Foreign language voice-over recording involves a number of steps from script translation and locating voice talent to the actual recording and file delivery. But if you have a multimedia project that includes audio, there is another option besides voice-over recording—subtitling. Subtitling adds foreign language captions at the bottom of the screen to mirror or paraphrase what is being said in the video.

video screen capture with subtitle
We used subtitles in this anniversary video because we wanted viewers to hear the greetings in different languages
The client requested voice-overs in 9 languages for this promotional video

Almost always, voice-over recording will be significantly more expensive than subtitling. You can see the complexity of the process in our earlier blog posts. But, because voice-over is more expensive is it automatically better? Do you get what you pay for? The short answer is “Not always.” Depending upon a variety of factors, voice-overs, subtitling, or a mixture of both, may give you the results you need.

Purpose and content of video

  • Marketing and promotional videos

For a marketing or promotional video, a voice-over is usually preferable because it is more personal. Just as you choose a persuasive voice to your original video, you can choose voices that will resonate well with the foreign-language target audience. This works best if your video has an invisible narrator. If your video contains individuals speaking, subtitles preserve the full effect of their vocal inflections and emotions.

  • Training or explanatory videos

In the case of e-learning modules or how-to videos, the personal voice may not be as important since it is the subject content of the video that is the focus. This can be an argument for subtitles, but again there are definite exceptions.Where a training video simply demonstrates something on screen while the audio describes it, subtitles can work well. But what if there is a lot of text on the screen? Expecting the viewers to read the subtitles as well as all the other text on the screen may at the least be annoying. Here voice-overs could be the better choice.

Audience preferences

You should also take into account the cultural preferences of your audience. In some countries there are strong preferences for either voice-overs or subtitles. For training and e-learning videos, the different types of learning methods prevalent in the target country should be considered.  Also think about how the audience will watch the video. If the audience primarily uses mobile, subtitles will either be too small to read, or they’ll obscure too much of the visual content.

Find a cultural consultant to guide you.


While ideally you would pick voice-overs or subtitles based solely on what’s best, we know that costs are still going to be a consideration. After all, there may also be costs involved in localizing your video that don’t relate to the audio. There may be on-screen text or graphics with embedded text that you will also want to have translated. The fact that you cannot afford the gold standard of video localization does not mean that you and your localization partner cannot come up with a plan that will meet your needs.The best way to minimize your costs and, therefore, have the greatest latitude for choice is make sure that you can provide your localization partner with these important components:

  • A timed script for the video
  • The source file for the video
  • Associated source files
    • Music and sound effects
    • On-screen text
    • Images
    • Animations

The lack of some of these files may not make your project impossible, but is likely to lead to additional costs for re-creation. Make sure your video production company delivers all of these files along with the final version for showing.

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