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TRANSLATING AUDIOVISUAL HUMOUR. A CASE STUDY
Juan José Martínez-Sierra a
a Castellón, Spain

Online Publication Date: 13 April 2006

To cite this Article Martínez-Sierra, Juan José(2006)'TRANSLATING AUDIOVISUAL HUMOUR. A CASE
STUDY',Perspectives,13:4,289 — 296

To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09076760608668999

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09076760608668999

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Juan José Martínez-Sierra, Castellón, Spain
[email protected]

This article presents a descriptive and discursive analysis of how elements in humorous ex-
tracts from an animated American television show (The Simpsons) fared in overcoming linguistic
and intercultural barriers in dubbing (English-Spanish). The analysis is based on several Transla-
tion Studies and Pragmatics methods and on a taxonomy of humorous elements in audiovisual
texts. These were used to (1) quantify and (2) analyse the humorous elements in the source and
target texts, (3) calculate the percentage of humour in the source texts that had been realised in the
target versions, (4) make observations on humour translation in animated serials; and, finally, (5)
create a list of translational tendencies – potential norms – in humour translation in audiovisual
texts.

English-Spanish; audiovisual translation; humour; intercultural communi-
cation; norms; relevance.

The objectives of the study discussed here were:
• firstly, to set up a method for the analysis of humour in audiovisual trans-

lation by means of the relevance theory, descriptive studies, and certain
intercultural communication approaches;

• secondly, to describe some mechanisms in the translation of humour in
audiovisual texts; and,

• thirdly, to identify translational tendencies that could serve in future stud-
ies, which might confirm or disprove the existence of translational norms
in humour translation in audiovisual texts.

For this study, I selected The Simpsons, an animated American television serial
that is telecasted in many countries. The focus was on the translation – mainly
via dubbing – of excerpts from the series in order to identify tendencies in hu-
mour translation in audiovisual texts. The programme was ideal for this pur-
pose, since most segments in the source version were humorous and should be
so in the translated versions as well. Besides, the humour in a good many of
these comical segments was based on elements of the cultural context.

The choice of this series was determined by several factors: (a) it is popular,
(b) it has been aired for about fi�een years, (c) I personally like it, and (d) all epi-
sodes show two characteristics that I consider relevant to the study: a humorous
nature and cultural specificity. Thus, the only selection criterion applied to the
twenty episodes initially screened was that they were available to me (on VHS
tapes or DVDs).

I chose four episodes from different seasons (namely the 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 11th).
The reason for this selection was that these episodes would reflect – to a degree
– the logical evolution of the series in the course of not simply one year, but over
the fi�een years of running time.

The episodes eventually selected were (including the title of the English

289

0907-676X/05/04/289-8 $20.00
Perspectives: Studies in Translatology

© 2005 Juan Rosé Martínez-Sierra
Vol. 13, No. 4, 2005

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source text and the title of the dubbed (Castilian) Spanish version):

-
-

-
-

In the four source versions, I identified a total of 365 examples of humour.
These were analysed as a whole, while 63 of them were singled out for specific
study.

Theoretical frame
This study is primarily encompassed within the communicative-sociocultur-

al approach of Translation Studies. The framework of the study is based on de-
scriptive, manipulation-school, functionalist, and relevance theories, since, ac-
cording to my own concept of ‘translation’, it is not possible to conduct a study
like this by limiting it to a single approach. There is, in addition, some influence
from Cultural Studies (as culture is a key element) and Pragmatics (which was
used in the analysis).

A taxonomy of humorous elements
My study elaborates the taxonomy of jokes formulated by Patrick Zabalbeas-

coa (1993 and 1996).1 This taxonomy came to consist of 8 levels and was
used for analysing the audiovisual jokes in the chosen sample. Below, I provide
(in bold) one illustrative example of each element - all from the episode ‘

’:

1. refer to cultural or intertextual fea-
tures that are rooted and tied to a specific culture.

Example: [Situation] Homer has been abducted by aliens. He witnesses how
two aliens adopt the appearance of two well-known American politicians (Rob-
ert Dole and Bill Clinton).

: Oh, no! Aliens, bio-duplication, nude conspiracies...
Oh my God! Lyndon LaRouche was right!

These types of elements can include, like here, politicians (Dole, Clinton,
and LaRouche), celebrities, an organisations, a newspapers, books, films,
etc. The reference can be explicit or implicit and acoustic as well as visual.
Elements in this category present or evoke the image of some specific ref-
erent in the culture.

2. , the topics of which appear to be
more popular in certain communities than in others, an idea that does not
imply any cultural specificity, but rather a preference. Hence, they are not
tied to specific cultural elements, but to “the deposit of knowledge, expe-
rience, beliefs, values, … acquired by a group of people in the course of
generations through individual and group striving” (Samovar and Porter
1997: 12-13); in short, to in its broadest sense. Again, the reference
can be explicit or implicit, acoustic or visual.

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Leader
Lisa And you speak English!

Linguistic Elements

Leader
Lisa
Leader speak

to imatoot you exarktly

Visual Elements

see

Graphic Elements

read

“Inauguration Day”

Paralinguistic Elements

narrative silence

Homer [screaming in terror]

Non-Marked (Humorous) Elements

Homer tape the hockey game

Sound Elements sound jokes

Martínez-Sierra. Translating Audiovisual Humour. A Case Study. 291

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nation with others may be humorous. They are explicitly and acoustically
found in the soundtrack and the special effects when these contribute to
the humour.4

Example: This is evident in the situation referred to in (above),
where we could see and hear how Homer hits the space ship’s control panel. A
second later, we can also hear the noise of the ship’s engine starting.

The Analysis
The analysis occurred in two stages:
1. A global analysis of all source jokes and their translations, in which the

humorous elements were classified and subdivided according to the ab-
sence (Group 1) or presence (Group 2) of changes or losses – quantitative
or qualitative, total or partial – in their humorous loads a�er their transla-
tion (‘humorous load’ refers to the number of discrete humorous elements
that the joke includes, so it is a quantitative concept). And

2. A pragmatic-intercultural analysis of jokes in Group 2 in order to explain
why their ‘humorous loads’ had experienced some kind of change or loss.
In this context, the principle of relevance became prominent in terms of ex-
isting and contextual assumptions, as well as concerning cognitive effects
(which are the ones that, ultimately, determine each fragment’s relevance
and pragmatic reward in the form of humour). In order to illustrate how
each Group 2 segment was analysed, I can use an analysis of Card 43:

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A taxi arrives at the Simpsons’ house with Marge’s mother. The driver gets out of the taxi to
open the door for her, but she gets out through another one.
So� background music.

• Existing assumptions:

We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing

• Contextual assumptions:

• Cognitive effects:

Comment:

Martínez-Sierra. Translating Audiovisual Humour. A Case Study. 293

American source version: Spanish target version:

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Quantitative material
There were 365 items that I identified as jokes. Of these, 264 (72.3%) belong

to Group 1, while 101 (27.7%) fall in Group 2 and, roughly and quantitatively
speaking, were rendered as follows:

Out of these 101 jokes, 81 suffered a partial loss of humorous load in the
Spanish version; 6 lost their humorous load totally; 9 had the same degree of
humorous load but with a different content; and for 5, the load was increased.

Overall, the humorous load of the 365 jokes was diminished in the Spanish
version in 22.2% of the cases. In the same terms, only 1.7% of the renditions con-
tained no humorous element at all, whereas 1.4% had a higher humorous load
than did the original English.

In sum, only 14.4% of all the elements that had a potential for producing
humour in the source texts were not realised in the Spanish target texts. These
instances comprised primarily community-and-institutions, community-sense-
of-humour, and graphic elements.

Conclusions and tendencies
The most obvious conclusion from my analysis is that in the selected audio-

visual sample, most humour is translatable, as is shown by the small percent-
ages of diminished humorous load in the target versions.

Secondly, the analysis shows the importance of having shared background
knowledge - existing assumptions - between the source- and target-language
audiences. This also highlights the crucial role of translators as mediators: the
be�er they are at identifying intercultural barriers, the be�er the inferential
process, and very likely the more successful their translation.

Thirdly, the study confirms that translation of humour in audiovisual texts
is a line of work of its own, since it demands that translators render sets of hu-
morous elements that interact in ways that do not co-exist in other genres or
discourses.

Fourthly, rather than restricting translators, visual components o�en contrib-
ute to a be�er understanding of target texts. Accordingly, it might be advisable
to vary the approach with which audiovisual translation is usually analysed
and to cast doubt on the notion of the image as a restrictive factor, at least quan-
titatively.

The categorisation of humorous elements in this study has proved useful for
se�ing up a means for gauging and quantifying humorous elements, their ren-
ditions, and their occurrence and nature in source texts and translations. It is
worthwhile noting that even when the form and the content of a target humor-
ous element is different from the one it corresponds to in the source version, it
may still have comical potential – o�en reduced but occasionally improved – in
terms of humorous load.

Overall, the study shows that there is a clear tendency
in the jokes, which is accomplished, mainly, by rendering the same humorous
elements in the target version. In so far as the humorous load is diminished, it
appears that translators strive to make the . This un-
willingness to accept a total absence of humorous load in target texts shows
that they give high priority to the translation of humour. It also indicates that
most humorous and cultural elements are translatable. A�er all, the percentage

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The Simpsons
to keep that

same type of compound humour

to resort to subtitling in order to maintain the humour
use of foreignising solutions

to avoid the use of community-and-institutions and
community-sense-of-humour elements specific to the target cultural system

Future Perspectives

norms

Notes



Works cited
Doblatge i subtitulació per a la TV
Cine y tradución

Trasvases Culturales:
Literatura, Cine, Traducción 3

TextconText
Intercultural Communication

Martínez-Sierra. Translating Audiovisual Humour. A Case Study. 295

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