Subbing vs. Dubbing: Which Is Better for Global Markets?
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Subbing vs. Dubbing: Which Is Better for Global Markets?

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a million. With online video consumption climbing—45% of users watch over an hour of video content per week on Facebook and YouTube, with over 500 million hours of video watched per day on YouTube alone—it is crucial to ensure your videos are accessible to all target markets, language barriers notwithstanding.

But should you be localizing your video with subbing or dubbing? Both have pluses and minuses, and the right answer will depend on a number of factors, including the video type, your target audience(s), time constraints and budgetary considerations. Here are some key differences between subtitling and dubbing to help you make the best decision when localizing your video content.

Subs vs. dubs: what’s the difference?

Subtitles are a transcript of a video’s spoken audio track (with or without textual descriptions of non-verbal audio like laughing or crying) appearing on-screen, segmented in alignment with the audio. When targeting a global market, these could be translated to the target language. Dubbing, on the other hand, refers to the practice of replacing the original spoken audio with an audio track in another language, recorded by voiceover actors or even generated automatically using software.

Both options will effectively bridge the language gap, thereby expanding your global presence. One is not necessarily better than the other; rather, a choice between the two should be made on a case-by-case basis. Let’s look at some of the key considerations that can help inform your decision.

Cost considerations

As dubbing usually involves voice actors, this can greatly affect your bottom line. Additionally, the cost of studio time, sound engineers and other related services can be surprisingly high and in some cases, even prohibitive, depending on your production values. For instance, will you be using professional actors or amateurs? Will you hire a sound team or record in-house? Will you need multiple audio tracks—for instance, one for spoken dialogue and a separate track for music and effects?

Generally, the longer your video and the more speech it contains, the more time and money localization will require. Thus, with very lengthy videos, particularly those with limited visual content, such as a lecture or company policy presentation, subtitles may be the best way to avoid going over budget or exceeding your production time frame.

Aesthetic and stylistic considerations

Another important factor in deciding between subtitles and dubbing is the way the final product will be experienced. A medication ad heavy on graphics and visual data, for instance, can easily become overwhelming with the addition of subtitles, which take up a lot of screen real estate and divert viewers’ attention.

In the same vein, you need to ask how your video will be viewed. For example, is it a web-only commercial that will be watched mostly on cell phones, or will it be broadcast on TV? Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, realize that content viewed on a cell phone can turn into a mess if subtitles are vying for limited screen space.

Additionally, it is important to think about the demographics of your target audience. Is your video a lecture to be viewed by experts in a given field who would be familiar with the topic and likely comfortable reading subtitles as they follow along? Or is it an ad for a product or service that targets mostly younger viewers who may find it difficult to read subtitles and grasp the message at the same time?

In the former case, subtitles may be best, as they would allow viewers to see any jargon or technical language in print and avoid confusion. However, if the presentation is heavy on visual content or includes a demonstration requiring viewers’ undivided visual attention, dubbing may be the better choice. Similarly, dubbing in the latter example would enable you to speak to younger viewers in their own language while cutting out any possible distractions.

Lastly, keep in mind that in a general sense, some countries are far more accustomed to dubbed video content than to reading subtitles (for instance, Spain, France and Germany), whereas other markets are quite comfortable reading subtitles (such as the US and the Netherlands).

Logistical considerations

You also need to be aware of certain logistical factors when deciding between subtitling or dubbing. Both options require translating the original audio, which may or may not have an existing script. (If not, one will obviously need to be generated first.) Usually, transcriptions are done by professional transcribers, though there are also some good automated speech-to-text services. From there, you would need to add time codes so the translation can sync with the video frames.

With subtitles, the text needs to adhere to certain physical constraints. Typically, each frame allows for two lines of text of a maximum of 32 characters each that appear at the bottom of the screen. Of course, there will be cases requiring adjustments so text does not disturb visual content, contrast with background tones or keep up with rapid-fire speech. Things can also get tricky when syntax varies greatly between the languages in question, making it hard to get words to line up. And let’s not forget the importance of making sure to pace the text so viewers have time to read subtitles comfortably.

Dubbing comes with its own constraints as well. The translated script needs to follow the approximate length of the original so actors can follow the video’s pacing frame by frame. The precision of synchronicity can also vary, from pure lip-syncing (a costlier option) to aligning on a sentence basis or even more loosely.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the emotional factor. If you have ever seen a poorly dubbed video where all the characters sound flat, you will realize the importance of having voice actors emote and not just recite their lines. This is crucial to preserving the emotional impact of the original.

Conclusion: one size does not fit all

Ultimately, your decision to either subtitle or dub a video for localization should be the product of a well-considered decision-making process. Each video has a variety of unique factors to consider, such as target audience, language pair, budgetary and time constraints and so on.

The important thing is to not underestimate the value of making video content available to all your target markets. Ideally, you would invest in a localized video that is no less compelling than the original, with as little visual distraction as possible and nothing “lost in translation.” But even if your budget only permits rough automated subtitles generated by a free online service, something is better than nothing! Focus on harnessing the unique and increasingly prevalent medium of video to develop effective, affordable and customized strategies to boost engagement across your target markets. And if you’d like to discuss video localization strategy, let us know.