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Voice-over or Subtitling – Which is Best for Your Video?

Voice-over or Subtitling – Which is Best for Your Video?
on September, 01 2016

Did you know Tom Cruise is fluent in French and George Clooney’s Italian is impressively fluent? Well, not exactly, but Hollywood movie audiences get that impression when catching dubbed flicks in theaters across Germany, Italy and France.

Further north, in Holland and Scandinavia, audiences there watch subtitled movies from Hollywood and get to listen to the original voices of the actors on-screen (and develop an ear for English in the meantime).

In the United States, local audiences always watch foreign TV series, documentaries and foreign movies with subtitles. Short clips of the news or magazine-style programs, in turn, are either dubbed or subtitled.

People in their respective countries clearly have preferences as to whether they like their media dubbed or subtitled but the truth is both options have their advantages and disadvantages.   

If you have a video in English that you’re looking to translate so that foreign audiences can enjoy them, which option should you go for?

Whether you’re talking about a corporate marketing video, a webinar, e-learning videos or a documentary, deciding on which format is best is critical for the ultimate success of the video.

Let’s explore the key points to take into account when deciding between subtitles or dubbing your video for a foreign audience.

Subtitling Defined

Subtitling consists of audiences hearing the original language and reading the script via written translations that appear at the bottom of the screen. 

The extant audio stays intact as audience members hear the original inflections and tone of the actors, interviewees and narrator. This enables them to experience the original video in a way that is more authentic. 

Limitations to Subtitling

Video subtitles usually keep to a maximum of two lines and appear on the bottom of the screen in synch with the spoken audio. They remain on screen just long enough for the audience members to read them as they take in what is happening. 

Only a human translations company, as opposed to machines, can properly subtitle a video due to the unique challenges involved in translating a video. 

The relatively short length of the lines, the number of characters allowed and the estimated reading speed of the viewers are the particular challenges posed to subtitlers who translate from the original English.

Often the target language runs long and can’t be fit into just two lines of text within a few seconds. This obliges the subtitler to adapt the script into shorter lines while trying not to sacrifice meaning.

This is usually done by dropping filler words, or by shortening sentences by cutting out non-substantive bits of information.   

Bilinguals often complain that the translations of videos aren’t faithfully accurate, with a key word or segment cut out entirely here and there. And yet the objective of the professional subtitler is to deliver the message across within a tight space and time frame. 

A disadvantage to subtitles is that they can distract the viewer from the on-screen action of the film. If you have a video with a lot of visual action messages, then a voice-over might better suit your purposes than subtitling.

Subtitling Advantages

One main advantage subtitling affords over voice-overs is its lower production cost. No recording engineers, voice talents or the booking of an audio studio is needed with subtitling.

Moreover, the turnaround is quicker and tends to be the standard of online video content presently available through popular video sharing platforms like Vimeo and YouTube. 

Subtitling also stays true to the source language meaning and original content.

Voice-overs Defined

A dubbing or voice-over is an audio recording of the video script that viewers hear translated into their own language. It replaces the original audio.

The translations require significant adaptation in order to suit, depending on the target language, the complexity of the video and the exact synchronization of the audio to the visuals on the screen. 

The advantages of voice-overs to subtitles are many for a typical viewer: there are no distracting words on the screen, they understand the plot better by hearing it straight from the actors and they will not miss out on a subtitle when they briefly look away.

In addition, when more than one actor is on the screen, the contrast of different voices makes it easier for audience members to tell the actors apart and understand the dialog. 

Styles of Dubbing

Different kinds of voice-overs exist. The “UN-style” or “Down and Under” style of dubbing is when the original speaker’s voice can still be heard in the background of the much louder voice-over. This style is more frequently found in news programs.

Instructional or corporate videos often fall back on “phrase-sync” voice-overs, which is when the translated voice-over carefully matches the timing of the original voice, replacing it entirely. Sometimes, sound effects, for example, musical elements, can be heard in the background of the dubbed version.

“Lip-synched dubbing” takes place when the recorded spoken script matches the lip movements of the actors. This kind of dubbing “tricks” the audience into thinking the translated script is actually delivered by the actors seen on screen. Often, ambient background music is played in the background.

Which is Best for You?

Ask yourself the following questions when contemplating the right translation format for your video:

What Kind of Content Is It?

What kind of video content you develop will help determine whether you will end up dubbing or subtitling the content. Is your video a company video that shares technical information on a particular technology, service or product? Is it a training video series? Or a documentary?

Your original vision for the video you created will guide you as to whether dubbing or subtitling will better honor it in the end.

How Will You Publish/Distribute Your Video?

Your dubbing and subtitling options depend on how your video is packaged. DVDs or programs like Netflix offer a menu option of both voice-overs and subtitles in more than one language.

Video sharing platforms, in turn, allow you to cheaply keep adding translated versions of the video in a number of languages, either dubbed or subtitled.

You may also opt to develop a finished video with either “burnt in” subtitles or voice-overs. 

How Complex Is Your Video?

Consider the complexity of your video in your translation decision-making process. If your video contains on-screen text and graphics that also need to be translated, subtitling it may make the video too text saturated.

You may also have sound effects you don’t want changed or eliminated in the process of dubbing. When you dub or subtitle, you add on to the audio or visual complexity of the video.

Do You Know Your Target Audience?

The way you deliver your translated information to your target audience will determine how well it will be received. For example, business video audiences typically read subtitles whereas consumers or people being given support, advice or announcements, are more open to dubbed videos.

When deciding how best to translate your video to a foreign language, you have to stand in the shoes of your target viewers.  Research and envision the option they would prefer, keeping in mind your video content.

Would either dubbing or subtitling give them the best understanding of the content? Which would give you the marketing result you desire in return for your investment?

The more research you undertake in investigating the tastes of your target audience, the more likely you’ll be able to make an informed decision on whether you should end up dubbing or subtitling your video.

Denise Recalde

Denise Recalde is a Senior Content Writer at Day Translations. A seasoned writer and editor with eleven years of experience under her belt, she is a bonafide wordsmith who loves playing with the written word creatively and always takes care to lend a certain hue of snap and color to her drafts. Always one to rise up to challenges, she has traveled to 14 countries and has worked on a smorgasbord of writing projects that spanned several industries, from finance to health to beauty and fashion.

  • jasonjgj

    More than ever video is consumed from mobile devices! Facebook created a microtrend within their platform (because the lack of audio) where all videos need subtitles to immerse faster the user into the content!

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