Dubbing or Subtitling: What’s Right for Translating My Video?

“Should I dub my video or subtitle it?” That’s a question we get a lot. The simplest response is, “what’s your budget?” But actually, the answer is a bit more complicated than that.

Sure, I’m watching the brilliant Danish/Swedish series The Bridge right now with English subtitles, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I watch grown-up TV shows and movies, I want to hear the original actors in the original language. But in this post I’m talking not about film and television, but about bread-and-butter work: corporate and training videos, public-information content, web promos, etc.

To decide whether to dub or subtitle, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who is your audience? Obviously, you’re not going to subtitle a Disney movie – half the audience can’t read yet! Similarly, highly educated engineers are more likely to be willing and able to read subtitles than, say, an audience with low literacy levels, or seniors with poor eyesight.
  • How committed are your viewers to watching the video? If you’re trying to catch their attention and sell them something, don’t ask them to work harder by making them read subtitles. Make it easy for them and dub it, as we did for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a series of tourism promotion videos:

  • How much emotional content is there? Is it important for the viewer to hear the actual speaker, rather than a dubbed voice pretending to be them? If so, by all means, subtitle, as we did for our friends at Garrison Creek Media in this short documentary about Auschwitz survivors, produced for a bilingual commemoration on Parliament Hill.



(On the other hand, one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen, John Zaritsky’s Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo, which I still remember 20 years later, has dubbed interviews – proving that good translation and great voiceover acting can make a strong impression.)

  • How are the viewers watching? Is this something they may watch out of the corner of their eye while multi-tasking? Or do you expect them to focus exclusively on your video? I know that half the time when I’m watching informational content on the web, I’m just as likely to be listening to the video while looking at something else. With a subtitled video, that’s impossible. But if I’m watching at, say, a corporate event, I am much more likely to focus on the video exclusively.

So, to choose the appropriate method of versioning your video, you need to think about its content and context. And if you’re not sure, give us a shout, and we can discuss.

Update: Subtitles vs. Dubbing Part 2: know your audience

Eric Geringas
Versioning producer. Documentary filmmaker. Factual TV director. Problem solver.