Localising Audiovisual Content:
subtitling, voice-over or dubbing?

Our previous two posts on Localising Audiovisual Content were devoted to monolingual and interlingual subtitles. But subtitling is not the only way to localise audiovisual content, so today we’ll focus on the different types of voice-over and dubbing, which are in some instances more appropriate than subtitling.

To determine the best method for localising your A/V content, start by asking yourself:

  • How much on-screen text is there, and how relevant is it?
  • Is there an off-screen narrator, or are there people speaking to the camera?
  • What is the purpose of your content? To persuade, to entertain, to inform…?
  • Do children make up all or part of your target audience?
  • Which languages(s)/market(s) are you translating the video for?


What to do…

…when there is speech + lots of relevant text on-screen?

Localise on-screen titles and voice-over

For example: a corporate video with lots of textual information.

In this case, subtitles don’t seem like a good option, because the audience would probably not be able to quickly read all the different texts appearing on the screen simultaneously. Instead, replacing the original on-screen titles for translated ones and using voice-over for the audio seems like a good option. Replacing the on-screen titles can be done by editing the video source files if they are available. If these are not available, then it might be more cost-effective to re-create the video than to edit the graphics.

The extent to which text should be replaced can vary greatly: for minimal intervention, you might choose to provide subtitles only for on-screen text that is crucial for the understanding of the video (forced narrative subtitles); at the other extreme, you might not only change the text on the graphics but also replace props to make it more target-audience friendly (Disney’s Inside Out contains many examples of this practice). As with everything else in the world of translation and localisation, planning ahead can make a big difference in terms of costs and turnaround time.


…when there is off-screen narration?

Subtitles/Off-screen voice-over

For example: documentaries, adverts, etc.

If there is an off-screen voice-over, the alternative to subtitles is removing the original audio and substituting it with a recording of the translated script.


…when there are speakers on-screen and the purpose is to inform?

Subtitles/UN-style voice-over

For example: interviews, news, etc.

In this case UN-style voice-over is the most common type of voice-over used. The original audio still can be heard, but the volume has been turned down around 20%, and the translated voice-over starts 1-2 seconds after the original-language voice. Usually, a single person, or a small group of talents (voice-actors) play all the roles.

As the original audio can still be heard, UN-style voice-over gives a sense of authenticity similar to the one you get with subtitles.


…when your purpose is to persuade or to entertain, or you are targeting a young audience?

Lip-sync dubbing (OR subtitling in some cases, see below)

For example: films, adverts, cartoons, etc.

Adverts and children’s programmes tend to be localised using lip-sync dubbing. This is a good option for fictional or narrative content where translation accuracy can be sacrificed in order to make the lip-syncing look as authentic as possible. In the case of adverts, which generally have fast-moving images and a lot of information, subtitles may lessen their effectiveness, and they usually need transcreation anyway – that is, adapting a message from one language to another but maintaining its intent.

Translations in these instances would be adapted so the number of syllables and the translation audio mimics the actor’s lip movements. Due to the amount of work this requires, lip-sync dubbing is the most expensive option, and it doesn’t come without its own challenges!


DISCLAIMER: different markets, different conventions

Dubbing and voice-overFor films, TV series, etc., lip-sync dubbing is the norm in some, but not all, markets. The so-called “dubbing countries” are primarily Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, and also China. Most countries in the north of Europe opt to subtitle their entertainment media, while countries from the former Soviet Union are accustomed to UN-style voice-over.

However, even in “dubbing countries”, subtitles are increasingly used for TV series found on streaming services: they are a cost-effective way of reaching foreign audiences. For indie films, subtitles tend to be preferable to dubbing, since they give viewers more access to the original script and performance.

As is always the case, the best piece of advice here is to know your audience.


Other options for localising audiovisual content
(yes, there are more!)


Dialogue replacement

Like dubbing, but without syncing the translated audio to the actor’s lip movements. This is a lower-cost option, and can be used in e-learning and exercise videos.



Bringing in foreign-language actors to shoot the scenes for a video right after shooting with the original-language actors, as it can be more cost-effective than dubbing. Moreover, you can also switch the props in the studio for localised props (e.g. changing A4 paper and envelopes for Letter and legal-sized ones). This is used in e-learning videos.


In-studio interpretation

A professional interpreter records a simultaneous interpretation in the studio while watching the source content, and the studio engineer mixes it to picture. This is the fastest way to localise media, and it may be a good option for urgent corporate webinars or projects that have a large amount of content.


Sight translation

On the spot, while the content is playing, a professional interpreter reads into the target language from a script/subtitles. If rare languages are involved, the original script (in language A) can be translated into a second language (language B) so it can be read in the target language (language C) – thus B is being used as a pivot language. This method is used due to lack of access to other methods, or due to time/funding constraints, for example in film festivals and film archives.


Text-to-speech voice-over

Instead of recording voice-overs by human talents, text-to-speech software (software that transforms a text input into synthesised speech) is used to give a voice to the translated script.


That’s it for this round of voice-over/dubbing v subtitling. There is of course a lot to take in but we hope it has been useful, and you can always contact us with any questions! We’ll be back soon to talk a bit more about subtitling projects. Stay tuned!