There are two primary treatments when translating a video: subtitles and voiceover. We’re going to break down which treatment is better suited to which types of videos, in the realm of corporate video content. Please note that this post does not fully address closed captions or audio for accessibility for individuals with disabilities, which is also important to consider when translating a video.
Subtitles (aka “subs”) typically involve a lower cost and time investment than a translated voiceover, but they may not always be the better choice. We recommend subtitles when the visual elements of your video are of secondary importance.
Subtitles recommended: a CEO announcement
If your CEO has recorded a video making a company-wide announcement, subtitles can make their message accessible to employees who don’t speak their language while keeping their original voice. Since the only visual element is the CEO themself, the viewer can focus primarily on reading the subtitles.
Subtitles not recommended: a product demonstration
If viewers have to read subtitles, they may miss when the video points out certain features on the product or how to operate them. And while subtitles can still provide a textual description of what viewers are meant to be looking for, a picture is worth 1,000 words – especially when those words are only on-screen for a few seconds!
We’re not going to go deep into subtitling best practices here, but if you do determine that subtitles are your best option for translating a video, you’ll need to determine if you want the subs burned on to the video itself or in a separate file so that they can be toggled on and off. If you’re uploading the video to a platform like YouTube, our recommendation is using a subtitle file, such as an SRT. If you’re playing the video in front of an audience, like in a training or at a conference, you may need the subs to be burned on so that they appear no matter where or how the video is played.
Takeaway: Subtitles typically work well when you have an on-screen narrator, but can be distracting when the priority information in the video is visual.
Defining a voiceover can be confusing. For the purpose of this post, voiceover means replacing the original spoken audio with a new audio track in the target language. A translated voiceover is typically preferred over subtitles when there is no on-screen narrator and the visual elements of the video are of primary importance.
Voiceover recommended: a product demonstration
Using a translated voiceover allows viewers to engage with the visual elements in the video without having to also read subtitles. We rarely see on-screen narrators in product demos, but even if there is one, it is less important to sync the translated voiceover to the narrator’s mouth (as is the best practice in cinematic dubbing) because the primary focus of the video is the product, not the narrator.
Voiceover not recommended: an HR training video with on-screen narrators
As referenced above, in movies and TV shows where the actors’ voices are replaced by a voiceover in another language (called a dub or dubbing), a close sync between the new audio and the actors’ mouths is important for creating an immersive viewing experience. It can be very distracting when there is a significant difference between what viewers hear and see. In a training video where the primary on-screen visual is an actor or actors speaking to the camera or to each other, failing to sync the audio can distract viewers from the spoken content, even if it is in their own language. In film, this is accounted for before the dub is finalized. The additional investment of both time and money required to achieve that tends to be cost prohibitive for translating a corporate training video.
Takeaway: Using a translated voiceover is preferable when the viewer needs to pay close attention to on-screen visuals and there is no on-screen narrator.
So far we have addressed only the translation of your video’s audio track. On-screen text must also be considered. We always recommend translating on-screen text into the target language, but how you choose to handle this will depend on your budget, timeline, and the nature of the on-screen text. If the text doesn’t convey need-to-know information, we suggest removing it altogether. To make your videos accessible to employees who do not speak English and are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or have low vision, you will need to provide visual and auditory translations. If you can’t do so for whatever reason, you could consider providing alternative tools for accessibility such as a translated transcript that can be read by a screen reader.
You have options when it comes to translating a video. If you’re looking for guidance, think about working with a language service provider. We have years of experience with corporate video content and can help you determine what will best serve your and your employees’ needs.