Voice-over or subtitling, which is best?

By Susanne Creak

Did you know that Nicole Kidman is fluent in Italian and Russell Crowe’s French is of excellent command? Not really but it seems like it when you watch dubbed Hollywood movies in countries like France, Germany and Italy.

In Holland and Scandinavia on the other hand, our Aussie actors speak English and viewers can understand them through subtitles. It certainly gives people in those countries a head start in mastering the English language and explains why they seem much better at it than the French

In Australia, we often see foreign movies, documentaries or TV series use subtitles. In news, short clips or magazine-style programs however, we find that either voice-overs or subtitles are used. Most of us have a personal preference on one or the other, and both options have their advantages and disadvantages.

What about English videos though that are directed at foreign language audiences? Content such as corporate marketing videos, training programs, webinars, or specific videos for travellers or migrants… which format is best?

Today I want to talk about the key points to consider when choosing between voice-over and subtitles for your foreign language videos.

Subtitling explained

In a subtitled video, the audience hears the original language, and written translations appear at the bottom of the screen. The existing audio stays untouched and viewers get to hear the original tone and inflections of the narrator, interviewees and actors. This provides them with a more authentic experience of the original film.

Subtitling use and limitations

Subtitles are typically kept to a maximum of two lines’ length and appear on the screen in synch with the audio and long enough for the viewer to be able to read them whilst they still take in the picture.

It is these limitations in line length and the available number of characters and presumed reading speed of the audience that pose a challenge to subtitlers, particularly when translating from English.

In many languages, full translations are longer and can’t fit into a short window of a few seconds. This means that the subtitler has to make adaptations without compromising on conveying the original meaning or key message.

Professional subtitlers know how to do this by dropping unnecessarily repeated and filler words, or by restructuring whole sentences to make them shorter and eliminating irrelevant bits of information.

For this, they can find themselves criticised by bilinguals who complain that a word may not have been translated, or a sentence not have been translated accurately. However, the key task of the professional subtitler has to be to get the message across, and to do this in the available time.

Even if subtitles are done professionally they can be somewhat distracting to the viewer and make them lose focus on the other happenings on screen. So, if a video has a lot of strong visual messages, then a voice-over might be the better way to go.

Subtitling advantages

One key advantage of subtitling is the lower production cost, as no voice talents, audio studio or recording engineer are required. Furthermore, subtitles are a great way to offer translated video content online and in a variety of language options through popular video sharing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo.

Voice-overs explained

A voice-over is recorded in the target language from a translated version of the original script. The viewer of the video gets to listen to audio content in their own language. The translations here, too, often require adaptation to be suitable for the recording; how much, depends on the language, the complexity of the video, and on whether the audio has to be exactly synchronised to visual content on the screen.

Many people prefer voice-overs to subtitles because there is no distracting text on their screen, they can follow the information better when they hear it rather than read it and will not miss an entire sentence or two by looking away momentarily. Plus, when there is more than one speaker or character, the use of different voices enables viewers to distinguish the speakers and understand dialogues more easily.

Voice-over use and limitations

Options exist when it comes to the type of voice-over. The so-called “Down and Under” or “UN-style” type is when the original speaker’s voice is played at a lower level in the background, and the voice-over is clearly audible over the top. This is quite commonly used in news and magazine-style programs with one speaker.

Corporate or instructional videos often use a “phrase-sync” voice-over, where the translated transcript is carefully time-coded to match the original timing of the voice and vision. The original narrator cannot be heard, but some original sound effects, e.g. musical elements, can possibly be mixed in.

In “lip-synched dubbing”, the recorded spoken text is most accurately timed to the vision and lip movements. Ambient background sound is maintained, and viewers have the impression that the text is actually spoken by the actors that can be seen on screen.

So, what to use?

When deciding on how to bring your video to foreign language audiences, you will need to think about:

  • Which content are you conveying? Your video may be a corporate video explaining technical content on a particular product, service or technology.
  • How are you planning to distribute/publish your video? DVDs can provide for both subtitle and voice-overs with menu options to select the language, written or spoken. Video sharing platforms allow for the addition of multiple languages in a cost effective manner.
  • How complex is your video? Your video may contain graphics and on-screen text that also requires translation. In this instance, subtitles will make the video too text heavy.
  • Who is your target audience? Viewers of a business video will usually be more open to reading subtitles than consumers to whom you are advertising, or people who are being given announcements, advice or support.

Ultimately, when deciding on a format for your next foreign language video, put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. With your video content in mind, determine the option that you think they would prefer, gives them the best understanding of the information and you the desired result for your investment.

Susanne Creak is the General Manager at 2M Language Services. Susanne is a trained subtitler, NAATI accredited translator for German into English and English into German and in charge of all voice-over and subtitling projects at 2M. The original blog post can be found here我该去学习了。’ 

Published: 24/11/2016