Using Subtitles for Foreign Language Videos

Q: We need a video of our MD addressing our workforce on a variety of issues. It will be 15 minutes long, and will also need to be distributed in Dutch, French, German and Turkish.

We would like the foreign versions to be subtitled with captions, as this way the expression in his voice can be heard.

Can we have a quotation please?

Marketing Assistant
International Industrial Group
Wales

A: Producing an MD-to-Camera video in English presents no problems, but I have serious doubts about producing foreign language video versions using captioned subtitles.

I would recommend using foreign voiceover, even though this may cost more. Subtitles do not work well as they are hard to read and I feel your audience will nod off, rather than listen to the important things your MD has to say to them.

Please allow me to explain.

The worst selling movie DVDs in HMV or any DVD store are the foreign language versions. Nobody likes them (how many do you own?) Likewise subtitled movies never get beyond art house cinema. While in, say, Italy, when a new Hollywood blockbuster is released they use voiceover for all the characters. This indicates that voiceover is preferable.

There’s science behind this too.

Consider an MD talking at 100-150 words a minute. It’s just not possible for people to read at this speed for a quarter of an hour.

To enable the audience to read, you have to thin the script out so that only the key phrases are shown. As an example, you’ve probably seen a foreign movie subtitled in English where the actor speaks for a while yet very few words are seen at the bottom of the screen. This is because it’s been simplified for ease of reading.

Now also consider that many foreign languages take more words to say something than English. German for one. German generally takes 25% more syllables to say the same thing.

Taking all this together, we have to simplify the English, then simplify it again for the German.

In the end it’s getting close to being childtext.

And the result will be loss of subtlety in the message, and possible loss of important content.

But there’s more too.

To follow the MD speaking, the audience will be reading flat out at the foot of the screen, with virtually no time to look at the MD’s face to see his facial expressions and nuances.

I believe that after a few minutes many of them will quickly tire and switch off. Which makes me question the whole point of using video with foreign language subtitles.

On the other hand, using a foreignspeak voiceover offers a good solution.

A voiceover is an artist, capable of correctly following your MD’s expression. They will also project in the correct dialect or accent you require, for example Parisian French. And their speech will be exactly synced to the MD’s speech, so words and expression match.

I believe this is a far more effective route to reaching your audience. In fact it is probably the only route.

But you have to pay more to do it this way.

So while I realise this isn’t the answer originally looked for, it still raises important issues by highlighting a key communications issue in foreign language video that has been overlooked. So far. 

Here’s a page with detailed infomation about international video production

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