ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

The Secret World of Movie Translation


Ever watch one of those “behind the scenes” documentaries or DVD extras, or laugh hysterically at that blooper reel that went viral on YouTube? Movie production has a lot of really interesting secrets. But even after the actors have gone home, the final edits are made, and the red carpet is rolled back up, there’s one more task for production to address: translation for global release.

Television producers and filmmakers use audiovisual translation to globalize content, and have been doing so since the early days of video. Famous examples include Battle Royale, Godzilla and Kung Fu–some with better translations than others.

Audiovisual translation is “the transfer of verbal components of audiovisual works and products from one language to another.” Although there are many tactics for audio visual translation, lip-sync dubbing and subtitling are the most common forms.

The choice between subtitling and dubbing is incredibly important. A combination of economical, cultural, and political factors inform the choice between the two. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons producers select subtitles or audio dubbing.




According to a report by researchers Cees M. Koolstra, Allerd L. Peeters and Herman Spinhof, the Netherlands is an example of a “subtitling country.” Subtitling is a method that is also commonly used by Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Sweden, all of which are countries with less than 12 million people. Subtitling tends to be the most common method of movie translation in a smaller country. This has to do with the lower costs associated with subtitling.

This goes beyond just movie translations – TV programs in smaller countries are typically captioned, as well. Studies suggest that the popularity of captions as a translation method for globalized television content in these countries is potentially because native-speakers in these regions have at least a small grasp on the original language of the program or film.

But there is more to factor into the equation. Many of the countries that opt for subtitles have multiple official languages. For example, Belgium has 3 official languages, Finland has 2 official languages, and Luxembourg has 3 official languages. Denmark and Sweden only have 1 official language, but they both have between 3 and 5 minority languages. For television and movie producers looking to release content in multilingual markets like these, subtitling is a cost effective choice.

After factoring in the economic, political, and cultural components to globalizing a film or video into a new market, film and television producers have to then weigh the pros and cons of the translation method.




Countries that select this mode of audiovisual translation benefit from:

The relatively low costs for subtitling. Sometimes the costs for subtitling can be up to 15 times cheaper than translation through dubbed audio, which is easier for producers in smaller countries with less economic stability to support.

Improved creative authenticity. Film watchers can hear the dialogue verbally and read the written words on the screen in their native language, which keeps them on course with the plot while providing the original, unaltered audio.

Improved plot delivery. When subtitles are paired with the authentic dialogue, producers can better deliver the meaning behind complicated dialogue. Because the director does not need to worry about synchronizing the dialogue to what the actor mouths, it allows for additional information to be explained in the subtitles.




Conversely, film producers utilizing subtitles face a few shortcomings:

Increased risk of slowing down a film-watcher. Especially with fast-paced thrillers or action-packed films it can become difficult to follow subtitles if the picture is distracting. This also makes subtitles particularly challenging for younger viewers.

Limited space. As with Twitter’s 280 character cut-off, subtitles have a universal limit as well. A subtitle can be two lines long, or 64 characters (including spaces) or 6 seconds of screen time. When translating heavy dialogue scenes into subtitles, it is inevitable that some of the original message will be lost. And for romantic languages, like Italian and French that use more characters than a language such as Chinese, producers are still only given 64 characters per 6 seconds of film time.

Increased production time. Captions add more time to the production process. There are two ways to add subtitles:

  • “Burning” the words into the movie.
  • Overlaying the text onto the movie. This option is often favored because the movie-watcher can choose to turn off the captions as well.

Additionally, producers have to be aware of overlapping colors in order to avoid the text looking invisible at times and they benefit from being able to estimate the extend that their audience knows the original language. These factors make for a complicated and time-consuming process.




Lip-sync dubbing is another movie translation method that requires the replacement of the original audio track with recorded content in a new language. Commonly used in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, this technique is popular among countries with populations closer to fifty million people or more. These countries additionally each have one universal language which makes the investment in utilizing voice-overs more beneficial because the majority of the country’s citizens will likely understand the translation.

Censorship and political factors can impact the decision of choosing a method of audiovisual translation of a program or film as well. For example, between 1936 and 1975, strict censorship in Spain’s limited foreign film imports. This was a political effort to prevent foreign languages from entering and influencing the country’s citizens during a tumultuous time of civil war. However, film producers adopted dubbing practices for foreign films to hide the original scripts of films. In 1977, this censorship was abolished; however, Spain is still considered a “dubbing-country” and nearly all foreign language films are dubbed instead of subtitled for Spanish viewers.

Again, only after taking these components into account can producers weigh the benefits verses the downfalls of their chosen method.



When choosing to dub movies, producers profit from:

Appealing to a main-stream audience. Watching a film where the actors speak your native language can create a sense of comfort and increase the likelihood that you, as a viewer, will be absorbed by the plot. Some experts suggest lip-sync dubbing creates a sense of national identity and autonomy. A study by OTX Research in the UK suggests that dubbing appeals more to the mainstream movie-watching audience than subtitles, which appeal to an audience that typically seeks out artistic and foreign films. Whatever the case, many producers opt for this tactic because they believe it better localizes their film or program overall for their target market.

Localized material. Localization in dubbed content is crucial to market acceptance, and producers often go out of their way to make sure that dubbed audio is properly localized for each country the film is released to. For example, in the English version of Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger uses the famous expression: “Hasta la vista, baby.” However, in Spanish, the phrase is pretty literally, “See you later, baby,” which carries none of the comedic flare of the original line. Therefore, when the Spanish version of the Terminator 2 was released, Arnold Schwarzenegger exclaims “Sayonara, baby!” instead.

Cultural references. Humor is difficult to translate but dubbing can help. Dubbed films make it easier for audiences to understand jokes, as certain contextual details in the dialogue can be edited to become relevant in the target language. This is helpful with cultural references as well as puns.




Downfalls of selecting dubbing for film translation include:

A confused audience. Although much thought is put into selecting actors to dub films, at times the selection of voice-dubbing actors can be confusing to viewers. For example, in German movies the same actor will dub an American actor’s voice in every movie he or she releases. While this is a plausible tactic, discrepancies occur when viewers begin to link an actor too strongly with a voice dubber. For example, for many years in Italy a single actor dubbed the voices for both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s films. However, when Heat was released in 1995, the film had casted both De Niro and Pacino. Therefore, the Italian translation required a new actor to dub Pacino’s voice which caused confusion among Italian film watchers. In other countries, such as in Poland, only one voice actor dubs the parts for every character in a single movie. Whether it’s one actor or many actors, utilizing new voices creates room for confusion.

Delayed voices. The mouth movements of the actors on screen often don’t align with the audio, which causes timing delays and other distractions for the viewer. This often makes the translation of the film feel less authentic for the viewer, which is a major concern of most producers.




No film translation method is perfect. When catering to a global audience, it is essential to not only weigh the positives and negatives of audiovisual translation methods, but to keep cultural, ideological, economic, and political preferences of the country in mind in order to best resonate with a target audience.



Topics: Translation, Service