Imagined spectators: The importance of policy for audiovisual translation research

Carol O’Sullivan

This article considers theoretical and methodological questions of language and translation policy in the dissemination of audiovisual products across languages. This is an area where scholarly research is inevitably playing catch-up with rapid change both in the language industries and in film and television production. For example, we have a general sense of ‘dubbing territories’ and ‘subtitling territories’ but in reality the picture is more complex. Norms changed in the course of the home entertainment revolution, with the arrival of the DVD format in the late 1990s ostensibly increasing viewer choice and flexibility of translation provision. The relocation of much audiovisual material to an online environment has also generated fundamental changes in the way that works circulate, with volunteer translators and automated translation processes playing a larger role. Policy developments in access translation have meant that there have also been great changes relatively recently in the availability of SDH subtitling, audio description and other modes of access translation.

This is a very broad field which raises many compelling research questions. At the same time, its very breadth does not lend itself to a comprehensive overview. The article will therefore aim to provide an orientation to, rather than a summary of, the theoretical and methodological challenges of research on this topic.

Table of contents

Translation policy exists in a rather fuzzy state within Translation Studies. As Reine Meylaerts points out in her entry on the topic in the John Benjamins Handbook of Translation Studies (2011), it has not been a traditional focus of research in the area, although it is present in the work of foundational figures in the discipline including James Holmes, José Lambert and Gideon Toury. In a 2002 review of Peter France’s Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Dirk Delabastita (2002, 162) identifies policy as an area where there are gaps in coverage. In 2006, Yves Gambier observed in an overview of the state of the art in audiovisual translation (AVT) research that “demeurent encore sous-estimés les rapports entre politique linguistique, statut des langues et choix du doublage” [the relationships between language policy, language status and choice of dubbing are still under-studied] (Gambier 2006, 275); his overview of subtitling in the same article (274) gives a list of current areas of research from which policy is conspicuous by its absence. In the intervening decade the situation has improved to some extent, as we will see below.

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