Subtitling vs Dubbing: What’s the Best Choice?

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For many TV/film production companies, corporations, and e-Learning developers, a common question is: how would I like my content to be viewed in other countries? Should I subtitle, dub, or do both?

Streaming platforms have brought forth a wealth of TV/film content and have increased the demand for localization. So what’s the best option for you? In this blog we’ll look at three of the key considerations to help you decide: the content, the audience, and the budget.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]


photo by Immo Wegmann

Subtitling & Dubbing: Which Works Best for Your Content?

Let us first briefly describe subtitling and dubbing:

Subtitling: dialogue in the video is translated into another language as timed on-screen text; the original audio remains untouched.

Dubbing: the dialogue audio of the video is replaced by voice actors speaking another language, timed to match lip movements.

It’s generally better to consider the content and the audience before the budget as that usually leads to a more focused and successful localization process. Based on the above definitions, look at your content to see first which would fit better. For example, as mentioned in a previous blog, if a video has complex animated graphics as well as off-screen narration, subtitling both the narration and the on-screen titles might not be the best: too much text on-screen might confuse the viewer. Instead, on-screen title replacement with off-screen voice-over would probably work best for that type of content.

For TV series and films, lip-sync dubbing is usually preferred. There is some (but not conclusive) evidence that customers are more likely to finish a TV series if it is dubbed instead of subbed. More research needs to be done, though it is telling that many streaming platforms require a dubbed version of a show/film for their international markets.

To keep audiences engaged, the quality of dubbing is incredibly important. This is dependent on the voice actors’ performances; it’s best practice to find a professional localization studio–like JBI Studios–that has a talented roster of local talent in the country you want to localize for as well as state-of-the-art audio recording, editing, and delivery systems.

Subtitling culturally specific content may be a better choice than dubbing. For example in the multi-Oscar winning Korean film Parasite, there’s an iconic scene where a character memorizes her fake identity to the tune of “Dokdo is Our Land” a famous national Korean song. If the film was dubbed, it would lose this key cultural nuance. To maintain the cultural specificity of certain works, subtitling would be preferred.


photo by Jonas Jacobsson

Think About Your Audience

Who is watching your content will play a big role in deciding what is the best localization process for your content. Some audiences, particularly cinephiles and film students, prefer subtitles because they want to hear the original, “authentic” performances. When lip-sync dubbing a film the original script has to be translated and adapted so that the spoken words match the lip movements of the on-screen actors. This means a dubbing script may deviate from the content in the original. However, there are also many other audiences where dubbing is preferred over “authenticity.”

Young children around the world usually prefer to watch dubbed content instead of subtitles. Literacy rates for children vary widely with age and they get fatigued more easily reading subtitles. The elderly tend to prefer dubbing as well as it may be hard for many of them to read the small text on screen and keep up.

If the audience is comprised of medical professionals, operators of complex machinery, or other individuals where translation accuracy takes precedent over viewing experience–than subtitling or UN-style voice-over are better options. For subtitling, the original audio can be heard clearly in case there is any ambiguity in the translation. For UN-style voice-over, the voice does not need to match the on-screen speaker’s lips and thus the script does not have to be edited as heavily as a lip-sync dubbing.

In Europe, certain countries require a dubbed version of a film/show for broadcast. France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are four countries that have dubbing requirements and strong dubbing cultures. A majority of the audiences in these countries expect and prefer dubbed content. However, their Scandinavian neighbors (Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway) don’t have as high of a demand for dubbing. This is particularly true for English videos. The four Scandinavian countries mentioned ranked in the top four spots in the English Proficiency Index which may play a role in why English language films there are generally subtitled, not dubbed.

Asia is a vast continent with many different countries, cultures, and varying levels of English proficiency. However, according to a recent IndieWire interview, it seems that in general the whole Asian market is moving towards dubbing, which may be driven by the fact that more and more people consume content on their smart devices while also doing other tasks. Dubbing offers any audience the convenience of being able to keep up with the content without having to look at the screen the whole time (which would otherwise be required for subtitled content).


photo by StellrWeb

Consider Your Budget

After considering your content and the audience you’d like to reach, it’s now time to look at your budget and see what localization process fits.

Dubbing can cost much more than subtitling. For dubbing a feature film, costs include: casting, talent fees, studio time, director, sound engineer, audio editing, mixing…a whole host of costs that subtitling does not require. Time is also a factor: dubbing takes longer than subtitling given the logistics needed to set up each of the above services.

In addition to the budget, one should look at the return on investment (ROI) one might expect from the localization based on the content and audience considerations in the last two sections. Even though your content might cost a lot more to dub than to subtitle, you may be able to make a much higher return if you choose the right localization process for your audience. For instance, if you have a children’s show that you would like to localize for Italy, you’re much more likely to get more views and ROI by investing in dubbing than subtitling.

Another option, with a sufficient budget, is to do both subtitling and dubbing. That way you’ll be able to reach a wider audience by giving customers the option to choose their preferred type of localized content.

Hopefully this blog has helped you better decide which option works for you. Also feel free to contact us for a free quote that might help you with your decision.

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