In the media industry, “localisation” refers to the conversion of media content from one language to another, either through dubbing or subtitles. Dubbing entails replacing the original audio with a new audio recording in the target language. Subtitles are the on-screen text which is a translation of the original dialogue. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…
Harry Hill
For those not familiar with Harry Hill’s TV burp we can move swiftly on

Dubbing dates back to the 1930s and was used by countries as part of their cultural and political mission to defend their nation and its language in the face of foreign influence. This was particularly true among fascist governments at the time. The highly developed, and still active, dubbing industries in Italy, Spain and Germany are therefore remnants of their political contexts in the 1930s, when sound film emerged.

Skip forward a few decades, when the motivation wasn’t political, and dubbing was typically an activity that occurred at the tail-end of production, when all the money had been spent. This meant quality was a secondary consideration, and it is this part of dubbing’s history that gives rise to the negative connotations surrounding the industry. That, and the badly dubbed kung-fu movies from the 1970s.

Skip forward to present day, and dubbing is a critical contributor to the commercial success of international TV and film releases, as well as the norm for certain content types, such as children’s programming, visual documentaries and instructional videos.

So despite what highbrow, film critic friends might tell you, someone’s preference for dubbing or subtitles is largely an accident of history. Subtitling is more prevalent in English speaking and Nordic countries, while dubbing is more common in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

However, Netflix has challenged the deeply rooted idea that English speakers reject dubbed content and shown that defaulting to dubbed dialogue increases viewership. This is based on tests run that analysed show completion rates for dubbed vs. subtitled content. ‘Money Heist’ and ‘Dark’ are popular non-English programmes on Netflix, and the percentage of US viewers that preferred the dubbed versions is 72% and 85% respectively.

This growing preference for dubbing may be explained by any one of the following shortcomings of subtitles for today’s audiences:

  • Viewers are increasingly multi-tasking or using another device whilst watching, which makes reading subtitles impractical
  • Smaller screen spaces on mobile can also make reading subtitles impractical
  • Slower comprehension speed of reading means that the original meaning can be lost as long audio clips are converted to short, easy to read subtitles
  • Subtitles can distract from the viewing experience

The upside of subtitles is that they are quicker and cheaper to produce, and for some better preserve the spirit and audio experience of the original.

So with dubbing providing a better viewer experience, but at a cost and time to deliver that cannot compete with subtitles, a fundamentally different approach to dubbing is needed. That is why at Papercup we are developing state-of-the art translation technology that can translate voice into any language while maintaining the original voice’s characteristics and intonation.

For examples of our work see the Sky News in Spanish YouTube channel.

If you’re a content producer and interested in growing your content into more languages, contact us here.