goldfish
C.J. The crackers Danny. The cheese things that you have in a party

Sequence 3. Sam and a high-class prostitute are sitting in a dinner

Sam You got a thing tonight – a date?
Prostitute He calls me, he tells me what to wear, the rest of it’s a big surprise.
Sam I’m just saying, your night job stinks. (Fine) And I’m taking your sandwich

Sequence 4. Leo and the President are standing in the President’s office

Leo There’s going to be trouble
President Lillienfield?

Sequence 5. Josh and Leo are having an exchange

Josh You were maybe into something that wasn’t acceptable
Leo Pills
Josh Were you in treatment.
Leo Records kept by these facilities are confidential Josh.
Josh He’s got them

As the re-cap doesn’t provide any time for an audio description. If it is decided to offer the complementary visual information through audio description, compensation will be the only available strategy. These effect of dialogues, from five different scences, will act as an audio introduction Fryer and Romero (forthcoming) to the episode, and the user will rely on this information to follow the present episode.

3.3 Intertitles

The re-cap, formed by flashes of four selected excerpts, has the function of providing context for the development of this episode. It is followed by the following two frames.

Sequence 6. Two intertitle credits

There is a unanimous AD recommendation strategy: to read them aloud (Benecke & Dosch, 2004; Ofcom, 2006; Orero & Wharton, 2007; Puigdomènech, 2007; Remael, 2005; Snyder, 2006; UNE 153020, 2007, Vercauteren 2007). Then we move to a short sequence, before the actual opening credits and the start of the episode.

3.4 Opening scene

After the intertitles, music with bells can be heard as a means of presenting the festive context in which the episode takes place. It presents the main characters from West Wing and lays the building blocks of the two themes which will be fully developed in this episode: The two conflicting sides of the same theme: Christmas. The joy of meeting the loved ones versus the sadness from the loss of those who have died. This short interlude also has the function of creating suspense, with a police call requesting Toby for an interview.

Sequence 7. WestWing main characters in the Christmas decorated set

The re-cap provides the context for the episode within the rest of the series, and also the specific theme for the episode [i.e. Christmas].  

3.5 Opening credits

The same music and presentation style is shown as with the first credits -see sequence 1-  and is common to the whole series. The opaque US flag shows the eight main characters of the series.

Each character is presented in the same style: the picture of an actor is seen through the flag, followed by a still frame in black and white with the name of the actor. The credits finish with a picture of the eight characters sitting with the president.

Sequence 8. Opening credits for the series

This is followed by the rest of the credits rolling - five guests invited for this episode, the name of the creator, music composer, co-producer, and producer – which are shown over opening scenes; images of the Arlington Cemetery, one of the main plot locations of the episode.


Sequence 9. Opening credits for this episode

Issues such as when to read, how many to read, and how to read the credits are important considerations. There are many options: Read all, read some, or a selection of the credits. They can be read all together at the beginning (Orero 2011), or synchronised with when each character is presented. The choice will be settled as the style for the whole series. Special attention should be paid to the overall effect of mixing AD with the name of characters, to avoid cohesion problems (Braun 2007, 2008, and 2011, Taylor 2004). Audio description of credits should be decided for each product, since in some cases it is possible to read the titles synchronically, while in other cases it may produce confusion. An example will be the synchronic audio description of the first frame in Sequence 9:  “Paul Austin: a man pushes a wheelchair”. This may lead to believe that Paul Austin is the man pushing the wheelchair.

3.6 Three acts

After the opening credits the episode begins, and as such is marked in the dialogue list:


FADE IN: EXT. KOREAN WAR MEMORIAL – DAY  à  Early morning, we pan through the monuments, memorials, benches, and visitors. Toby approaches a police officer standing in front of a bench, where a man, covered with blankets, lies.

Table 1. Dialogue list for introduction of act 1

Two more acts follow with the following information


FADE IN: INT. HALLWAY – DAY à  Sam is standing in the hallway reading some papers, when C.J. rounds the corner and approaches. They talk on the way through the hallway to their offices.

Table 2. Dialogue list for introduction of act 2



Toby approaches a large group of homeless people in a soup line ran by volunteers. Toby is very uncomfortable and unsure of himself. He tries to get their attention.

Table 3. Dialogue list for introduction of act 3

Finally when the episode finishes we have the final information

The episode ends with a montage of juxtaposing shots of the military funeral For Walter Hufnagle and the activity in THE MURAL ROOM. Throughout, we can hear the boys' choir sing 'Little Drummer Boy.' The hearse arrives at ARLINGTON CEMETERY, SECTION 43. Toby, Mrs. Landingham, and George get out of the car. George is holding a bouquet of flowers. The honor guard carries the casket to the grave. They begin the ritual of folding the flag that covered the casket.
THE MURAL ROOM. Sam and C.J. join Mandy and Bartlet. Then, Charlie and Leo join.
ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to shoot their rifles in salute. Toby flinches with the first shot. Mrs. Landingham with the second.
THE MURAL ROOM. Donna and Josh join the group.
ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to hand the tightly folded flag to Toby who gestures uncomfortably to George, who is then presented with the flag. George gently places the flowers on the casket. They all stand to leave.
* * *

Having a dialogue list is of great help, since considerable information regarding where the action takes place, directions for the actors, and even descriptions of emotions are available. A dialogue list can also be helpful when focusing on the most prominent events, thus helping to select the most relevant information (Orero and Vilaró 2014).

Since the episode is clearly divided in three acts, this is also reflected in the video edition and montage, hence there is time before each act to read the information on offer in the dialogue list, and perhaps add more, as if it was an audio introduction. Special attention should be paid to the amount of information added and offered, and this is a question of further research. How much detail can be retained and memorised requires urgent attention, since there is little point in filling in all the available space which may provide further information of little value, and provoke fatigue in the viewer (Orero 2011). This is a poignant issue in West Wing, since dialogue exchange is very dynamic and rich information relating to the plot. It contains puns and clever remarks, and therefore one AD approach could be to offer very simple and basic information to avoid unnecessarily tiring the viewer.

4. Some further considerations when audio describing In Excelsis Deo

Looking at existing guidelines on AD, as for example Bernd Benecke’s 2004 we find specific comments regarding TV series:

Translation: "Films with a lot of dialogue, especially TV series, may lead to an exception (...from the rule that you do not infere with the dialogue). It is often impossible to give all the necessary information in the few and then mostly short gaps, in particular if you want to give some extra information about the look of the characters. In such cases we decided to select dialogues that appear to be less important and overlay them with the description. Of course this must happen always warily and with a lot of respect for the film. Technically this is only possible with TV (and DVD) programmes where you do a mixing of soundtrack and description. You can't do it with live-events[7]. (Benecke 2004)

Joel Snyder[8] also offered the following solution to the problems posed by series, and their high dependency in previous descriptions, and information.

i.e., a website that offers the “basics” and can be accessed at any time, even during a show.  It would serve the same function as pre-show notes prior to a live performance:  providing detailed description for which there’d be no opportunity to provide during the showing/weaving it in and around the original soundtrack.  On a DVD, the enhanced description material    could be keyed to certain elements ala a phrase or image that’s “hyperlinked” to additional material.

Louise Fryer (2016) in her recent book comments on TV series and the challenge posed by keeping up a global coherence in a long running AVT product saying “The potential prob­lems become heightened with other genres such as series and serials, whether for TV or for films that elapse over a longer time span or a larger number of episodes.” (Fryer 2016: 113)

Still more localised problems can be found in this episode which should be taken into account before embarking on a definite audio description approach, which could be applied for the whole series. In this section we conduct a detailed study of the key questions when drafting an audio description (Vercauteren 2007).

4.1 Continuity

The re cap is one of the basic features of the TV series. It offers key information regarding running themes and gives context to the overall plot. It also serves as a reminder of the characters and their relationships. The re-cap in West Wing offers four glimpses from the previous episode. The audiovisual text offers a fast dialogue in couples:

  • CJ and Danny,
  • Sam with a prostitute,
  • Leo and the President, and finally
  • Leo with Josh.

The four dialogues make reference to the two leading stories, which will be developed further in this episode:

1- The possible romantic relationship between C.J. and the reporter Danny Concannon.

2- Congressman Peter Lillianfield’s accusation of drug abuse by staff in West Wing. This leads Josh to think of Leo McGarry's history of drug and alcohol problems, and subsequent rehabilitation, and the certainty that it will soon be leaked and made public. 

According to the policy or guidelines adopted in the production team, this audiovisual context could have two different AD strategies:

a- Omission - With the effect that audience will be left with only one channel of information: listening to dialogues.

b- Compensation –  The explicit information regarding the two leading stories will be read later while the opening credits are rolling, since there is ample time to offer extra information.

4.2 Date and time

This section is linked to what Vercauteren (2007) defines as “when”. The action takes place over two days: the 23rd and 24th of December. This is clearly marked by the intertitles which, as already mentioned in section 3.3, should be read aloud.

Sequence 10. Intertitles indicating the day when action takes place.

During the two days marked by the intertitles, the action is developed in linear time. We begin in the morning on Thursday 23rd and the action has a logical development all the way to the last scene on Friday 24th December when Toby is at the cemetery and misses the Christmas singing by the tree with his work colleagues.

Sequence 11. While colleagues listen to the choir Toby is at the cemetery

The only distortion regarding time and events which poses an added challenge to the audio description is that of the re-cap, or the verbal references to previous events, these verbal flashbacks – prolepsis in narratological terms- are exclusively carried out through dialogues, hence theoretically posing no challenge. An example of a reference to the past is when Mrs Landingham narrates the story of her twin sons who died in the Korean War, reinforcing thus one of the sub-plots of the episode, and justifies her presence at Arlington cemetery in the last scene, along with Toby – see second frame in Sequence 11.

Nevertheless if there was any visual image which becomes a leitmotif in the series, or a key to further developments, it is advisable to call attention to it the first time it takes place, what has been called “anchoring” in order to be able to recall it efficiently in future episodes (Braun 2008, Vilaró & Orero 2012).

4.3 Location

This section is linked to what Vercauteren (2007, Remael & Vercauteren 2007 and 2012) defined as “where”. Action takes place and plot develops in the different rooms of the West Wing of the White House. The name of the rooms is provided by the dialogue list. Other locations are:

  • the flat where the prostitute lives,
  • a bookshop
  • the homeless center and the suburb of Washington where Toby goes to look for Walter Hufnagle’s brother,
  • and the Arlington Cemetery section 74.

All the locations are clearly marked in the dialogue list, making very easy to offer the correct name of place. A further consideration will be to add details regarding Arlington Cemetery, with the life-size human figures dotted along the park, in full field uniform. While this may be a common sight for the US audience, it may need to be explicitated when translated.

In some instances, such as the final scene at the cemetery in Image 1, there is the following object which should be considered for AD purposes as written information, and read aloud, as the case with intertitles in section 3.2.

Image 1. Image indicating precise location where action takes place

4. 5 Emotions

The audio description of this episode offers little challenge, given the fact we count with the invaluable information provided in the dialogue list. In some cases the information on offer beyond the transcription provides more than direct references to identifying the speaker, or where the action takes place, and it also chooses the most relevant information when a series of options are on offer. This is the case for the last scene of the episode, where three issues are shown by the visual narrative: staff gathering round the Christmas tree to sing carols, the choir singing, and the burial protocol at the cemetery. We can read the following info in the dialogue list:

The episode ends with a montage of juxtaposing shots of the military funeral for Walter Hufnagle and the activity in THE MURAL ROOM. Throughout, we can hear the boys' choir sing 'Little Drummer Boy.' The hearse arrives at ARLINGTON CEMETERY, SECTION 43. Toby, Mrs. Landingham, and George get out of the car. George is holding a bouquet of flowers. The honor guard carries the casket to the grave. They begin the ritual of folding the flag that covered the casket

But beyond this information, many more issues are at stake, and many details can be additionally offered as there is no time restriction. A literal description of the military funeral protocol is on offer in the dialogue list, but the sheer number of white stone graves dotted across the green lawn could be included, describing the dazzling contrast of colours that is created. The number of white tombstones and its implication has an impact giving rise to emotions. These are provoked further by the intended contrast of the desolated scene at the burial ceremony with the audio–track of members of staff at West Wing singing merrily by the tree, the Christmas carols representing the spirit and security they feel. Antagonistic images are shown in Sequences 11 and 12 with a clear parallelism between the two rows of people standing in Sequence 11. This final sequence has been edited to create an impact on the viewer and it should be taken into consideration when drafting the audio description. While audio description tends to stay at a literal level, that is describing what meets the eye, in this case the symbolic function should be described (Orero 2012, Davila and Orero 2014).

The dignity shown by Walter Hufnagle’s brother, George, during the ceremony is also startling. He has been previously described in the dialogues as “…a little slow. I mean, he's all right and everything. He's just a little slow” and is homeless “dozens of homeless people are huddled around fires trying to keep warm. He approaches an older man, GEORGE HUFNAGLE. Like others, George is sitting by a fire”. Given this background George’s behaviour through the ceremony is impeccable, and perhaps this should be commented in the audio description (Mazur 2014).

Sequence 12. Burial protocol at Arlington cemetery

While reading visual narrative is acceptable in audio description beyond mere description, we can for this series rely in the information regarding emotions and facial gestures offered in the dialogue list.

4. 6 Characters

Continuity is one of the major defining features of the genre. It has a direct impact on the audio description and character building within the narrative. And as argued by Monaco (1977: 541):

Television has an advantage in building character over every other narrative medium, except for the novel saga. This is also why television is not so much a medium of stories as of moods and atmosphere. We tune in not to find out what is happening ( for generally the same thing is always hapenning), but to spend time with the characters.

Characters are responsible for the development of the plot, hence special attention should be paid to the description of their depth and trait changes from episode to episode. As already mentioned previously, this series relies heavily on its dialogue, which offers a vast array of information beyond the plot. We learn for example of Leo’s personality and generosity from the exchange between Josh and Donna:

If one of us was in trouble, he [Leo] would be the first person to-

And later between Josh and Sam

We owe Leo everything. I mean everything.

Beyond dialogue, as previously mentioned, we can also conduct some visual narrative reading of images which reveal character traits. The audio description can be developed further by adding extra information. For example, Toby offers insights into his personality as we see more than the extra comments underlined in the dialogue list:

The honor guard starts to shoot their rifles in salute. Toby flinches with the first shot. Mrs. Landingham with the second.
ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to hand the tightly folded flag to Toby who gestures uncomfortably to George, who is then presented with the flag. George gently places the flowers on the casket. They all stand to leave.

But at the risk of being accused of interpreting, we could also read the following four frames where in the first, Toby helps George Hufnagle’s brother to get out of the car, showing care and compassion. In the second Toby takes a tear from his cheek. The third frame shows Toby’s concern for George Hufnagle, since he is going to be presented with the flag and may not know what to do, and Toby doesn’t know how he will react. The last frame is a still of a series where Toby looks at what the other two men are doing, and raises his hand to his heart, but this action is perform with insecurity and indecision. 

Frames 1, 2, 3 & 4 where we can see extra character traits for Toby.

As already mentioned in the previous section, we could also offer character traits for George Hufnagle beyond the fact he is homeless man and has some learning difficulties, which is all we learn from the dialogues. Audio describing characters is one of the thorniest and most interesting issues in audio description (Ballester 2006, Fresno 2012, Orero 2011, Vercauteren and Orero 2013, Benecke 2014) and though at this stage we have raised some possible strategies for  audio description, much is still to be learnt regarding memory, number of adjectives and order, and saturation of information, to mention a few topics.   

4. 7 Sound   

Most definitions of audio description remain at the level of rendering missing visual information. Given the fact that the audiovisual text is multimodal and multisemiotic

there is a coherence between the visual and the auditory channels. Some articles have been published on this issue (Igareda 2012, Remael 2012, Szarkowska and Orero 2014) and clearly there is an instance in this episode that clearly illustrates the need for an audio description of some sounds, it also raises the issue of the need to preserve silence as an important symbolic element (Orero, Maszerowska and Casacuberta 2016).

In the final scene at the Arlington cemetery, the guards, as part of the protocol, fire three times (see second frame in Sequence 12). This action is superimposed on the carol being sung by the choir. Moreover both Toby and Mrs Landhingham are shaken by the noise, as can be read in the dialogue list

ARLINGTON CEMETERY. The honor guard starts to shoot their rifles in salute. Toby flinches with the first shot. Mrs. Landingham with the second

And also seen in the following frames

Frames 5 & 6. Toby and Mrs Landingham are shaken by the shooting

Hence it is important to describe the sound before it can be heard in order to offer a context and an explanation. The shooting breaks the existing running sound, which is the peaceful and harmonic carol, with the resulting effect acting as a shattering contrast.

4. 8 Audio describing absence of information

As already mentioned in Section 3.3 there is general agreement regarding written information which appears on the screen: it should be read. This should be performed when we face the intertitles, titles, and even to point to the exact location where an action takes place, as shown previously in Frame 3.But in this episode there is a sequence which creates a problem, and that is the moment when Josh gives Donna his Christmas present: a book. She opens the book and reads the dedication written by Josh. The sequence in the dialogue list is as follows:


Okay. [Danny walks away as the camera moves to Donna, who is sitting at her desk opening her Christmas gift from Josh. He watches on as she reveals a book.]


"Heimlich Beckengruber on The Art and Artistry of Alpine Skiing."


It's got a molted calf cover and original drab boards.


I don't know what to say.


I wrote a note inside. [Donna opens the book and begins to read what Josh has written. She is obviously affected by his words.]


Donna, don't get emotional. Donna, don't get... You know, let's try and maintain some sort of... [He's looking around the bullpen embarrassed. Oblivious to his concerns of propriety, Donna closes the book, stands up, and approaches Josh.]


[tearfully] You see!? You spend most of our time being, you know, you. And then you write something like this to me. Thank you. [She pulls him into a tight hug. Josh, forgetting impropriety, hugs her back.]


I meant it.


Skis would have killed you?


[pulls back] Yeah.

While Josh himself in his dialogue offers an accurate audio description of the book he has given to Donna as an object: “It's got a molted calf cover and original drab boards,” he doesn’t reveal the content of the dedication. She opens the book and reads, but the screen does not shown what is written, see Frame 7.

Frame 7. Donna opens the book and reads a dedication, no close up is offered

The fact that a few seconds go by and there is no dedication to be read aloud, in this case – and exceptionally – the audio description should read the absence. That is “Donna opens the book and reads the dedication, though this is not offered on the screen” or something similar of this type. This is because there is a filmic convention (Perego 2014) of offering a close up of whatever is written. In this case the director has played with this, breaking the convention for the creating the effect of suspense. Donna seems shaken by the written words, but we have no access to them and neither do the visual impaired audience. Tension is released when she finally reads the dedication “Skis would have killed you”. This example returns to the reflection on the function of audio description and the many modalities of communication in the audiovisual text, and also its narratological structure and its symbolism (Fryer 2010, Kruger 2010).

5. Final remarks

The episode finishes with the final credits rolling, which offer the titles over the black screen. Again, how many credits should be read aloud, and how much information regarding the logos are decisions to be made by the broadcaster who will have signed the AD contract for its accessibility. How much time and detail is offered for the logos is also a matter of company policy. For example in frame 10 the Warner Bros logo should perhaps have the same AD as that on DVDs and cinemas, since it is the same logo. But as already mentioned at the beginning of this article, media accessibility can be defined best by its lack of homogenous treatment.

Frames 8, 9 & 10. Final credits

6. Translating audio description

This article has been written not taking into consideration the possibility of translating the audio description (Jankowska 2015). This interesting process (Orero 2007) is epigonic to the actual process of translation of the source text, be it by subtitling, dubbing or voice-over. For each case a different type of audio description will be adequate. In the first case audio subtitling, or audio subtitling with audio description (Braun & Orero 2010) will be the candidate. When the series is dubbed, audio description, as that described in this article, will be suitable. Special consideration should be paid to translating issues, such as localization and the different approaches to deal with reality (Matamala & Rami 2009, Maszerowska and Mangiron 2014). Finally when dealing with voice-over, Szarkowska (2011) proposes using speech technologies which is a very interesting possibility with added financial attractiveness and should not be dismissed. Audio description can be studied from many perspectives, all complementary, and studies dealing with audio description technologies related to film or TV genre should also be a part of the immediate research agenda.

Dialogue list availability offers the possibility of translating both the dialogues and the extra information added in brackets, which could be used as an audio description. A table has been created, where all the added information from the dialogue list, has been classified. The purpose of this classification is to have at a glance the type of information which is on offer. The resulting table offers the possibility of a comparative study on the nature of audio descriptions, and also to ascertain the AD textual type. It will be interesting to compare the different ADs created with or without dialogue list information, and its translations.

Looking at the list of dialogues there is a column of actions with the most entries, against emotions with the least. This perhaps reinforces Monaco’s (1977) comment regarding television as a medium where emotions are not fully developed:

Television is not only better equipped than most other media to deal with subtle development of character; it is also conversely poor equipped to succeed with other basic dramatic elements. Because it is much less intense than cinema (it gives us less visual and aural information), action and spectacle come off more poorly than in the movie or theatre. And because it is certainly less intimate than live theatre, It can’t deal as well with the high drama of ideas and emotions. (Monaco 1977: 542)

7. Conclusion

The article has presented the many common, formal features present in a drama TV series: the textual typology, narratological units, the organization and presentation of information, and also the different modes. A descriptive analysis of all the information available has paved the way for proposing different AD strategies which could be taken into consideration when embarking in the audio description for a series.

The article has not looked into the issue of the voice reading the audio description. This is poignant and not much information is offered by any academic publication. When dealing with the audio describer the role seems to stop when the script is created. Guidelines regarding voices used --sex, age, and variety -- are hard to come by. For TV series there are two possibilities, to extend the Ofcom (2015) recommendation for audiodescription of series to the delivery since using the same person, as recommended

“Ideally, the same people should be used to describe a series of programmes, both to ensure a consistent style (e.g. in terms of level of detail) and because the description forms a part of the programme for users” (Ofcom, 2015: PointA.34). In this case the same voice being used for a long period of time has the risk of becoming one more character. It also has the dubbing effect risk. When the voice used for describing a soap opera is used for another AVT product there is a instant transportation of one programme to the other, as is the case with East Enders  (2015) and The Great British Bakeoff (2015). Watching the latter with audio description had the instant association to East Enders as if the audio describer was a character from “the square” which had moved to “the tent”. The use of different voices may break with the association of a voice to a programme. Perhaps the same effect of dubbing countries may take place and audience gets use to the same voices as in Spain for example where Marlon Brando has the same voice as Cary Grant, Richard Harris and Tony Curtis.

Looking at the special issues, which are at present under research from different perspectives – characterisation, emotion, time, continuity, etc. – the article has finished with some reflection on the possible ways of tackling audio description, taking into account the source text and the many translation possibilities. The material presented shows the field of audio description, some of the many research avenues, and the urge to engage other academic fields in this research since there is much work to be taken on board before we can draw some meaningful conclusions and really useful guidelines.


[2] This research is supported by the grant from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation FFI2012-39056, the Catalan Government funds 2014SGR027, and also the EU Projects HBB4ALL # 621014 ( and ACT # 2015-1-ES01-KA203-015734 (

[5] The same could be said about subtitles, and more poignantly for West Wing since they only have subtitles in the first 5 series, from series 6 only French and Spanish subtitles are on offer. No SDH subtitles were on offer in any of the series.

[7] "Sehr dialogreiche Filme, vor allem aber Fernsehserien führen dagegen zu einer Einschränkung. Es ist dort oft unmöglich, die notwendigen Informationen auf die wenigen und dann meist kurzen Dialogpausen zu beschränken, insbesondere, wenn auch noch ausführlichere Beschreibungen der Personen eingefügt werden sollen. In solchen Fällen haben wir entschieden, nicht unbedingt notwendige Dialogstellen auszuwählen und sie mit der Beschreibung zu übersprechen. Natürlich muss dies immer behutsam und mit viel Respekt vor dem Film geschehen. Technisch ist dies auch nur bei Fernsehausstrahlungen kein Problem, da ja eine völlig neue Mischung von Filmton plus Audio-Description gemacht wird. Bei Live-Vorführungen ist ein Übersprechen nicht möglich! [Benecke’s translation.]

[8] In a private communication July 2010.

About the author(s)

Pilar Orero holds an MA in Translation from the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (Spain) and a PhD from UMIST (UK). She is the coordinator of the post-graduate course on Audiovisual Translation On-line. She also works as a translator for voice-over for TV channels such as BBC North, Granada TV, and TV2 (Spain).

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Pilar Orero (2016).
"Audio Describing the TV series The West Wing"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Text of Many Colours: Subtitling The West Wing into Croatian

Subtitling The West Wing into Croatian

By Kristijan Nikolić (University of Zagreb)

Abstract & Keywords

This article deals with the subtitling of The West Wing in Croatia, showing the subtitler’s perspective of this process and exploring translating culture in subtitling. The process of subtitling is characterized by constraints, both temporal and spatial. While subtitling a fast-paced TV-series such as this one, the subtitler should keep in mind that viewers should be able to follow the programme, and s/he should adapt the subtitles accordingly. The audiovisual text used as a background for this paper is the 10th episode of the first season of “The West Wing” entitled “In Excelsis Deo”, which is ridden with instances of possible adaptation challenges. The article is based on an interview with the subtitler of “The West Wing”, which was broadcast by the Croatian public broadcaster (HRT), and on theoretical research or rendering culture in subtitling.

Keywords: subtitlers, Croatian TV, fast-paced TV series, culture, audiovisual translation

©inTRAlinea & Kristijan Nikolić (2016).
"Text of Many Colours: Subtitling The West Wing into Croatian"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

1. Introduction: the subtitler’s perspective

The TV series The West Wing (1999-2006) was broadcast by Croatian Radio and Television[1] almost simultaneously with its broadcasting in the United States and it had a large following among viewers. It was translated as Zapadno krilo, which is the correct Croatian translation of the part of the White House in which the US President’s office is located, as in the original title. To be able to better understand the issues behind the subtitling of this TV-series, I conducted an interview with Mr. Damir Štefotić, the subtitler who subtitled all seasons of this TV-series for the HRT, except for the last one. Mr. Štefotić has been working as a subtitler for 16 years and what follows is an interview conducted in May 2011:

Q1. What were the most complicated issues in the subtitling of this TV- series?

Answer: The TV-series is wonderful, among other things, because it is full of interesting and amusing dialogues, but it is also extremely fast-paced, which is a big problem in adapting it for subtitles. There were several problematic issues I encountered in the subtitling of this TV-series:

a) Fast-paced dialogue exchanges: a lot of text in a short time. All the characters talk a lot and they talk quickly, very often cutting one another off. It was sometimes difficult to decide what to include in the subtitle and what to leave out.

b) It is of the utmost importance to be well-equipped with knowledge of the American political system and the jargon the characters use (lots of acronyms; frequent references to various political and state institutions; references to committees and councils which usually do not have an equivalent in Croatia; references to politicians and NGOs which are not necessarily well-known outside the United States; the way the two-party system functions in the USA, etc.)

c) Even though this is a drama, and a TV-series that could be dubbed “serious”, there are many jokes, witticisms, proverbs and other culture-specific terms for which it was necessary to find suitable equivalents understandable to the viewers.

Q2. On a scale from 1 to 10, which mark would you give to the complexity of subtitling this TV-series and why?

Answer: Very complicated, 9. This has been perhaps the most complicated material I have ever subtitled. As I have already said: with a lot of text, it is difficult to decide what goes into subtitles and what not. Furthermore, the text is rather complicated and a subtitler has to conduct extensive research in books, dictionaries and on the Internet.

Q3. Which of the episodes of The West Wing was the most complicated to subtitle?

Answer: The first episode of the first season was the most difficult to subtitle. I had to get into the story and one should not forget that this episode was broadcast at a time before the Internet and Google. Not to mention the fact that old technology was used in subtitling at that time, as well as complicated subtitling software.

Q4. How did you decide which culture-specific terms to leave in the original and which to paraphrase or replace with a cultural equivalent more accessible for the Croatian viewer? Namely, on the basis of what were you choosing strategies while subtitling, on your intuition about what viewers might know or not know, or on something else? If so, what did you rely on?

Answer: It’s a good question. I often had to rely on my own intuition about what viewers might know, although I supposed that people who watched the TV series probably knew something about the subject matter. I think those curious, but not informed about the subject matter and not very interested in the goings-on at the White House, gave up following the TV-series after the first couple of episodes. I also sometimes talked to my colleagues-subtitlers about it, as well as with the fans of the TV-series, and that helped a bit in the decision-making process.

Q5. Did you know anything about the  target viewers? Did the HRT send you any feedback?

Answer: I didn’t get any feedback from the HRT, but from friends and acquaintances who watched the TV-series. It was allegedly very popular in the Croatian President’s office, at least that’s a rumour that reached me at some point. The TV series was definitely not easy to follow for an average viewer not particularly acquainted with the subject matter and there are no action scenes in it or spectacular scenery, which would attract a wider TV-audience.

2. Subtitling a fast paced TV series ridden with elements of culture

The issue of spatial and temporal limitations in subtitling is discussed in Ivarsson and Carroll’s seminal book on subtitling entitled Subtitling (1998).

Some people talk nineteen to the dozen with words tumbling out so fast that they manage to say in a few seconds three to four times as much as there is space for in the two subtitle lines below the picture. Just visualise an excited crowd and a cacophony of voices and the problems associated with them! In such cases the dialogue obviously has to be condensed, which means selecting what to translate and what to omit. These two processes are undoubtedly the most difficult elements of the art of subtitling (Ivarsson and Carroll 1998:85).

Since the publication of Subtitling, there has practically been no article or book written on subtitling that doesn’t mention this problem since it is indeed rather obvious. Díaz Cintas and Remael write about “total” and “partial reduction” in subtitling (2007:146). For them, “partial reduction is achieved through condensation and a more concise rendering of the ST. Total reduction is achieved through deletion or omission of lexical items” (ibid.).

In a TV series such as The West Wing this problem is even more evident since the subtitler is faced with a number of culturally specific terms, called ECRs, or extra-linguistic cultural references, by Pedersen (2007 and 2011), or ECs, elements of culture, (Nikolić, 2012). Pedersen’s classification was used in the analysis of the elements of culture extracted from In Excelsis Deo since it is considered comprehensive enough for the study of culture in subtitling. As we can see in section one of this paper, the Croatian subtitler mostly had to rely on his intuition, since there are very few surveys of viewers (Gambier 2003:184) on which a subtitler could rely, and that was the case when this TV series was subtitled into Croatian. However, when a subtitler relies on intuition, it is possible that their intuition may not meet the expectations and knowledge of the viewers. Intuition is a rather individual matter and may include aspects such as prejudice on the part of the subtitler. For instance, a subtitler may hold prejudice against his/her viewers and consider them rather ill informed about many cultural references present in the source text. This may lead to paraphrasing and explicitation in instances when that is unnecessary. On the other hand, a subtitler may think too highly of his/her TV viewers, and may expect them to be quite familiar with the elements of culture of the ST. Even if a subtitler knew that for instance 30% of the viewers of the tenth episode of the first season of The West Wing were familiar with most cultural references and 70% were not, the decision making process in subtitling would not be easy since there would be 30% of viewers who would possibly be unhappy with the choices made in translation. This leads us to the conclusion that the subtitler is doing his/her job wrongly, at least partly, at all times.

However, decisions have to be made in subtitling rather quickly and TV series must be subtitled for the target audience. When subtitling a TV series, a fact confirmed by Mr. Štefotić in section one of this paper, the most difficult episode is episode one when the subtitler has to shape the style and the register that will be used in subsequent episodes. Furthermore, the subtitler needs to “slow down” the fast-paced paced dialogue that is used in such a TV-series. Namely, the translation must fit into the country and client norms as regards the duration of subtitles. In the case of Croatia, the standard is 4-7 seconds for a two-liner, and 2-4 for a one-liner (Nikolić 2005). In the case of this TV series, a subtitler is faced with the same problem of guaranteeing the viewers consistency in following the programme. Consistency refers to using the same translation for an element of culture, for instance, throughout the TV-series, in all its episodes, which means that the subtitler has a difficult job when faced with an element of culture for the first time. Let us use the example of NSA, National Security Agency, which might have been mentioned for the first time in one of the episodes of The West Wing. The subtitler must decide whether to use the abbreviation the first time around, or perhaps to use the full form. If the full form is used, the question is whether to use the Croatian translation or the English original. While subtitling a TV-series such as The West Wing, the subtitler is constantly faced with such choices. Country norms are of course not invented just to make the subtitler’s life difficult, but to enable viewers to follow even the most dialogue-ridden programmes. Lack of consistency may be rather frustrating for the TV-audience, and one of the means of ensuring consistency is commissioning only one subtitler for the subtitling of a whole series, which is not always possible. As we can see in section one, this was the case at HRT with The West Wing in Croatia, excluding the last season. However, this practice is no longer pursued very often at commercial broadcasters, which usually give shorter deadlines and usually several subtitlers work on the subtitling of a TV-series. Communication among subtitlers, especially today when Internet and e-mail are standard methods of communication is not difficult and subtitlers can now, in 2016, work on one TV series more easily and effectively than during the subtitling of The West Wing. Notwithstanding this, subtitlers are pressed with short deadlines and that presents a rather serious obstacle for effective communication among subtitlers. Subtitlers may even manage to achieve consistency at the level of terminology, which is important in a TV series, but it is unlikely that they will achieve consistency at the level of style.

Lexical consistency is difficult to achieve in subtitling documentaries and other non-fictional programmes, since the subtitler must be careful in the process of reducing the amount of text in the translation. For instance if a subtitler omits the translation of the already mentioned NSA in the second minute of the documentary, faced with temporal and spatial restrictions, and the NSA is mentioned again in the 15th and 22nd minute of the documentary, they have to go back to minute two and include this element of culture in the translation, which is time-consuming. The West Wing contains many factual elements of culture, which may be, as in a documentary, mentioned throughout an episode or in more than one episode, while these factual elements of culture are intertwined with fictional dialogues and events. In such a “documentarial” TV-series, the subtitler is also faced with another challenge: distinguishing between fictional and non-fictional. This implies thorough checking and double-checking of all elements of culture, and words that look like elements of culture, but are actually fiction. An example of this issue of fiction that resembles fact is the American TV-series Alias (2001-2006) that was broadcast on HRT. The TV-series is entirely fictional, while it is at the same time full of elements of culture, such as locations and institutions, and potential elements of culture. The potential elements of culture are those that resemble the elements of culture, although they are actually a product of the scriptwriter’s imagination, and distinguishing between the two may be a subtitling challenge in some TV-series and films. For instance various abbreviations, that may be fictional or not, or names of associations and organizations. In the case of Alias, there were a number of organizations used in the script that actually do not exist.

Since the tenth episode of the first season of The West Wing entitled In Excelsis Deo, as well as all others, contains much more text than can be subtitled because of the already mentioned restrictions and country norms regarding the duration of subtitles, parts of the ST must be reduced, either “partially” or “totally” (Díaz Cintas and Remael 2007:146). Croatian subtitling country norms do not prescribe, i.e. limit, the number of speakers per subtitle and the subtitler may include as many dialogue exchanges as he/she wishes, unlike in some other countries where there may only be two speakers per subtitle, for instance in Scandinavian countries (Pedersen 2007:86). However, if all dialogue exchanges, especially the short ones, were included in the subtitle, the viewer would have difficulty in following the programme. Therefore, the easiest things to exclude are the short answers, such as “yes” or “no”. These may be totally reduced, as well as the number of speakers. If there are two speakers whose dialogue should be inserted into a two-liner of five seconds, and there are two more who only say “yes”, or “no” in those five seconds, which is frequent in In Excelsis Deo, the other two may also be totally reduced, excluded. But let us turn our attention to the elements of culture and their reduction and rendering in general in the tenth episode of The West Wing’s first season: in In Excelsis Deo.

3. Subtitling American culture into Croatian

Pedersen distinguishes between “transcultural”, “monocultural” and “infracultural ECRs” (Perdersen 2010:73), adding that “knowing when a cultural item is monocultural is half the battle for producing culturally fluent subtitles” (75). In the case of In Excelsis Deo, one of the challenges is to determine whether an element of culture belongs to one Pedersen’s three categories of ECRs. The bigger problem, if not one of the biggest in this instance, is to “give a new life” to the monocultural elements for which there is no standard or accepted Croatian translation. Another issue is the question of how to subtitle the already rather familiar elements of culture such as, for instance, the Federal Reserve, which are very often translated as Federalne rezerve, i.e. literally translated into Croatian, although the term actually refers to the US central bank. Let us examine some of the elements of culture that appear in In Excelsis Deo.

As Mr. Štefotić points out in his interview, one of the prerequisites for the following of this TV-series is a substantial degree of cultural literacy as regards American culture. In the very beginning of In Excelsis Deo, Steve Gould is mentioned. Steve Gould is an abbreviation for Steven Charles Gould, an American writer. The viewer has to know who Steven Gould is to be able to fully understand the mention of this author and all connotative meanings this name may carry. The subtitler may not totally reduce this name since there may be viewers who are familiar with it, not to mention that there may be those who have read books by him. If such a relatively unknown name, which is again a personal impression, is mentioned more than once, it may become a serious issue in the process of subtitling the episode, especially if dialogues don’t reveal anything more than the name and the scriptwriter presupposes the familiarity of this name with the general public. In such instances, the subtitler may at least resort to explicitation, if temporal and spatial limitations allow for it, add author Steve Gould in the translation. On the other hand, adding words such as author in such fast-paced subtitles means that another part of the text needs to be omitted in TT and is not straightforward.

Several seconds later in the episode, the term D.C. is mentioned. The Croatian subtitler will, whenever possible, resort to substituting this term with Washington, since Washington stands for the capital of the United States for the Croatian viewer, unlike for the American, to whom it may mean The State of Washington, one of the 50 states that form the United States, or George Washington, one of the founding fathers of the United States. All other “Washingtons” would have to be further explained to the Croatian viewer, Washington State would have to be Savezna država Washington, or at least država Washington, since the Croatian viewer may easily mistake it for D.C. Savezna država Washington would be the most appropriate and a safe choice for the subtitler, however, it is rather obvious what sort of a challenge that is for the subtitler, given the spatial and temporal restrictions of subtitling. A subtitler may choose to reduce the dialogue by as much as 50 % if it is fast-paced (Gottlieb 2005:20) and in this TV-series this may indeed be necessary. Therefore presuming, like Mr. Štefotić, that those unfamiliar with the subject matter of this TV series simply give up watching it, the subtitler may decide to use the D.C. from the ST in his/her TT.

The fourth minute of In Excelsis Deo brings yet another frequent subtitling issue and that is a monocultural element of culture used as an abbreviation: “You’re gonna call the V.A.”? The V.A. stands for “Veteran Affairs” or “The United States Veteran Affairs”. In Croatia, there is a similar body, a ministry instituted upon the completion of the Croatian Homeland War of the 1990s which is in charge of the War veterans. The subtitler may also resort to cultural substitution in this instance. However, this is impossible in this case as there is neither an official nor an unofficial abbreviation for Minstarstvo hrvatskih branitelja, which is the full form of the Croatian ministry in charge of war veterans. The subtitler will in such an instance use the full translated form of the V.A., which would be Ministarstvo vetereana or a similar expression and will resort to the method of “cutting off” or partial deletion, which means cutting off the “unnecessary” parts of the dialogue from the previous or the following subtitle (or both) to gain more time to be able to insert the full form of the Department. The question “You’re gonna call the V.A.”? is followed by “V.A.?”, another question by another speaker. The subtitler may also resort to the total reduction of the second question if he/she concludes that it is absolutely necessary that the viewers clearly know what V.A. means, and in the case of this episode it is, since one of the stories of this episode is the story of a homeless war veteran.

Marine batallion is mentioned in the fourth minute of In Excelsis Deo. Since this culturally specific item, Marine, is rather frequent in American TV-series and films, especially in those concerning war, it is usually translated into Croatian as marinac, since the marine is a special member of the American Army infantry specialized in naval assaults. This is an example of a culturally specific element of culture that has become so familiar to the Croatian viewer that it has a Croatian translation.

The beating up of a gay high-school senior, which is mentioned in In Excelsis Deo and is one of the topics of this episode of The West Wing, is a hate crime that is not very common in Croatia, because gay high school seniors usually don’t ‘come out’, but it is not incomprehensible. The issue as regards subtitling here is terminology. Namely, in Croatian, there is no politically correct term for a homosexual except for homoseksualac. The noun gay is then usually replaced with homoseksualac, or it is sometimes left in the original form: gay, written in italics as a foreign word. All other terms denoting a homosexual in Croatian are either terms of almost endearment, such as homić, or, more often, they are derogatory terms, such as for instance peder and tetka. The word gay is mentioned more than once in this episode of The West Wing and one can only imagine the difficulty the subtitler has when replacing gay with homoseksualac, namely a word with three letters in the ST that can be uttered very quickly in such a fast-paced TV-series, with a 13-letter one in the written form of TT. This example highlights one of the many difficulties a subtitler is faced with because of the differences between languages and also because of the dangers if the subtitler is not aware of which terms are politically correct and which are used derogatively. Although this instance is rather obvious, that is the subtitler will probably know which term to use, there are other instances when the issue of using politically correct form is not particularly straightforward.

The term Secretary of Labor, mentioned in the 14th minute of this episode, may easily be mistranslated into Croatian. This term is usually translated as tajnik into Croatian, for instance the UN Secretary General is glavni tajnik UN-a in Croatian. This element of culture underlines the importance of the need for thorough knowledge of the American political system when subtitling The West Wing, but not only The West Wing since elements of the US political system are often referred to in TV-series and films in which one would not even expect it, for instance in low-budget action films. The subtitler must know that the secretary is actually a minister in the Croatian political system and that it would be best to replace it with ministar rada. However, a more critical subtitler may say that this is too domesticated, and that perhaps, since the American political system is different from the Croatian, this element of culture should be foreignized, and translated as tajnik. It is quite likely that almost every subtitler who is knowledgeable about the American political system would translate this term as ministar in Croatian. However, one may wonder whether this term must always be fully domesticated. If it appears in situations, texts, aimed at experts, for instance diplomats who are well aware of the American political and governmental system, foreignization may be a more obvious choice.

Medical school is mentioned in the 16th minute of In Excelsis Deo and it is a textbook example of an element of culture that may easily be mistranslated in Croatian. Because of the differences between the Croatian and the American educational systems (Nikolić, 2012) the subtitler may easily mistranslate Medical school as medicinska škola, which is in fact a nursing high-school in Croatia. This does happen, especially in DVD translations, which are usually of appalling quality. The reason is usually not quite so much the lack of knowledge, as the pressures subtitlers are faced with because of the lack of time, namely because of short deadlines and low fees which push them to work hard and fast.

The Washington Monument is mentioned In Excelsis Deo as well and although this is not a significant subtitling problem, this element of culture demonstrates the importance of the need Mr. Štefotić says he relied on, the knowledge of the audience. Mr. Štefotić says that he believes that this TV series’ viewers were more familiar with the subject matter. The monument has a strong symbolic value in American history and culture and that may not be rendered in translation, as the connotative meaning is left out. This TV series is teeming with elements of culture such as this one, and the subtitler can only hope that viewers have the background knowledge that is necessary to follow such a programme.

There are other elements of culture which demand special attention in subtitling in In Excelsis Deo, to name just a few: James Adams, Georgetown, The Nature of Things, Rare Books, Life of Epicurus, Chesapeake, Purple Heart, Republican, civics lesson, IRS, Keynote Kops, Mural Room, and others, not to mention idiomatic expressions such as “to float a test balloon”. This makes the subtitling of this TV series into Croatian like walking in a mine field[2]. The differences between the two cultures, the American and the Croatian, are surely among the reasons for that.

4. Differences between American and Croatian culture

Some of the differences were illustrated in the previous section. The underlying difference between American and Croatian culture, relevant for the subtitling of The West Wing, is the difference between the two political systems.

The institution of the president is not a strong position in Croatia in terms of the power the president is given, since the situation changed after the constitutional changes were introduced at the beginning of the 2000s, giving the president only limited powers, while most of the executive powers are in the hands of the government led by the prime minister. Even though many Croatians respect the institution of the President, the fact is that it is nothing like the role of the president in the United States. The President of the United States is effectively the head of the US Government, and that means that he has different powers and plays a role similar to that of the Croatian government.

However, the differences between the two cultures are not perceptible only in the sphere of political culture. As Mr. Štefotić says in section one of this paper, this TV-series is full of amusing dialogues, which also means jokes that may be culture specific and difficult to subtitle, not to mention the historical and geographical references, some of which were mentioned in the previous chapter. Cultural differences, as we have seen in this paper, stem from areas such as education and place names, but they may also be reflected in all walks of life, for instance in terms of address, family relations, habits, customs, and many others.

The cultural specificity of this TV-series is one of the most challenging aspects of subtitling it into Croatian, even though it is not always clear which aspects of it are clearly “monocultural” (Pedersen: 2010:73), since many aspects of American culture have permeated other cultures or have at least become well-known or relatively well-known to other cultures. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of subtitling this TV-series into Croatian is to determine, on a very practical level, the degree of familiarity of the Croatian viewer with American culture, while the subtitler is left mostly with only one resource in that process: personal intuition.

5. Conclusion

Without a clear picture of what viewers may and may not know, subtitling as a process is often based on individual expectations and observations of the subtitler, as has been confirmed by Mr. Štefotić, the Croatian subtitler of The West Wing. Now in 2016 reception studies in AVT are more common than they used to be at the time of the creation of Croatian subtitles for In Excelsis Deo. Yet, reception studies are rarely used by practicing subtitlers as a source of information or learning material, and this gap could be bridged by offering short courses to subtitlers presenting results of such studies, that may help subtitlers to rely less on intuition only.

This paper has shown, relying on Pedersen’s classification of cultural elements in AVT, the difficulties subtitlers are faced with when rendering, especially monocultural or culture-specific elements of culture. The interview with the subtitlers was used to try and shed more light on the practical aspects of subtitling and to see whether what is theoretically difficult, is indeed the biggest challenge for the subtitler. This paper shows that subtitlers rely on intuition when it comes to dealing with culture-specific elements in subtitling, rather than research or study of these elements. Broadcasters in Croatia are not particularly interested in conducting research into audience needs and expectations as regards subtitling, and the subtitler doesn’t have a choice but to rely on his/her own resources, and intuition, as Mr Štefotić confirms.

Another layer of analysis of the translation of In Excelsis Deo could be the study of the amount of the text that is reduced or left out in the TT. Yet, such analysis should perhaps be useful only if conducted in combination with an eye-tracker that would determine what these reductions mean to the viewer and how they react to reductions. Namely, subtitles are an integral part of the image and the parts of the ST that are omitted in TT may be explained by that image.

Given the spatial and temporal constraints of subtitling, especially in a TV-series such as this one, subtitling may seem like one of the worst jobs there are, since it involves fast decision making and cutting sometimes large amounts of ST, whilst it has to enable full understanding of the programme to viewers. However, as confirmed by Mr. Štefotić, subtitling a TV-series such as The West Wing may also be quite rewarding, which is why he describes this TV-series as “wonderful”. Although challenging, subtitling a high-quality TV-series such as The West Wing enables the subtitler to be the mediator between two cultures in the true sense of the word, and it may also be a learning process for the subtitler, both cultural and linguistic, and the viewer. Subtitling, on the other hand, may be a lonely job, and what is “wonderful” for one subtitler may be quite horrible for another, and that very individual aspect may influence the TT to a great extent. Mediation between cultures is a serious, responsible and difficult task, as may be seen in the example of In Excelsis Deo. After studying literature on rendering culture in subtitles, conducing the interview with the subtitler of this TV series into Croatian, and studying concrete examples from the Croatian version of In Excelsis Deo, one may conclude that subtitling, especially a TV series such The West Wing, is a hard, intellectual, cognitively demanding job with a value which should not be undermined. This explains why subtitling has already been the topic of scholarly investigation for several decades.


Alias. 2001-2006. Creator: J.J. Abrams. Perf. Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, and Carl Lumbly. Touchstone Televison, Bad Robot. TV-series.

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[1] (Date of access: 5th April, 2016).

[2] The former head of the Croatian Radio and Television’s Subtitling Department, Ms. Bojana Zeljko-Lipovšćak, compared subtitling with walking in a mine field, trying to say that often the subtitler walks onto a mine, i.e., makes a mistake such as mistranslation on misunderstanding of the context.

About the author(s)

Kristijan Nikolić holds an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Zagreb and a Ph.D. in Translation Studies from the University of Vienna. He is a senior lecturer in the English Department, Faculty of Humanities, University of Zagreb. He teaches English and American culture and translation, both on undergraduate and MA level, and he also works as a freelance subtitler. He is a member of the Executive Board of ESIST and the president of the Croatian Association of Audiovisual Translators. In 2013 he organized Media for All 5 conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. His research interests include interlingual subtitling and the study of culture. He has published papers and book chapters on subtitling.

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©inTRAlinea & Kristijan Nikolić (2016).
"Text of Many Colours: Subtitling The West Wing into Croatian"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

In Sweden, we do it like this

On cultural references and subtitling norms

By Jan Pedersen (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Abstract & Keywords

What would the VA say if Al Roker was a Keystone Kop at Panmunjon? Subtitling is not just a matter of linguistic transfer; building bridges between cultures is every bit as important. This article is based on a subtitled translation of the episode of The West Wing which is the basis for this issue of inTRAlinea. The episode has been subtitled using established Swedish subtitling norms for television. These norms are of two kinds, partly technical, dealing with expected reading speed, subtitle density and condensation, and also translation-related. In this article the translation norms under discussion are those that govern the translation of extralinguistic cultural references (ECRs), i.e. references that are expressed verbally, but which refer to cultural items outside of language, such as names of people and places (like Al Roker or Panmunjon). A model for rendering such references in subtitled translations is presented; it consists of two parts: a taxonomy of translation strategies, and a series of parameters that influence the choice of translation strategy. This model is applied to the ECRs in the episode, using Swedish subtitling norms. The results are presented and complex cases are discussed further, as we find out how we can make a target audience understand the connotations of those bungling Keystone Kops.

Keywords: cultural references, subtitling, norms, translations strategies, west wing, audiovisual translation

©inTRAlinea & Jan Pedersen (2016).
"In Sweden, we do it like this"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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Scandinavia has for good reasons been described as a bastion of subtitling (Ivarsson & Carroll 1998). In this part of the world, there is a very long and solid tradition of subtitling, with other forms of audiovisual translation (AVT) being marginalized. Dubbing and voice-over are almost exclusively used for pre-literate audiences, and while there is some versioning of off-screen narration, subtitling is so prevalent as to dwarf any other mode of interlingual AVT. For further details on this, and a discussion of AVT for accessibility purposes, the reader is referred to Pedersen (2010a).

Subtitling is a norm-governed activity and the norms that govern Swedish subtitling are laid out in guidelines and other prescriptive documents, and they have also been investigated in a major study (Pedersen 2007a; cf below). This study conclusively showed that Scandinavian subtitling norms are converging, so that Swedish subtitling norms for television are very similar to those of its neighbouring countries. The study also produced a descriptively based model for how cultural references are rendered. This article tests that model by applying it, and other professional subtitling norms, to The West Wing episode ‘In Excelcis Deo’. Rather than investigating the subtitles that were used when the episode was aired and judge to what extent they comply with the norms, new professional subtitles were created by the present author, who apart from being a translation scholar, is also a professional subtitler. The reason for this is partly that such investigations have already been carried out (cf. Pedersen 2011), and partly that this approach gives full access to the subtitling process and tests how the model works as professional tool and it also illuminates the reasoning behind any and all of the complicated translation decisions that are made by the subtitler.

When a proficient translator goes about his or her task, there are stretches of text that are fairly smooth and straightforward, and where the processes involved call for what Lörscher (1991: 81) calls non-strategic behaviour. There are also, however, text features that call for strategic behaviour; features that need the translator’s full attention and where she or he will have to carry out more conscious decision-making. I call these features ‘translation crisis points’ (TCPs; cf. Pedersen 2007a: 89 ff or Remael & Vercauteren 2010: 158 ff). Examples of these in the text that this issue of inTRAlinea is concerned with are puns and other witticisms, high-speed dialogue, the semiotic interplay between dialogue and the visual signs and so on and so forth. One very striking type of TCP is the ubiquitous cultural references that are found in the text. The rendering of cultural items is the main focus of the analysis, and the translation that was created for this article. Hence, after a preliminary section on technical norms in Scandinavia, the rest of this article is devoted to the norm-guided rendering of potential verbal cultural translation problems that I call ‘extralinguistic cultural references’ (ECRs).

Technical considerations for this part of the world

Technical subtitling norms used to differ substantially in Scandinavia. This is due to the fact that for a long time, public service companies were the sole providers – and commissioners – of subtitles, and they developed their own styles, norms and software. The development was not completely dissimilar among the neighbouring countries, but the norms developed in parallel, rather than as a result of much cooperation. It was not until the advent of de-monopolization in the early nineties that the Scandinavian norms started to converge. Multinational TV channels used multinational subtitling agencies that saw the whole of the region as one market. It made sense for these new agents to harmonize the norms for the region, in order to benefit from joint tasks, such as using centrally cued master template files for the subtitled translations. This can be seen to have had an impact on the Scandinavian mediascape from the middle of the nineties, and after the new millennium some of the new norms were used in public service broadcasting as well, as the national broadcasters started to outsource their subtitling. Even though minor differences may still be found, the three important norms described below have converged almost completely (Pedersen 2007a: 65ff).

Expected Reading speed

This is the speed with which the reader is expected to read a subtitle, rather than the speed with which a reader actually reads a subtitle, on which there is precious little research. It used to be the case that the Swedish national broadcaster, SVT, worked with a very low reading speed in order to make the subtitles accessible to every single viewer, and to some degree, this is still their vision. However, just like Danish and Norwegian subtitles, Swedish TV subtitles nowadays adhere to the 12 cps rule, which says that a viewer is expected to read 12 characters (including blank spaces and punctuation marks) per second. This leads to exposure times of three seconds for a subtitle of one line (with 36 characters, which is normal), and 5­–6 seconds for a two-liner, as these can be read proportionately faster. The exposure times are getting shorter, however, and in DVD subtitling, it is not uncommon to see reading speeds of 16 cps or higher. The reading speed is supposed to be an absolute norm that should not be affected by the pace of the dialogue, but in practice, it is common to see lower subtitle exposure times, and thus higher expected reading speeds during very rapid dialogue, such as the opening scene in ‘In Excelsis Deo’.

Condensation rate

Condensation (or reduction) rate is a measure of how much shorter a subtitled text is as compared to its source text, using a simple word count. Sweden started to use the electronic time code for cueing fairly late, and that meant that manual cueing was still a common practice in Sweden until the mid- to late 1980s, when Denmark had been using electronic cueing for a decade already. Manual cueing is not as exact as electronic, which meant longer exposure times and more condensation of the verbal message. This difference has now almost completely disappeared, as shown in Pedersen 2007a, where no significant difference was found between Sweden and Denmark. The prevailing norm is now that about 30% of the original dialogue gets ‘lost in translation’. Losing 30% of the dialogue does not equate to losing 30% of the information being transmitted, however, given that much dialogue consists of redundant oral features and much of the information is also communicated in other ways via the audio and visual channels. The condensation rate is of course affected by the pace of the dialogue in the TV programme, and for The West Wing, with its sometimes very rapid dialogue (as in the aforementioned opening scene), some stretches of the text will have a higher condensation rate. On the other hand, there are slower passages, particularly in Toby’s quest for the homeless veteran, where there is hardly any condensation at all.

Subtitle density

The subtitle density is the number of subtitles in a film or TV programme in relation to its length. This is the only area where a significant difference can still be found between the Scandinavian norms, even though the difference is much smaller than it was as late as 1995. Typically, a Danish film would have 850 subtitles per film; whereas there would be fewer than 650 in the Swedish version of the same film. The difference is now much smaller, but a Danish target text (TT) will still typically have about 10 per cent more subtitles than a Swedish one (Pedersen 2007a:78). This difference is mainly due to the fact that Danish subtitlers tend to respect cuts in the source text (ST) more. This leads to a situation where Danish subtitlers tend to have more rapid one-liners, whereas the Swedish subtitling norm calls for more full two-liners. The harmonization of subtitle density, which imposed heavy block subtitles on Danish viewers, is what turned out to be the most unpopular of the changes that took place in the 1990s. The subtitling of The West Wing episode was done according to the Swedish norm, and thus contains quite a few full two-liners.

Extralinguistic Cultural References (ECRs)

When subtitling a text which is as culturally embedded as The West Wing, it quickly becomes apparent that more than linguistic transfer is called for. Cultural mediation is at least as important here, and the focus of this chapter is on describing the process of cultural mediation in subtitling when it comes to extralinguistic cultural references (ECRs). This process can be hard to investigate empirically, as it involves what is often un- or semiconscious decisions in the subtitler’s mind. In the present article, however, the subtitler’s decisions are available to the analyst, as the two are one, and the subtitles where created especially for this article. There is another way of gaining access to these decisions, however, which involves empirical investigation of subtitling products rather than the subtitling process. Granted, this does not give direct access to the process, but if the data is comprehensive enough, the results can be very reliable, as explained below.

I have developed a model for analysing the process of how ECRs are rendered in subtitling and why they are rendered in the ways that they are, and this also works the other way around. The model that helps researchers describe how ECRs are rendered can also be used as a resource for subtitlers to find out how ECRs can be rendered. The model was developed within the paradigm of descriptive translation studies and is thus empirically based. This means that, instead of prescriptively telling subtitlers how to go about their business, the model is based on a description of how actual subtitlers go about their business. This can then be used for instruction as to how the business of subtitling is performed, thus using empirical description as the basis for didactic instruction, and this is the main point of this article.

The model is based on the Scandinavian Subtitling project (Pedersen 2007a), which involved a corpus of 100 Anglophone films and TV programmes and at least one version each of the Danish and Swedish (plus quite a few Norwegian) subtitled translations of said texts. The texts come from many different genres, fiction as well as non-fiction, and from a mix of commercial and public service broadcasters. The findings of this project led to the model applied below. The model is tripartite: it contains a definition and delimitation of ECRs, a set of parameters that influence how ECRs are rendered and a taxonomy of strategies for rendering them. It could be seen as a tool kit for solving culture-based translation problems.

The model was used in Pedersen 2007a to reconstruct Scandinavian subtitling norms for translation shifts, using coupled pairs analysis (Toury 1995: 38).These norms say that Scandinavian subtitles tend to be source-oriented, though not extremely so, and they also give fairly clear indications on which translation strategy to use under which circumstances (Pedersen 2007a: 250-265), as will be outlined below. References to Scandinavian subtitling norms below are thus based on that study.

ECRs in general and in The West Wing

Extralinguistic Cultural Reference (ECR) is defined as reference that is attempted by means of any cultural[1] linguistic expression[2], which refers to an extralinguistic entity[3] or process. The referent of the said expression may prototypically be assumed[4] to be identifiable to a relevant audience[5] as this referent is within the encyclopaedic know­ledge of this audience. In other words, ECRs are references to places, people, institutions, customs, food etc. that you may not know even if you know the language in question. (Pedersen 2007a: 91)

The episode of The West Wing analysed here contains an abundance of ECRs, from several domains, and they have been rendered in accordance with Swedish TV norms. The main domains involved are obviously government, but also professional titles, entertainment, weights and measures, and due to the President’s visit to a rare bookstore, literature is also a noticeable domain. Typically, when dealing with ECRs, names make up the lion’s share of the data, and this episode is no different; there is an abundance of personal names, but also many geographical and institutional names. It should perhaps be mentioned that it is fairly common for an ECR name to belong to more than one domain. For instance, José Feliciano (1:07)[6] is a personal name, but he also belongs to the entertainment domain.

For a viewer to make sense of an utterance that contains an ECR, the viewer must be able to access the ECR in some way, i.e. understand to whom or what the ECR refers. By definition, an ECR cannot be accessed through linguistic knowledge alone; instead, a viewer can access an ECR in one of three ways:

  1. Encyclopaedically and intertextually, that is through the viewer’s cultural literacy of the world and other texts.
  2. Deictically, that is through deixis in the context or co-text.
  3. Through intervention from the subtitler, working as a cultural mediator. (Pedersen 2010b)

It could be argued that the greatest concern for the subtitler is to ascertain when i) and ii) do not apply and s/he will have to step in and actively guide the viewer. We will return to this issue presently, but let us first look at the tools that a subtitler has at her or his disposal for rendering ECRs.


The subtitler has basically seven ways of rendering an ECR. Three of these are minimum change strategies, and these are used when the referent of an ECR can be accessed either encyclopaedically or deictically. The minimum change strategies only involve surface-structure changes; no semantic material is added or removed. There are three more, which can be termed interventional, and which are used when a subtitler has decided to assist the viewer in accessing an ECR. Finally, the strategy of omission can be seen as being neither minimum change nor interventional. The strategies can be seen in the simplified taxonomy tree in figure 1, below.

Figure 1: Simplified taxonomy tree of ECR transfer strategies (based on Pedersen 2007a: 154)

Retention is by far the most common way of rendering an ECR in Scandinavia (Pedersen 2007a: 201). It means just transferring the ECR to the subtitles, with no, or only small adjustments to meet target language expectations, e.g. Lowell Lydell (8:30) rendered as ‘Lowell Lydell’.

Direct translation is not nearly as common as retention, but it is frequently used on ECRs that lend themselves to translation in Scandinavia (Pedersen 2007a: 210). In the text, there is the name of the bookstore Rare Books (19:38) which is translated directly into ‘Sällsynta Böcker’ in the Swedish subtitles.

Official Equivalents are not so much true strategies as prefabricated equivalents that subtitlers are required to use, unless circumstances make it impossible. A typical example would be rendering 83 degrees [Fahrenheit] (13:52) as ‘28 grader’ [centigrade], as the Celsius scale is officially adopted in Scandinavia. An official equivalent can be based on any of the other strategies in the taxonomy or on something completely different. The point is that the equivalent has either become entrenched through established usage or brought into existence through some administrative decision. An example of the latter is the title of the series (that is The West Wing (0:05)) which has to be rendered as ‘Vita Huset’ [the White House] in Swedish, as the Swedish distributors have decreed that this is what the series is to be called in Sweden.

Generalization means replacing the ST ECR with something that is more general, either by using a superordinate term (typically a hypernym or a meronym) or by using a paraphrase. The result is always something that is less specific and it often leads to what Leppihalme calls ‘reduction to sense’ (1994: 125). Generalization is mainly used for two reasons. It is either used as an interventional strategy to guide the viewers, or it is used to save subtitling space, whereby long and cumbersome phrases may be rendered by a briefer and more general TT solution (Pedersen 2007a: 212). Sometimes these two reasons are combined, as in example (1) where Toby laments the lack of respect the veteran gets:

TOBY: An hour and twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there. A Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh. I got better treatment at Panmunjong.

Ambulansen kom efter 80 minuter.

Han var marinkårskorpral. Jag blev
bättre behandlad i själva kriget.

Back translation:
The ambulance arrived after 80 minutes.
He was a Marine Corps Corporal.
I was treated better in the war itself.

The rather lengthy and complicated military ECR a Lance Corporal, United States Marines, Second of the Seventh was generalized as ‘marinkorpral’ [Marine Corporal]. This solution leaves out the details of the military references that would be hard for the TT viewer to process, and it also saves space. It also, of course, removes much of the local flavour of the ST, but then again, to render the connotations of the heroics carried out by the Second Battalion of the Seventh Marines within the brief space of the subtitle is a virtually impossible task. We will return to the other ECR in (1), i.e. Panmunjon, in example (6) below.

Specification is the complete opposite of generalization. Instead of ‘chunking up’ (Katan 2004: 199) the subtitler ‘chunks down’ and makes the TT message more specific than the ST message. This could be done for reasons of idiomaticity, as when holiday cheer (6:17) becomes ‘julglädje’ [Christmas cheer], but the strategy is more importantly used to aid the viewer in understanding the relevant function or connotations of the ST ECR. An example of this would be when Stephen J. Gould (1:10) is rendered as ‘forskaren Stephen J Gould’ [the scientist (or researcher) Stephen J Gould]. This is a very felicitous strategy for adding the information that might be lacking in the encyclopaedic knowledge of most TT viewers, without subtracting any ST information. Unfortunately, it is also very space-consuming, which means that it is a rarely used ‘luxury’ strategy, particularly in comparison with generalization, which aids the viewer and saves space, but at the cost of information loss. Scandinavian subtitling norms thus favour generalization rather than specification (Pedersen 2007a: 209).

Substitution means that the subtitler does not transfer the ECR at all, but substitutes it with something else. The replacing item can be a different ECR, either a similar one from the target culture (TC) or a more well-known ECR from the source culture (SC) or one from a third culture; this is called cultural substitution. It can also be something completely different that just works in context; this is called situational substitution. The latter option is basically a last resort when all other strategies would fail, and the subtitler just tries to come up with coherent subtitles. Fortunately, this is an extremely rare strategy in Scandinavia (Pedersen 2007a: 216). Cultural substitution, on the other hand, has a long history in Scandinavia and used to be a common way of rendering ECRs, particularly in Denmark (cf. Pedersen 2007b). These days in Sweden, the use of cultural substitution is limited to a few domains, one of which is government, and it is thus possible to replace the Secretary of Labor (14:45) with ‘Arbetsmarknadsminister’ [literally ‘labour market minister’]. This is the minister responsible for the work of the Labour Department in Sweden and thus a minister with similar tasks to that of the ST ECR.

Omission can, according to Leppihalme (1994: 93), be used responsibly, after testing and rejecting all other options, or irresponsibly, for lack of trying or caring. It should be pointed out that using omission responsibly is the only ethical way of translating. The media-specific constraints of subtitling make this a not uncommon strategy, particularly when the dialogue is very high-paced. For example, in the very rapid-fire dialogue in the opening scene, when the staff are discussing the preparations for the White House Christmas celebrations:

MANDY: Now, we have José Feliciano, we have Sammy Sosa and his wife...
SAM: Did you know that recordings of Feliz Navidad outsold recordings of White Christmas?

-Vi har José Feliciano och Sosa.
-Folk älskar Féliz Navidad.

Back translation:
-We have José Feliciano and Sosa.
-People love Feliz Navidad.

The only way of creating coherence in this fast-paced dialogue, is by omitting the ECR White Christmas and focussing on the more important (and apparently more popular) ECR Feliz Navidad, as can be seen in example (2) above.

These seven strategies are basically the subtitler’s tool-kit for dealing with ECRs. Just as hammers are not used to insert screws, however, certain strategies are only used with ECRs from certain domains under certain circumstances if the result is to be felicitous. On the other hand, just as a hammer actually can be used to insert a screw, if you do not care too much about the result, the ECR transfer tool kit can be used just as carelessly. However, if quality is to be a priority, certain circumstances will have to be taken into account. I call these circumstances influencing parameters, as they influence the choice of strategies used.

Influencing parameters

Just as the strategies above explain how an ECR can be rendered, the influencing parameters explain why an ECR is rendered in a certain way. The influencing parameters all deal with various aspects of ECRs, the medium and/or other aspects of the translation situation. They are intertwined and each can work for or against the subtitler in a given situation. However, knowing about them helps the subtitler make an informed decision when it comes to the rendering of ECRs. Just as for the strategies above, the influencing parameters are based on empirical description, and they can also be used for didactic instruction, which is the case here.

Transculturality refers to the familiarity of the ECR. In other words, it is a way of gauging how well-known an ECR is to the ST and TT audiences. Transculturality works on a cline, from ECRs that are virtually unknown, to ECRs that are virtually universal. However, for practical reasons, it is helpful to divide the cline into three parts: transcultural, monocultural and infracultural. Transcultural ECRs are ECRs that most people know about in the SC and the TC (it is irrelevant whether the ECRs are known in other cultures as well) e.g. Christmas (4:57), to use a rather obvious example. Infracultural ECRs are generally known by neither of the two audiences involved; examples of these could be any of the book-binding terminology ECRs that the President shows off at the rare bookstore. Infracultural and transcultural ECRs do not normally cause translation problems, as they would either be accessible through the audience’s encyclopaedic knowledge (transcultural ECRs) or would have to be made accessible deictically in the ST, as the ST writers cannot expect their primary audience to be aware of them either (infracultural ECRs). Monocultural ECRs, on the other hand, may cause translation problems as these are ECRs that are known to the ST audience, but not to the TT audience, and these are the ones that should be made accessible ‘translatorically’, i.e. by making use of interventional strategies. Gauging transculturality can be difficult at times (for a longer discussion on this, please see Pedersen 2010b), but it is important to do it properly, as you either patronize your audience, if you explain too much, or leave them in the dark, if you explain too little. The ST can sometimes help when it comes to this, as it can have clues to the original author’s transculturality appraisal, in other words how well-known the author has thought a particular ECR to be to his primary audience. A good example of this is (3) below, which represents the conversation that young Charlie has with Mrs Landingham about her twin boys, who were drafted and subsequently killed in Vietnam:

MRS LANDINGHAM: They went off to medical school together, and then they finished their second year, and of course their lottery number came up at the same time.
CHARLIE: For the draft?

The function of Charlie’s remark in example (3) is to elicit some elucidation for him and probably those members of the ST audience who are too young to remember the system of drawing a lottery number based on birthdays that was used for induction into active duty in Vietnam. This indicates that the ECR lottery numbers is on the border between monocultural and infracultural from a Swedish perspective, which means that it is certainly not transcultural, and should thus be treated accordingly. In this case, the ECR is made accessible through the co-text so there is no real problem here.

Extratextuality deals with the question of whether an ECR exists outside the text (or series of texts) at hand. If an ECR is text internal, it refers to something that has been specially created for this TV series, in our case, e.g. President Jed Bartlet. If an ECR is text external it has a life of its own outside the series, even though it may still be fictional. This distinction is important in that text internal ECRs do not normally cause translation problems as they have no real connection to reality, whereas text external ones have, and that limits the ways in which such ECRs can be rendered.

Centrality is a way of expressing how important an ECR is to the text at hand, and this works both on the micro level and the macro level. Since the main storyline in our ST is about Toby finding the dead tramp and his subsequent quest to have him buried with dignity, the ECR Korean War Vet (8:56) is central on the macro level and it is very important to ensure that this and other connected ECRs are accessible to the TT audience. If an ECR is peripheral on the macro level, a subtitler has more freedom of choice in the rendering of it, unless it happens to be central on the micro level, i.e. important for local level discourse. Furthermore, if it is peripheral on the micro level as well, how it is treated is no longer very important. This is illustrated in example (4), where the President asks Josh to join him in his shopping excursion to the rare bookstore and Josh replies:

JOSH: An hour with you in a rare bookstore? Couldn't you just drop me off the top of the Washington monument instead?

En timme med er i bokhandeln?
Kan ni inte döda mig istället?

Back translation:
An hour with you in the book store?
Couldn’t you kill me instead?

The ECR in (4), the Washington Monument, is peripheral even on the micro level, serving only as a colourful ingredient in Josh’s sarcastic reluctance to join his boss. Since the pace of the dialogue is rapid, I have deleted the ECR here and rendered the reply as the Swedish equivalent of ‘Couldn’t you kill me instead?’, which is admittedly less colourful but much shorter and has the same function in the conversation.

Polysemiotics (cf. Gottlieb 1997) is a term for the interplay between the verbal audio (that is the dialogue), the non-verbal audio (that is sound effects and music), the verbal visual (captions and other relevant on-screen text), and the non-verbal visual discourse channels that make up the polysemiotic texts that subtitlers translate. The polysemiotics can help or hinder the subtitler. If an ECR is shown on screen, for instance, it would not do to omit it or replace it with something else. In our ST, there is a great deal of interplay between the dialogue and the image, which influences the rendering of almost every ECR.

The co-text is actually part of the polysemiotics, but it is extra important as it has to be coherent, and can also be useful in making an ECR accessible, as we saw in example (3), lottery number. Also, if an ECR has been rendered accessible once, it can be rendered through retention on subsequent appearances in the text.

Media-specific constraints come in two kinds for subtitling. First, there is what Gottlieb calls semiotic jaywalking (2001: 16) in that the translation normally goes from source language spoken form to target language written form in subtitling. Second, there are the time and space constraints. These were explained above under technical considerations, so there is no need to reiterate them here. Suffice it to say that the constraints are often severe in the highly-paced dialogue of our ST.

The subtitling situation (Pedersen 2011: 115) gives rise to aspects that are not in the text, but rather about the text. These can be found through asking clusters of questions about various aspects, such as translation norms (both national and local), broadcasting (high prestige broadcaster? primetime TV?), TT audience (age group? level of education? expert or general?), the ST (genre? skopos? style? register?) and pragmatic aspects (deadlines? salary?). Even though the last one tends to be very important in reality, it is of little importance here, as the subtitles were produced as part of the preparations for the present article. Instead, questions about broadcasting and TT audience get priority here. The West Wing was aired in Sweden by the national public service broadcaster at prime time, which means that the subtitles should be of the highest quality, which they undoubtedly were, even though they are not used as the base for the present article. Thus, cutting corners by not researching ECRs should not be an option here. The TT audience probably consists of people of relatively high education and reasonably high age, who have an interest in American politics. They could be assumed to be familiar with many of the ECRs in the series. This means that when the President says that his daughter ‘Zoey is starting Georgetown [sic!] in two weeks’ the ECR Georgetown (22:41) can be retained in the subtitles, as the Swedish audience may have heard of this ECR, and there is also some guidance from the co-text, since the structure of the utterance makes it clear that it refers to a university.

What would the VA say if Al Roker was a Keystone Kop at Panmunjon?

The model above will help to solve any ECR-related translation crisis point, and most of them will be solved very easily. Under the circumstances laid down by the parameters, and given the domain of the ECR, the national norms will in most cases give the subtitler a sense of which strategy to use, or at least help to narrow the choice down to a couple of strategies. However, there are a few cases where the answer is less obvious, and these are the most interesting ones. In our ST, I found four such ECRs, and they are: the VA (4:39), Panmunjom (38:55), Al Roker (0:59), and The Keystone Kops (33:42). I carried out a reception study/brainstorming session with 21 English linguistics and/or translation scholars at Stockholm university, who had a crash course in using the model and then came up with solutions to these ECRs, and their (and my) solutions form the basis for the discussion that follows.

The VA

Toby Ziegler is called away to identify the dead body of a homeless man found on a park bench. Toby does not know the man, but is dismayed by the delay in removing the body, and by the apparent indifference of the authorities, represented by an officer from the DC police.  Part of their conversation goes like this:

TOBY: And then you’re gonna call the VA, right?
TOBY: Tattoo on his forearm is Marine Battalion Second of the Seventh. This guy was in Korea.

Sen kontaktar ni väl veteranbyrån?

Hans tatuering är från marinkårens
andra bataljon. Han slogs i Korea.

Back translation:
Then you will contact the veterans’ agency, I presume?
His tattoo is from the second battalion
of the marine corps. He fought in Korea.

It does not take a great deal of research to find out that the monocultural VA (which has no direct explanation in the co-text) is an abbreviation of the Department of Veterans Affairs, thus fully identifying the ECR. The problem for the subtitler is how this should be rendered in the Swedish subtitles. According to Swedish norms, government domain ECRs are normally rendered through cultural substitution (Pedersen 2007a: 217), using a similar TC ECR. However, since Sweden has not been at war for some 200 years, there is no similar organization in Sweden. It was suggested that generalization be used, so that the subtitle simply said ‘the authorities’, which is also an option according to Swedish subtitling norms (cf. Pedersen 2007a : 263-264). That might prove a confusing solution, however, given that ‘the authorities’ have already been notified and there is a police officer and a man from the White House there. Another solution could be to use the Swedish Department of Defence as a substitute. The solution that was finally decided on was to construct an ECR through paraphrased translation, i.e. ‘veteranbyrån’ in example (5) above.


Toby finally manages to arrange a military funeral for the homeless man, and has to explain why to the President. He does this by explaining how disrespectfully the homeless man was treated, as we saw in example (1), above. This is reproduced here as example (6) for ease of reference:

TOBY: An hour and twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there. A Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh. I got better treatment at Panmunjong.

Ambulansen kom efter 80 minuter.

Han var marinkårskorpral. Jag blev
bättre behandlad i själva kriget.

Back translation:
The ambulance arrived after 80 minutes.
He was a Marine CorpsCorporal. I was
treated better in the war itself.

The military ECR in this example has already been explained earlier in example (1). The problematic ECR here is instead Panmunjom, which admittedly is a Korean ECR, but it is also a monocultural SC ECR, because of the American involvement in the Korean War. It is used here to imply that American soldiers were treated better in a war zone than back home, which is basically the point of this whole storyline. In the transcript, the ECR co-text erroneously says ‘the guy got better treatment at Panmunjom’, but that is clearly not what comes through the verbal audio channel. There are two problems here: i) Toby is too young to have fought in Korea (and he also tells the homeless man’s brother that he has not been there) ii) Panmunjom is the site of the truce talks in Korea’s demilitarized zone, so the connotations of active fighting are not very strong. The ST is thus contradictory. Did the actor (Richard Schiff) bungle his line, or did the scriptwriters (Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland) not care too much about veracity here, and wanted to give the impression that Toby had in fact been to Korea, and then chose Panmunjom as the most recognizable Korean War ECR? That issue is impossible to resolve. The problem can, however, be solved from the subtitler’s view, by using generalization, and letting the subtitle read ‘Jag blev bättre behandlad i själva kriget’ [I got better treatment in the actual war].

Al Roker

In the fast-paced opening scene alluded to above, the White House staff discusses the Christmas arrangements and the following conversation comes up just before the one in example (2) above:

SAM: Who’s playing Santa?
MANDY: Al Roker.
SAM: (raising eyebrows) Playing Santa?
MANDY: What’s wrong with that?
SAM: (slight pause) Went on a diet.
TOBY: How do you know these things?
SAM: I read.
MANDY: We’ll pad him if we have to.

-Vem ska vara tomte?
-Al Roker. Varför inte?

-Han har bantat.
-Då får han ha lösmage.

Back translation:
-Who will be Santa?
-Al Roker. Why not?
-He has dieted.
-Then he will wear a false belly.

The monocultural ECR Al Roker (famous African-American TV personality and NBC weatherman) is central on the micro-level, as it is used for the joke, and also as the centre of this rather lengthy, if rapid, conversation. The joke is based on Sam’s non-verbalized objection that it would be odd to have an African-American man playing Santa. Mandy’s question is then either truly naïve or is daring him to verbalize his bigotry, and Sam finally saves face by hinting that Al Roker is now too thin to be Santa. The most obvious Swedish solution in a case like this would be to use specification to add the information that the TC viewers do not have. However, choosing to specify ‘den svarte Al Roker’ [the black Al Roker] would clearly have been unacceptable. Generalization through the use of a superordinate term would not work either, for the same reasons. A paraphrase in Sam’s third line with something like ‘inte för att han är svart, utan för at than är för smal’ [not because he’s black, but because he’s too thin] was suggested, and that has some merits. However, that also verbalizes the ‘black’ objection, which is something that would spoil the joke, albeit less bluntly, and also, the media-specific constraints would not allow it. It was also suggested that cultural substitution be used, and that Al Roker be replaced by some other portly African American media personality who would be more transcultural, e.g. Forest Whittaker, James Earl Jones or Oprah Winfrey. The last one of these would probably be the most felicitous, as the joke would also be enhanced by adding sexism to the racism that is its unstated basis, plus the fact that Oprah Winfrey is known for her yo-yo dieting. There is of course the polysemiotic problem of the feedback effect from the original (Gottlieb 1997:93); the viewers do not hear Oprah Winfrey, they hear Al Roker. On the other hand, the pace of the dialogue is very rapid, and even native English speakers have problems keeping trace of everything that is said. There is also no credibility gap, since Winfrey is also a SC ECR, whereas it would have been contrary to Swedish norms to use a TC ECR here. Had I  been subtitling into Danish, I would not have hesitated to use Oprah Winfrey, as the norms are traditionally more open to this sort of substitution there (for a further discussion this, cf. Pedersen 2007b). But it is more in line with Swedish subtitling norms to just use retention (Pedersen 2007a: 259), and let the viewers fend for themselves. The ECR is, after all, not exclusively monocultural and it is also peripheral on the macro-level.

The Keystone Kops

After failing to carry out an elaborate blackmail plan to save the reputation of White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, Sam and Josh receive a severe reprimand from McGarry, who is not happy with their behaviour:

LEO: Like I don’t have enough problems without the Keystone Kops.

Jag har problem nog,
utan era klumpiga upptåg.

Back translation:
I have enough problems,
without your clumsy stunts.

The monocultural ECR the Keystone Kops refers to characters in a series of silent films from the 1910s. The Keystone Kops were notorious bunglers, and the phrase is often used in the US to refer to people who is incompetent. The ECR is clearly monocultural, as the Keystone Kops films were never aired in Scandinavia, and unlike e.g. Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, the Kops are completely unknown to the vast majority of Swedes. Retention would thus be a misleading strategy here, since the ECR is used metaphorically. Substitution is an option, like using ‘Laurel and Hardy’, who are transcultural also and also express the idea of someone who is less than competent. It was also suggested at the brainstorming session mentioned above that ‘Kling & Klang’, the two incompetent policemen from Pippi Longstocking be used for the substitution (which has the added bonus of keeping the police reference and the alliteration). Unfortunately, Swedish norms do not allow that sort of domestication these days (Pedersen 2007a: 238). Instead, generalization through the use of a paraphrase was used, as this is more in line with the current Swedish norms. Current guidelines tend to recommend generalization or praphrase in cases such as this, and that is also in line with my own results (Pedersen 2007: 212).


This article has shown Swedish subtitling norms in action when used on the present episode of The West Wing. The subtitling was carried out in accordance with the technical norms and the solutions were all based on subtitling norms that are active in Sweden today. Thus, retention has been used most frequently on the monocultural ECRs, and then generalization, substitution, omission, direct translation, substitution, and specification in that order in accordance with Swedish subtitling norms (cf. Pedersen 2007a: 201). This illustrates how the model can be used not only as a tool for analysis, but also as a working tool for subtitlers. The strategies give the subtitler the subtitler the means by which to solve ECR-related problems and the parameters, in conjunction with the knowledge of subtitling norms, help the subtitler produce translation solutions that are felicitous and which will be accepted by her or his audience.

The article has shown that there are always ways of solving translation problems caused by cultural references, even though not all connotations can be transferred on all occasions. If the subtitler is aware of the whole range of strategies available, and also considers the circumstances under which the problem appears, a well-informed decision can be made. The fact that some references are harder than others to render in a felicitous way should not be seen as a problem, but instead as something that makes subtitling the interesting task that it is.


Gottlieb, Henrik (1997) Subtitles, Translation & Idioms, Copenhagen, Center for Translation Studies, University of Copenhagen.

Gottlieb, Henrik (2001) Screen Translation: Six Studies in Subtitling, Dubbing and Voice-Over, Copenhagen, Center for Translation Studies, University of Copenhagen.

Ivarsson, Jan and Mary Carroll (1998) Subtitling, Simrishamn, TransEdit.

Katan, David (2004) Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators (2nd edition), Manchester and Northampton, MA, St Jerome.

Leppihalme, Ritva (1994) Culture Bumps: On the Translation of Allusions, English Department Studies 2, Helsinki, University of Helsinki.

Lörscher, Wolfgang (1991) Translation Performance, Translation Process, and Translation Strategies: A Psycholinguistic Investigation, Tübingen, Gunter Narr.

Pedersen, Jan (2007a) Scandinavian Subtitles: A Comparative Study of Subtitling Norms in Sweden and Denmark with a Focus on Extralinguistic Cultural References, Doctoral Thesis, Stockholm University, Department of English.

Pedersen, Jan (2007b) “Cultural interchangeability: The effects of substituting cultural references in subtitling”, Perspectives. Studies in Translatology 2007:1, 30 – 48.

Pedersen, Jan (2010a) “Audiovisual Translation – In General and in Scandinavia”,  Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, 2010:1, 1 – 22.

Pedersen, Jan. (2010b) “When do you go for benevolent intervention? How subtitlers determine the need for cultural mediation”, Díaz Cintas, Jorge, Anna Matamala & Josélia Neves (eds.) New Insights into Audiovisual Translation and Media Accessibility, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 67 – 80.

Pedersen, Jan (2011) Subtitling norms for television: an exploration focusing on extralinguistic cultural references, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins.

Remael, Aline & Gert Vercauteren (2010) “The translation of recorded audio description from English into Dutch”, Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, 18: 3, 155 — 171.

Toury, Gideon (1995) Descriptive Translation Studies – and Beyond, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins.


[1] In a very wide sense of the word, including e.g. geographical names.

[2] Regardless of word class, syntactic function or size.

[3] Including fictional ones.

[4] As implied in the speech situation.

[5] E.g. a TV programme’s primary target audience.

[6] In this chapter, examples from the ST will be given in italics with a time reference in minutes and seconds.

About the author(s)

Jan Pedersen was educated at the universities of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Uppsala. He received his Ph.D. from Stockholm University in 2007 with a dissertation entitled Scandinavian Subtitles, which is a comparative study of TV subtitling norms in the Scandinavian countries. Jan’s research interests include translation studies, translation theory, audiovisual translation, pragmatics and comparative linguistics. He is the president of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (ESIST), member of the European Society for Translation Studies (EST), founding member of the Nordic Network for Translation Studies (TraNor) and co-editor of the journal Perspectives – Studies in Translatology. He is a frequent presenter at international conferences and his publications include the 2011 monograph Subtitling Norms for Television, as well as several articles on subtitling, translation and linguistics. He has also worked as a television subtitler for many years, subtitling shows like Late Show with David Letterman, the Simpsons and Nikolaj og Julie. Jan is currently Director of the Institute for Interpretation and Translation Studies at Stockholm University, where he also researches and teaches audiovisual translation as Associate Professor.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Jan Pedersen (2016).
"In Sweden, we do it like this"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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Audiovisual dialogue economy in The West Wing

By Elisa Perego (University of Trieste, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

The article explores how the feel of the West Wing is reproduced through language in the screenplay of A. Sorkin. In particular, it gives a linguistic account of the walk-and-talk technique, a prominent story enhancer that emphasizes the hectic life of characters and functions as a language economy device. The article also illustrates the most relevant linguistic features used in episode 10 of the series and it reveals that artificiality is preferred to linguistic realism and naturalness. In fact, the type of audiovisual product in question, the limited time available to convey much information, and the need to be sharp and effective do not allow for the natural inconveniences of real interaction to be included in the screenplay.  

Keywords: walk-and-talk, film language, economy, spoken and written language

©inTRAlinea & Elisa Perego (2016).
"Audiovisual dialogue economy in The West Wing"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

The West Wing has often been praised for its accuracy in depicting the inner workings of the White House and for its fictional realism. Former White House staffers served as consultants for the show and enabled executive producer Aaron Sorkin, who created the series and wrote its screenplay, to capture the feel of the West Wing. Describing how this is achieved through language is the aim of this contribution, which will give an account of the witty screenplay of Sorkin. In particular, the walk-and-talk technique, whereby characters converse in the hallways of the West Wing in a fast and snappy mode, will be described as the most outstanding narrative feature which contributes to making this American political drama serial unique, with distinctive language peculiarities (cf. also Chiaro in this volume). Further linguistic insights will be accounted for to describe the nature of the dialogues in episode 10 of The West Wing. In particular, the intentionally partial attempt to imitate real conversation, and the deliberate linearity and polished nature of the exchanges, which is typical of written registers, will be highlighted and exemplified.

1. Screenplay and screenwriter

Screenplays are a specific text type (Cattrysse, Gambier 2008: 39), i.e. a specific genre or category of discourse (Swales 1990: 33), used for specific purposes, meant for specific receivers, having a specific format. Screenplays are the product of a long and complex writing procedure that includes several stages, and they are a central point of reference for the development and fine-tuning of all the technical and organizational operations that have to be carried out in any film production (Costa 2009: 161). Screenplays provide a very analytical description of the film: they give a precise account of dialogues and actions, locations and costumes, special effects and visual effects. They belong to the pre-production phase of filmmaking (Costa 2009: 150; “Pre-production”, n.d.). Before serving the film (or TV show) director, who will direct actors and film crew throughout the whole filmmaking process, screenplays are considered by possible financers and stakeholders. In this respect, they have a very important practical function: they enable prospective producers to consider whether to finance the film itself. Screenplays can be the product of the work of a single writer as well as of multiple writers, each working on a different stage of the screenplay’s development. The process of writing and rewriting screenplays can be very long, but it is always decisive in the success of a film or a TV show.

If films and TV shows are carefully written by qualified and skilled individuals, though later directed by others, who is the actual film author? Is it the director, or is it the screenwriter? Nowadays, most screenwriters are unknown to the audience even though they are vital to the realization of any film or TV series. This fault can be attributed to the importance that is typically accredited to film directors, who are are seen as the real creators of cinematic works of art (Parent-Altier 2007: 12). The identity problem of film director vs. screenwriter is so complex, controversial and debatable that we will not deal with it here. Suffice it to say that the two figures do not (necessarily) share tasks, functions and skills. Directors work on the set, screenwriters deal with the meticulous and rigid writing process on a daily basis. The "work of art" of directors is concrete and tangible: it provides an audiovisual product that travels around the world. On the other hand, from the audience’s perspective, the work of art of screenwriters is ethereal and intangible: it is completed on the set. And even though screenplays are deemed crucial, screenwriters are not given the credit they actually deserve, and they are often debased. This is particularly so in the TV industry, with just very few exceptions.

2. The screenplay of Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin is one of these exceptions. An acknowledged screenwriter, he has an unmistakable style and is recognized for the quality of his writing, which is meticulous, subtle, vivid and imaginative (The West Wing Script Book, n.d.). These are features that may occasionally be missed during the rapid-fire pace of The West Wing: Sorkin is the master of the choppy dialogue that is the trademark of his style, and the most adequate formula to support the widely used walk-and-talk shooting technique that characterizes the series.

The walk-and-talk device has been popularized by Aaron Sorkin himself who developed it on The West Wing, even though it had been widely used before in many US television dramas (Martin, 2010 “Walk and Talk”, n.d.). Technically, the walk-and-talk sequences consist of single tracking shots of long duration involving multiple characters engaging in fast conversation – but never watching where they are going – as they move rapidly through the set; characters enter and exit the conversation as the shot continues without any edits (Aaron Sorkin, 2011). Characters talk fast, and when there are two of them walking and talking, a third character can join them and enable one of the original characters to leave the conversation while the remaining two continue the walking and talking. The screenplay slug lines (i.e. the scene heading occurring at the start of every scene) make this explicit:

FADE OUT. END ACT ONE. ACT TWO FADE IN: INT. HALLWAY – DAY:  Sam is standing in the hallway reading some papers, when C.J. rounds the corner and approaches. They talk on the way through the hallway to their offices.


The group exits the Oval Office. CUT TO: INT. HALLWAY – DAY à C.J. is talking to a staffer and handing her some papers. Danny approaches and follows C.J. as she starts to walk to her office.


The walk-and-talk sequences can be extended, as in the following excerpt, although they are often short and sharp exchanges coming one after the other, and spaced out by quick exchanges made while standing still. The rhythm can be hectic and pressing, with very short urgent turns which are perfectly interwoven and organized, without hold-ups in the delivery:

CUT TO: INT. JOSH'S BULLPEN AREA – DAY: Donna approaches Josh in the very festively decorated bullpen, as several staffers are busy working around them.
DONNA Good morning, Josh.
JOSH Good morning Donna, and a Merry Christmas to you and your whole Protestant family.
DONNA Thank you.
JOSH As you can see I have not yet bought your Christmas present.
DONNA   Yes, and I know you're agonizing over how to best express your appreciation and affection for me at this time of the year.
JOSH That and how I scrape together the ten bucks.
DONNA I've prepared a list. [She gives him a small piece of paper as they continue to walk.]
JOSH Of Christmas gift suggestions?
JOSH   [reads] 'Ski pants, ski boots, ski hat, ski goggles, ski gloves, ski poles.' I'm assuming you already have skis?
DONNA Page two?
JOSH Right. [They cut the corner into a HALLWAY.]
DONNA Just pick something off the list, and, you know, feel free to pick two things.
JOSH I should feel that freedom?
DONN Yeah.
JOSH Thanks.
DONNA I want to learn how to ski.
DONNA I like the equipment.
JOSH Okay.
DONNA Where you going?
JOSH I, uh, need to speak to Leo.
JOSH He wants to talk about your Christmas present.
DONNA Really?
JOSH Yeah.
DONNA So you'll think about the skis?

Yeah. I'll give that a lot of thought. [Donna walks off. Josh waits until her back is turned before crumpling up her list and throwing into a wastebasket. Josh then enters MARGARET'S OFFICE. Nobody inside.]


Technically, the walk-and-talk technique enables characters to keep the conversation moving forward while an operator walks backwards in front of them allowing for a continuous moving medium two shot (Figure. 1):

Figure 1. Medium two shot in The West Wing: the frame depicts the head and torso of two characters. The bottom of the frame typically cuts them off somewhere around the waist

The main purposes of the walk-and-talk storytelling device are to give energy to the scenes and to make the exchange more visually interesting. The walk-and-talk technique is a useful medium for quick-fire humour and is intended to underline the busy lives and importance of the characters. It suggests that there is so much to do and so little time to do it that even traveling time must be used to serve additional functions (TV tropes, n.d.; Martin, 2010). Besides achieving two purposes simultaneously (traveling towards an objective and exchanging information through dialogue), the nature of the walk-and-talk technique enables scriptwriters to compress information and avoid long expository dialogues, thus embracing the vital economy principle which distinguishes film language. Undoubtedly, language contributes to conveying the unstoppable sense of urgency which blends with strong character development against a background of day-to-day activities being accomplished in the highest office in the country.

3. The language of The West Wing

Although such strong urgency specifically distinguishes the walk-and-talk fragments, it is actually present in the whole screenplay. Watching episode 10 of The West Wing (“In Excelsis Deo”, written by A. Sorkin and R. Cleveland, directed by A. Graves) and flipping through its script, we can observe only a few passages where characters take time while talking and indulge in longer turns. Mrs Landingham’s touching explanation to Charlie, who is concerned by her unusual sadness, is one of the few instances. She slowly explains that her sons decided not to avoid the draft and declined the offer of a deferment to finish med school. This time drama is conveyed through an extended monologue (vs. quick-fire dialogues):

They didn't want one [a deferment]. Their father and I begged them, but they wanted to go where people needed doctors. Their father and I begged them, but you can't tell kids anything. So they joined up as medics and four months later they were pinned down during a fight in DaNang and were killed by enemy fire. That was Christmas Eve 1970. [beat] You know, they were so young, Charlie, they were your age. It's hard when that happens so far away, you know because, with the noises and the shooting, they had to be so scared. It's hard not to think that right then they needed their mother... Anyway, I miss my boys.

Other instances of medium-length turns are the briefings given to the White House Press Corps, though they are representative of a variety of language written to be spoken as if written: briefings are instances of planned discourse:

There's been no change in the President’s 10 a.m. departure time so we're still looking at about noon. This is a half day for us, so I'm gonna make it a half day for you too. There is no more news from The White House. The lid is on. Have a Merry Christmas.

Most dialogues, however, prefer language economy devices. They treat every word as a precious component, and choose powerful and informative wordings and constructions. Exchanges are ‘short, sharp and tight’ (Carter et al. 1997: 196) – in other words, they seem to accomplish the four Gricean maxims in full, whereby speakers ideally have to be brief, truthful, relevant and informative (Grice 1975). They integrate well with the audiovisual components of the product, and as a result, they easily capture the viewer’s attention. This effectiveness is achieved mainly by resorting to a balanced blend of selected features of the written and the spoken register as well as avoiding wordy phrasings and meaningless modifiers, thus encouraging shorter formulations. This is made possible by careful editing, which cannot take place when interlocutors co-construct real life conversation. We know that “[it]n narrative films, dialogue may strive mightily to imitate natural conversation, but it is always an imitation. It has been scripted, written and rewritten, censored, polished, rehearsed, and performed. Even when lines are improvised on the set, they have been spoken by impersonators, judged, approved, and allowed to remain” (Kozloff 2000: 18). In The West Wing, the attempt to imitate conversation is partial. Many features from the grammar of conversation i.e. performance phenomena (Biber at al. 1999: 1052-1066), are deliberately left out.

This is not necessarily representative of film language in general: in some cases, when not pruned from the scrip, “actual hesitations, repetitions, digressions, grunts, interruptions, and mutterings of everyday speech [are] deliberately included” (Kozloff 2000: 18). Take this example from Annie Hall (W. Allen 1977, USA; screenplay by W. Allen and M. Brickman), a classic.

INT. LOBBY:  Alvy, dressed, puts things into a gym bag. One knee is on the bench and his back is turned from the entrance. Annie walks toward the entrance door dressed in street clothes and carrying her tennis bag over her shoulder. Seeing Alvy, she stops and turns.


Hi.  Hi, hi.


(Looking over his shoulder) Hi.  Oh, hi.  Hi.


(Hands clasped in front of her, smiling) Well, bye. (She laughs and backs up slowly toward the door)


(Clearing his throat) You-you play ... very well.


Oh, yeah?  So do you.  Oh, God, whatta- (Making sounds and laughing) whatta dumb thing to say, right?  I mean, you say it, "You play well," and right away ... I have to say “you play well”.  Oh, oh ... God, Annie. (She gestures with her hand) Well ... oh, well ... la-de-da, la-de-da, la-la.


Annie and Alvy have just met. The passage is an essence of local repetitions, pauses and hesitations, discourse markers and interjections, lexical bundles, questions and imperatives, and short elliptical response forms. Things do not seem to differ even after the characters start being more intimate:

He starts kissing Annie's arm.  She gets annoyed and continues to read.


Alvy, I ...


What-what-what-what's the matter?


I-you know, I don't wanna.


(Overlapping Annie, reacting) What-what-I don't ... It's not natural! We're sleeping in a bed together.  You know, it's been a long time.


I know, well, it's just that-you know, I mean, I-I-I-I gotta sing tomorrow night, so I have to rest my voice.


(Overlapping Annie again) It's always some kind of an excuse.  It's- You know, you used to think that I was very sexy.  What ... When we first started going out, we had sex constantly ... We're- we're probably listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.


(Patting Alvy's band solicitously) I know.  Well, Alvy, it'll pass, it'll pass, it's just that I'm going through a phase, that's all.




I mean, you've been married before, you know how things can get.  You were very hot for Allison at first.


The dialogues flow, they are fast, but they encompass the typical problems of online ordinary speech: overlaps (marked even in the screenplay’s slug lines), hedges and discourse markers are abundant, as are sound, word and clause repetitions, starts and repairs. The style is informal – which shows grammatically in the use of verb and negative constructions (it’s, it’ll, don’t), and in the choice of non-standard features (gotta, wanna). Speakers never become inarticulate but they constantly take time and make this clear by resorting to filled and unfilled pauses, which signal hesitations, efforts on the part of the speakers to plan what to say next, unfinished turns, need to keep the floor or to launch a new utterance.

If films can occasionally afford to ‘waste time’ replicating natural speech performance phenomena, TV series, and The West Wing in particular, are subject to strict time limitations per episode and therefore have to rely on time-saving features and forms of grammatical reduction. Hence the preference for deictics, ellipsis, substitutions, contracted and condensed forms, which all contribute to creating a sense of informality and a casual tone in spoken discourse, at the same time making it succinct and pertinent. The need to save time and be short and sharp determines a preference for both interactions based on fast exchanges as opposed to long turns, and monologues or voice-over narrations. The latter however are characteristic of several films and TV series. Suffice it to think of the initial monologue of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall or the constant voice-over narration of Will Freeman in About a Boy (P. & C. Weitz 2001, UK). Other instances of voice-over narrations are found in the comedy-drama series Desperate Housewives, where the eyes of the dead neighbor of a group of women follow their lives and narrate the show, and in the American TV drama Dexter, to mention just a few examples. A brief excerpt taken from the opening of episode 10 of The West Wing includes most of the features mentioned above in a few lines:


The President will stand next to the tree with flag on the left and the Carollers will be off to the side.


With the Santa hats on?


No. Dickensian costumes.




Maybe we'll have both.


You think?


You think they'll clash?




Someone tell me why I'm standing here.


To weigh in on this.

Everything in this exchange is built on what the previous speaker has said. Consequently, repetitions can be avoided with the desirable effect of saving time. The conversation is built on a shared physical context, which facilitates the use of substitute forms and different types of ellipsis. It is built on a shared background knowledge and therefore both viewers and on screen interactants can easily draw on implicit meaning. Specifically, in this excerpt we note a series of elliptic replies, where the missing content is recoverable from the preceding utterances (With the Santa hats on? <that is Will the Carollers be off to the side with Santa hats on?> and: Dickensian costumes <that is No. The Carollers will be off to the side with Dickensian costumes>). We observe the use of substitute forms which rely on the linguistic context (Maybe we’ll have both <i.e. Maybe we’ll have Santa hats and Dickensian costumes>) and of deictics which point extra-textually and situate the speaker (Someone tell me why I’m standing here <that is Someone tell me why I’m standing in the Northwest lobby of the White House>). The very frequent omission of function words (Might <that is They might>) and the regular use of situational ellipsis (You think? <that is Do you think?>) contribute to the pungency of the dialogues and to giving edge to their style. A further touch of colloquialism is given by the choice of informal lexical items (to weigh in vs. more formal to become involved in an argument or discussion in a forceful way).

In a crucial paragraph on the principles of on-line production, Biber et al. (1999: 1066-1067) mention ‘keep talking’, ‘limited planning ahead’, and ‘qualification of what has been said’. Remaining with the previous excerpt, which is somehow representative of most of the entire screenplay, we can claim that the devices chosen by the scriptwriter enable characters to keep the conversation moving forward smoothly most of the time: no stops or communicative breakdowns ever take place and therefore speakers do not need to resort to repair strategies to retrieve the situation (for example hesitations, backtracking and restarting, leaving pieces of discourse dangling and incomplete, or giving the floor to another person). This has positive repercussions on the communicative effectiveness and leaves no room for misunderstandings. Secondly, heavy elaboration of structure and meaning, especially at the beginning and in the middle of a sentence, is avoided (cf. the typical non-elaboration principle that characterizes conversation: Biber et al. 1999; Chafe, Danielewicz 1987). This follows the rules of conversation, where there’s little time to plan ahead. Although most sentences are short, we can find exceptional cases where the sentence structure is simple and linear, but the constituents show a very elaborate nominalized configuration – a typical feature of written registers. A linear SVC[1] sentence can in fact be quite long:






a congressman is about to expose something about his past that's gonna be damaging to him

and so can an SVOiOd sentence:






could give


a name of an influential Republican who likes to have kinky sex

The principle of end weight, which is more extreme in spoken than in written English, is respected to facilitate the comprehension of receivers (both audience and on screen interlocutors) (Biber et al. 1999: 898). Regarding the third principle, whereby the lack of time to plan the discourse prevents speakers from producing linear structures (cf. also Halliday 1985 and the intricacy of spoken language vs. the linearity of written language), we observe that it is not accomplished in the screenplay. This reminds us of the shortness, sharpness and tightness of the dialogues mentioned before. The tight dramatic structure of the dialogues and their organization remind us of theatre dialogues more than of real conversation (Remael 2004). The contents depart from those of ordinary talk, where they are often ‘humdrum and banal’ (Taylor 2004: 8). Hold-ups in delivery, which are the most noticeable form of disfluency in conversation, are absent. There’s no room for linguistic digressions: what is being said is focused, intense and clear-cut; sudden, abrupt and loud; closely fitting, concise in style and lacking slack:

JOSH There's a thing that's gonna happen.
SAM What?
JOSH Lillienfield knows that Leo's a recovering alcoholic.
SAM Everyone knows that Leo is a recovering alcoholic.
JOSH Yeah, but they don't know that there were pills. There was Valium. He was in rehab.
SAM When?
JOSH Six years ago.
SAM He was Secretary of Labor six years ago.
JOSH Yeah.
SAM He was high when he was running the Labor Department.

In Halliday’s (1985: 87) words, “[t]he complexity of the written language is its density of substance, solid like that of a diamond formed under pressure. By contrast, the complexity of spoken language is its intricacy of movement, liquid like that of a rapidly running river”. The language of The West Wing encapsulates both qualities. It is solid in its structure, which cannot be modified, and which is formed under the pressure of the genre constraints. It is certainly liquid, like a rapidly running river, which has to flow fast along its artificially created course.

4. Translating Aaron Sorkin

Film language is a ‘variety of spoken discourse’ (Taylor 1999; Kozloff 2000; Freddi, Pavesi 2009). It emerges from the effort to imitate face-to-face conversation. It normally encapsulates a selected set of linguistic features that belong to the spoken register to give the impression of authenticity to a patently artificial product. The blend of spoken and written language features is usually balanced. Most films and TV series consciously weigh the features to include in the final dialogues to make them natural in their accepted artificiality. Those of The West Wing, though, seem to be closer to the written end of the spoken-written language continuum. Dialogues are linear and vivid, neat and polished. Although the dynamics of real conversation are maintained, every turn is clear and accurate, speakers never overlap, there is no trace of online planning pressure, information is packed and organized, and grammar is not intricate.

Though well thought out (or because of this), Sorkin’s writing may be a double edged weapon for audiovisual translators, especially when the walk-and-talk technique is employed, or any time dialogues are fast-paced. Sorkin’s ability to be short sharp and tight in English might put translators to the test, especially when the target languages are Latin languages. Most of the words and expressions are essential and omitting or condensing them might easily change the original meaning of the message or alter the style. The quick-fire nature of the dialogues might be particularly challenging when subtitling. The attempt to maintain most of the original dialogues might cause subtitles to be too long and not usable. On the other hand, the lack of those elements that subtitles usually omit without interfering with the original message (disfluencies and errors, orality markers such as voiced pauses etc.) are not there in most of the (walk-and-talk) dialogues of The West Wing and this requires a major adaptation effort to achieve communicative equivalence.

The audiovisual translation of The West Wing therefore poses a series of challenges and raises a series of questions: Can transfer (that is full expression with adequate rendering; Gottlieb 1992: 166) be used at all when subtitling? How can voice-over solve effectively the problem of very fast exchanges? Is there a specific audiovisual translation method (for example dubbing vs. subtitling) that facilitates a more effective and enjoyable translation? Dubbing for instance usually enables translators to rewrite the original text and to adjust it without necessarily having to struggle with omissions: is this an advantage or is it a limitation? Finally, how can audio description for the visually impaired audience find its way between dialogues, if dialogues are so tight? Can audio introductions make up for the lack of pauses between dialogues? These and many more questions emerge when thinking about Sorkin’s screenplays and their translation into different languages. To observe how different audiovisual translators face these problems might help us determine whether audiovisual translation strategies tend to be homogeneous in spite of the language pair involved and of the type of translation resorted to, or if they adapt to the method employed.  

5. Concluding remarks

An examination of both the screenplay and the show of The West Wing reveals accurate and recurring language choices that enable the screenwriter to generate the characteristic pungency of the dialogues. This is achieved through leaning toward language choices that depart from naturalness. The awareness of the rules of conversation is here exploited to deliver an enjoyable product that however does not attempt to imitate natural speech. Natural speech is characterized by a series of features deriving from the interaction between interlocutors, and by a series of features deriving from on-line production pressure. The various components of real dialogues that are captured and maintained in The West Wing are functional to building a deliberately artificial product rather than a product that resembles daily speech. The exchange structure for the negotiation of meaning between interlocutors is maintained, but it is made artificial by depriving it of all the natural inconveniences of real interaction. Unlike the typical approach in many recent films and TV series, no movement toward realism or naturalistic style can be detected. The dialogues are so well structured and polished that they may come across as too perfect and not necessarily genuine, even though they are appreciated by the audience and are especially fit for some circumstances (for example during the walking and talking flashes). The pace of the dialogues is so fast, however, that there is no time left for the viewer to focus on the extent of editing that led to the final scripted dialogues. The tightness and the speed of the dialogues themselves give character to the show, but may cause problems to audiovisual translators. Depending on the type of audiovisual translation in question, the problems that may arise regard the possibility to produce subtitles that stay on screen for a suitable span of time, voice-overs that keep up the pace of the original soundtrack, audio descriptions that find their way into a very thick network of dialogues. How a solution can be found to these problems – and much more – will be the subject of other articles of this Special Issue of inTRAlinea, and food for thought for future research.


Aaron Sorkin (2011). Retrieved from Wikipedia,

Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan, and Edward Finegan, (1999) Longman grammar of spoken and written English, Harlow: Longman.

Carter, Ronald, Goddard, Angela, Reah, Daruta, Sanger, Keith, and Maggie Bowring (1997) Working with texts: A core book for language analysis, New York: Routledge.

Cattrysse, Patrick, and Yves Gambier (2008). “Screenwriting and translating screenplays” in The didactic of audiovisual translation, Jorge Díaz Cintas (ed.) Amsterdam/Philadelphia, Benjamins: 39-55.

Chafe, Walter and Jane Danielewicz  (1987) “Properties of spoken and written language” in Comprehending oral and written language, Rosalind Horowitz & S. Jay Samuels (eds), San Diego: Academic Press: 83-113.

Costa, Antonio (2009) Saper vedere il cinema (20th ed.), Milano, Bompiani.

Freddi, Maria and Maria Pavesi (eds.) (2009)  Analysing audiovisual dialogue. Linguistic and translational insights, Bologna, Clueb.

Gottlieb, Henrick (1992)  “Subtitling. A new university discipline” in Teaching translation and interpreting. Training, talent and experience, Cay Dollerup and Anne Loddegaard (eds.) Amsterdam: Benjamins: 261-274.

Grice, Herbert Paul (1975) “Logic and conversation” in Syntax and semantics: Speech acts. Volume 3, Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan (eds.), New York: Academic: 41-58.

Halliday, Michael A.K. (1985) Spoken and written language, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kozloff, Sarah (2000) Overhearing film dialogue, Berkeley, University of California Press

Martin, G. 2010, The meaning and origin of the expression: walk and talk. [Online]

Parent-Altier, Dominique (2007) Introduzione alla sceneggiatura (2nd ed),Torino, Lindau.

Pre-production. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia,

Pridham, Francesca (2001) The language of conversation, London: Routledge.

Remael, Aline (2004) “A place for film dialogue analysis in subtitling courses” in Topics in audiovisual translation P. Orero (ed.), Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins: 103-126.

Swales, John (1990) Genre analysis. English in academic and research settings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Christopher (1999) “Look who’s talking: An analysis of film dialogue as a variety of spoken discourse” in Massed medias, Linda Lombardo, Louann Haarman, John Morley & Christopher Taylor (eds), Milano, LED: 247-278.

Taylor, Christopher (2004) “Subtitling, filmese and MCA” in Lingua inglese e mediazione interlinguistica ricerca e didattica con supporto telematico, Carol Taylor Torsello, Maria Grazia Busà, and Sara Gesuato (Eds), Padova: Unipress: 3-18).

The West Wing Script Book (n.d.) [Online]

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Walk and Talk. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia,


[1] We follow the convention whereby S = subject, V = verb, Od = direct object, Oi = indirect object, C = complement, A = adjunct. 

About the author(s)

Elisa Perego is researcher and lecturer at the University of Trieste (Italy), where she teaches English linguistics and audiovisual translation. She has a degree in Modern Languages (English/Hungarian, University of Pavia, Italy) and a PhD in Linguistics (University of Pavia, Italy). Her current interests involve the reception of dubbing, subtitling and audio description for the blind, and the use of eye tracking methodology in audiovisual translation research.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Elisa Perego (2016).
"Audiovisual dialogue economy in The West Wing"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Polish voice-over of “In excelsis Deo”

Technical constraints and critical points in translation decision-making

By Iwona Mazur & Agnieszka Chmiel (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland)

Abstract & Keywords

This article focuses on the analysis of technical constraints and critical points in the voice-over translation of a single episode of The West Wing, an American TV series set in the White House. The aim was to investigate how the mode of translation (voice-over for fiction genres) with its numerous constraints influences the translator’s decision-making. We first performed a quantitative analysis of technical aspects, including time constraints, text reduction and the quality of the recording. We found significant target text reduction (by 31 percent) and higher lexical variety of the target text, which suggests removal of repetitions and oral discourse markers. In the qualitative analysis we focussed on such critical points in the translator’s decision-making process as culture-specific items, metaphors, or irony, and tried to evaluate the decisions in the context of the observations made in the quantitative analysis. We found normalization to be the most frequently applied strategy in translating culture-specific items. This means that administrative and military terms from the American culture were frequently replaced with culture-free words, which led to some loss of the cultural context. Our analysis shows that in voice-over translation for a fiction genre the translator has to satisfy technical constraints first and only then can he strive to find the best solutions to the critical points created by the original text.

Keywords: voice-over narrator, culture-specific items, decision-making in translation, fiction genre, technical constraints, critical points

©inTRAlinea & Iwona Mazur & Agnieszka Chmiel (2016).
"Polish voice-over of “In excelsis Deo”"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: A Text of Many Colours – translating The West Wing
Edited by: Christopher Taylor
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

1. Introduction

On the audiovisual translation map presented by Gottlieb (1998), Poland was identified as a voice-over country, that is a country with voice-over as a predominant mode of audiovisual translation. This mode of audiovisual translation gained popularity in Poland in the previous decades mainly due to economic reasons. Nowadays, the majority of foreign audiovisual content broadcast by TV stations is still translated by means of voice-over – again, due to economic reasons, but also because viewers are used to and expect this type of translation. Subtitling and dubbing do exist – the former is the dominant AVT mode in cinemas, the latter is applied to animated films to facilitate their reception by young audiences. Alongside Russia, Bulgaria and some other Eastern European countries, Poland seems to use voice-over not only for documentaries (as is the case in some predominantly dubbing countries, such as Spain), but also for fictional genres, including feature films and TV series. The episode of The West Wing analysed in this special issue was thus translated by means of voice-over in Poland and as such was presented to the Polish audience.

The aim of this article is to analyse the translation of the said audiovisual material in the voice-over mode with a special focus on technical constraints and critical points in translation decision-making. We will base our analysis on a single episode of The West Wing entitled “In excelsis Deo”. We will identify the limitations the translator had to face in preparing a voice-over script for that episode resulting from both the technical characteristics of voice-over and the incongruence of American and Polish culture exemplified by certain culture-specific items (as well as from other aspects that may be challenging during the translation process). To that end, we will first present an overview of voice-over as a lesser known and much lesser researched audiovisual translation technique. We will then apply a quantitative and qualitative analysis to the translated episode to shed more light on the translator’s choices as determined by voice-over-specific limitations. The subsequent section will comprise a qualitative analysis of the translator’s decisions taken at critical points identified in the original text.

2. Voice-over as an audiovisual translation mode

Voice-over is considered to be the ‘ugly duckling’ of audiovisual translation (Orero 2006 after Woźniak, 2012) when it comes to both the number of research-based publications (for a detailed report see Franco et al. 2010) and the researchers’ opinions (see below). Voice-over as a term originally borrowed from Film Studies is defined in an abundance of ways (see Franco et al. 2010 for a detailed analysis), so it is necessary to specify what we mean by voice-over for the purpose of this paper. Díaz-Cintas and Orero define voice-over as:

a technique in which a voice offering a translation in a given target language is heard simultaneously on top of the SL voice. As far as the soundtrack of the original program is concerned, the volume is reduced to a low level that can still be heard in the background when the translation is being read. It is common practice to allow the viewer to hear the original speech in the foreign language at the onset of the speech and to reduce subsequently the volume of the original so that the translated speech can be inserted. The translation usually finishes several seconds before the foreign language speech does, the sound of the original is raised again to a normal volume and the viewer can hear once more the original speech  (Díaz-Cintas and Orero, 2006: 477).

Franco et al. 2010 add other important features to the above definition. Voice-over ‘is the revoicing of a text in another language, or a translating voice superimposed on a translated voice’ (2010: 23), is spoken in synchrony with original speech, recognisable words and actions (kinetic/action synchrony discussed in more detail below), derives from unedited material (production voice-over) or from edited material (postproduction voice-over); ‘can render content more closely to the original (voice-over translation) or less closely to the original (what the authors have decided to call free voice-over translation); reproduces mimetic features to a certain extent (accent, age, emotion, gender, intonation, orality markers, stress)’ (2010: 23). As we will see later, due to the specific use of voice-over in Poland some of these features do not directly apply to the Polish voice-over analysed in this paper.

In the context of Gottlieb’s classification of audiovisual translation modes, voice-over would fall predominantly into the isosemiotic category, that is it involves transfer between the same channels (the verbal auditory channel in the original including characters’ utterances transferred into the verbal auditory channel in the translation including the reading of the translated lines by the voice talent). However, it may also be diasemiotic, that is involving different channels since certain inscriptions, captions or letters shown to the viewer but not read out by the characters will be translated and presented orally by the voice talent, that is the verbal visual channel will be transferred into the auditory one. 

In the majority of countries voice-over is usually applied to the translation of programmes that come under the umbrella term of the factual genres (including news, documentaries, talk shows, debates, corporate videos, interviews, instruction videos, infomercials) (Franco et al. 2010). In Poland, voice-over (called wersja lektorska) is used predominantly in television for fiction genres as well, such as feature films and TV series. It thus differs from the voice-over used for non-fiction genres in the West.

3. Voice-over as an AVT mode for fiction films in Poland

In principle, Polish voice-over is delivered by one voice talent, irrespective of the number of characters and their gender. It is usually the male voice for fiction genres and either male or female for documentaries. In the rest of the analysis, we will focus on the characteristics of Polish voice-over for fiction films only. According to Polish scholars: ‘słowo dociera do widza podwójną drogą: w wersji tłumaczonej i częściowo interpretowanej przez lektora, oraz w wersji oryginalnej, która zostaje jednak znacznie wyciszona, stanowiąc w nowym przekazie zaledwie tło dźwiękowe’ [the word reaches the viewer in two ways: translated and partially interpreted by the voice talent, and in the original version with a significantly lowered volume so that it becomes just a sound background in the new message] (Hendrykowski 1982 after Tomaszkiewicz 2006).

Although the majority of Polish viewers express their preference for voice-over in the translation of audiovisual content in surveys and opinion polls (Bogucki 2004), Polish scholars shun this mode and consider it as inferior to subtitling and dubbing. Belczyk (2007) claims that low costs may be the only advantage. According to Garcarz: ‘Polscy widzowie (telewizyjni) nie wyrażają niestety gotowości do wprowadzenia wersji napisowej (dominującej w dystrybucji kinowej) na codzienny użytek w przekładach telewizyjnych’ [Polish TV viewers are unfortunately not willing to accept subtitles (that predominate in cinemas) as a translation mode on TV] (Garcarz 2006: 115). Tomaszkiewicz (2006) explicitly states that voice-over should not be used for fiction.

Similarly, voice-over for fiction genres is negatively viewed in Western countries. The New York Times asked through one of its headlines: ‘Why Is Marilyn Monroe a Polish Baritone?’ and described this audiovisual translation mode as follows:  ‘As actors and actresses open their mouths to speak, their words are drowned out by the voice of a seemingly omniscient Polish male off screen. Joan Collins’s put-downs on Dynasty are thus heard by Poles as a local baritone. Marilyn Monroe’s breathy come-ons in Some Like It Hot are heard as a deep monotone, and Jane Fonda’s seductive voice in Barbarella emerges as flat drone’ (Glaser 1991). The article even quotes Izabela Cywińska, former Polish Minister of Culture, thus explaining the predominance of voice-over: ‘It is a matter of laziness. The Polish people deserve better than these idiotic voices who invade films and characters’ (Glaser 1991). Regardless of personal views, voice-over seems to be an established mode of audiovisual translation in Poland and is starting to be regarded as an interesting object of scientific analysis. When approached without prejudice, it proves to be as complex as other audiovisual translation modes, subject to its own characteristic technical constraints that continue to pose challenges to translators.

Since the definitions of voice-over presented in section 2 pertain to voice-over as applied mainly to non-fiction genres while voice-over is used also for fiction genres in Poland, it is important to pinpoint some differences crucial for the understanding of the nature of Polish voice-over. There are also differences in the implementation of voice-over in countries that use it for films and TV series. For instance, there are typically two voice talents in Russian voice-over for films – a female voice for all female characters and a male voice for all male ones. In Poland, all lines are read by one male voice talent who in general does not reproduce mimetic features of the characters (such as accent, age, emotion, gender, intonation, orality markers, stress, as indicated above by Franco et al. [2010]). The voice is rather neutral and the viewers know that the characters are shouting or stuttering because they can hear the original soundtrack slightly decreased in volume in the background. In fact, if compared with Polish voice-over for films from decades ago, contemporary voice-over seems to leave the original soundtrack quite audible to make it an inherent part of translation (we elaborate on this rather thought-provoking comment in section 5.3). Other differences regarding various synchrony types will be discussed in more detail in section 5.

4. Methodology

The present study includes both quantitative and qualitative analyses of various aspects of the voice-over translation of one episode of The West Wing, the material that has been subject to manifold analyses in the present special issue of the journal. We are especially interested in seeing how the mode of translation (voice-over for fiction genres) with its numerous constraints influences the translator’s choices.

The Polish translation is authored by Alicja Mołoniewicz, produced by ITI Studio and commissioned by TVN, one of Poland’s nationwide private broadcasting corporations. The series was screened in Poland under the title: Prezydencki poker (back translation into English: Presidential poker). The first four seasons were aired by TVN and TVN7 as late night shows. The series was not very popular and subsequent seasons were not shown in Poland. The text of the translation was very difficult to access so we simply transcribed the episode available through one of Poland’s official online pay-as-you-go services offering television content. We thus arrived at a very small parallel bilingual corpus. Parallel corpora typically include original texts and their translations, thus lending themselves easily to direct comparisons between the source text and the target text (Bosseaux 2007; Kenny 2001). Our corpus included a text of the original scripted dialogues of the episode “In excelcis Deo” in English and its translation into Polish.

We first performed a quantitative and qualitative analysis of technical aspects of the VO, including time constraints, text reduction and the quality of the recording. Then we focussed on some critical points in the translator’s decision-making process, such as culture-specific items, metaphors, irony or grammar, and tried to evaluate the decisions in the context of the observations made in the first part.

5. Technical aspects of the VO

Since voice-over is under-researched it is usually considered less demanding for translators because they do not have to bother about lip-synchronisation (as in dubbing) or space constraints (as in subtitling). But, as we hope this study will show, voice-over sets various limitations that eventually determine the translator’s choices. This section will focus on time constraints in voice-over and various synchrony requirements it must meet (voice-over isochrony, kinetic synchrony and action synchrony). We will use the definitions provided by Franco et al. (2010) and identify differences in those requirements between non-fiction and fiction genres. Examples will be provided from the TV series in question.

5.1. Time constraints – isochrony

Time constraints are one of the most obvious limitations one can observe when watching voiced-over content. The spoken translation cannot be longer than the original lines. This parallelism between voice-over versions and their originals is referred to as isochrony (Franco et al. 2010: 121), or ‘the need to create a fluent translation that is going to be read aloud and which fits in the space available’ (Franco et al. 2010: 46). It is common practice to have seconds at the beginning and at the end of an utterance with no translation so that the viewer can hear the original soundtrack, the speaker’s voice, and so on. According to Orero (2004), the translation begins two seconds after the original and finishes a couple of seconds before the end of the original dialogue. According to Ávila (1997), the delay is approximately 4 seconds while Carroll (2004) presents a meaning-based approach and states that the delay might be equivalent to the unit of meaning (similarly to the delay in simultaneous interpreting during conferences). It also happens that the voice-over version might end simultaneously with the original or even be longer. Such post-synchrony is frequent in Polish voice-over. The translation typically starts a few seconds after the original and frequently ends later than the original.

5.2. Text reduction

The isochrony or post-synchrony requirement entails much reduction in the translation. As Orero and Matamala (2009: 25) rightly point out: ‘fluffs, hesitations, repetitions [are] eliminated from the target language version because otherwise it could not be understood.’ In fact, this makes the voice talent’s task easier on the one hand since no acting out is required and a redundancy-free text can be neutrally delivered. On the other hand, this means that the voice-over text aims to sound natural and spontaneous even if it is deprived of orality features.

The most frequently omitted elements from the original speech include (after Tomaszkiewicz 2006 and Belczyk 2007): nominative forms of address (Monica, you guys), phatic devices (oh, uhm, well, you know, you’re right, really?), repetitions, fixed situational phrases (welcome, goodbye, identification in a phone call), question tags (aren’t you?), false starters (He’s... I don’t know), terms of endearment (honey, darling), linking devices (because I don’t want it).

In the translated dialogue list of “In excelsis Deo” we have identified all of the above categories of text reduction. In addition, we have noted that most of the unfinished sentences have been omitted as well. For example I know you're not, but that doesn't... has been translated as Wiem o tym (‘I know that’). Also, some repetitions have been dropped, such as in the following exchange between Sam and C.J. when she finds out that her new secret service code is ‘Flamingo’ and when she thinks that it is a ridiculous looking bird: – You're not ridiculous looking. – I know I'm not ridiculous looking translated as  – Ty tak nie wyglądasz. – Wiem (‘You don’t look like that. – I know’). What is more, we have noticed quite extreme cases of condensation, for example I wasn't planning on doing that, but now that you suggest it has been translated as Niezły pomysł (‘Not a bad idea’). And finally, there were numerous cases where whole sentences were dropped, though without loss of meaning for a given exchange. For example, when the president is getting ready to do some last minute Christmas shopping one of his co-workers notes: I saw the black suburban in back. President's slipping away, huh? In the translation the first sentence has been omitted completely and the line rendered as Prezydent gdzieś się wymyka? (‘The president is slipping away?’)

We calculated some descriptive statistics to examine the reduction of text in the voice-over translation of The West Wing episode. We decided to compare the total number of characters rather than the total number of words since word lengths differ in the language pair under consideration. We deemed the number of characters a better measure of text length since we believe that, roughly speaking, the number of characters will be a better reflection of the time required to read a text than words that differ in length (English words are usually shorter than Polish ones and thus are faster to read; in fact, the actual mean word length in the English original was 4.09 characters and in the Polish translation – 5.08 characters). The total number of characters in English was 28,003 against 19,271 characters in the Polish voice-over version. Thus, the translation is approximately 31 per cent shorter than the original. If we consider that Polish is usually longer than English (since the words are longer and the average translation of an English text into Polish would be about 30 per cent shorter), this outcome certainly reflects various reductions that took place in the course of translation.

We also looked at a measure of linguistic variety, the type-token ratio (TTR), which is the ratio of different words that are used in a text (types) and all words in that text (tokens). TTR as used in a parallel corpus, like ours, can be used to ascertain the existence of one of translation universals – simplification (Laviosa 2003). We might expect a lower TTR value for the translated text, which would mean that the Polish translator used a smaller range of vocabulary and thus simplified the language (this measure obviously pertains to lexical simplification only, not to syntactic). Surprisingly, TTR for the English text was 21.18 and its STTR – standardised type-token ratio (measured to avoid corpus length as a confounding variable (Bosseaux 2007)) was 39.48. This proved to be lower than the measures for the Polish text: TTR – 40.24, STTR – 46.43. To explain the outcome, we have to take into consideration the language pair specificity. Polish is a highly inflective language, which means that all inflected forms of the same word will be treated as separate tokens. In English, this is not the case since inflection suffixes are few and far between. This difference alone can account for the higher TTR and thus higher lexical variety in Polish. Additionally, this may be also explained by the fact that the Polish translation is greatly reduced as compared to the English original and that reduction naturally applied to repetitions.

To investigate this potential explanation further, we compared the frequency of some content words in the corpus. This time, we compared the frequency of occurrence of lemmas (all inflections of a word are treated as the same word) (Kenny 2001: 34) rather than unlemmatised types (that is all infections treated as separate words)  to account for the structural difference between Polish and English. We selected two common nouns (prezydent – president, bezdomny – homeless) and four proper names (Josh, Toby, Leo, Sam). Table 1 shows that, with the exception of president, repetitions of these words were more numerous in the original rather than in the voice-over translation, thus further adding to the explanation of the higher type-token ratio in Polish and further indicating types of reductions performed by the translator.





prezydent (also: prezydencie – vocative, prezydenta – genitive, prezydentem – instrumental, prezydentowi – dative)




bezdomny (also: bezdomnemu – dative)




Josh (also: Joshem – instrumental)












Sam (also: Sama – genitive)




Table 1. Occurrences of selected words in the corpus

It seems that there is much need for reducing terms of address, utterances with phatic function, greetings and so on in Polish voice-over. According to Hendrykowski (1984 after Garcarz 2006), one of the most serious sins committed by voice-over translators is the repetitive transfer of meanings that are included in the original version as fully comprehensible without translation. These meanings include, but are not limited to, names pronounced by the characters and greetings. Majewski (personal communication after Garcarz 2006) confirms that unprofessional voice-over scripts usually include repetitions of the original soundtrack elements that are audible and comprehensible to the voice-over version users. He states that translators working with him for the Polish public television have always been instructed to leave such elements untranslated and audible in the original (personal communication). 

5.3. Voice-over as voice-in-between

Given such substantial text reduction, as described in 5.2, the translated dialogue list of “In excelsis Deo” is much shorter than the original one. As a result, we can expect that when read out by the voice talent it will not fully overlap with the original speech. In fact, this opens up new possibilities for the voice-over mode. Woźniak proposes that ‘in order to achieve maximum invisibility and unobtrusiveness of voice-over, the  principle of superimposition should be replaced with that of juxtaposition: in other words, voice-over should be transformed into voice-behind or voice-in-between’ (Woźniak, 2012: 216). She suggests that the original soundtrack should be clearly audible and the voice talent ‘should (…) be able to deliver the text in pauses and gaps in the original dialogue, or – if this is not possible – to reduce the impact by leaving whole sentences or coherent parts of them audible’ (Woźniak 2012: 216) (though it should not compromise the audibility of the voice talent). In this way the viewers can compensate for condensation and reductions in the translation.

Inspired by Woźniak’s analysis of the voice-over of Star Trek (Woźniak 2012), we decided to have a closer look at the voice-over of The West Wing episode and determine which portions of the original soundtrack are audible. Because of the space limitations of the article, we limit ourselves to one fairly short exchange from the episode when the president is meeting with children before Christmas. In Table 2 the audible portions are highlighted in bold.

Okay kids, remember the drill, in a big voice you'll say your name, your grade and then you'll ask the President the question that you and your teacher have prepared and written down on your index card. Okay, how about a big, 'Good morning Mr. President!' when he comes in the
room? Here we go.
Good morning Mr. President!
Oh that sounded pretty weak to me. Let's try it again.
Good morning, Mr. President!
That's better. Now who are all these people making a ruckus and tracking up my floor? You! What's your name?
Jeffrey Lucas.
And when are you gonna get taller, huh? What are you, fifteen, sixteen years
I'm seven.
Well, all right then, you're fine. All right, lets go. Come on, I'm a busy man. I am, after all, the President of Bulgaria.
Now, wait a second. That's not right. I'm not the President of Bulgaria. I am the President of the Great Kingdom of Luxembourg.
Now hold on, I know I'm the President of something...
Yes! Thank you. I am the President of the United States of  America. Now, who has a question?
Me! Me! Me!
Yes, ma'am.
My name is Jessica Hodges, and I'm in the third grade, and this is my question: What's your favourite part about being President?
My favourite part about being President?
I'm doing it right now. Who's next? All right.

Table 2. Audible portions of the original soundtrack

As the analysis shows, substantial parts of the original are audible through the voice-over. The exchanges between the kids and the president are quite fast with few gaps to be filled in by the translation. The voice talent’s voice covers some of the original speech, however the original soundtrack is loud enough and the audible portions long and coherent enough for the viewers who know enough English to be able to make sense of them and to experience the acting not only through the visual but also through the aural.

5.4. Kinetic synchrony, action synchrony

It might seem that since so much text has been reduced in the VO of “In excelsis Deo” (see section 5.2) and since the translation is not read out in full synchrony with the original (see section 5.3), both action synchrony (a requirement that translation must correspond to the action shown on screen) and kinetic synchrony  (a requirement that translation must match body movements) would be severely compromised (see Orero 2006 quoted in Franco et al. 2010). However, no such cases have been identified in the case at hand. This is perhaps because there were no quick shot changes that would affect action synchrony and the delays in reading out the VO script were not significant enough to have an impact on kinetic synchrony.

In the sections above we have focused on the technical constraints of the voice-over mode. In the next section we move on to discuss some of the critical points in the translator’s decision-making process and how it may be affected by the technical constraints.

6. Critical points of decision-making in the translation

When translating a text the translator sometimes stumbles upon a word, phrase or even a whole sentence that poses a particular challenge and requires an extra effort and a conscious decision. Such stumbling blocks, which we call critical points of translation decision-making (cf. Munday 2010), may include – but are not limited to – culture-specific items (CSIs), proper names, idioms, allusions, word play, slang, appraisal, metaphors or even forms of address and certain grammatical structures. They coincide to a great extent with ‘translation crisis points’ which ‘constitute turning points at which the translators have to make active decisions, and these points are thus indicative of overall strategy and to what norms the translator professes’ (Pedersen 2005: 1). Critical points in translation also overlap to some extent with Leppihalme’s ‘culture bumps’ (Leppihalme 1997), though it should be stressed that her culture bumps are limited to cases of intertextuality in translation, a limitation which does not apply in our analysis. The very term ‘critical points’ with reference to the translator’s decision-making was borrowed by us from Munday, who applies this concept to evaluation and appraisal in translation (Munday 2010; see also Martin and White 2005).

In what follows we present our analysis of critical translation points in The West Wing episode: we identify such points, present the translator’s solutions (with back translation into English) to the selected problematic source-language items, and then discuss and evaluate some of them in the light of the technical constraints discussed above. We have divided the identified items into several categories including: CSIs, metaphors, word play, irony, forms of address and grammar.

6.1. Culture-specific items

As expected, the first and by far the largest group of critical points identified by us are CSIs. Culture-specific items (for example Aixela 1996), also known as ‘cultural words’ (Newmark 1988), ‘extralinguistic cultural-bound references’ (Pedersen 2005) or ‘culture specific elements’ (Leuven-Zwart 1989) are understood here as ‘extralinguistic references to items that are tied up with a country’s culture, history, or geography and tend, therefore, to pose serious translation challenges’ (Díaz-Cintas and Remael 2007: 200). These may include geographical items (for example place names), ethnographic references (for example to objects from daily life, work, art and culture or descent) and sociopolitical references (for example to institutions and functions, socio-cultural life, military institutions and objects)  (Díaz-Cintas  and Remael 2007).

As the issue of translating culture-bound terms is very well covered in the literature, we will not give an extensive overview of the topic. Instead, in Table 3 we list the main translation procedures for CSIs, as proposed by various scholars (though we are aware that given the number of existing classifications, the list is not exhaustive), grouped under seven umbrella terms of importation, calque, extra information, normalization, deletion, addition, substitution, along with an exemplary definition of each of such terms (cf. Kwieciński 2001). 

Type of procedure



·         borrowing (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958)

·         loan word/transference (Newmark 1988)

·         borrowing/importation (Ivir 1987)

‘the process of transferring an SL word to a TL text’ (Newmark 1988: 81)


·         calque (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958)

·         through translation (Newmark 1988)

·         linguistic translation (Aixela 1996)

·         literal translation (Ivir 1987)

‘special kind of borrowing whereby a language borrows an expression form of another, but then translates literally each of its elements’ (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958: 32)

Extra information

·         definition (Ivir 1987)

·         addition (of cultural information) (Ivir 1987)

·         compensatory amplification – glossing (Malone 1988)

·         glosses (Aixela 1996)

‘the annotation of a text with elucidatory material’ (Malone 1988: 43)


·         neutralization (Newmark 1988)

·         functional equivalent (Newmark 1988)

·         generalization/particularization (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958)

‘procedure applied to cultural words, [and which] requires the use of a culture-free word, … for example Sejm – ‘the Polish parliament’…’ (Newmark 1988: 83)


·         omission (Ivir 1987)

·         compensatory reduction (Malone 1988)
·        deletion (for example Leuven-Zwart 1989; Aixela 1996)

‘the reductive strategy [which] consists in omitting source-text information interpretable as both circumstantial or tangential to the story and unlikely to make much sense, at least without inordinate glossing…’ (Malone 1988: 47)


·         addition - autonomous creation (Aixela 1996)

·         addition (Leuven-Zwart 1989)

the translator ‘put[s] in [in the target text] some non-existent cultural reference in the source text’ (Aixela 1996: 64)


·         adaptation (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958)

·         cultural equivalent (Newmark 1988)

·         substitution (Ivir 1987)

·         naturalization (Aixela 1996)

‘creating an equivalence of the same value applicable to a different situation than that of the source language’ (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958: 338)

Table 3. Types of procedures for translating CSIs

When placed on a Venutian scale the first three procedures would be closer to the foreignisation end of the continuum, whereas the last four would be considered more domesticating (with importation being the most foreignising and substitution the most domesticating) (cf. Venuti 1995).

For ease of analysis we have divided the identified CSIs into four categories: the U.S. administration and White House, Washington D.C. realia, the U.S. military and general CSIs, all of which are discussed below. Next to each translated CSI we specify the translation procedure applied.

6.1.1. The U.S. administration and the White House

In a TV show about a fictional president of the United States and his senior staff one could expect a lot of terms related to the U.S administration and the White House. And in fact, in the episode concerned we have spotted seven such items, which are presented in Table 4.

Original script

Polish voice-over

Back translation into English

What's your secret service code name?
Jaki jest Twój służbowy pseudonim?

What’s your professional code name? (normalization)

He was Secretary of Labor six years ago.
Był wtedy ministrem pracy.
He was minister of labour then. (substitution)
You are a reporter. I'm the Press Secretary. It's an unavoidable conflict of interest.
Ty jesteś dziennikarzem, ja sekretarzem prasowym. Między nami istnieje konflikt interesów.
You’re a journalist, I’m the press secretary. There is a conflict of interests between us. (calque)
He was high when he was running the Labor Department.
Brał, kiedy był ministrem?

He was high when he was a minister? (normalization)

We don't need your cooperation, Laurie, one of your guys wrote you a check and the I.R.S. works for me.
Zresztą jeden z twoich klientów zapłacił czekiem. Urząd skarbowy już się tym zajął.
One of your clients wrote you a check. The tax office is already looking into it. (substitution)
And then you're gonna call the V.A. right? [The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]
Zawiadomicie Biuro Weteranów?
Will you notify the Veterans Office? (normalization)
The President is in the Mural Room.
Prezydent już czeka.

The president is waiting. (deletion)

Table 4. Translation of CSIs related to U.S. administration and White House

The first three items are related to staff positions or functions (secret service, Secretary of Labour, Press Secretary). Interestingly, the translator is not consistent here, as all of the items are rendered using a different procedure (normalization, substitution and calque). Similarly, the next three items related to departments or offices are also treated differently: the Labor Department is normalised, the I.R.S. (Internal Revenue Service) replaced by its Polish counterpart, while the V.A. (the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) is again normalised (‘veterans office’). As for the last item in the table, the Mural Room, the translator decided to drop this reference altogether. Admittedly, in reality there is no such room in the White House (there is the so-called ‘Diplomatic Reception Room’ or ‘Dip Room’, which serves the same functions as the Mural Room in the show and looks very much like it), however a certain ‘presidential’ feel seems to be lost here. This observation also applies to the other items in the group – by applying mainly domesticating procedures, the U.S. administrative reality is not preserved for the Polish viewer, though the use of such procedures is understandable given the severe time constraints.

6.1.2. Washington D.C. realia

As the show is set in Washington D.C. one would assume that it would include many references to the city’s topography and landmarks. Table 5 lists those identified by us in the analysed episode. 

Original script
Polish voice-over
Back translation into English
A homeless Korean War Vet died of exposure out on the Mall last night. 

Bezdomny weteran wojny koreańskiej zmarł wczoraj z zimna na ławce.

A homeless Korean War Vet died of exposure on a bench last night. (normalization)

They usually hang out around Capitol and 'P,' I'd try there. 
Zwykle można ich spotkać przy Kapitalu. [sic!]

One can usually meet them around the Capital. [sic!] (importation)

You know Zoey is starting Georgetown in two weeks, I was thinking about getting this for her.
Zoey za dwa tygodnie zaczyna naukę w Georgetown.
All right. Zoey is starting studies at Georgetown in two weeks. (extra information)
To a place called Rare Books, you know what they sell?
Miejsce nazywa się Białe Kruki. Wiesz, czym handlują?
The place is called White Ravens [in Polish: rarities, rare books]. Do you know what they sell? (calque)
(...) Couldn't you just drop me off the top of the Washington Monument instead?
(...) Wolałbym się rzucić z Washington Monument.

(…) I’d rather jump from the Washington Monument instead. (importation)

Table 5. Translation of CSIs related to Washington D.C. realia

The first item, the Mall refers to the National Mall, an open-air national park area in downtown Washington, within which major landmarks are located, such as the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It also includes the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which in the episode is the place of death of a homeless Korean War veteran. This reference is lost in the translation, though the viewers can make the link themselves, as the stainless steel figures representing a squad on a patrol are clearly visible in the background when we see the dead body of the homeless man lying on a bench. This is a very good example of how the visual and the verbal interact in the film and where something that is understated in translation can be inferred from the image.

The second item in the table is a reference to Washington’s topography: by the way this location is specified we can infer that what is meant here is an intersection of two streets: Capitol Street and P Street. This information is misrepresented in translation, as the location is specified as ‘around the Capitol’ (which – to make matters worse – is mistranslated as ‘Kapital’  (‘the Capital’), though it may be the case that the word is simply mispronounced by the voice talent). However, it should be noted that this mistake is a low-risk one (cf Pym 2004), as it does not affect comprehension of the scene. What is more, providing a more accurate translation would unnecessarily add to the length of the translation.

Finally, the third example, Georgetown, being one of the top U.S. universities and given that the show is set in Washington, is absolutely transparent for the American viewer, but is not necessarily so for the Polish viewer. That is probably why the translator decided to make this item more explicit for the Polish viewer by adding the word ‘studies’, thus making the translation more domesticating and transparent.  

6.1.3. The U.S. military

As has already been hinted at in the previous section, the episode at hand features a homeless Korean War veteran – Walter Hufnagle – who died of exposure on a bench at the Korean War Veterans Memorial (see above).  His body is shown to Toby Zeigler (whose coat – which he had given to the Goodwill – with his business card left in the pocket the man was wearing). Toby, who is a communications director at the White House, arranges for an honour guard funeral for the deceased man. In the episode we also hear a story of Mrs Landingham’s twin sons, who died in Vietnam. We therefore have a number of CSIs related to the U.S. military, which are listed in Table 6.

Original script

Polish voice-over

Back translation into English

Tattoo on his forearm is Marine Battalion Second of the Seventh.

Na przedramieniu ma tatuaż piechoty morskiej.

He has a marines tattoo on his forearm. (normalization)

A Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh.
Starszy szeregowy, drugi korpus piechoty morskiej.
A Lance Corporal, second marine division. (calque)
It's called the Purple Heart. It's for getting wounded in battle.
Medalem dla żołnierzy rannych w czasie działań wojennych.

It’s a medal for soldiers wounded in battle. (normalization)

Twins. Andrew and Simon. (...) They went off to medical school together, and then they finished their second year at the same time, and of course their lottery number came up at the same time. 

Bliźniaki. Andrew i Simona. Wszystko robili razem, obaj rozpoczęli studia na medycynie. Obaj jednocześnie po drugim roku studiów dostali powołanie.

Twins. Andrew and Simon. They did everything together, they went off to medical school together. When they finished their second year they were both drafted at the same time. (normalization)

Table 6. Translation of CSIs related to U.S. military

In the first two examples the division in which the soldier served is translated by normalization and calque (though it must be noted that not all of the elements of the original term have been translated). The Purple Heart, which is a U.S. military distinction awarded to those who have been wounded or killed in battle, is also normalised, with the name of the medal omitted. The final item is lottery number, which refers to a draft lottery system introduced in 1969 to determine the order of call to military service during the Vietnam War. This reference is subject to normalization and as such is completely lost in the voice-over. Had the reference appeared in a book or an article, a translator could have provided a detailed description of the system in a footnote, and by the same token better familiarise the readers with this portion of U.S. history. Because of the constraints of the voice-over mode, however, the viewers are deprived of the opportunity.

6.1.4. Culture-specific items (general)

In the episode we have also identified a few general CSIs, which are enumerated in Table 7.

Original script

Polish voice-over

Back translation into English

Well, that's my coat. I gave that coat to the Goodwill. (…)

To mój płaszcz, oddałem go dla biednych.

That’s my coat, I gave it to the poor. (normalization)

A gay high school senior.

Uczeń szkoły średniej. Gej.

A high school student. Gay. (normalization)

It's important you remind the President throughout the day that he's allergic to eggnog.

Przypominaj panu prezydentowi, że jest uczulony na ajerkoniak.

Remind the President that he’s allergic to eiercognac. (substitution)

They made him say 'Hail Mary's' as they beat him to death. This was a crime of entertainment.
Kazali mu mówić 'Hail Mary', kiedy tłukli go na śmierć. Zabili dla zabawy.
They made him say ‘Hail Mary’ [left in English], as they beat him to death. (importation)
Like I'm not gonna have enough problems without the Keystone Kops.
Jakbym nie miał dość kłopotów.
Like I didn’t have enough problems. (deletion)
But the common sensibility, to quote Steven J. Gould...
Ale wg Stevena J. Goulda...
But according to Steven J. Gould... (importation)
Yeah, his name is Lowell Lydell, he's seventeen years old, he's in critical condition at Saint Paul Memorial Hospital (…).
Nazywa się Lowell Lydell, ma 17 lat. Leży w szpitalu Saint Paul i jest w krytycznym stanie. 

His name is Lowell Lydell, he is seventeen years old. He is in cri