Localization Insights
Localization Insights

Subtitles or Dubbing: Which Is a Better Choice for Your Video Content?

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to access international film and television. Streaming platforms have brought binge-worthy shows and movies into living rooms across the world. This roaring appetite for foreign language media has stirred the debate regarding dubbing vs. subtitles. 

While high-profile productions have the luxury of utilizing both dubbing and subtitling, choosing the right localization approach for your video content can be a challenge if budget is a concern. Below, we’ll break down the pros and cons of both options and what to consider before making a final decision. 

Subtitling and dubbing: what’s the difference?

Let’s kick things off by taking a closer look at what these two terms mean. Subtitles are translated text of the original audio track that is then layered onto the screen. Subtitling is used throughout many mediums, including advertising, film, and television. The original track is left completely intact, with no changes to volume. Captioning is a different type of subtitling. While subtitles only provide a translation of words being spoken, captions deliver added information. This can include things like names of characters and sound effects. 

Dubbing takes things much further. The dubbing process involves transcribing the original script of a video and rerecording dialogue in a new language. This translated dialogue should not only remain true to the original audio, but match up closely in terms of pacing and mouth movements. Although the original audio track remains, the volume is turned down so as not to distract from the new dubbed dialogue. 

Why are subtitles and dubbing important for an international audience? 

Historically, subtitles and dubbing were largely used to bring English-only content to a wider audience. However, in recent years, the rise in streaming services and online channels has opened up a treasure trove of international content. 

Audiences are becoming more global than ever. The likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are investing heavily in non-English programming. However, without dubbing and subtitles, these hidden gems can’t resonate with audiences. 

It’s not just the entertainment industry that benefits from dubbing and subtitles. For brands looking to expand into new countries, subtitles and dubbing make it easier to repurpose audiovisual content for non-native speakers. Rather than create advertising campaigns and marketing collateral from scratch, subtitles and dubbing can often be used to repurpose content for a new audience. 

The benefits of using subtitles

If you’re eager to introduce your content to international audiences, subtitling has many benefits. It’s arguably the most accessible way of adapting your material for non-native speakers. Regardless of what language is being spoken on screen, subtitling provides complete context for foreign-speaking audiences. 

Furthermore, subtitling enhances the accessibility of your content in general. Even if you’ve invested heavily in quality dubbing, hard-of-hearing viewers won’t be able to enjoy the benefits. With subtitling, everybody wins. 

In many cases, subtitling is used to preserve the authenticity of the original material. By avoiding dubbing, the original voice remains intact. Just because a viewer can’t comprehend a foreign language, doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the nuances of an acting performance. Many times, dubbing falls flat and fails to capture the intended tone of a line. 

Additionally, many dubbing scripts are heavily adapted to match the mouth movements of the actors on screen. This can lead to diminished dialogue that misses out on vital information. When you watch a film or television show with subtitles, you’re enjoying it in a relatively unadulterated form. 

Subtitles are also great for enhancing foreign language ability. Many viewers choose subtitles in favor of dubbing for just this purpose. What’s more, using subtitles can boost the SEO performance of online content. The more text-based content attached to your video, the more information search engines have to crawl. 

The downsides of subtitles 

While subtitles have many benefits, they’re not without a few drawbacks. While subtitling can provide a more authentic experience for viewers, it can impact immersion. The more subtitles that are on screen, the more distracting it is for audiences. What’s more, subtitles generally appear at the bottom of a screen. During dialogue-heavy scenes, viewers might spend more time reading through captioned content than actually watching what’s happening. 

Subtitling works reasonably well with static scenes with little action. However, in fast-paced scenes with heated exchanges, pacing can suffer. Even if viewers manage to read through subtitles completely, they’ll usually be too distracted to follow what’s happening in a video. 

There’s also the issue of language pairs and text expansion. Text expansion can be a major problem for any translation project. In the case of subtitles, it’s a particular concern. If the target language uses many more words than the source language, the bottom of a screen can become dominated by subtitles. Abbreviation is a potential solution here, but truncating text sacrifices meaning and context. 

The subtitling workflow 

In an ideal case, a video should be completed before subtitling work begins. No matter whether it’s a feature film or training video, it’s far easier for subtitlers to work with a finished version. This video should contain a complete audio track, frame rate, and on-screen titles. What’s more, all video and audio editing should have been completed. 

With all these variables in place, subtitlers can make more informed decisions, ensuring the best results from subtitling. Any later changes made in the edit can compromise the pacing and timing of subtitles. 

In most workflows, the first phase of subtitling is spotting. During this phase, the in and out times of subtitles are identified so they can be accurately synchronized with existing audio. Things like shot duration and changes will also influence the process. 

Once this has been done, transcription services come into play. Once the source language has been captured, it can be translated. Depending on brief particulars, subtitlers may have some creative freedom when adapting text for subtitles. Cultural references may need to be localized, while certain sections might be abridged for readability. 

Reviewing the translated text is particularly important. As well as staying true to the original audio, subtitles need to be consistent. The same grammar rules and sentence structure should be followed where applicable. Things like hyphens, line breaks, and italics should also be included for readability. 

Once translation and correction have been completed, a more thorough review of subtitles can be carried out. During this phase, things like timing are assessed. Any final modifications and omissions can now be performed before the subtitles are signed off. 

The benefits of dubbing 

While appetite for subtitles is increasing, many content creators prefer dubbing to subtitles. It’s generally seen as the best approach if you’re looking to increase and maintain engagement. By freeing the screen of bulky blocks of text, the viewer isn’t going to be distracted from what’s happening on screen.

You also need to consider that not everyone is a particularly efficient reader. Some people might struggle to comprehend certain words in their native language, while others may simply take longer to read a single line of dialogue than others. By doing away with subtitles altogether, nobody gets left behind. 

A great voice-over performance can also enhance video content. While it’s true that subtitles preserve the authenticity of original performances, dubbed tracks can also do this. However, in order to pull this off effectively, you need to be using experienced voice talent. A good voice-over artist does more than simply read translated lines of dialogue. Instead, they’re using their performance to build a character and personality. If a voice-over artist manages to execute this, a full range of emotions can be delivered via dubbing. 

Dubbing can also be useful for overcoming issues with cultural sensitivity and censorship. Sometimes, original audio content may feature controversial lines or strong language. While subtitles can of course be censored, a string of asterisks or non-letter symbols can be disorienting for the viewer. This can impact immersion and affect pacing. However, with dubbing, a different approach can be taken. Offending words can simply be beeped out. Alternatively, a more culturally appropriate word can be dubbed in its place. 

The downsides of dubbing 

It’s easy to see why dubbing is often considered preferable to subtitling. However, it might not always be a good fit for your project. If you’re working on a tight budget, the dubbing process might prove too expensive. It’s a multi-faceted workflow that involves transcription services, casting agents, voice-over artists, session recording, and editing. All of this comes at a cost. 

Although technological advancements are making the dubbing process more streamlined, it’s still relatively time-consuming. If you want to do dubbing right, you’ll need to accept longer turnarounds. If you’re eager to get your content adapted for the foreign language market quickly, subtitling is the better choice. What’s more, because of all the elements involved in dubbing, even a minor revision can add to your production times. Dubbing the same material into multiple foreign languages takes even longer. 

You also need to think about accessibility. Even if you have access to the best voice-over talent and a dubbing session has been expertly directed, none of this is going to help audiences who are hard of hearing. 

Additionally, people are becoming increasingly resistant to dubbing. Poorly performed voice-overs can be incredibly distracting, especially if one artist is being used to dub multiple characters. 

The dubbing workflow

While the subtitling process is fairly straightforward, a typical dubbing workflow is far more comprehensive. In most cases, the first task for a dubbing project is to create a script from existing content. As well as providing material for translators to work on, this translated document can be used to ensure that dubbing tracks are sufficiently synchronized with the original dialogue. 

It’s always best to use experienced translation and transcription services for dubbing workflows. While a word-for-word translation has its applications in other situations, it’s not really the best fit in this context. An experienced translator needs to have complete fluency in both the source and target language, ensuring the dubbing script is as reflective of the original script as possible. 

Once a translated script has been delivered, the actual dubbing process can begin. Selecting the right voice talent can be a challenge if you’re new to the world of dubbing. As such, it makes sense to use the services of a translation partner with an extensive network of professional linguists. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that not voice actors don’t just fall into a single category. Some have experience recording dubbing tracks for advertising material and webinars, while others are more at home recording voice-overs for television shows and feature films. 

For best results, you should be using a dubbing partner with access to the best recording equipment and a closed studio environment. Along with recording hardware, a successful dubbing project requires input from skilled directors and sound engineers. 

Once dubbed audio has been recorded, a dubbed layer can be added to the original video. Yet again, you might not have the in-house expertise to deal with this. Sound specialists and experienced editors are essential here. 

Subtitles vs. dubbing: how to choose the right one? 

There’s a lot to weigh up before you decide on whether subtitles or dubbing are right for your content. Ultimately, you need to consider your target audience. First, think about the languages you’re looking to target. If you’re dealing with a character-heavy language, it might make more sense to invest in dubbing, rather than take away from viewer immersion with subtitle-heavy frames. 

You’ll also need to carry out some market research. Look at those target demographics to get a handle on personal preferences. If you’re making moves into a country where subtitles are favored over dubbing, it makes sense to focus on subtitling. 

Audience demographics will also help you determine whether dubbing or subtitling is the right approach. Looking to adapt kid-friendly content for a new language? If you’re aiming to engage very young viewers, dubbing is probably your best option. 

What’s more, you need to consider the platforms you’re using. If you’re uploading content to a video-sharing platform like YouTube, subtitles are perfectly acceptable. You’ll also enjoy SEO-boosting benefits. However, if you’re instead looking to target streaming platforms, dubbing might be a requirement. 

Finally, consider your budget and project timeframe. Subtitling is a sensible choice if you’re looking for faster turnarounds and eager to control costs. If you have more flexibility with your spending, dubbing is something to consider. 

Tools for subtitling and dubbing 

Whether you’re thinking about subtitling or open to the idea of dubbing, you’ll need the right tools and expertise at your disposal. At BLEND, we can help with all your video localization efforts. Our all-in-one localization, voice, and post-production services make it easier than ever to adapt your content for international markets. Whether you’re looking for narration for a feature film or documentary, voice-overs for broadcast media or streaming content, or dynamic voice talent for an animation project, we can help.

Our talent roster includes thousands of experienced voice actors working in more than 120 languages. Looking for multilingual dubbing or subtitling? Get in touch with our team today.

author post

Karen Ford

As BLEND’s Managing Director of Contact Center & IVR Solutions, Karen brings over 20 years in the IVR and audio production industries to help global businesses give their customers the best service experience in their native language.


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