The importance of being relevant? A cognitive-pragmatic framework for conceptualising audiovisual translation


Inspired by the belief that cognitive and pragmatic models of communication and discourse processing offer great potential for the study of Audiovisual Translation (AVT), this paper will review such models and discuss their contribution to conceptualising the three inter-related sub-processes underlying all forms of AVT: the comprehension of the multimodal discourse by the translator; the translation of selected elements of this discourse; and the comprehension of the newly formed multimodal discourse by the target audience. The focus will be on two models, Relevance Theory, which presents the most comprehensive pragmatic model of communication, and Mental Model Theory, which underlies cognitive models of discourse processing. The two approaches will be used to discuss and question common perceptions of AVT as being ‘constrained’ and ‘partial’ translation.

Table of contents

Many forms of audiovisual translation (AVT), especially subtitling, dubbing and voiceover, are primarily concerned with the translation of verbal language, be it from one language into another or from spoken into written language. Only subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) and audio description for the blind and partially sighted (AD) systematically require inter-modal transfer. However, given that the film dialogue or narrative, which is the object of translation in subtitling, dubbing and voiceover, is part of a multimodal discourse (i.e., a film or performance), these forms of AVT also require the translator to be aware of the other modes. At the same time, one of the challenges that all forms of AVT share is that the translator has control over only some elements of the multimodal discourse. The visual images are normally a ‘given’ and cannot be altered in the process of translation. Other challenges include the time and space limitations for the translated elements and requirements to achieve intermodal synchronicity (most prominently in dubbing), calling for appropriate strategies of information selection, condensation and/or omission. Although not exclusive to AVT, these challenges have led to AVT being conceptualised as ‘constrained translation’ (Bogucki 2004) and ‘partial translation’ (Benecke 2014). This paper argues that cognitive-pragmatic models of discourse processing enable us to re-evaluate these perceptions. It examines the potential of Mental Model Theory (Johnson-Laird 1983, 2006) and Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995) for this purpose. Although these models have so far mainly been used to explain monomodal verbal discourse and monomodal translation, it will be shown that they can be applied to multimodal discourse as such and to AVT, and that the benefits of their application to AVT are wide-ranging.

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