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Subtitling vs. dubbing: Things you need to take into consideration

dubbingThere’s much more to adapting a programme for another country than simply translating the language. It’s a complex process, and there are many factors to take into consideration – but probably the biggest and most high-profile decision is between subtitles and dubbing.

With the help of translation company Kwintessential, here are some factors you should bear in mind when deciding between the two…

The genre

Have a think about the genre and the purpose of the programme – is it predominantly informative? Does it seek to entertain? Or is it a more artistic endeavour, with frame composition and colour schemes taking priority?

Since each adaptation method has its own pros and cons, it’s in everyone’s best interests to align the strengths of your chosen technique with the most important aspects of the broadcast. For example, an informative documentary or news item might benefit more from the conciseness of subtitles; but an art house production could be much less welcoming to intrusive text disrupting the aesthetic appeal.

More fast-paced, plot-centred genres such as thrillers and crime fiction could be difficult to follow if subtitled; and documentaries, which often include a lot of voiceovers, are particularly suited to dubbing because lip-synch is less of an issue. Thus, the genre and purpose of the show should be taken into account.

Still, possibly the most decisive practical factor which will be decided in large part by the producer is the budget for the adaptation. Subtitling can be up to 10-15 times cheaper than dubbing (Kilborn), and no matter what the other advantages and drawbacks are, the reality is that this aspect cannot be ignored.

The visuals

The director has put a lot of time and effort into the composition of the frame, and into directing the actors’ delivery of the script, so any effort made to try and preserve this will surely be appreciated. Take Eric Rohmer’s work, for example, where the balance of colour and composition is so meticulously crafted that it’s no surprise he objects to two lines of text being whacked onto the majority of his precious frames.

Again, it depends on the purpose of the programme, as in a documentary this will take a back seat to the importance of the information conveyed; but TV combines sound with picture for a reason, so the overall appearance of the image should be taken into account where possible.

The delivery of lines

The director is responsible for guiding the delivery of the lines. Depending on the genre, the purpose of the piece, and many other factors, he/she may have directed some emotional moments where the timing of the delivery and the facial expressions involved could be crucial to the smooth development of the episode.

If this is the case, crafting a dubbed version in another language that corresponds exactly to the facial expressions and body language of the actors could prove to be extremely challenging – depending on the languages involved, it could be that the part of the sentence that carries the speaker’s emotion could end up in a completely different position, resulting in a bizarre-looking delivery.

So watch the whole thing and pay close attention to this aspect of the production, as it could affect the decision of whether dubbing or subtitling will do more justice to the programme.

You have to lose something

Both subtitling and dubbing will necessarily entail some form of loss. Because of the space it takes up on the screen, subtitling requires condensing the dialogue to manageable portions that won’t cover the screen; and when a dialogue is dubbed, the natural flow of the interaction is interrupted by non-exact lip-synch and possibly mismatched delivery.

The loss could mean the omission of important information or the disappearance of important cultural cues, or many other things. In this context, the question you need to ask yourself is: which of these losses will be more detrimental to the value of the piece?

Depending on the pace of the dialogue, and the intricacy of any arguments or emotional soliloquies going on, dubbing could be the best option so that the reader can keep up with developments without having the dialogue condensed into two lines of text. On the other hand, in an emotional scene, dubbing can completely distract the viewer from the weight of the dialogue and can even appear comical where comical does not fit. Weighing up the two options and considering the effect they will have on the dialogue could help you reach a balanced decision.

The Viewers

Possibly the most important consideration is the viewer:

• What age group is your target audience?
• In which country / countries will the piece be broadcast?
• Under what circumstances might your audience be watching?

If you know that your audience will mostly be families and if you know that the show will air between 6pm and 8pm on a weekday, you can be confident that the audience will most likely be half-watching as they prepare dinner, help the children with homework, housework etc.

In this case, dubbing might be much more appropriate as a) they will find it difficult to follow without stopping to read the screen the whole time, and b) they won’t notice the imperfections of dubbing as much, since their attention will be focused elsewhere. Moreover, if the audience are likely to be either young children or the elderly, subtitling might be much more difficult for them to see or read than it would be for the adult demographic.

Finally, it’s worth noting that, with the exception of English-speaking countries (which tend to show so little foreign material that there is not much of a precedent), most countries will have a preferred method of language adaptation. In Germany for example, almost all foreign-language material is dubbed, which is both a cause and an effect of the fact that it is preferred over subtitling in most contexts.

Because dubbing is so commonplace there, Germans tend not to notice its drawbacks as readily as other nationalities; similarly, in the Netherlands the cumbersome task of reading the subtitles whilst attempting to follow what is happening in the picture is not regarded as such a serious flaw, because the viewers are so accustomed to it.

The Linguists

Another effect of the great European divide between ‘subtitling countries’ and ‘dubbing countries’ is that, in any one country, there tends to be a great deal more professional talent in the industry of the preferred method than in that of the lesser-used one. Professional subtitlers will be harder to come by in Spain, where dubbing is more popular, than in Belgium where the majority of the on-screen language market will be devoted to it.

Then there’s the language pair to think about. If you’re going from English into French, be aware that it will involve a significant degree of expansion. English is quite a brief language, and something that could be easily explained in ten words in English might well require 14 or 15 words in French, and vice versa. With dubbing, there is more room to breathe, so this would be a good option if there is a lot of fast-paced dialogue which a set of subtitles would struggle to keep up with.


If there are many cultural references, jokes or puns, these will require special handling. Will these things require extra explanation? If so, how will you accomplish this without compromising the natural development of the piece? Often, the best way to handle this is by completely altering the text – a pun in French that cannot be translated into English can be replaced by a separate pun in English, which gets the humour across but has nothing to do with the original.

If the programme is subtitled, the viewer will be able to hear the French joke while reading the English joke, and if they have some knowledge of French, they could be confused by the discrepancy and even assume that the subtitle is wrong.

In dubbing, the original soundtrack is replaced, so unless the viewer is a lip-reader, this will not be a problem. With cultural references, too, this could be helpful – a reference to Costa Rica’s national hero Juan Santamaría might go over the heads of the readers, but a reference to Simon Bolívar, who also represents liberation and democracy in Latin America, probably will not. It’s a small point, but if the programme is full of linguistic difficulties, you could make life much easier for the linguist by choosing to paper over the troublesome soundtrack with a new one.

Try and please your creatives

Producing a film or television programme requires a great deal of teamwork, and this is no less true for the adaptation of the finished product into another language. It’s important that the decision of how to adapt it be made with each of the key players in mind – the director, the producer and the writers have all invested enough in the production to merit a second thought when it comes to replicating their creation in another language.


Richard KILBORN; ‘Speak my language:  current attitudes to television subtitling and dubbing’ in Media, Culture and Society 1993 15. Sage Publications, London 1993, 641-660.

Cees M KOOLSTRA, Allerd L. PEETERS and Herman SPINHOF; ‘The pros and cons of dubbing and subtitling’ in the European Journal of Communication 17(3). Sage Publications, London 2002, pp. 325-354.

Special thanks to Kwintessential for compiling this guide. Kwintessential is a translation agency with a not-so-little black book of highly experienced film and TV fixers from all corners of the world - all speaking a respective cornucopia of languages. To use their services or find out more, click here.

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