What You Must Know for Documentary Dubbing & Subtitling Localization

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We’re living in a golden age of documentaries. Inexpensive digital cameras and editing systems have led to a rise in diverse, extraordinary documentary storytelling. And of course, dubbing and subtitling localization requests have followed suit. It’s critical that producers and multimedia localization professionals understand this content to localize it cost-effectively – and engage their international audiences.

This post lists what you must know to dub and subtitle documentaries.

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The ubiquity of documentaries – and the documentary format

Aside from feature films and news shows, the documentary format itself is now prevalent in other types of media, including reality TV shows and infotainment clips. This entertainment and marketing content relies on a combination of location footage and interviews, and is often structured very similarly to feature documentaries. However, its audiences usually have very different language requirements. It’s critical to keep this in mind when discussing the best practices and localization options available.


So what do you need to know to localize documentaries and documentary-style content? Let’s jump right in.


1. UN-style voice-over is the go-to for documentary dubbing.

Why? Because UN-style incorporates the source voice audio low in the background, keeping the original material as a kind of document. This type of voice-over also allows for a high degree of translation accuracy, which is critical to retaining the work’s authority.

It’s also a very cost-effective option. There’s no lip-sync involved, which lowers the amount of work required in the studio. And moreover, a lot of documentaries require just two or three voice-over talents per language – one for any narration, one male talent for all male speakers, and one female talent for all female speakers – lowering the number of actor fees.

For more info on this type of voice-over, see our previous post, Video Localization 101: What is UN-style Voice-Over?

Reality show producers, on the other hand, may request a higher number of voices, or a distinct voice actor for each main character or subject. Likewise, reality subjects often interact with each other, or with multiple speakers at a single time, requiring more talents to ensure good voice separation. Finally, marketing producers may want full lip-sync dubbing to make the viewing experience more seamless for their audiences.

2. Script translation accuracy is critical.

Documentaries often deal with a host of academic or socio-political subjects. That often makes the video localization process more rigorous, since linguists have to research specialized scientific or historical terminology. And of course, the format puts a premium on translation accuracy, since it deals with real people, places and events. Allow more time for the translation process, especially for linguistic queries to your documentary’s producers. And finally, make sure your workflow includes a thorough quality assurance step to ensure accurate foreign-language scripts and final recordings.

3. Documentary source content is often multilingual.

For example, an English-language documentary on immigrant communities in Los Angeles might feature interviews in Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Armenian, Mandarin, Farsi and various other languages. Many documentary projects require multiple language pairs, as well as partial localization for the languages already present in the source content. In short, it’s possible that your target languages won’t all have the same scope, making deliverables tracking slightly trickier.

4. Documentaries rely on on-screen titles and forced narratives.

In fact, they usually contain more of them than most standard corporate, e-Learning or entertainment content. The on-screen titles mainly identify speakers and locales, and the forced narratives communicate critical plot elements. Make sure to address localizing this text during project setup. And keep in mind that deliverables will vary by release platforms, so that you may have different workflows for DCP, DVD/Blu-ray and streaming projects.

5. Subtitles are a cost-effective option – and may be the best one as well.

Why? Because documentary audiences are generally more comfortable with subtitling, and often prefer it over UN-style dubbing since subtitles leave the source audio intact. The main exception is public service or informational documentaries, which are often created for audiences with wide age ranges, or that include viewers for whom reading subtitles may present challenges. Keep in mind also that the OST and forced narrative translations will compete with your subtitles text, affecting overall readability for any audience. Make sure to take all these factors into account during project setup. And of course, remember that reality TV and infotainment spots won’t have the same audience segments – again, UN-style with additional talents and lip-sync may be better options for this material.

Expect video localization challenges

Each documentary project will be different, and most will have one or two multimedia localization challenges. You may have source footage in multiple languages, some that will be difficult to source, as well as target languages with different scopes. You may have sequences with multiple speakers interacting, making voice separation difficult. And of course, you may have on-screen text and voice-over at the same time, often for long stretches. Make sure these challenges – and any others posed by your specific documentary content – are addressed during quoting and project setup. JBI Studios, of course, can help with this process. A thorough, customized project workflow is the only way to ensure that your localized productions retain the authority and immediacy of your source documentary.