The Languages of Dubbing

Mainstream Audiovisual Translation in Italy

by Maria Pavesi (Volume editor) Maicol Formentelli (Volume editor) Elisa Ghia (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 275 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 206


The purpose of this volume is to investigate the languages of dubbing. The plural evokes the complex interplay of different codes as well as the numerous levels of analysis involved. The volume focuses on the languages of Anglophone films and television series and their dubbing into Italian while broadening the perspective to the general debate on audiovisual translation. Dubbing offers itself as a privileged place where languages interact in simulating, creating and recreating fictive orality and where influential linguistic and pragmatic conventions are generated and developed. The chapters cover a rich range of topics including syntactic, lexical and sociolinguistic features of audiovisual dialogue, cross-linguistic contrasts, and the translation of culture specific references and multilingualism on screen. The volume provides an updated picture of research on Italian dubbed language, a key area of inquiry with reference to the investigation of telecinematic discourse, Audiovisual Translation and Corpus-based Translation Studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • The languages of dubbing and thereabouts: an introduction: Maria Pavesi, Maicol Formentelli, Elisa Ghia
  • Section 1: Conversational Phenomena and Fictive Orality
  • The Pavia Corpus of Film Dialogue: a means to several ends: Maria Pavesi
  • “That is the question”: direct interrogatives in English film dialogue and dubbed Italian: Elisa Ghia
  • How people greet each other in TV series and dubbing: Veronica Bonsignori, Silvia Bruti
  • “It feels like bits of me are crumbling or something”: general extenders in original and dubbed television dialogue: Serenella Zanotti
  • Exploring lexical variety and simplification in original and dubbed film dialogue: Maicol Formentelli
  • Section 2: Sociolinguistic and Lingua-Cultural Variation
  • Translating slanguage in British and American films: a corpus-based analysis: Maicol Formentelli, Silvia Monti
  • Morphological and semantic simplification in dubbing techniques: translating the dialogue of the British films Ae Fond Kiss… and The Queen: Joseph M. Brincat
  • Period television drama: culture specific and time specific references in translation for dubbing: Irene Ranzato
  • Dubbing multilingual films between neutralisation and preservation of lingua-cultural identities: a critical review of the current strategies in Italian dubbing: Giuseppe de Bonis
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


The languages of dubbing and thereabouts: an introduction

1.Why study the language of screen dialogue?

For a long time relatively few studies investigated the languages of the small and big screens despite the huge share in language reception these media discourses have across geographical borders. While the visual dimension and semiotic complexity of film mostly attracted critics’ attention, the non-spontaneous and pre-fabricated character of audiovisual speech justified linguists’ limited interest in this verbal expression. In the past few years, however, such surprising neglect has given way to a remarkable surge in scholarship, and a number of publications, monographs, articles and specialised papers have appeared on the topic. The need is now felt to move forward from the initial view of audiovisual dialogue as inauthentic orality, a mere and far-removed imitation of spontaneous spoken language, and make the fictional language of the screen a worthwhile object of inquiry in Linguistics and Translation Studies alike. As argued by Alvarez-Pereyre (2011: 48), film dialogue can rightfully be examined both as a language artefact deriving from an artistic and social endeavour as well as a specimen of real language use. Fictive orality, simulated spoken language, parlato-recitato, dialogo riprodotto, oralidad prefabricada (Brumme/Espunya 2012; Pavesi 2008; Nencioni 1976; Rossi 2002; Chaume 2013), just to mention a few of the labels used to refer to this variety of translated and non-translated language, deserve close inspection as stand-alone registers or genres, in which specific language features correlate with specific communicative functions. At the same time, both original and translated audiovisual speech constitutes a source of data that can contribute to our linguistic, sociolinguistic and ← 7 | 8 → pragmatic knowledge, an effective indicator of how conversation is perceived (Rey 2001: 138; Quaglio 2009: 13) and a legitimate way of capturing oral discourse (Amador-Moreno/McCafferty 2011: 1).

Among the various translation modalities, dubbing is the one that most closely reproduces the goals and nature of the original dialogue, replacing the soundtrack of an audiovisual product in the source language with a soundtrack in the target language, with the aim of reproducing a semiotic whole acceptable to the new, receiving audiences. In addition, due to the wide circulation of audiovisual products, dubbing comes to the fore as the screen language viewers most frequently access in those countries where it is still predominant in cinemas and on television (e.g. Antonini 2008).

For these reasons, the purpose of this volume is to thoroughly investigate the language, or better the languages, of dubbing, with a special focus on Italian but broadening the perspective to the general debate on audiovisual language. The plural is intentionally used in the title to evoke the complex interplay of different codes in dubbing as well as the numerous levels of analysis involved. First and foremost, at least two are the languages in contact in the dubbing process, i.e. the source and the target language, which leave their visible marks in the alignment of translation to the target language norms and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in patterns of source language interference (Pavesi 2008). Secondly, several are the social and regional varieties spoken by characters that are dealt with in dubbing (Taylor 2006; Ranzato 2010) along with the growing multilingualism in films (O’Sullivan 2011; Minutella 2012). Finally, the reference to the languages of dubbing effectively captures the rich dimension of stylistic variation and the specificities of different fictional genres across and within television and filmic speech. ← 8 | 9 →

2.The verbal versus nonverbal continuum

In this introduction, we will briefly touch upon a few key aspects concerning audiovisual dialogue and its translation as a way to contextualise the following contributions. The wealth of topics and methodological approaches in this fast-expanding field, in fact, calls for a discriminating perspective in identifying major avenues of investigation. A main research dimension is given by the verbal versus nonverbal continuum of audiovisual communication. Film dialogue comprises highly contextualised language that is sociolinguistically, pragmatically and culturally embedded in a multimodal complex where it closely interacts with images and sounds. Considering the integration of all the semiotic codes in film is thus necessary to come to a satisfactory account of how audiovisual dialogue works and unfolds on screen (Baldry/Thibault 2006; Taylor 2003). A focus on multimodality is also essential to understand what constraints derive from the media and what assets are available during the translation of audiovisual texts from one language into another (Chaume 2004a, Chaume 2012; Mubenga 2009; Guillot 2012). It consequently comes as no surprise that the semiotic complexity of films and television fiction has been at the centre of concern in Audiovisual Translation Studies. Among the various topics addressed from a multimodal perspective, special attention has been paid to humour, characterisation and space (Maiorani 2011; Bednarek 2010; Chiaro 2008, 2014; Balirano 2013), but also more globally to the structure and cohesion of the audiovisual text (Chaume 2004b; Tomaskiewicz 2001; Zabalbeascoa 2012). Researchers have discussed these themes, moving from the whole semiotic event to unveil how meaning may be lost during the transfer process, as well as successfully recreated by drawing on the semiotic redundancy of film. The translation of address strategies, for example, has been proved to rely on the multimodal context of film (Pavesi 2012). Shifts of address pronouns in the target text do not just derive from linguistic features of the source text or pre-existing conventions of the target community; they are also motivated by attitudinal and diegetic changes expressed paralinguistically, through prosody, gestures, gazes, etc. Hence the ← 9 | 10 → relevance of intersemiotic explicitation (Perego 2009), whereby nonverbal behaviour in the original version is expressed linguistically in the dubbed version and greater coherence is obtained between the translated verbal text and the events represented on screen (Chaume 2004b: 45).

The attention to multimodality and film semiotics represents one end of the continuum of research centred on fictive communication. At the opposite end, the verbal code can be investigated on its own, by focussing on specific subsystems or language items and bringing to light salient features of prefabricated orality. Such research approach is often deemed as unsatisfactory and inadequate within Audiovisual Translation Studies, owing to its emphasis on the verbal dimension of film – just one component of the whole semiotic event. It may be argued, however, that the approach is fully justified when the emphasis falls on the search for the linguistic patterns, discoursal functions and socio-pragmatic values that typify film dialogue, which can also be compared with other registers of the same language or across different languages.

3.Focus on language: the naturalness of audiovisual dialogue

Starting from the verbal end of the verbal/nonverbal continuum, the opposition between naturalness versus register specificity has been the major concern of linguistically-minded research in audiovisual dialogue and Audiovisual Translation. By simplifying considerably, many of the investigations in the field have examined the degree of verisimilitude together with the peculiarities of audiovisual dialogue, often foregrounding its unique, normalising and artificial character especially in dubbing (e.g. Valdeón 2009, 2011; Rossi 2011; Baños 2013). A certain amount of linguistic realism, however, is required to match viewers’ expectation of spontaneity and spoken fluency, thus ensuring their suspension of disbelief and immersion in the world represented on ← 10 | 11 → screen (Pérez-González 2007; Bucaria 2008; Pavesi 2008; Wissmath et al. 2009: 118). Media enjoyment, in fact, is strictly bound to plausibility as audiences become immersed in the fictional representation through realistic characters and settings, but also, we may add, credible dialogues (Green et al. 2004: 321-322).

The question then becomes: what exactly do we mean by plausible or credible? If we start from the assumption that conversation is the baseline to which screen dialogue should be compared, a first aim of research is to find out to what degree and through which linguistic devices audiovisual dialogue aligns with spontaneous conversation. Two major corpus studies have recently addressed the issue of naturalness in audiovisual dialogue in English. Following Biber (1988), Quaglio (2009) carried out a multi-dimensional analysis of the language of the sitcom Friends, whereas Forchini (2012) employed the same methodology in her investigation of a corpus of eleven American movies. Both studies share the large number of features considered and the systematic comparisons they carried out with reference corpora of spoken English. They have also produced similar findings, with Anglophone fictive dialogue coming close to spontaneous conversation along several dimensions. Most importantly, the two quantitative studies revealed that audiovisual conversation is as involved and interactive as face-to-face, natural conversation, a result confirmed by Bednarek’s (2010) corpus study of the American series Gilmore Girls. Further support to the naturalness of contemporary screen language comes from studies on specific features of spoken language, including the investigation of performance phenomena and non-clausal units in four American- and British-produced television series (Valdeón 2009, 2011).

But does audiovisual dialogue need to mirror conversation in order to sound realistic and plausible or is a looser similarity enough for viewers to experience naturalness? According to Roger Fowler’s (2000) Cognitive Theory of Mode, spokenness is called to the reader’s minds as triggered by only a few language features or cues that allow access to the mental model of the appropriate mode or register (Fowler 2000: 32-33): ← 11 | 12 →

Knowledge of the two [written and oral] modes, and the registers within them, is activated by cues or triggers, which are individual linguistic features of texts – words, expressions, syntactic or morphological details. Encountering sufficient cues, a reader or hearer will access a mental model of an appropriate mode or register. So a printed text can contain a few cues typical of the oral and the reader will experience the oral model […]. Orality is experienced in the mind, though the text remains written [italics in the original].

Drawing on Fowler’s Theory of Mode, Guillot (2007; 2012) has suggested that while audiovisual language cannot be a faithful mirror of spontaneous conversation, only a few features in audiovisual translation are enough to prompt the experience of orality in viewers. She has shown that the short sentences and punctuation in subtitling may convey the impression of fragmentation typical of spontaneous speech (Guillot 2007). This part-for-the-whole view of naturalness is clearly related to the notion of cultural metonymies put forward in a different conceptual setting, whereby a few selected features “are only a small part of a more complex ethnic and cultural context but come to stand for it in the filmic discourse” (Bollettieri Bosinelli et al. 2005: 409). In a similar vein, Tomaskiewicz (2001, 2009) has argued that viewers as well as subtitle readers can reconstruct missing structural parts of conversation in film by drawing on their pre-existing competence as conversationalists and by reconstructing the text from the spoken features reproduced in the dialogue. The idea of just a limited number of selected features creating the impression of spontaneous spoken language is also close to the concept of selective mimesis according to which privileged carriers of orality are charged with the whole simulation weight in dubbing (Pavesi 2009: 209). The shift is obvious here from representation of spokenness as a reflection of real-life communication to representation of spokenness as evocation of spontaneous speech. The cultural underpinnings of the latter interpretation are obvious, since the conception and perception of realism change across space and time and are shaped differently in different communities. The naturalness of audiovisual dialogue can therefore derive from audiences’ habits and expectations. Natural in this sense is what is idiomatic or conventionally approved by viewers as native speakers, a linguistic choice that fits in a given textual context and applies to a particular socio-pragmatic situation (Romero-Fresco 2009, 2012: 186). ← 12 | 13 →

Naturalness may therefore ultimately derive from what spectators recognise as the legitimate, acceptable language of audiovisual dialogue, irrespective of the actual resemblance between the languages spoken on- and off-screen (see Biber 2009). From this last perspective, audiovisual dialogue is a register, a genre or a constellation of genres, recognised and endorsed by the original or target audiences as a variety of their language repertoire. Such an endorsement is necessary owing to the requirements of the audience design:

mass communicators are under considerable pressure to win the approval of the audience in order to maintain their audience size or market share. In ordinary conversation the urge to gain the approval of one’s audience is similar in kind although less in degree (Bell 1997: 243).

4.Specificity of audiovisual dialogue

As a register, audiovisual language is expected to display specific linguistic features performing specific functions. These functions do not fully overlap with those of natural conversation and include moving the plot forward, providing background information, defining characters, and involving viewers emotionally and aesthetically. It is in fact the teleological nature of film (Remael 2003; Pérez-Gonzáles 2007), its telling a story to a ratified yet non-participating audience (Lorenzo-Dus 2009: 8), that mostly distances audiovisual dialogue from spontaneous conversation. The focus is thus shifted onto narration, character building and setting creation. On the wake of recent corpus-based investigations, the agenda has been set to assess whether typical linguistic patterns can be identified and what functions they perform in films and TV fiction, both dubbed and original.

A number of language features common to various kinds of Anglophone screen dialogue have emerged from the different studies comparing them to spontaneous conversation. They include personal and demonstrative pronouns, thanking and apologizing routines, greetings and leave-takings, vocatives as well as different types of lexical ← 13 | 14 → clusters (e.g. Bednarek 2010; Rodríguez Martín 2010; Bonsignori et al. 2012; Formentelli 2014; Forchini 2012, 2013; Quaglio 2009; Pavesi 2009; Freddi 2011, 2012). For example, in all corpus studies first and second person pronouns are more frequent in English and Italian audiovisual dialogue than in face-to-face conversations. These pronominal patterns correspond to the primacy of duologues in telecinematic discourse, together with its immediacy, interactiveness and greater emphasis on perceivable characters on screen. Similarly, frequent vocatives are indexes of both ideational and interactional meanings and contribute to the construing of characters’ style, identity and interpersonal relationships (Bubel 2006; Formentelli 2014). Vocatives are strategic cues of orality (Guillot 2010), which can be used to add dynamicity to film dialogue, as well as encourage viewers’ participation and cathartic involvement (cf. Pavesi 2012; Zago 2015). These features in turn add to the greater emotionality of audiovisual language, a fil rouge of onscreen representation running through original and dubbed dialogues in the form of intensification and camaraderie language together with verbal challenge and conflict talk (Quaglio 2009; Bednarek 2012; Baños 2013).

5.Away from linguistic uniformity

The representation of everyday talk or natural conversation in audiovisual dialogue is only one aspect, albeit a central one, in the depiction of the language of the screen. The whole palette of geolects, dialects and sociolects is also essential for the realism of the represented world in films and TV series, where it simultaneously performs a variety of purposes (Chaume 2012). A major device to portray individual characterisation, language variation contributes to the cultural embeddedness of the narrated story and expresses different ideologies. It can also be exploited to make people laugh, isolate one character from the other or highlight interpersonal conflict (Ranzato 2006). In translation, the focus specifically centres onto the verbal make-up of the audiovisual product ← 14 | 15 → and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reproducing or recreating in the target text the differentiated picture offered in and by the source text. Again, it is only through the conventionalisation of fictional sociolects and dialects, on the one hand, and the reinvention of specific accents and linguistic mannerisms, on the other hand, that some of the original meanings can be retained or recreated (see on these issues the various contributions in Armstrong/Federici 2006 and Federici 2009).

Finally, it is once more within the verbal dimension that the recent attention to multilingualism falls, both in original and dubbed dialogues (e.g. Bleichenbacher 2008; Corrius Gimbert/Zabalbeascoa 2011; Zabalbeascoa/Corrius Gimbert 2014). Filmmakers and TV directors are increasingly including substantial portions of foreign discourse in mainstream films and TV series as a reflection of the growing interactions and increasing mixing in contemporary society between people belonging to different, often distant worlds. As with the representation of spokenness, multilingualism in audiovisual products undergoes a process of filtering, reinvention and stylisation, with its transfer to the target text proving to be one of the most challenging aspects in audiovisual translation. The strategies used in the translation of multiple languages in polyglot films and the rendering of the symbolic practice of code-switching and code-mixing in portrayed multiethnicity and multiculturality (Monti 2009) represent a major translational issue, one that is likely to involve researchers for a long time in the attempt to account for a multifaceted and highly differentiated phenomenon.

6.The volume

Dubbing is the main and most widespread modality of audiovisual translation in Italy, while English is the major source language in the translation of screen language across the world. For these reasons, the language of dubbing represents a privileged locus where Italian and English strictly interact in simulating, creating and recreating fictive ← 15 | 16 → orality. It is through this interaction that influential linguistic and pragmatic conventions and norms originate and develop in the different and overlapping speech communities. Hence, the significance of a book that focuses on the languages of Anglophone films and television products and their dubbing into Italian.

Moving from an emphasis on the translational strategies that typify and shape the register and the different genres of audiovisual texts, the volume offers new perspectives into the contrastive aspects that emerge from the systematic comparisons between original and translated fictive dialogues. It contains a selection of papers presented at the International Conference The Languages of Films. Dubbing, Acquisition and Methodology (Pavia 14-15 September 2012)1 together with other contributions specifically written for the volume. The topics discussed are many and include syntactic, lexical and socio-pragmatic aspects of the spoken language represented on screen, cross-linguistic contrasts, the translation of cultural references and multilingualism in films. Aside from providing novel insights into original Anglophone audiovisual dialogue, the chapters in the volume compose an updated picture of research on Italian dubbed language, a key area of inquiry with reference to Audiovisual Translation and the language of translation. As a distinctive trait of the volume, all contributions share an empirical, largely corpus-based approach leading to quantitatively substantiated results that can be confirmed, disconfirmed, or better refined by further research.

The first section of the volume includes a series of papers focussed on fictive orality and the reproduction of conversational traits in original and dubbed audiovisual dialogue. The phenomena under investigation range from syntax to lexis and pragmatics, and appear emblematic in illustrating the multiple alliances at work in shaping telecinematic discourse.

The studies are introduced by MARIA PAVESI’s chapter, which underlines the key role of corpora in the exploration of audiovisual discourse and offers a description of the Pavia Corpus of Film Dialogue ← 16 | 17 → (henceforth PCFD), a unidirectional parallel and comparable corpus of English and Italian film dialogues. The corpus permits the pursuit of several objectives, including the exploration of conversational phenomena, the study of translational shifts and functional equivalence, the identification of diegetic and mimetic traits and the investigation of audiovisual dialogue as input for second language acquisition. Empirical research carried out on the PCFD so far has allowed researchers to identify register specificities in Italian dubbing, areas of source text interference and the strategic use of carriers of orality in both original and translated film discourse.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Cultural code Media adaptation Multilingualism Telecinematic discourse Italian translation
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 276 pp., 30 various ill.

Biographical notes

Maria Pavesi (Volume editor) Maicol Formentelli (Volume editor) Elisa Ghia (Volume editor)

Maria Pavesi, PhD, is Professor of English language and Linguistics at the University of Pavia. She has coordinated several national and international research projects and has published widely on language learning, audiovisual translation and the features of spoken language in film dubbing, including personal and spatial deixis. Maicol Formentelli, PhD, is researcher in English language and Linguistics at the University of Eastern Piedmont. His main research interests are native and non-native varieties of English with a more recent focus on the sociolinguistics and pragmatics of film dialogue. Elisa Ghia, PhD, is contracted lecturer of English Language and Translation at the University for Foreigners at Siena and the University of Pavia. Her research interests include second language acquisition, audiovisual translation, corpus linguistics and the study of spoken English.


Title: The Languages of Dubbing