Aah, it seems we’ve finally come full circle. The sub vs dub debate is as old as the internet itself, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. But why? Why do some people throw their hat in the ring for one or the other? It’s not like dubbing is bad, or reprehensible in any way, right? Or, on the other hand, there are the subbing stalwarts who swear by it and would have nothing else. Is one really better than the other? Will I ever stop asking questions? Today, we’ll try to find out.
And yes, the TL;DR version of this is “different strokes for different folks,” of course. But it doesn’t really end there; in the sub vs dub debate, I’ll try to single out what I believe are the strengths and weaknesses of both techniques. Meaning that, regardless of your preference, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. In an ideal world, we’d all be able to seamlessly understand all languages.
But, since we’re not in Star Trek, and we don’t have a universal translator, we have to make do with what we have. Therefore, it’s best to:
- Go over what each technique is, and isn’t.
- The things they cover, and the things they leave out.
- A direct comparison between them.
- And, finally, where to find amazing pros that can provide great-quality subs or dubs.
At the end of this article, you’ll know what type of technique works better for you. Most projects, though, would benefit from offering both subs or dubs, but you’ll know what really floats your boat.
Let’s take a deeper look.
What are Subtitles?
Subtitles are essentially a display of text (derived from a screenplay or on-screen dialogue) in audiovisual content, in sync with the sounds and images.
You can frequently see them in films, TV shows, video games, etc. While subtitles can appear in the original language (as a form of aid for the deaf or hard-of-hearing) in addition to captions, they’re often a form of A/V translation. Meaning, they appear translated so foreign audiences can understand the on-screen content in their own language.
Subtitles in the same language often reflect the original dialogue word-for-word. Meanwhile, subtitles as a form of translation have certain space and time limitations. In our article “Swimming Through the Sea of Subtitling Services,” I wrote:
With a maximum limit of 70 characters, subtitles are known as a subordinate translation. That means that achieving a perfect translation may sometimes come second to displaying readable amounts of text. Subtitles can appear from one to six seconds on screen, depending on the total word count. The average reading speed is 3 words per second; that means that 2 lines and 70 characters allow for a maximum of 12 words.
Also, subtitles aim to be as unobtrusive as possible. That means they’re usually centered at the bottom of the screen. Typography is also important, as it has to be readable, but not interfere with the action on the screen.
Shot and scenes changes present another important factor to consider. When camera shots are switched up, the viewer may have to lower their view and re-read the subtitle. Making the subtitle appear a little later avoids this possible problem.
Subtitles are a very common, cost-effective way to translate content. And, they tend to be the favorite of purists, who like to enjoy content in the original language. This leads to the next point.
Sub vs Dub: The Strength of Subtitles
Subtitles are great for preserving the identity of the content. While we’re a more inclusive and cosmopolitan society than ever before, we tend to stay within the confines of our communities and echo chambers. This happens with language too, and we’re normally not exposed to new sounds or ways to perceive the world.
Some would say the sub vs dub debate is settled in favor of subtitles. I myself would probably share this view, but things are not so cut and dried. What’s true about subtitles is:
- They’re a perfect way to maintain the original performances. Actors and actresses kill themselves in order to achieve on-screen perfection. However good dub is, it can never match the intensity of the original directorial or actorial intent.
- They expose viewers to new cultures, sounds, and means of expression. They’re a way to actually experience foreign-language content. This, while still maintaining a healthy focus on a good localization effort.
- Subtitles also help maintain more fidelity to the original content.
- Subs are really cost-effective, and usually several times cheaper than hiring a full cast of professional voice actors.
- Oh, and did I mention that they can help with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) too? Cisco predicts that around 82% of internet traffic will be video by 2022. How does subbing tie to this? Well, it turns out that subtitles can include relevant keywords, meaning that your users will be much more likely to find you in internet searches.
- Plus, even in the same language, subtitles+sound keep viewers engaged up to 80% of the time!
But Are they Perfect?
No, and nothing is, really. The main con behind subtitles, I would say, is that they take away from watching the experience. Depending on your reading speed, this could be a little or a lot. If you’re (like me) a fast reader, then subtitles can be an almost seamless experience where you don’t miss a single image or gesture.
But, most people are not fast readers — nor should they be. And that means that many will end up missing out on on-screen content because they’re trying to catch the subs. And, when used for translations, the space limitations will also mean that more often than not, you’ll see sub-par, “abridged” translations, rather than a committed focus on faithfulness.
What is Dubbing?
We fancy ourselves as dubbing connoisseurs at Bunny Studio. And that’s because it’s another form of audiovisual translation, but this time using real voices.
Dubbing works in the realm of language replacement. It replaces or dubs over, the original vocal track in a piece of media, be it a movie, video game, etc., with another in the language of the intended audience. The result is a seamless illusion where it seems like the characters are speaking in the translated language.
In “Spanish Dubbing: An Ever-Expanding Market,” I wrote:
And that’s not all there is to dubs; they are a part of the larger profession of voice-overs. But, while voice-overs cover anything related to recording voices for any purpose (art, entertainment, education, business, etc.), dubbing is more specific: it’s voice acting applied to language replacement. In a sense, they are there to provide a believable-enough illusion that endeavors to make people from different cultures feel closer to the narrative.
This brings us to the next point in the sub vs dub kerfuffle.
Sub vs Dub: The Strengths of Dubbing
Dubbing is much-maligned by subtitling purists. While at first, I was squarely in that camp, I’m not anymore. I would go as far as to say that there’s no real clear answer to the sub vs dub debate, only preference. But, I’ll let you figure out the answer for yourself, and the best way to do that is to give you a clear picture of dubbing’s strengths:
- They’re a way to create a seamless illusion. When done well, it can really seem like the characters are speaking your language. This creates a sense of familiarity and inclusion, where it truly feels like you’re in the same world as that of the characters.
- Voice actors and actresses in dubbing can provide very good performances, sometimes coming close to matching the original. In some rare cases, they can even exceed the OG voice track. YouTube is full of comparisons, and some people actually prefer the dubbed performances to the original.
- In even rarer cases, dubs can be an even better match for certain types of content than the original recording. This is true, for example, in some heavily Westernized animes and video games, where a cowboy speaking with an actual Texas twang can really aid in suspension of disbelief.
- It’s all about watching. You don’t have to pay attention to anything but the images and movements of the characters. Therefore, you probably won’t miss a single thing, and it’s easier to stay focused all the way through.
You Probably Saw This Coming…
Yes, they’re not perfect either. In many cases, the dubs don’t come close to the originals in terms of passion, intensity, and believability. They also have the — usually unwanted — consequence of “whitewashing,” or creating perfectly homogenized, samey environments that effectively erase the culture and nuance of the original versions. Many arguments in the sub vs dub debate have spoken, for instance, of the TV show Dark.
The Netflix darling is definitely not the same when you experience it with the original cast. Hearing it in English almost brings the certain stately, somber originals into the sonic realm of small-town drama shows you’ve likely seen a million times before. And that can take away from some of the exotic, expansive nature of the experience.
And, it’s also true that dubs typically cost a lot more to produce. Aside from a full translation, you have to cast a full crew of voice actors, and probably a voice director, for optimal results. This can take time and plenty of money.
But, considering that most people still prefer dubs, it’s the way to reach a broader audience, no doubt.
The End of Sub vs Dub: Where to Find Experts on Both
When it comes to Bunny Studio, you don’t need to have a horse in the sub vs dub race. However you’re thinking about bringing your content to a bigger audience, we’re here to help you do it in spades. You can cast a full crew of professional voice actors in ten minutes. It’s very easy to listen to samples of each actor’s work and to have a no-surprises quote of what they’ll charge to perform your script.
Or, if you’re taking the subbing route, which I would still advise to have in the original language for SEO purposes (if you’re making web content of any kind, or uploading it online), then: