The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description

PDF The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description 1st Edition Copyright Year 2022

Book author
  1. Christopher Taylor
  2. Elisa Perego
The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description

This Handbook provides a comprehensive overview of the expanding field of audio description, the practice of rendering the visual elements of a multimodal product such as a film, painting, or live performance in the spoken mode, for the benefit principally of the blind and visually impaired community. This volume brings together scholars, researchers, practitioners and service providers, such as broadcasters from all over the world, to cover as thoroughly as possible all the theoretical and practical aspects of this discipline.

In 38 chapters, the expert authors chart how the discipline has become established both as an important professional service and as a valid academic subject, how it has evolved and how it has come to play such an important role in media accessibility. From the early history of the subject through to the challenges represented by ever-changing technology, the Handbook covers the approaches and methodologies adopted to analyse the “multimodal” text in the constant search for the optimum selection of the elements to describe.

This is the essential guide and companion for advanced students, researchers and audio description professionals within the more general spheres of translation studies and media accessibility.

Christopher Taylor is Full Professor (retired) of English Language and Translation at the University of Trieste, Italy. He is author of Language to Language (2000) and more than eighty articles on general translation, audiovisual translation and audio description.

Elisa Perego is Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Trieste, Italy. She is author of Accessible Communication: A Cross-Country Journey (2020), and numerous articles on audiovisual translation, audio description and language simplification.

This Handbook is the result of more than 15 years of fertile, fruitful and enjoyable collaboration between colleagues across the world, and of a shared love for the multifaceted and rewarding world of audio description. We would like to dedicate this book to our families and to all the AD colleagues who have shared their expertise and passion with us over these years and who, in the years to come, will further establish our discipline among the varied strands of audiovisual studies.


Audio description (AD) is no longer merely a niche interest in the much wider field of audiovisual translation (AVT), itself part of the now vast world of translation studies (TS), but has only relatively recently emerged as an independent field of study and a viable commercial reality in its own right. The time has therefore come for AD to warrant a sizeable volume in which the research work of specialist scholars, the practical applications of service providers, the views of audio description professionals and end-users around the world can come together and provide readers of this Handbook with virtually everything they need to know about the world of audio description. So although this is the first large volume entirely devoted to AD, it is becoming less and less necessary to explain the concept for readers, in the same way that it is no longer necessary to explain subtitling, dubbing, voice-over and other disciplines within the field of AVT (but see Bogucki & Deckert, 2020 and Pérez-González, 2019 for in-depth updated overviews). However, for the record, and according to the American Council for the Blind (Audio Description for the Blind (Video)), audio description is “either live or recorded information, provided by a trained describer that provides descriptions of visual components of an event to become accessible to those who are blind or of low vision”. Or for a more concise, more pithy definition, we turn to Joel Snyder of the Audio Description Project of the aforementioned Council – “the visual made verbal” (see also Snyder, 2008). These definitions, however, need a little filling out. Until recently, very few describers were officially or professionally “trained” (ADLAB PRO, 2017; Chmiel & Mazur, 2017; Perego in this volume). This situation is changing and several contributions in this volume address this question – the figure of the professional describer is definitely taking shape, and the sphere of action of audio description is growing. “Event” is a useful blanket term to cover a whole range of visual phenomena from film, television and many other video products to theatre, to museums, to live events such as football matches or royal weddings. All of these receive attention in the Handbook. And while audio description remains a vehicle to provide access for “those who are blind or of low vision”, other end-users have emerged and continue to do so (see Starr in this volume).

Working on such a large number of chapters on the same core subject showed that, in spite of a great deal of shared specialized terminology, various ways to refer to the primary stakeholders of audio description, for instance, the blind and partially sighted community, still co-exist (see also Perego/Taylor in this volume). Several different acronyms are used by scholars and professionals to refer to the blind and partially sighted (BPS) and some appear in this volume: VIP stands for visually impaired persons, PSL for persons with sight loss, BVI for the blind and visually impaired. Other expressions used include “persons with low vision”, “the sight-impaired” and “visually disabled people”. We decided to maintain the various labels chosen by each author because they reflect the fact that a unitary and consistent terminology to describe a heterogeneous section of the population still does not exist.

The volume consists of eight parts that gradually guide the reader from a theoretical perspective to descriptive case studies. The fundamental questions of accessibility and blindness are dealt with in Part One in order to set the scene and delineate two broad yet defining areas in the field of AD. Part Two moves on to the theory of audio description, tackling aspects such as cognition, narratology, linguistics, cultural issues and the particular language of AD, as well as its reception by the blind audience. Part Three is devoted to the main areas where AD is applied: theatre, opera and dance; television and cinema; museums; and architecture. From the overview of the sectors of audio description, the Handbook moves on to address the role and status of AD stakeholders (Part Four), describing the contribution of audio describers themselves, broadcasters, service providers and researchers. Part Five is devoted to innovation and technology, which play a major role in audio description, especially today. Chapters in this part are ordered according to a rising scale of innovation beginning with currently available AD software and the way this can be exploited both in professional and didactic contexts. This is followed by an account of various receptor tools and the use of artificial voices and their respective impact on users. Finally the audio description of videogames is addressed, along with the latest advances in automatic AD and AD personalization. The detailed overview on AD technology is followed by a focus on diverse AD practices (Part Six) namely audio introductions, audio subtitling, AD translation and AD for the non-blind. University and in-house training (Part Seven) then precede a number of instructive national case studies (Part Eight) which trace the development of AD in the USA, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil and Slovenia, but also provide insights into research work (Brazil), ways of dealing with the AD workflow (Slovenia) questions of definition (Russia) and the issue of discrimination (Canada). Both differences and similarities in terms of development, practical difficulties and general approach to AD in the various countries can be observed.

The volume thus begins with a chapter (Chapter 1, Gian Maria Greco) examining the key concepts of access and accessibility, the basis of all efforts designed to improve the lives of the differently abled in society, from the physically handicapped to the deaf and blind to those afflicted by any obstacle to participation in the full life enjoyed by other people. Greco, however, challenges the more restricted notions of access and accessibility, the so-called medical model, whereby a disabled person is considered abnormal and access is achieved through treating the abnormality and attempting to bring that person back to normality. The social model of disability, on the other hand, as Greco explains, “sees disability as the result of an interactive process between individuals with impairments and social environments, social structures, and social relations designed by the dominant ableist culture”. Viewed in this light it can be seen that the drive towards accessibility for all has recently led to the promotion of the concepts of universal design and inclusive design, both of which will receive mention in many of the contributions to this Handbook. The idea that collective activities such as film and television production, theatre performances, museum visits and attendance at live events can be created from the outset with provision for the disabled is a target not yet universally reached, but taken seriously into consideration in many fields. Audio description is one of those disciplines where research and practice are coming together to provide access to the blind and partially sighted, particularly in those areas mentioned earlier, with a view to eventually incorporating the idea of universal design in the provision of all such products.

Continuing the discussion on accessibility, Joan Bestard-Bou and Blanca Arias-Badia (Chapter 2) explore the social and, in particular, the legislative aspects of the question. Judi- cial pronouncements and the passing of laws at the local, national and international level are essential to the development of, and promotion of, any initiative designed to provide assis- tance to the blind and partially sighted community. Indeed the legal question is discussed in a number of the chapters in this volume. Bestard-Bou and Arias-Badia conclude that, given the World Health Organisation’s prediction on the ageing of the world population and consequent increase in the number of people with sight problems, the principles of universal design will need to be promoted and enshrined in law.

Already in this introductory section, in Chapter 3, Elisa Perego and Christopher Taylor highlight the importance of the principal end-users, the blind and partially sighted community (BPS). The chapter illustrates the preferences, shared needs, wishes and dissatisfactions expressed by the BPS based on survey results conducted within the EU project ADLAB PRO (2016–2019). The issue of language simplification in AD for audiences with special needs is also discussed with reference to the EU project EASIT (2018–2021), which has worked on the possibility to apply easy-to-understand language to audiovisual translation.

In Part 2, devoted to various aspects of the theory surrounding audio description, Jana Holsanova (Chapter 4) begins by discussing research on the cognitive aspects of AD. “Knowledge about the cognitive processes underlying AD (how we think, how we perceive information through different senses, how we formulate visual content linguistically, and how we represent things and events and create inner images) can lead to an understanding of how blind and visually impaired persons experience and visualise audio description”. Most importantly, Holsanova points out that research on cognitive aspects of AD can enhance AD quality and lead to the formulation of guidelines for optimised description.

Gert Vercauteren (Chapter 5) looks at the narratological, as opposed to the descriptive, approach to audio description. He explores how narratology can provide useful insights into the study and practice of AD. Particularly in the case of film, TV fiction and theatre, stories are told, and narratology studies narratives in all kinds of media, therefore providing a useful tool for AD creation. Vercauteren sees narratology, which analyses not only how stories are created but also how they are processed by viewers, as an essential tool in “helping audio describers understand what information the target audience needs to grasp the story that is being told”.

Iwona Mazur (Chapter 6), on the other hand, first provides an insight into the linguistic and textual features that mark out AD as a “special use of language . . . characterized by its own idiosyncratic characteristics”. The author illustrates the main research approaches to the study of AD as a linguistic and textual construct, mostly restricted to the monolingual model, that is AD in the same language as the text being described (film, theatre, etc.), though she also considers the interlingual question of AD translation, suggesting that in future, studies based on large electronic corpora could be useful in determining similarities and differences between languages within this unique genre of audio description.

Anna Jankowska (Chapter 7) looks at the question of culture-bound references in the crea- tion of audio descriptions. Descriptions of foreign films are often required, and dealing with what Pedersen called culture-specific references (CSRs) is as relevant in AD as it is in the translation of works from one language/culture to another. The particular feature of CSRs in AD, however, is that the cultural references are often visual or both visual and verbal. Jankowska examines her own work and that of other scholars in the search for a common taxonomy leading to a reliable classification of solutions to culture-specific problems.
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