Voiceover translation is a fast and inexpensive way to translate vast amounts of visual content. It is used to translate different audiovisual material, including documentaries, television and films and is greatly used in Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Cambodia and Russia.
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This post was updated in June 2021
What is Voiceover Translation?
In a voiceover translation a translator says the lines over the original audio. This original audio is kept, along with the translated audio. The translator keeps a rather neutral voice, so as not to distract the viewer.
Voiceover Translation vs. Dubbing
Dubbing is replacing audio completely. To achieve this, a script is translated and voice actors are brought in to replace all the original audio. These new voices are also synchronized with the movement of actors on the screen. Dubbing is rather complex and is a considerable financial investment.
Voiceover translation, on the other hand, means simply placing dialogue on top, having the original audio remain audible. It is a much simpler process than dubbing and usually performed by only one translator.
Voiceover Translation vs. Interpretation
Interpretation is basically transforming speech from one language into another. This is done by a language professional, either simultaneously or consecutively.
Voiceover translation is very similar to interpretation. It also features a language professional executing a simultaneous interpretation of the speech in a film or television. Indeed, the beginning of voiceover translation was essentially the simultaneous interpretation of films in Soviet screenings.
Variations in Voiceover Translation
Not all voiceover translation is the same. The basic idea remains constant, but there are usually some changes and differences. The following are the basic setups:
- The original audio track is left at a quieter volume.
- The original audio track is left at a louder volume.
- Often, voiceover translation is performed immediately, without watching the film first.
- There are other times when a translator will watch the film first to get the feel of it and will only afterwards perform a translation.
- In some rare occasions, a translator will translate the whole script first. This is unusual. In this case, the voiceover translator may be able to provide a very literal translation, as opposed to an immediate voiceover translation more akin to simultaneous interpreting.
History of Voiceover Translation
Voiceover translation has an interesting history in Russia. In fact, many argue this technique originated there. It is often called Gavrilov translation or single-voice translation.
The pioneer of the technique is Andrey Gavrilov, who began translating films during the Brezhnev era. In that time, Western films were screened and a language professional had to simultaneously interpret them. Eventually, Gavrilov started working on his own.
Gavrilov explains the beginnings of the trade in Russia: “Usually it happened at someone’s apartment. At the beginning, as far as I can remember, everything was recorded on a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder and then some craftsmen superimposed that audio track, the actual sound of translation on the VHS tape. We could translate directly on the cassette, but it was too dangerous because when you made a mistake or sneezed, then it would be too late to fix something.”
In the 1970’s VCR’s were introduced to Russia and there was a boom of voiceover translation. There were other voiceover translators of note in that era, alongside Gavrilov, like Aleksey Mikhalyov and Leonid Volodarskiy. Big-name voiceover translators often had genres in which they specialized. Gavrilov, for example, worked in action films.
Eventually, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of foreign films coming into Russia increased and so did the need for voiceover translation. Although full dubbing also increased, the demands of cable television and the home video industry fuelled voiceover work.
Voiceover translation is also used in Poland. The practice persists because it is inexpensive compared to dubbings and people there do not generally like subtitles. Some of the most famous voiceover translators or ‘lektors’ are Stanisław Olejniczak, Janusz Szydłowski, Tomasz Knapik, Piotr Borowiec and Maciej Gudowski.
This method of translating films has not been without its critics. Says Polish journalist Maria Bninska: “This country was kept isolated from the West for 45 years, and many people want access to Western culture and languages. But with these voices, it is impossible. It’s maddening. It’s not entertainment, it’s torture. They have no intonations; they have no feeling in their voices. Voice is a part of acting, and you completely lose this part of any show you watch.”
Voiceover translation is also popular in Bulgaria. Towards the ends of the 1980’s VCR’s became increasingly popular throughout the country. The need for fast translation created a demand for voiceover work.
Famous Voiceover Translators
There are some famous voiceover translators worthy of note.
This voiceover translator arguably pioneered this whole methodology in Russia. In total, Gavrilov translated around 2000 films.
Gavrilov began translating films during the Soviet era. At the time, foreign film screenings were restricted to particular groups of people, which demanded live voiceover translation, akin to simultaneous interpreting. This was his start in the trade.
Apart from his translation of film, Gavrilov has done many other things. He worked for several years as a journalist and has translated a plethora of other content. From 2010 to 2013, for example, he provided live voiceover translation of the Oscars on Russian television.
This English to Russian voiceover translator was very popular in Russia. Volodarskiy graduated from the Maurice Thorez Moscow State Institute of Foreign Languages.
This voiceover translator began his career in 1968, at film festivals. In 1979 he started making translations of foreign films, particularly American films.
There was an interesting rumor regarding this translator. Volodarskiy had a very distinctive nasal voice, caused by a nasal fracture. This gave rise to a rumor amongst the users of his translations. People said that the nasal sound was caused by a pin on the nose, to avoid detection of his real voice by the KGB.
This was a renowned voiceover translator in Russia, who graduated from the Institute of Asian and African Countries at Moscow State University. Eventually, he became the personal translator to Leonid Brezhnev.
The Alexey Mikhalyov Prize for best Russian film translation was established in his honor, after his death.
Dmitry Yuryevich Puchkov
Also known as ‘Goblin’, he is an English to Russian voiceover translator. His translations distinguish themselves for a very personal sense of humor.
At the time of his first works, he worked as a police detective for the Militsiya. He studied English for some time, but for the most part he is a self-taught translator. He says: “At that time I already had certain knowledge in English. The quantity of untranslated phrases and obvious bloopers irritated me from the very beginning. And at that time I already wanted to make translation thoroughly, in other words do it the way a good film deserves.”
He opposes a literal translation of films. Instead, he proposes a translation that is thoroughly researched and privy to the Russian equivalent of the English idioms, phrases, and sayings. Yuryevich also translates and keeps any foul language. In Russia, expletives are usually taken out of foreign films, which is often confusing to an audience trying to make sense of a story.
Skills of a Voiceover Translator
Voiceover translation is very similar to simultaneous interpreting. A good voiceover translator must therefore have abilities and skills which their counterparts in simultaneous interpreting also have. Amongst them are the following:
- Excellent knowledge of the source language and the target language. In the case of Russian translators, for example, a great knowledge of English and Russian comes first and foremost.
- Cultural awareness of the source language. This means understanding slang and idioms and capturing the nuances of the speech and the story.
- Capacity for research. When in doubt, a voiceover translator of film or television must be able to research and provide an accurate translation.
- Nerves of steel! Voiceover translators of film must endure long hours and provide fine translations. A calm nature and capacity to withstand fatigue are vital.
- A keen instinct. Knowing when to keep to a literal translation and when to provide a more nuanced metaphor is of great importance.
- Voice health and safety awareness. Using one’s voice for long comes with its risks. Understanding how to handle a voice safely is very important.
Other Uses of Voiceover Translation
There are other uses for voiceover translation apart from the fast translation of films or television.
This technique is often used in the translation of documentaries. It is also the preferred translation method in news programs.
Should I Use Voiceover Translation?
When answering this question it is vital to take into account several aspects. These will dictate if a voiceover translation is better than other methods, such as subtitling or dubbing.
- How formal or informal must the finished product be? Does my audience expect a fully translated and replaced dialogue (dubbing) or do they simply require a fast translation to understand the material (subtitling and voiceover)?
- Will my audience be willing to read (subtitles)? Or will they not like reading at all (dubbing or voiceover)?
- How much money can I invest in this project? Am I willing to invest enough to get a full dubbing? O may I just invest in one good translator and pay for good subtitles or voiceover translation?
- Is the translator experienced in providing voiceover translation or at least simultaneous interpreting? Or is the translator perhaps better able to only provide a written translation that may be used as subtitles?
- Is the translator willing to provide a translation of the full script and then use it for the voiceover translation? Or will the translator go at it Gavrilov-style and provide an immediate voiceover translation? If so, does the translator have experience in this?
Voiceover translation is a fast and inexpensive way to translate vast amounts of visual content.
It is very similar to simultaneous interpretation. It means simply placing dialogue on top of a track, having the original audio remain audible. Dubbing, on the other hand, is the replacement of audio and a hefty financial investment.
A good voiceover translator has abilities and skills which their counterparts in simultaneous interpreting also have.
Voiceover translation has an interesting history in Russia, where it is often called Gavrilov translation or single-voice translation. Many argue the technique originated there.
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