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Subtitling or Dubbing?

Subtitling or Dubbing: Features and differences

The recent boom in the popularity of foreign films and television shows, has led to TV giants like Netflix increasing their selection. TV shows like Narcos became hugely successful worldwide, and viewers are getting far more used to seeing/hearing subtitles and dubbing. Moviegoers have debated for years over whether they prefer subtitling or dubbing; and both camps argue over why their preference is better than the other. If you haven’t considered this question, it may seem strange that this debate can get so heated — especially in the world of anime fandom or international film festivals!

Each method of making movies accessible to a foreign audience, of course, has its pros and cons. So, let’s start at the beginning: what exactly are dubbing and subtitling?

Subtitling and Dubbing: Definitions

What is subtitling?

Subtitling is the process of converting dialogue in an audio track into text (normally into another language). The text then is added to the bottom the screen. The conversation is printed over the movie, enabling viewers to follow the dialogue by reading the text below. Except in situations where it may be crucial to the plot, subtitles rarely describe music or sound effects. Closed captions include descriptions of the sounds, to make media accessible to the those with hearing loss.

What is dubbing?

Dubbing is the process of replacing the original audio track with an alternate, translated version, usually using different voice actors. Depending on the budget and country, one actor may voice all the characters in a movie — this is standard practice in Poland, for example. On the other hand, French and German viewers prefer to have a single voice actor for each character (or a specific actor). Sound engineers can replace the dialogue while retaining the rest of the audio track, because dialogue is typically recorded on a separate track.

Subtitling vs. Dubbing: Pros and Cons

In favour of subtitling

  • Subtitles preserve the original audio, and the movie/show in its original, unaltered form. You can hear the original voices and the complexity and tone that the performers and director intended. Voice-over actors might not capture the inflexion and subtlety of the original actor.
  • By retaining the complete original soundtrack viewers can enjoy the cultural background of the film. Dubbed movies often lose their authenticity.
  • Audio quality is often lost with dubbing — at best it’s just ordinary.
  • Subtitles provide accessibility to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, as well as assisting with other issues, such as poor audio mixing, uncomfortable volume levels (eg. in action movies) or when a character has a hard-to-understand accent. 
  • Dubbed scripts are often altered to make the audio and mouth-movements better coincide. Even then, the lack of synchronisation between word and mouth, can be off-putting.
  • Subtitles help with language learning, as the viewer will process the subtitles and the original dialogue at the same time, and begin connecting the words even subconsciously.
  • Subtitling is about x10 faster and x10 cheaper than dubbing. Dubbing requires a multidisciplinary team, including voice talent, engineers and production professionals.

In favour of dubbed content

  • Listening to a dub is effortless. With subtitles there is a risk of not having time to read the text before the next line appears, or you can find yourself watching the bottom of the screen and missing the action. 
  • Audiences often say they feel more connected and immersed.
  • Dubbing is synchronised with the dialogue, whereas subtitles can inadvertently drop spoilers, by showing the text a moment before the action.
  • Dubbing is beneficial for viewers with lower reading skills.
  • Dubbing provides accessibility to the visually impaired.
  • There is less reduction of the original dialogue compared to subtitling, where the script is often edited to give viewers time to read. For example, a 1978 survey by the British Film Institute found that, on average, a full third of a film’s original dialogue would be discarded during the subtitling process.
  • Dubbing is undoubtably the best option for children (cartoons, etc.). In fact, most kid’s productions are automatically dubbed as it is easier for them to follow.
  • Animation — where there is little connection between the words spoken and the lip movements of the characters — is the genre most suited to dubbing. In live-action, the lack of synchronisation between the words and mouth-movement can be off-putting.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of preference. There is a huge cost element. Machine translation is an ever cheaper alternative to human translation. However, the danger of using machine translation for subtitles is that you will lose the flow and authenticity of human dialogue.

Currently it seems, there is also a cultural/regional preference. For example, audiences in France, Germany, and Latin America prefer to have foreign movies dubbed; while viewers in the UK, the USA, and Mexico say they prefer subtitled movies.

A number of academic studies have suggested that that the preference for subtitles increases with a population’s socioeconomic status. Therefore, you might choose subtitles if you’re aiming for a “high-brow”, educated audience; whereas dubbing may be a better option if you’re going for mass appeal. 


In March 2010, the British Film Council (BFC) ordered a survey to settle this debate. Working on the BFC’s behalf, OTX Research polled audience members who had just seen the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The researchers visited the Curzon cinema in Mayfair, London, the Vue in Hull and the Odeon Printworks in Manchester.

Audiences in Hull only had the option of seeing the dubbed film, while in London only the subtitled version was shown. In Manchester, audiences had the option of seeing either format. The researchers concluded that fans of mainstream cinema (blockbusters), were most likely to see the dubbed version. Meanwhile, those who saw the subtitled version were more likely to have an interest in foreign language and arthouse films. In addition, 65% of those who saw the subtitled film watched non-English language movies either a lot or occasionally, compared to 34% of those who saw the dubbed version.

OTX Research concluded that offering the choice between subtitles or dubbing was the best option to attract a wide range of audience members. 


To conclude, the debate continues! Producers and distributors will prefer subtitles for financial reasons. Movie purists and language learners will also prefer subtitling in order to hear and experience the original. Children and some adults will prefer dubbing so they are not required to read while watching.

So, there you have it. Want to weigh-in? How do you prefer to watch your movies — dubbed or subtitled?

Quicksilver’s audiovisual services:

In depth reporting: The debate over subtitles, explained — Aja Romano Vox Media

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