Translations for the audiovisual environment: subtitling and dubbing

We’re all so used to the platforms that bring movies and TV shows into our living rooms, that we seldom remember that behind subtitling or dubbing there are (still) people who strive to translate accessibly and relevant to audiences of different cultures and languages. We usually pay attention when a spicy exclamation appears translated with a tame one, or when the meaning of a dialogue is lost in an uninspired, word-for-word translation of an expression.


The battle between rigour and creativity

Subtitling involves more than simply translating dialogue from a film or TV show. The process starts with getting the transcript of the video material, which is then fed into a specialised application to translate each line of dialogue.

A big challenge for those translating subtitles is limiting the number of characters per line, determined by the amount of screen time available for each line. This constraint makes subtitling a less free translation, and translators have to strive to convey the full meaning in a very small space, which can sometimes be almost impossible (or time-consuming, which the paying customer does not appreciate).


Another challenge in subtitling, but one that is normal for any type of translation, is the localisation of content.

Translators who subtitle not only translate the text, but also adapt cultural references and place names to resonate with the target audience or to avoid confusion.

For example, a country-specific cultural reference may be replaced by an equivalent reference in the culture of the country where the material will be viewed. A place in one country may be referred to differently by the inhabitants of another country, for example.

As with any other type of translation, adaptation and localisation requires a thorough understanding of both cultures and an ability to find appropriate equivalents that preserve the humour, meaning and idea of the original video material.


After the translation and adaptation of the transcript, comes the synchronisation, which is normally not done by the translator, but by another specialist, who ensures that the subtitles appear on screen at exactly the right moment, correlated with the original dialogue.

Synchronisation is essential to avoid distracting (or even annoying) the audience and to ensure a smooth and enjoyable viewing experience.


Nothing is ever simple

Dubbing is a slightly more complex and much more specialised process, because it involves several stages, from translation to choosing and recording the right voices. Dubbing translators have to be much more careful about how they do their job than subtitlers.

The process starts with the translation of the original dialogue, but it involves much more than a simple translation. Dubbing translators also have to take into account the length of each piece of dialogue, and the lip movements of the characters, as well as adapting the text to fit them perfectly. This is difficult, because the lines must sound natural and allow the actors who are to perform them to follow the intonations and pauses of the original material.

As dubbing is generally done for animations and films for children, there are not many dubbing specialists.

Voices of actors

After the translation is complete, voices are recorded with professional actors for both commercials and films. There are specialised studios that do this, making sure the voices are recorded at a high quality and that the timing of each utterance is perfect. Voice actors must be able to convey the emotional nuances of the characters and adapt to the style and pace of the film or commercial.

In addition, it is often a real challenge for a studio to find an actor with the right voice, especially when the rights holder of the material has specific demands (for example, Mickey Mouse’s voice, which has to sound a certain way).

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