It wasn’t that long ago that English speakers stayed away from non-English content. They may not have deliberately avoided it, but they certainly weren’t flocking to it. That’s all changed.
These days, it’s not unusual for a foreign-language program to, say, win an Oscar, or cause a spike in Netflix subscriptions. What these programs need is a way for the story to reach English speakers. The two most effective ways to do this are subtitling and dubbing.
A few recent cultural juggernauts came to us from other countries and used subtitles or dubbing to resonate with new viewers. When introducing video content to an English-speaking audience, the question is always the same: should I add subtitles or create a voiceover?
The answer will depend, more than anything, on personal preference, but each choice has its benefits and its drawbacks.
This is the practice that’s been widely adopted lately. It could be an emerging trend in video captioning – studies show that people like captions, even when they’re fluent in the source language or have no trouble hearing the sound.
Of course, subtitling is most effective when it’s done properly. Squid Game got a lot of press for being widely popular, but some of the attention came from less-than-stellar subtitles. Some viewers, who were fluent in both Korean and English, said some of the subtitles gave the wrong message, particularly when the original dialogue was difficult to translate precisely.
Here’s another issue – as content crosses national borders, the demand for subtitling content has grown, as has the demand for talented translators. However, the growing demand, combined with the effects of the Great Resignation, has made it difficult to attract top talent. This has forced production companies to either go way beyond their budget for top-tier translations, or to stay in budget and face potential criticism over subpar subtitles.
Some video companies choose voiceovers over subtitles to translate their content. They cite the fact that viewers can follow along with the action rather than having to focus on the subtitled text underneath. They argue that voiceovers keep viewers in the moment.
This is especially important during periods of fast dialogue, or when characters are talking over one another. Hearing the emotions, rather than reading the straight text, keeps viewers in the moment.
The problem? It may be possible to sync up voiceovers with dialogue, but it’s almost never possible to make the actors’ lips move with them. In other words, it’s clear the dialogue you’re hearing isn’t what the actors said. This has always been the case, leading to a running joke about foreign-language films, told by everyone from The Spectator to The Simpsons, and even motivating some professionals to implement AI to make dubbing less obvious.
Another challenge to voiceovers: they’re more expensive. One or two subtitling professionals can manage a project. The more people who appear in a video, the more voiceover actors you’ll need. Yes, it’s possible to hire one performer to play multiple roles (as many animated series do), but even hiring a few actors can strain a tight budget.
Is Subtitling or Dubbing Better for Your Project?
We just outlined the pros and cons of subtitles and voiceovers. The better option for your project depends on a number of factors:
Budget: If you’re working with a small budget, subtitles will keep costs relatively lower.
Purpose: A voiceover is more effective for conveying emotions. That makes it a better option for a promotional video. For an instructional video for employees in other countries, it’s more important that viewers comprehend the material than feel enticed or motivated by the speaker’s voice. In that instance, subtitles will suffice.
Audience: Subtitles will work for most audiences. However, if your target audience has difficulty reading – for instance, they’re small children, or have visual impairments – voiceovers may be better
Target Location(s): Each country has its own way of translating video content. Some use dubbing only, others use subtitles, and others use a combination of the two. When choosing between subtitles and voiceovers, your best option will depend on how it’s done in the countries you want to reach.
There will never be a unanimous opinion when it comes to the subtitling-or-dubbing debate. There doesn’t need to be, since each translation method has its own advantages and drawbacks. The question isn’t whether one is better than the other; the question is which one is better for your video.