To understand voice-over vs dubbing, you first need to know that voice-over is (technically) a type of dubbing.
When it comes to language transfer in audiovisual media, you have two options;
Either translate with written text on the screen (subtitles), or re-voice the original soundtrack (which is where the voice-over vs dubbing discussion comes in).
Voice-over and dubbing are both techniques for interpreting a message to a new audience. However, while voice-over is narrative by nature and lacks the emotion and tonality of the original audio, dubbing is much more precise as it maintains the tonal, emotive, and technical richness of the original soundtrack.
If the difference is still confusing, think of it this way;
Voice-over is noticeable to the audience, dubbing is not.
While they are both forms of re-voicing, dubbing is more creative and adaptable to new audiences, while voice-over is more loyal to the source content.
When translating audio, dubbing attempts to hide the evidence of this translation so that foreign content appears native to the target audience. Dubbing is also called Language Replacement, and it creates the illusion that the actors on screen speak the native tongue of the viewers. Well-dubbed audio takes expertise, sounds natural, and the result is unnoticeable to the viewer.
The next best thing is voice-over, and if you have to decide between voice-over vs dubbing, keep in mind that there’s more to consider than just your target audience.
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This post was updated in April 2021
Voice-over vs Dubbing; Which Should I Use?
Dubbing is more demanding than voice-over and delivers more refined results, but this doesn’t mean you should always dub your content. The difference between voice-over and dubbing is crucial precisely because the two techniques serve different purposes.
Voice-over is a medium for creative storytelling or as a tool to directly translate information to a new audience. Dubbing works best when the primary objective is information retention.
With this in mind, it’s easier to differentiate the type of content and media suited to voice-over vs dubbing.
Voice-over is perfect for news segments, instructional content (e-learning and training videos) and documentaries. When it comes to film, voice-over can highlight the internal dialogue of the characters (creative storytelling).
Dubbing works best for television shows, feature films, and content created for illiterate audiences or children. It is also a great technique for presenting high-impact training videos (where information retention is key).
Using Voice-over for Film and Content Localization
There are two different styles of voice-over, and each has its applications;
Imagine you have to translate a speech by former U.S. president Barrack Obama. If you have two options, voice-over vs dubbing, consider that completely replacing his voice, as in dubbing, would seem disingenuous (and a little bit weird).
With a UN-style voice-over, viewers still get to hear Obama’s voice in the background as the translator’s voice simultaneously interprets the message.
The viewers listen to the original audio for a second or two (to absorb its tone and emotion) before the translator’s voice comes in. The delay between the two audios is deliberate and serves to highlight the evidence of translation.
UN-style voice-over works best for content that features real-life situations or people (think speeches, testimonials, interviews). Usually, the translator speaks in a less emotive fashion that doesn’t incorporate any of the original speaker’s voice character.
In most reporting environments and conference proceedings, voice-over is preferred to dubbing as it preserves the authenticity (and sense of authority) of the original recording.
UN-style voice-over is faster to produce as it uses fewer voice actors and doesn’t call for full lip-sync. Usually, one female talent and one male talent are enough to read a script, but this doesn’t mean that the technique is easy to execute. Voice actors still need to match the pace and voice quality in the original audio.
- High Translation Accuracy
Since the emotion in the source audio is left out, UN-style voice-over allows for near-perfect script translations.
- UN-style voice-over involves playing two audios simultaneously, meaning it works best with short information segments. If it drags on, the results can be confusing or even distracting to the audience.
Off-Camera Voice-over (Narration)
This voice-over style is commonly called ‘the voice of God,’ and you will often see it on TV commercials, film, and documentaries. The speaker’s voice is recorded off-camera and synchronized with the movements on the screen.
Narration describes all the actions happening on screen while the UN-style focuses more on interpreting what a speaker is saying.
A voice narrator attempts to simplify a message for the audience, maybe even lead them to further reflect on a subject.
In this case, voice-over vs dubbing may have different definitions, but they share some of the same applications.
Voice-over narration can be used to teach, sell, advertise, or provide information to an audience. The technique can be adapted to medical videos, technical narration, or e-learning tutorials. Corporate narration may involve voicing videos created to showcase the company history or inform employees.
In film, narration is used to voice flashback scenes or a character’s inner dialogue and thoughts. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas incorporates an omniscient narrator who carries the viewers through the entire movie;
“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not!”
He tells the story from somewhere else and describes describing what is happening on the screen. The narrator also guides the viewers on what to think and when to be excited.
But you want to be careful here because voice-over is not meant to act as a transition to the next scene. And neither should it be part of your story development.
In simpler terms;
Don’t use narration to make up for a poor plot.
The film should be able to stand without the voice-over, a technique that is only used to inform your story. Your narrator, therefore, shouldn’t voice things that can be executed with the characters on screen. If the audience can see it, using off-camera voice-over would be redundant.
- In a video with diverse characters, a narration voice-over can fill in any missing pieces in the story, hence ensuring a smooth delivery.
- The presence of an omniscient narrator adds a sense of objective truth to the video. Viewers can trust and follow one cohesive voice.
- Narration does not always add to the story. If used poorly (and this applies to dubbing as well), a voice-over can distract or irritate the audience.
Dubbing for Content Localization
Dubbing is an invaluable technique in audiovisual media, and its applications are endless.
For starters, the entertainment industry can now market products on a global scale thanks to dubbing. While you may have watched Game of Thrones in English, non-English speakers from all over the world enjoyed the show in their native languages.
Similarly, Japanese Anime series are available to English speaking audiences.
In voice-over vs dubbing, the former preserves the authenticity of the original audio while the latter naturalizes the soundtrack.
When presenting high impact lectures to a foreign audience, using subtitles or competing soundtracks (as in UN-style voice-over) might distract the viewers from the message.
Besides, subtitles and voice-over simply translate the information whereas dubbing captures the totality of the intended message. It is the way to go when information retention is paramount, but good dubbing requires impeccable timing, incredible voice talent, and even more impressive video editing skills.
Generally, dubbing can take one of two forms; voice replacement and lip-sync dubbing.
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This dubbing method involves muting and replacing the original voices in a video new audio in the target language. Voice replacement maintains the emotion and tonality of the original voices but does not fully sync the new audio to the mouth movements of the characters.
Nonetheless, voice replacement (also ‘fake lip-sync’ or dialogue replacement) calls for a lot of acting talent. Voice actors need to match the character of the original sound.
But why would anyone go for fake lip-syncing when you can have the real thing?
Well, dialogue replacement happens to be cheaper than lip-sync dubbing, but there is a better reason;
If you have to dub an e-learning video that shows an acted scene between a student and a teacher, you want your viewers to think the people on screen are real and not actors; it makes the content seem more authoritative. In this case, UN-style voice-over is unfit because it involves playing the new audio over the original. Full lip-sync dubbing is also out because it completely modifies the original soundtrack.
Dialogue replacement maintains the illusion that the video is unchanged while allowing new audiences to understand the message.
Voice replacement replaces the original audio, but sighs, coughs, grunts, and other sounds made by the original voices are left out. This technique falls right in the middle of voice-over (read UN-style voice-over) and dubbing (read lip-sync dubbing). It is best suited for training and corporate videos.
- Dialogue replacement is a great dubbing method for tight budget projects and videos that prioritize native fluency.
- This technique is not as cost-effective as UN-style voice-over, but it is more affordable than lip-sync dubbing.
- It requires different voice talents for each speaker on screen.
- Voice replacement is not used as much as other re-voicing techniques. Usually, people go for either UN-style voice-over or full lip-sync dubbing.
Lip-sync dubbing is just a more technical of referring to dubbing.
This technique involves creating a new language script, voicing it with different actors, and then matching this new soundtrack to the lip movements of the people on screen. Unlike voice replacement and voice-over, lip-sync dubbing (language replacement) gives viewers an immersive viewing experience. The technique, if applied right, does more than translate content.
Lip-sync dubbing uses a new sound to recreate the full experience of a video or a song in a new language.
- Adaptable Technique
Dubbing can help translate complex messages and dialogue that voice-over may not be able to handle.
- Immersive Experience
Dubbing content allows for better performance. Voice actors can capture sighs, giggles, and groans, allowing the audience the full experience intended by the video.
Since dubbing is a time-consuming process, it tends to be more expensive than voice-over.
In lip-sync dubbing, timing is everything. Because the meaning of words changes across languages, it can be tricky to achieve complete accuracy.
- Untranslatable Content
Dubbing is especially tricky because other than being a form of acting, it also calls for the skill of cultural translation. If the original script contains metaphors, humor, or sarcastic voice over (things that tend to be culture-specific), it can be difficult to capture their entire meaning in a new language.
It is possible to over-dub content so that it loses even its cultural references. Besides, what is funny in one society may be offensive in another.
Voice-over vs Dubbing; Final Thoughts
Voice-over vs dubbing have been described as two sides of the same coin, but they are more like two levels on the same scale.
The higher you go on the scale, the more natural your content sounds. This is why you must answer this question when translating content;
To what degree do I want to localize my content?
You don’t want your audience to struggle to get the message, but you also don’t want to over-dub your content.
Also, keep in mind the type of media your content is for. Voice-over and dubbing each have unique advantages and challenges that can make or break your content.