Subtitling or dubbing: What’s the best choice for localization?

3 min read

As technology improves and the world becomes our oyster, we have access to audiences right around the world. Instantly. Those billions of people are all hungry for content. They’re a captive audience. And they want to watch and listen in their own language.

Localization is about achieving just that. But how do you localise your video? Do you subtitle it or dub it into the local language?

Before we discuss which of these two suit your project, here’s a quick look at what subtitling and dubbing are — and how they’ll impact your video.

a dubbing studio
Image: Adobe Stock


In short, subtitling is the addition of written translation. Subtitles are the captions that appear at the bottom of the screen that allow you to read what the characters are saying. With subtitles, the video or movie still uses its original dialog.


Dubbing is the addition of spoken translation. A voice actor re-records the dialog of the original video in a different language. Consequently, dubbing completely replaces the original dialog.

Subtitling allows the audience to hear the film as intended, while dubbing allows the audience to see the film as intended.

Very often, choosing subtitling or dubbing is simply a stylistic preference. But there are some scenarios where one is preferred over the other.

Preference of viewers 

man on couch with remote
Photo by from Pexels

There are those who prefer subtitles over dubbing because adding subtitles preserves the authenticity of the film. It also gives viewers a chance to pick up a couple of words in another language!  

Purists say a dubbed film gets devalued by dubbing. The movie/video becomes less authentic. Part of the original artistic value gets lost in translation. The actors’ performances aren’t fully conveyed. Everything rides on the talent of the voice actor who voices each role.

Requirements of viewers

In areas with lower literacy levels, subtitles won’t work effectively, while dubbing will. So is the case when catering to a specific age group – like young children and the elderly who would be able to understand the dubbed version of a film rather than a film with subtitles. 

A busy video

Subtitles are visible on the screen and occupy a not insignificant portion of it. In the case of a busy video or a video that has a lot of graphics or other types of information, dubbing is a better choice.

Budgeting for localization

Pricing is an important factor that cannot be ignored. Subtitling is in most cases, cheaper. This is because it is less expensive to create subtitles than to hire a native-speaking voice actor. But before choosing one over the other, it’s important to keep your intended audience in mind. Choosing the right localization option based on the audience will have better outcomes – even budget-wise.

Preference of actors

microphone and pop screen
Image: Unsplash

There is also the case of the talented actors in the video. Many high-profile actors prefer subtitles over dubbing during the translation process to preserve the integrity of their vocal reputation. Some actors don’t want to have their voices substituted with other voices – even if they cannot speak the same language as their listeners.

What works for your content?

Think of what option will serve your content best. What will give your video the best localization possible? Sometimes, you can answer this question in a very straightforward manner.

For example, an online pre-roll video with off-screen narrator coupled with complex animated graphics, a foreign language off-screen narration (dubbing) with on-screen titles replacements is a good option.

Sometimes, however, the answer is not as straightforward. Audiences regard lip-sync’ed dubbing as perfectly acceptable for feature films, but an independent film with stellar actors could lose a selling point if voiceovers gets used. In this case subtitles work best, leaving the actors’ performance untouched and intact.

In the case of instructional videos (for example videos for advanced medical devices), translation accuracy is critical. Even a small deviation from the original meaning can have drastic effects (like improper device usage).

In such cases, lip-sync dubbing is not feasible as it requires heavy editing. Subtitling, dialogue replacement, and UN-style voiceover allow for the best translation accuracy.

The present and future of localization, subtitling, and dubbing

There is not doubt that we will continue to see an increase in captioning and subtitling, as well as dubbing for streaming and online video. 

Barriers will continue to fall as consumers demand access to more content created in different languages. Both subtitling and dubbing will be in great demand.

Lower costs and higher quality products will be the name of the game. A game changer that is already making waves is Machine Translation (MT). However…

…Back in the 1900’s, when translations and dubbing were just coming into being, quality was paramount. Producers thought long and hard about their audiences.

For subtitling and dubbing to move forward and be their best, we might need to glance away from our technological future once in a while and instead, consider our past!