Audio describing a non-English language film raises a number of unique challenges, the most obvious of which is how to deliver an entire film to the viewer through audio description without spoiling its artistic merit or intent.

First of all, the voicing of the in-vision subtitles needs to be clear and measured. An audio describer will generally voice at a slower pace than two people would speak during a natural conversation. The challenge, therefore, is to fit in every line of subtitled dialogue within the same time frame as the characters. Considering this often involves prefixing lines with, ‘Jack says’, ‘Kate walks in and says,’ or ‘John lowers his knife and says,’ it can be difficult to achieve without forcing a stream of commentary with no pauses or inflection.

Take Julia’s Eyes, for example, which was broadcast on Film4 last month.

Fortunately, with a dark and tense thriller like this, there are usually enough silences before or after the characters’ dialogue to use as an overflow. In other words, our audio described conversation has a bit of extra time to carry on for a few seconds after the characters have stopped talking.

In the spaces between the subtitles, we can get down to the real business of audio description, which is to tell the audience what’s happening on screen. Again, because Julia’s Eyes is a thriller, things unravelled quite slowly and so there was time to describe the eeriness of the house, the fearful walk to the neighbours or the chase after a mysterious man along dark and shadowy passages.

The biggest challenges involved scenes that combine action and dialogue. For example, in a scene which contains a three-way conversation going on in one room while important action is taking place elsewhere, it is difficult to fit everything in whilst keeping the audio description at a steady pace.

One of the tricks of good audio description is to let the film breathe. That is to say, let the music play out, let tension build, and if someone knocks into a lamp during a prolonged period of silence, don’t describe over the crash as it hits the floor because it is there to have an impact. And most importantly, give the audience a rest from the commentary. Let them use their own senses to enjoy the atmosphere that the music, silence, and fast, panicked breathing are creating.

Although Julia’s Eyes was challenging at times, it was an enjoyable and achievable challenge and worked well with audio description. This is partly because of the reasons I mention above, but also because there were only a few characters and frequent, prolonged silences that gave us room to play with. This is not always the case, however, and to try to audio describe, for example, a fast-paced, dialogue-heavy, foreign language film would undoubtedly prove very difficult and possibly not worthwhile.

The proof in the pudding will always be in the eating and the successes or failures of a project like this can only be determined with feedback from the audience. Is a film like Julia’s Eyes still enjoyable if you are wholly reliant on audio description not only for visual cues but also for all the dialogue within the film? Or are there other ways of making foreign language programming accessible to the partially sighted community?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line in the comments box below.

Jez Watts, Audio Describer.