Voice overs, subtitles or captions – which is the best approach for video translation?

Published on September 27th, 2018

When you are translating video content, one of the first decisions you need to make is how to deliver new languages to your audience. There are three approaches to choose from: voice overs, subtitles and closed captions – each of which comes with their own strengths and weakness that you should be aware of before making this decision.

In today’s world where (poorly) translated subtitles are only a click away on platforms like YouTube, it is easy to underestimate the importance of choosing the right video translation method. In this article, you will find out why this is not a decision to take lightly and we will help you make the right choice, depending on the specific needs of your project.


What are voice overs, subtitles and captions?

Before we get into the pros and cons, let’s quickly explain these three approaches to video translation because subtitles and captions appear very similar at a first glance.

  • Voice overs: An audio track is created using voice actors or voice over artists and synced with your video content.
  • Subtitles: Text is placed over the screen, translating spoken dialogue in your video and any important text that shows up on screen (e.g.: quotes, stats, signs, etc.)
  • Closed captions: Designed for hard of hearing audiences, closed captions place text over the screen for dialogue and important audio elements.

Generally speaking, subtitles simply aim to replicate the words being spoken at any given time, as well as any text that your audience needs to understand. While closed captions also provide descriptions of audio that is important to the end viewer – for example, when a phone rings or thunder sounds in the background of a film.


Which video translation method should you use?

Choosing the right video translation method depends on three key things: who your audience is, the kind of content you are producing and the technical limitations of each approach – all of which we will explain in this section. First, let’s start with the pros and cons of each approach:

Voice over pros:

  • Viewers can concentrate on your video content without being distracted by reading text.
  • Voice overs allow you to translate complex conversations with multiple speakers, regardless of how much they interrupt each other.
  • You don’t need to worry about the pace of people speaking or how quickly your audience is able to read.
  • With audio provided in each audience’s native language, you can create a more engaging experience where your content takes centre stage.
  • With voice overs you can attempt to recreate the original tone and voice of dialogue in a new language by using voice actors.

Voice over cons:

  • Finding the right voice talent can be tricky.
  • Production costs are generally more expensive than subtitles and captions.
  • Recreating great acting or chemistry between different actors with voice overs is often difficult.

Subtitle pros:

  • Maintain the original style and voice of your content.
  • Generally cheaper and easier to produce than voice overs.
  • Easier to add further languages at a later date.

Subtitle cons:

  • Can distract attention away from your footage.
  • Limited on-screen space to work with.
  • Subtitles struggle with conversations involving multiple speakers.

Closed captions pros:

  • Also provide descriptions for important audio elements
  • Makes your video accessible to hard of hearing viewers and people who want to watch with the audio turned off.

Closed captions cons:

  • Same cons as subtitles.
  • Closed captions can increase the amount of on-screen text at any given time, compared to subtitles.

If your video is filled with important visual elements that viewers need to pay attention to, such as artwork, graphs, landscape scenery or expensive graphics, then it does not make sense to distract their attention away from your content with subtitles. Likewise, if you are translating an intense debate, group interview or anything else that involves multiple speakers interrupting and talking over each other, it is going to be very difficult to keep up with subtitles and your viewers are likely to get confused about which subtitle string is from which speaker.

On the other hand, if you are translating a film with meticulously crafted characters and carefully selected actors, you probably want to maintain this through your translations. Subtitles are a great option in these situations and this why they are so widely used for translating cinema. Another scenario where subtitles might be the preferred choice is interviews or comments from people as it is important their true emotions shine through – for example, accounts from war veterans or people recounting natural disasters.

Closed captions are important in terms of accessibility and you should always consider providing these as an option – not only for hard of hearing audiences, but also for people in situations where they cannot or choose not to watch your video with audio.


Video translation is all about getting the best audio and visual experience across to viewers in different languages and this requires a different approach, depending on the kind of content you are working with. It’s not that voice overs are better or worse than subtitles or captions. Instead, it’s a case of choosing the best way to deliver your message on a case by case basis.

Posted on: September 27th, 2018