Have you ever turned on a movie and suddenly realized the language was French or German and contained subtitles or dubbing? You may ask yourself, “Do I continue to watch knowing that I know it is going to take extra effort to read the subtitles or to ignore the slightly off lip sync motions?” If so, you are not the only one. Producers and directors are always working on ways to make sure audiences around the world can understand and connect with what is unfolding in their stories.

There’s little doubt that the film industry is leading the way with entertainment translation. But what works best when it comes to being viewer-friendly in foreign markets—subtitles or dubbing? Here are some factors film and television producers consider when choosing between the two.

Subtitles – Pros and Cons

Subtitling is a great choice when English proficiency is high and/or the country is smaller in size. In an article published by Language Trainers, “According to the 2013 EF English Proficiency Index, … the top three [English proficient] countries, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, … use subtitles instead of dubs for everything except for children’s programs.”

Pros of Subtitling

1. Relatively Low Cost: Subtitling can be up to 15 times less expensive which makes it a great option for smaller countries or countries with multiple official languages such as Belgium and Bosnia.

2. Improved plot delivery: Because the director doesn’t need to worry about synchronizing dialogue to the actor’s mouths, words can be added or edited. The director can add culturally relevant words, so the audience remains engaged in the plot.

3. Improved creative authenticity: Viewers not only watch and hear what is taking place on screen, they also can read the text and listen for voice inflection that provides the correct emotional context.

Cons of Subtitling

1. Character limit. Generally, subtitle text is two lines long, totaling around 64 characters in length, (including spaces) or 6 seconds of screen time. This means when it comes to lengthy dialog, some of the meaning may be lost as text is edited down to fit.

2. Difficulty Keeping Up. The usage of subtitling can slow down a film watcher. Fast-paced thrillers can be difficult to keep up with, especially if there is action and quick movements. You may be a fast reader, but you will also be reading through emotion as well as information.

Dubbing – Pros and Cons

Dubbing is often used in larger countries with one universal language, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain and/or where English proficiency is moderate to low. Dubbing is so popular in some countries, such as Germany, they actually have a separate awards ceremony for voice dubbing actors.

Pros

1. Appealing to a main-stream audience: Hearing your native language makes it easier to absorb the plot, align with the emotions, and increases the likelihood that you will follow the movie to the end.

2. Great for localizing material: Actors and producers can interject localized references and humor into the movie dialogue so that it resonates with the target audience. This is a powerful tool!

Cons

1. Delayed voices: Time delays between the actor’s voice and actions on screen can be distracting and lessen the acceptance of the film. The content and translation may even be seen as less authentic.

2. A confused audience: Dubbing can create some confusion. For example, in German films the same actor will regularly dub particular actors’ voices in every movie, which keeps it consistent for faithful audiences. But what happens when both American actors appear in a film together? A new voice must be introduced for a favorite actor, which causes audience confusion. Furthermore, in some countries such as Poland, one actor speaks the parts of every character for a movie. It’s easy to see how that might get confusing if you’re not paying close attention.

Staying true to the cultural, political, and ideological preferences of a country will always be valued by the target audience. This is why it is important for producers and directors to weigh the positives and the negatives of both methods.

Bonus Clip: Watching movies is fun, and it’s even better when you use this to support your desire to learn a second language! Movies provide the context where you can hear or read the real language and learn how words and phrases are used in certain settings.

TrueLanguage is full of life-long language learners. Our localized translators have added value to both audiences and to filmmakers’ bottom lines through thoughtful translation in 120 different languages. With Atlanta fast becoming known as “The Hollywood of the South” we look forward to partnering with filmmakers for global box office success!