5 Tips for Matching Tone in Foreign-Language Voice-Over

What You Must Know for Brainshark E-Learning & Voice-Over Localization
September 20, 2017
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October 4, 2017

Tone is an elusive quality, especially in voice-over. Many creative leads and talent directors have spent hours in the studio getting a marketing promo, online video, or TV/radio spot to sound just right. As you can imagine, matching tone in foreign-language sessions is even more difficult – but it’s something that audio and video localization professionals have to do every day.

This post will list the 5 things you must know to tackle tone in foreign-language voice recording sessions.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

What exactly is voice-over tone?

In voice-over, tone is the speaker’s attitude to the text, which is usually the emotion he or she brings to a performance. The tone of a VO read can be authentic or earnest, sarcastic, authoritative, timid, formal, informal, stressed, laid-back or relaxed, playful, strict, upbeat, depressed, warm, cold, distant, laudatory, or accusatory. You get the idea – tone can run the full gamut of human emotions – and ultimately it is something that’s performed by a voice talent, actor or artist.

Tone is separate from a talent’s voice profile – its natural pitch, quality, timbre, or any other physical attribute. Some voice profiles can lend themselves to creating specific tones. For example, a talent with a low-pitched, booming voice may find it easier to give an authoritative performance, since we associate deeper voices with authority in our culture.

Because tone relates to human emotion and culture, it can be tricky to define and to communicate during an English voiceover session. Localization, as you may imagine, adds a layer of difficulty. The following five tips should help.

1. Tone is not the same from one culture to another.

The qualities of a specific tone in English often don’t transfer to other languages. A great example is the informal tone – different emotional cues achieve this across cultures. An informal tone in Japanese voiceover, for example, sounds very different from an informal tone in US English.

2. The English-language tone may not even be right for your target locale.

Again, tone is culturally specific, so the tone of an English-language piece may not be right for a target language, or even reproducible in it. Sarcasm is a great example – it’s very common in marketing copy, but tricky when localizing into Spanish. In Spanish voiceover, saying something that is patently not true or against the speaker’s core beliefs (the essence of being sarcastic) can come off as indignant or accusatory – or not even register as sarcasm, sounding uncanny instead.

The line “Yeah, right” in the following script screen shot would probably be translated as a phrase more akin to “You have to be kidding” in Spanish, cutting out the sarcasm altogether. Note the directions for tone in parentheses (bold yellow) as well.

Screen shot of voice-over script including tone directions in parentheses, including cheerful, incredulous, sarcastic and matter-of-fact.

3. You don’t need to match the voice profile of the English-language actor.

Remember that talents with different voice profiles – again, overall pitch, voice quality, or timbre – can still produce the same tone. Both James Earl Jones and Meryl Streep can be authoritative, for example – but they have very different voices. Moreover, voice qualities associated with specific tones in one culture don’t hold up in others. For example, the association of deep voices with authority in English doesn’t really hold up in Mandarin Chinese voiceover sessions, in which different cultural associations come into play.

4. Consider custom casting auditions.

You may not hear the tone you’re looking for in pre-recorded talent samples, but that doesn’t mean the talent you’re listening to can’t perform it. The only way to know for sure whether a talent can do a certain tone is to hold auditions, essentially recording customized casting samples. Talents record a short piece of your text, usually with notes regarding the direction, the piece’s intent, and – yes – the tone.

This is a service that JBI performs regularly for our clients, usually for marketing materials, for which getting the tone right is crucial.

5. Rely on your in-country marketing managers or local employees.

Your in-country employees know their locale, and how your product is positioned in it, better than anyone. If you have in-country marketing managers, even better – they’ll be able to address the issues raised in tips 1, 2 and 3 above. Coupled with a bilingual, professional voice session director (which JBI also provides for every project), your in-country contacts will ensure that your localized production’s tone is just right. If you only follow one tip, make it this one.

Bonus tip – consider transcreation for projects in which tone is key

Translating tone is so tricky, especially for marketing copy, that transcreation is almost always a better option for this kind of content. This is a service that JBI offers, of course. Rather than translate, a copywriter considers the intent of a piece and how to achieve it for a particular locale, and then develops the content from scratch. Often the transcreated product is quite different from the English-language source. Sometimes, though, it’s quite similar. It all depends on whether or not the cultural associations in the English-language source are present in the target locales – and that, of course, includes tone.

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