Dub vs Sub: The Debate Between Subtitles and Dubbing

Keaton Robbins | July 29, 2021

Have you ever stopped watching a movie a few minutes in because of a bad audio experience? Voice over and audio editing are key elements in a successful auditory experience on film, especially when it comes to dubbing. Similarly, people can become frustrated with subtitles that do not match the action on the screen.

It’s important to have clear audio and precise subtitles for any work presented in an international language. But should you use dubbing or subtitles for your project? 

In this article

  1. The One-Inch Tall Barrier
  2. Dub vs. Sub
  3. A Localization Problem
  4. It Works Everywhere
  5. Accessibility Through Color and Font Choices
  6. Is Resizing Okay?
  7. Doing the Work
  8. International Audiences
  9. The Big Question
  10. Where to Go?

As a creative, it’s more than just having a preference. It’s understanding what your audience needs or wants. This article will give you a solid understanding of the ins and outs of each option so that you can choose wisely for your clients and their individual projects.

The One-Inch Tall Barrier
Dub vs. Sub
A Localization Problem
It Works Everywhere
Accessibility Through Color and Font Choices
Is Resizing Okay?
Doing the Work
International Audiences
The Big Question
Where to Go?

The One-Inch Tall Barrier

While subtitles are distracting for some people, taking up a section of the screen, they can also be useful. Subtitles are used for a wide variety of purposes. People who are hard of hearing are a primary market, and they are also used to translate into other languages.

Short excerpts of foreign language in films often make use of subtitles if they want the viewer to understand what is being said. You can probably remember at least one film scene where a spy overhears the bad guys discussing their plans in their native tongue.

These days, subtitles are even used for marketing. The television show Star Trek: Discovery even made subtitles available in the Klingon language

It’s not just film professionals who need to worry about whether subtitles are appropriate. In some corners of the Internet, forums are rife with arguments about which makes for the ‘purer’ experience: sub or dub?

Dub vs. Sub

It is a difficult decision for the creative on a limited budget to determine whether to use either a voice actor or a subtitling expert. The simple answer may come down to cost: subtitles are more affordable to source, whereas dubbing can cost a lot more to record and apply to the work. 

While subtitles may seem like the easier option, there is an art to subtitles. Timing, speed, placement, and typeface all play a significant part in how understandable they are. For this reason, many companies have strict rules of how to apply subtitles, such as BBC’s subtitle guidelines.

Subtitles can also be far more forgiving than dubbing. Aside from the use of capitalization and text formatting, emphasis or tone don’t really have to be considered when creating subtitles. 

A Localization Problem

When working on films for international audiences, there are certain things that subtitle writers will need to be careful of. For example, subtitling for a foreign film should still allow viewers to understand the message despite a language barrier.

As such, viewers need to still understand jokes, references, and commentary which they may not have a history with. This is more of a concern of localization, but will impact how the audience receives any subtitles or dubbing.

Foreign language differences also lead to other issues when choosing subtitles over dubbing. Subtitlers, for example, must consider that foreign language text may be of a different size. While Japanese characters can reduce a character’s speech to a single line, some long German words can instead increase the number of lines used.

Some languages may even need up to three times as much space as others. For example, Spanish text often tends to end up 150% longer than English text of the same content.

It Works Everywhere

Today, after decades of iterations, international subtitle standards exist. These ensure clarity and consistency in quality for subtitles.

While broadcasters like the BBC provide clear instructions for their own creators, the World Wide Web Consortium has also attempted to create its own set of standards. While these standards have trended toward the complex, they still offer a treasure trove of information. The W3C encourages others to maintain such standards and, through this, makes the Internet a more accessible space for the widest set of demographics possible.

Although video games are immensely popular, no standards yet exist for subtitles in that industry. This may be due to accessibility in video games being a relatively new venture for many companies.

Still, in recent years there has been increased demand for the services of dubbing and subtitles in streaming services. As Netflix and YouTube expand their audience, the companies have doubled down on accessibility. Netflix has even described subtitles as a “primary asset,” demanding rigorous standards in what they show.

Accessibility Through Color and Font Choices

One thing you may have noticed in subtitles when watching shows or videos online is that they largely come in one of two colors: white or yellow. These are then bordered with a thin black line. The primary reason for this is simply the fact these two colors have the highest refractive index. This means they have the highest contrast with other colors in our eyes and are therefore the easiest to pick out in a complex scene on the screen.

For further clarity, an accessible typeface is often used such as Arial or Helvetica Neue. These are sans-serif fonts, meaning they do not have small markers on the ends of letters. Such markers can cause difficulties for dyslexic readers or those with poor eyesight.

Over time, different software bundles have defaulted to different typefaces to assist new users. For example, Adobe Premiere Pro uses Lucida Grande as of their 2019 CC edition. Adobe’s software is also packaged with other typefaces such as Futura and Verdana which are used throughout the industry.

Is Resizing Okay?

One thing that dubbing does not need to worry about so much is the volume of the audio. If the dub is set to the same level as any original audio and is not overshadowed by background noise, the user is free to adjust the volume. As far as subtitles go, however, resizing them from a default is rarely something users do, so they need to be correct the first time.

Ironically, the bigger the text, the less clear subtitles often are. This is due to the background images often being more visible in the spaces between larger letters. Alternatively, if subtitles are too small, new subtitles are often missed if they share a similar shape and size to the previous set—due to this, a balance must be sought.

Testing subtitles can be useful to prevent such difficulties. The challenge with this is making sure testers are in the same situations as your target audience. If you don’t, it could lead to situations that are all too common in the video game industry, where testers use desk monitors. Over the years, many critics have commented on games with very small subtitles, unfit for a television six feet away from a sofa.

Doing the Work

Dubbing a piece of media often requires separating and removing the voice layer, then adding the new dub loop by loop. In comparison, easy-to-use subtitling software is included in many video-editing tools.

Both Adobe and Sony’s suites allow users to create subtitles in a variety of styles. Thanks to these features, any editor has the tools they need to get started on the process by themselves.

Even after a user uploads a video, some publishing platforms still allow them to add subtitles later. YouTube has tools for content creators which add subtitles after having uploaded their video.

This means the creator can finalize the video, then edit it after a first release. A team of individuals can even contribute, so long as they are all listed as editors on the YouTube channel.

International Audiences

People fall on different sides of the dubbed vs subbed debate everywhere on earth. Bear in mind, however, that different countries may have different expectations of how to use each. This largely depends on whether they receive most of their content from local sources or foreign companies.

For example, in Northern Africa, the dubbing standard is to use Modern Standard Arabic. In the south of the continent, however, it trends toward the use of Afrikaans. Making sure your audience is precisely targeted could mean the difference between a runaway success or a social faux pas.

For this reason, you should give thought to investigating the differences between the locales you aim for.

The Big Question

How much does each cost? Are subtitles going to cost a pretty penny, or does dubbing win out when it comes to breaking the bank?

Simply put, dubbing is often the more expensive option. However, in certain circumstances it is the more suitable option for the content you’re working with and the audience you’re targeting. Learn more about hiring dubbing artists for film and animation projects.

While you get what you pay for when you hire a dubbing artist, you may want to allocate more of your budget toward the process. This is especially true when you include payments for additional recordings due to script changes or mistakes in the first set. 

The dubbing process often takes longer than the process of subtitle creation. Requesting new subtitles can be a fast process for a skilled writer and can mean a quick turnaround for cheap when you are on a tight schedule.

Depending on where you go, subtitling can have a range of costs. Generally, it costs between $3 and $10 per minute of media. As such, a one-minute advertisement would be incredibly cheap to subtitle but a 90-minute film can reach anywhere between $270 and $900.

Professional voice talent, on the other hand, can go anywhere from $200 to $400 per hour of their time. When you use a creative services marketplace like Voices, you are able to communicate with voice talent to ensure that you find a voice actor who fits your needs and budget requirements. 

Where to Go?

When debating dub vs. sub with coworkers, there are certainly pros and cons to each option. For many, it is easy to land on the side of subtitles due to accessibility and cost. For that reason, Voices provides services to obtain fast subtitles from a wide range of available transcribers. This is especially important when you are lacking the time or the expertise to subtitle the work yourself.

If you’re still looking for someone to give you the assistance you need while you focus on the rest of your project, take a look at past projects Voices has completed for our clients.

When you’re ready to get started, sign up for a Voices account and get access to an extensive pool of talent who can take care of all your dubbing and subtitling needs.

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