Should you dub or subtitle your video? - José Henrique Lamensdorf - translation - tradução

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Should you dub or subtitle your video?


In other words:
Should you get your video dubbed or subtitled?

- by José Henrique Lamensdorf  
originally published at:

You should be familiar with the video language options on a DVD. Most feature films present you with a menu to select both the audio and subtitle languages you want. FYI a DVD may contain up to 8 different audio tracks, and up to 32 different subtitles + none.

Yet your case at hand may be different: it's not a commercial feature film on DVD. Your company has produced a video in some other country, and you need to show it to your local employees, customers, prospects, stockholders, suppliers, or even the general public.

The very first question a video localization services provider will ask you is whether you want it dubbed or subtitled. Unless you are already familiar with the information I'll present below, you may try the financial approach, and ask how much each process will cost.

It may vary from one video to another, however as a general rule of thumb, dubbing a certain video should cost about three times as much as subtitling it. Yet unless you have severe budget constraints, this criterion is not a good one, since it fails to consider any effectiveness issues.

This decision should be made at the outset of the entire process, since translation for dubbing and subtitling are two different processes, and a translation for one of them can seldom be effectively converted or transformed into a translation for the other. A change of choice after translation will often cause wasted work, taking you back to square one.


Instead of two, four options will be covered here. To the two familiar ones - subtitling and dubbing - I'll add voice-over, and hybrid.


It's the most economical way. No need to describe it, yet its key shortcomings are:

  • Subtitles use part of the spectator's attention. If it's just one or a few "talking heads", one viable option is to have the script translated into text, and sent by e-mail or fax. No need actually to watch the movie. Still pictures of these "heads" may be included, if desired.

  • If people talk too fast, and say too much in terms of content, part of it may be lost, as there won't be time to read so much text onscreen.

  • Subtitling definitely doesn't work for technical instruction films. One cannot read something like "Pull the latch release under the cover to get access to the control knob underneath", and watch how it's done at the same time.

  • If there are charts, graphs or other data visuals on the screen, it will be impossible to read both the subtitles and them at the same time, even if these are translated.

  • Audiences that have limited or no fast reading ability (small children, illiterate people, visually impaired people, foreigners) will have limited or no access to the content.

  • The original audio will remain there. If the translation is bad, bilingual spectators may protest.


No need to describe it either. As said before, the whole process is about three times more expensive than subtitling. Its key shortcomings are:

  • It requires a dubbing-specialized translator, so that the dubbing script allows voice artists to sync their speech with the lip movements of the cast. If it's only off-screen narration, there is no such problem.

  • Though I personally make no such difference, most translators charge a(n often much) higher fee to translate for dubbing than for subbing.

  • If there are too many roles or people, dubbing costs may skyrocket, as this will require a numerous dubbing cast.

  • If people speaking on-camera are not trained professional speakers, and/or their presentation is unrehearsed, dubbing it may seem "fake" and unnatural, especially if the dubber attempts to mimmick their stumbles, stutters, and switching subject in the middle of a phrase.

  • If there is music and SFX (sound effects, or Foley), the so-called M-E (music + effects), unless provided on a separate audio track, might have to be re-created, which can be quite expensive.

  • Songs may require partial subtitling, or special talent - musicians & singers - for dubbing.


It is a similar - though more economical - process than dubbing. It may be seen mostly on documentaries and newscasts.

It usually involves dubbing by at most three people: one narrator, one "man", and one "woman". The narrator does the job exactly as if it were for dubbing. The other characters start with the original sound, its volume is immediately lowered, and a non-sync translation is read by either one of the two other voice artists (the same "man" for the voice of all men; the same "woman" for the voice of all women). These latter two finish speaking just before the original character ends their speech, when the original sound volume is restored to normal.

It is comparatively cheaper than dubbing in all aspects, especially if the video includes statements from several different people. Its key shortcomings are:

  • The output inevitably looks and feels "cheap", as there is a continuous reminder to its having been translated. Sometimes, depending on the content, it gives the feeling that the intention was to have it dubbed, but the budget was prematurely exhausted.

  • If there is any dramatic interpretation, it will be completely lost, as the translation is read with minimum interpretation, like a newscast.
When this is done by one single voice for all narration, men, and women, it's called "lectoring", the cheapest video localization way, last seen in some former Soviet Union countries.

Its reason to be is to offer, at a much more affordable cost, a video with the dubbing effect, so spectators have more time to see all the images instead of reading subtitles.


In this process, the narrator, and sometimes the leading characters, are dubbed. All other appearances, such as testimonials by different people, are subtitled. It calls for a lot of common sense to decide which roles will be dubbed, and which will be subbed. There must be some logic in this, otherwise frequent - especially if unjustified - shifts between reading and listening will impair the spectator's level of attention.

Hybrid video is ideal for a documentary-style video where one host, providing narration throughout, will be dubbed, and all people giving their testimonials, or being interviewed, are subtitled.


It is worth reminding that a shift in any video localization process under way will inevitably take it back to square one: translation. So, if a video is humbly subtitled, becomes successful, and then has to be dubbed, it all starts with translation again. At its best, the initial translation may be used as a reference.


Too many people believe that a video must be transcribed first, and then translated. This is not true, if it has to be translated from one language into another one language. Good translators work directly from the audio/video into the translated script.

Many translators offer a lower price if the script is provided. The reason is that when noise/SFX/music obliterates speech, it might be difficult to understand and translate what was said. But the script must be accurate, and match the final edit. All too often it isn't, and/or it doesn't; so watch out!

Some people think that all the translator needs is the script, or the subtitles in some language they can translate from; no need to see the video. This is the birthplace of most of the bloopers we see onscreen. Imagine the phrase: It's down! Would that be something that was lowered? Some equipment or device not working? Or the dumped contents of a pillow? Then there a genderless word that has a gender in the target language, like colors, positions, adjectives etc. A zillion minor things that would be obvious after the video was seen, but inextricable if not.

In the worldwide struggle for lowering costs, some people try to hire the cheapest vendor at every stage. It is worth pointing out that video translation is a progressive sequence of events, where the quality in each one is wholly dependent of the quality rendered in all previous steps. If a flawlessly dubbed or subbed DVD is mass-duplicated onto cheap media, and all those copies are useless, it's just a matter of disposing of these, and duplicating again. On the other end of the timeline, if the translation is bad, no good dubbing/subbing will ever save it. If it goes as far as having so many copies of it made, and they have to be discarded, the process will have to go back to the translation stage, and all the ensuing steps will have to be redone.

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