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Subtitles or voiceovers: which is best for globalising your video content?

By Josian Phillips, 

Video content is slowly taking over the world. It’s being consumed by greater numbers of people than ever before and studies have shown that video receives far more attention than any other type of content that appears on the search engine results pages. It’s a medium most brands know they can’t afford not to use. What happens, then, when you want to globalise that video content?

Essentially, you have two options: you either produce brand new videos for every single country you wish to reach (using that infinite budget of yours), or you use a voiceover or subtitling translation service. Most businesses sensibly opt for the latter, but you then need to choose between using voiceovers or subtitles. Which one is better for globalising content?

Consider localisation

Answering that question isn’t straightforward. In a list of dozens of considerations, the most important by far is localisation – this is the process of not simply translating the content, but ensuring it makes sense for the intended audience, so that it can be truly understood. That means including the idioms, nuances and inflections that the audience would expect and that would allow your message to resonate. Localisation is a factor that must be taken into consideration when deciding whether subtitles or voiceovers are better for your project.

Then you can think about the pros and cons of each:

 

Subtitles (lend credibility)

  • Pros: using subtitles can save time and money.Without needing to hire actors to read the script, it’s far cheaper, plus you can get it right first time without the need for re-takes. Subtitle translations can lend credibility to a video and they can also enable viewers to get a sense of the tone as they can hear the original voices – whether or not they understand the language that is being spoken, they will be able to detect tension, emotion, awkwardness, etc, which a voiceover might unintentionally mask. What’s more, hearing the original can help people learn languages — probably not the brand’s goal, but a nice accidental advantage. As subtitles preserve the original, they’re generally accepted as better in terms of globalisation; hearing the original and reading the translation is considered ‘more immersive’.
  • Cons: a common criticism is that many people don’t like to read text, as they find it detracts from the action. It can impair what’s on the screen, too, by seemingly ‘getting in the way’. Another problem is language expansion — where the translation may be longer than the original, making subtitling difficult. Subtitles are usually two lines long, but if the translated language has expanded awkwardly, it could be difficult to satisfy this rule. So too can subtitling multiple speakers. This could restrict you to sticking to the original script as closely as possible, making it trickier (though not impossible) to localise. The alternative is to rewrite some references or passages so that they make sense to the intended audience.
  • Best for: the general consensus on a film-makers’ forum was that subtitles are best used for fiction/narrative content and videos that are longer form. They’re also useful for content which is likely to be viewed in ‘sound-sensitive’ environments, for example, at work.

Voiceovers (offer personality)

  • Pros: voiceovers are favoured by many people, as it means they don’t have to read anything and can simply watch. There are several types of voiceover, too (off-camera narration, lip-syncing, simple dubbing and ‘UN-style’), so there’s probably one which will suit your needs. Voiceovers are great for videos where people aren’t seen on screen talking and language expansion generally isn’t an issue, meaning there’s more room for localisation.
  • Cons: it can be expensive and time consuming. You may need to hire several actors and lip-syncing, in particular, can be a painstaking process. Dubbing can sometimes reduce the authority of a video, too and if it’s done poorly, can actually ruin the viewing experience.
  • Best for: without doubt, any content for children and cartoons. The aforementioned film-makers agreed that voiceover is good for documentaries or any narrated non-fiction. Similarly, it’s ideal for video where the action/speech is fast-moving, for eLearning courses, news reports (as the BBC has recently piloted), and interviews (using the UN-style). Any videos which are already text-heavy would be better with voiceovers, and it is also preferred when translating marketing materials, as it evokes a more personal feel.

What to consider when deciding between subtitle or voiceover translation

Asking which solution is best also depends on several other factors, such as budget, time constraints and the medium which needs to be globalised. Who would read a subtitled advert, for instance? A voiceover would be far more appropriate. Here are a few other considerations:

  • Country and culture: what about the country to which it is intended, might there be a preference? The Dutch, for example, are used to subtitled video content, as everything foreign tends to be subtitled rather than dubbed. In others, however, there may be rules in place that you should bear in mind — for instance in Russia, dubbing was favoured as the authorities didn’t want locals picking up English. Language expansion may also dictate your choice.
  • The message: as mentioned above, sometimes it can be more important to understand the tone of the original, so if your content is explanatory or authoritative, subtitling might be more appropriate, offering authenticity. Consider your audience here, too — if your content is high-brow and intelligent, the target audience might be happy with subtitles. If it’s light entertainment or promotional, then dubbing could be the way to go.
  • Length of the content: if there’s time to ‘get into it’, subtitles might be better over voiceovers, whereas a quick piece — i.e. a product demonstration — would resonate audiences more effectively when dubbed.
  • Source files: do you have access to the original files or will you need to re-film the entire video?
  • Final destination: is your video going to be web-based or put out on a DVD? The final destination can have an impact on which option to choose. DVDs, for example, can easily incorporate multilingual subtitles or voiceovers; it depends on how you wish the finished video to be presented.

Which is best then, subtitles or voiceovers?

Ultimately, it’s up to you. Providing your translated script is of a high quality, interpreted by skilled professionals and localised as far as possible for the intended audience, then either subtitles or voiceovers can prove perfect solutions for your video globalising needs.

Further reading:

Five important reasons to translate your video content.
How do you get your video voiceover translated?
How do you subtitle video content?

If you’d like to discover more about our video translation services, please send us a message or give us a call on 01225 580770.

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