Audio description to foreign films

 AD to foreign films

 1. Introduction

We have recently completed a research project “Audio description to foreign films”, funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education (IP2010 040370).
When we started this project in 2010, there was no AD to foreign films on the Polish market.

 2. Goals

The goal of the project was to test the feasibility of optimum solutions related to creating AD to foreign films in the following research areas: synchronising the AD script with the translation of foreign dialogue, the influence of film genre on the feasibility of audio describing the film (we tested feature films and documentaries), optimal type of AVT (voiceover vs. audio subtitles), and character identification.

 3. Project description

3.1. Materials
As part of the project, we audio described the following films:

    – feature films:

  • Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar
  • Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen
  • Matchpoint, dir. Woody Allen
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona, dir. Woody Allen
  • Big Fish, dir. Tim Burton
    – documentaries:

  • Man on wire, dir. James Marsh
  • La Soufrière, dir. Werner Herzog

3.2. Audio introduction
The goal of the audio introduction (AI) is to present viewers with all the information which helps viewers to understand the film and which cannot be mentioned the moment they happen owing to time limitations.
We wrote AIs to: Volver, Matchpoint, Midnight in Paris and Man in wire.

3.3. Reception research
Each AD script was consulted with visually impaired target viewers. The scripts were then recorded in a studio. The audio described films were screened at the following events:
– “Listopadowe piątki z audiodeskrypcją” in the Polish Association of the Blind in Warsaw (2011)
– “Kino poza ciszą i ciemnością” in coperation with Fundacja Kultury bez Barier (summer 2012)
– “Filmowa jesień w Tyflogalerii” at the Polish Association of the Blind in Warsaw (autumn 2012)

After the screening we conducted reception studies through:

  • interactive survey using clickers
  • open discussions

3.4. Type of translation

When audio describing foreign films it is necessary to translate the foreign dialogues. This can be done either with voiceover or audio subtitles.

Audio subtitling and voiceover seem to be two audiovisual translation modalities which have a lot in common. First of all, they both consist of a translation of the dialogue list to a foreign or multilingual film. Secondly, the translation is read out to the target audience – the main difference being that in the case of voiceover, the target audience is simply conceived of as mainstream sighted population, whereas in audio subtitling it comprises a much smaller group of visually impaired people. Thirdly, the translation is usually read out by one voice talent (typically a male in Poland), while the voices of the original actors can still be heard in the background though their volume has been turned down. Polish voice-over is always done in a professional recording studio, which usually guarantees good sound quality. Finally, apart from the difference target audiences envisaged at the production stage, audio subtitling is created together with the AD script and thus allows for some flexibility in combining the two tracks, whereas in the case of Poland, AD would be added to a voiced-over film at a later stage, which makes it virtually impossible to introduce changes to the pre-recorded voiceover so that it can be seamlessly interwoven with the AD script.

3.5. The voice talent
Since the translation of the foreign dialogue is usually done with a male voice talent, we used female voices to read the AD scripts to enable the viewers easy identification. This solution was very well received by the participants of our study.

 4. Results

4.1. Synchronisation

In the course of discussions following the screenings of foreign audio described films in our study, the vast majority of viewers stressed the importance of an appropriate synchronisation of all the audio tracks in the film: the original dialogue, its voiceover translation and the AD script as well as important sounds and music. According to the participants of the study, the optimum synchronisation is when the original dialogue can be heard in the background and when AD does not overlap with the original actors’ voices or with the voiceover translation, as shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 – Optimum synchronisation of AD
with the original dialogue and VO translation

Should the abovementioned synchronisation be impossible, for instance owing to limited time available for AD, many viewers stated that it would be acceptable for AD to overlap with and to cover some of the original dialogue, as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 – Acceptable synchronisation of AD with VO translation

What turned out to be unacceptable to viewers was the option of AD overlapping with the voiceover translation (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 – Unacceptable synchronisation of AD with VO translation

The findings are consistent with a number of AD guidelines, where it is stressed that AD should not overlap with dialogue.

4.2. Character identification
In scenes with many speakers it is useful to insert the names of characters, particularly at the beginning of the film.

4.3. Audio introduction
AI is a good tool facilitating film comprehension to visually impaired viewers.

audio introductions seem to be a promising new solution to some of the problems arising when audio describing foreign films. Their usefulness is now being tested in an increasingly larger number of settings and countries (see di Giovanni 2012; Fryer & Romero-Fresco forthcoming; Jankowska 2013; Remael & Reviers 2013).

4.4. Describing foreign places
Among elements of foreign culture that are particularly important in audio description are foreign places. Film characters are always presented in a setting and this setting needs to be given an accurate term in AD. On the one hand, this term should be relevant to the story world, yet on the other hand, it is important for audio describers, just like translators, to decide whether the place being described is likely to be known to the target audience or not. In the course of the project, we have identified four main strategies of describing foreign places in AD:

  • Naming, e.g. Tate Modern
  • Explicitating, e.g. the Tate Modern gallery
  • Describing without naming, e.g. A large, brick industrial building with a tall chimney, former power station on a river bank
  • Describing and naming, e.g. A large, brick industrial building with a tall chimney: Tate Modern.

The choice of the appropriate strategy each time depends on a places, the film and the context. For instance, landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower will probably be names directly, while those less famous may require more explanation.

 5. Conclusion

This project has hopefully shown that AD to foreign films is both doable and needed, as stressed by many blind and partially sighted people who attended our screenings.

For more information on the project, please contact Agnieszka Szarkowska.


Among the many people who helped this study see the light of day are Anna Jankowska and Wojciech Figiel, whom we owe a great deal of gratitude. We would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of the following audio describers: Irena Michalewicz, Agnieszka Walczak, and Bogna Olszewska and to thank them for their passion and meticulousness in creating the AD scripts. We also extend our gratitude to Anna Żórawska and Robert Więckowski from Fundacja Kultury bez Barier and to Monika Cieniewska from the Polish Association of the Blind (PZN) for organizing the screenings with AD. Finally, we would like to thank all of the blind and sighted participants who gave their time and energy for our studies.



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