Voices Across Borders: A Comprehensive Exploration of Voice-Over Translation

Voices Across Borders: A Comprehensive Exploration of Voice-Over Translation

Do you remember those characteristic, energetic voices of American newsreel presenters from the 1950s? The ones who reported on major events in the country, usually in an overly optimistic manner? Chances are you know exactly what we mean; if not, just take a look here:

or here:

You must also recognise the strong, “radio” voice of narrators from 1990s movie trailers (which, sadly, is now largely a thing of the past).

Do you know what these two blasts from the past have in common? They’re both examples of voice-over.

What is voice-over?

Eliana Franco, Anna Matamala and Pilar Orero provide one of possible definitions of the term in question:

“… a narrative technique in which the voice of a faceless narrator is heard over different images and this for different purposes.”[1]

This definition relates to the study of films and how they are constructed. Meanwhile, the same Anna Matamala provides the following explanation in the specific context of translation and localisation:

“… a pre-recorded transfer [i.e., translation] mode in which a voice delivering the translation is heard on top of the original voice.”[2]

So, for our own purposes, we could say that voice-over is an audiovisual practice where (usually) one person’s voice presents the events unfolding on-screen. It may be either narration per se (think a book narrator) or the reader reading the characters’ parts (usually with the original soundtrack left but at a much lower sound volume). As a sidenote, some language service providers (LSPs) denote their voice-over projects as dubbing.

There are different types of voice-over, which we will now briefly mention.

Voice-over translation

As a form of audiovisual translation of TV series or fiction films, voice-over is most common in post-Communist Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Ukraine and Bulgaria.

Typically, voice-over retains the original dialogue track, but lowers its volume, superimposing the translation over it. The text read out by the reader is prepared beforehand by a professional translator.

It must be very concise and often omits non-essential information due to time constraints. Such scripts often also include notation which helps the reader with assuming the right intonation for a given sentence.

With the advent of streaming services (such as Netflix, Disney+ or HBO Max), people responsible for the localisation of film content had to decide on the form of translation. Apart from subtitles (which are generally the default option, and so are present virtually always), the most popular series or films are dubbed, while the rest often get a voice-over (unless this is uncommon in a given region).

Countries traditionally preferring subtitles or dubbing are still likely to use at least partial voice-over in non-fiction content. It tends to be employed, for example, in news programmes which report on foreign affairs and include comments or reports made by people from abroad:

Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern whether a particular translation was voice-over (prepared beforehand) or simultaneous interpretation (i.e., oral translation performed in real time).

Voice-over narration

Due to the relative ambiguity of the term, the term “voice-over” can also be used to refer to an unseen narrators’ speech during any kind of video clip. Apart from fiction (as we mentioned in the case of trailers), it’s also very common in advertising,

instructional videos

or other promotional materials.

In fact, voice-over understood in this sense is probably more ubiquitous than you could assume. But just think about it: it’s there in your favourite youtuber’s review of a recent film; it’s there in a supermarket commercial, tempting you with once-in-a-lifetime deals; it’s there in a mystery thriller revealing the thoughts of the main character, a detective; it’s there in a plethora of online courses that help you develop new skills; it’s even in a real-time strategy game you play.

And yes, newsreel materials that we mentioned at the very beginning fit here perfectly as well.

As technology continues to advance, voice-over narration will likely find new applications in various fields. From augmented reality experiences with narrated audio tours of historical landmarks to immersive virtual reality games with captivating voice-over performances, the possibilities are endless. Voice-over narration remains a versatile and powerful tool, elevating storytelling, education and entertainment across multiple platforms.

Unlocking the power of voice-over localisation for your business

It’s possible that you’ve already produced content for your company’s website that utilises voice-over narration, effectively presenting your customers with an engaging showcase of your products or services. This approach can be highly effective in capturing the attention and interest of your target audience. However, if you haven’t taken your business to the international stage yet, you may not have fully harnessed the incredible impact that voice-over translation can have on expanding your reach and connecting with a global audience.

By embracing voice-over localisation, you can break down language barriers and tap into new markets, fostering a deeper connection with potential customers worldwide. Let’s explore how expanding your content’s reach through voice-over translation can benefit your business:

Global Accessibility

Voice-over localisation opens doors to a diverse range of markets, making your content accessible to audiences in different countries and cultures. With voice-over translation, you can effectively communicate your brand message, product features and value propositions, ensuring that they resonate with international customers.

Enhanced Engagement

When you invest in voice-over localisation, you create a more immersive and engaging experience for your global audience. By providing content in their native language, you remove language barriers and enable customers to connect with your brand on a deeper level. This heightened engagement can lead to increased trust, brand loyalty, and ultimately, higher conversion rates.

Cultural Sensitivity

Language is deeply intertwined with culture, and by localising your voice-over content, you demonstrate cultural sensitivity and adaptability. By using native voice-over artists who understand the nuances and cultural references of the target audience, you can ensure that your message is conveyed accurately and in a way that resonates with local customs, preferences and sensibilities.

Competitive Advantage

In a global marketplace, staying ahead of the competition is crucial. By embracing voice-over localisation, you differentiate yourself from competitors who may not have taken this step. By delivering your content in multiple languages, you position your business as a global player, capable of catering to the diverse needs and preferences of an international customer base.

Increased ROI

While voice-over localisation requires an investment, it can yield significant returns in terms of increased market share, customer acquisition and revenue generation. By expanding your reach and connecting with new markets through effective voice-over translation, you have the chance of unlocking new business opportunities and driving growth.

In today’s interconnected world, voice-over localisation is no longer a luxury; it’s a strategic necessity for businesses aiming to expand globally. By embracing the power of voice-over translation, you can effectively communicate your brand’s value proposition, build strong relationships with international customers and position your business for long-term success in the global marketplace.

Subtitling vs voice-over vs dubbing – which is best?

As is often the case in the language industry, the choice of means depends on a panoply of factors. Different needs require different solutions. Let’s delve into the topic by looking at the three audiovisual translation modes one by one.

Subtitling

By far the most widespread form of film localisation, particularly due to its relatively low price (compared to voice-over and dubbing), and the least invasive as far as source material is concerned. Foreign fiction films – with the possible exception of children’s films and blockbusters – are subtitled for cinematic release in former Eastern Bloc countries (e.g. Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Romania), but also Greece, Scandinavia, the UK and Ireland[3]. The relatively few foreign productions played in the United States are also generally subtitled. As mentioned earlier, subtitles seem to be the default means of film and series translation on VOD platforms.

A common video game localisation strategy also makes use of subtitles, where the original voices are retained but dialogues are localised. It’s sometimes called a cinematic translation. Naturally, other game elements such as UI, menus, etc. are also translated (but they’re not subtitles). Various examples include Red Dead Redemption II,

Grand Theft Auto V,

or Hogwarts Legacy.

Apart from entertainment content, subtitles are also widely used in educational videos,

public service communications,

awareness campaigns, etc.

They are literally ubiquitous, as we can generate a transcription of speech for almost any YouTube video (in the form of live subtitles). What is more, subtitle translation is becoming more and more common in advertising.

Of all three main AVT (audiovisual translation) modes, subtitling is the cheapest one, as it doesn’t require a recording studio, or even a microphone set (as the case may be for recent voice-over processes).

Voice-over

As voice-over is the main topic of this article, let’s just briefly recapitulate basic information about this audiovisual technique.

Voice-over finds various applications both in translation and beyond. Unlike subtitling, which relies on written text displayed on-screen, voice-over consists in overshadowing the original audio with a translated version spoken in the target language. This technique is utilised in different scenarios, depending on the specific needs of the content and the target audience.

In the realm of film localisation, voice-over is often employed for projects that require deeper immersion than subtitles can provide. For instance, narrator’s parts in documentaries are often fully replaced with a target language speaker. Furthermore, as it doesn’t require the viewer to pay attention to the bottom of the screen (where subtitles are displayed), it allows for a no-distraction experience.

Nowadays, many users often listen to video materials while performing other tasks, such as browsing social media or doing chores. They may not even look at the visual part of a film. For them, voice-over translation is then an excellent option.

Additionally, voice-over is often utilised in advertising, where it allows brands to connect with international recipients by delivering their messages in different languages without altering the visual content significantly (or at all). In such cases, original voice(s) are mostly removed altogether. Compare this original commercial for BMW

with its Polish translation.

Interestingly, in addition to the translated voice-over, the clip is further localised by changing the car’s plate for a Polish one.

As far as the cost of such an undertaking is concerned, it’s surely more expensive (on average) than subtitling, but much less so than dubbing. What is needed is a translator, a voice talent (the person reading the text), a good quality microphone and track mixing software. All this can be contracted to specialised service providers, including translation agencies.

Dubbing

Dubbing interferes with the source material to the greatest extent and, in all likelihood, constitutes the most controversial method of audiovisual localisation. Widely known are debates between anime fans who prefer watching their favourite series with subtitles and those who choose dubbing. In some groups, dubbing of content aimed at older audiences may be felt as childish or inadequate and otherwise infringing on the work done by original actors.

In case you’re not entirely sure about the difference between voice-over and dubbing, here’s a side-by-side comparison:

Voice-over

Dubbing

Usually used for non-children films and series on television Common in some countries for all film/series content; elsewhere used for children productions
Uses few (most often one) voices for all in-film translations Employs a variety of voice actors, who dub (usually) one or (less frequently) several characters
Reader’s parts may begin before or after the original utterance, and similarly end before or after its end For state-of-the-art localisation, synchronisation of dubbing with the character’s mouth movements is necessary
Relatively cheap (usually only one speaker, no need to spend time on perfect synchronisation) Rather expensive (many voice actors to pay for, lots of other staff members)
Popular as a narrative technique in documentaries Not very common in documentaries (although that depends on the region)
As a translation method, virtually non-existent in video games Less common than subtitling in video games but still very popular as a game localisation technique
Popular in commercials Popular in commercials

Keeping in mind limitations listed above, one cannot deny that dubbing is the most suitable form of translation of content aimed at children (as they can’t yet read or do so with difficulty; what is more, dubbing typically ensures deeper immersion than voice-over, which boosts children’s engagement and provides more stimuli). It is also a fact that many adult viewers (especially in countries such as Spain, France or Germany[4] ) prefer to watch any films with dubbed dialogue track. In such nations, certain actors are virtually always dubbed by the same voice talent, which makes the latter’s voice recognisable across the country.

Sometimes, the dubbed content becomes much more famous in respective regions than the original. In all likelihood, children from around the globe sing Let It Go

or We Don’t Talk About Bruno

in their native tongues, not in English. Likewise, certain catchphrases or excerpts from dubbed films have a cult status in non-native countries.

Dubbed versions of iconic songs may even be covered by countless artists.


As we have shown, the three methods of audiovisual translation all have areas in which they are the most suitable. Depending on the scope and goal of the project, the budget and available time, the ideal choice will differ; voice-over should work best (at least as one of the options) for documentaries, fictional content (in particular countries) and utilitarian videos (instructions, commercials, etc.) – but by no means is this enumeration exhaustive.

Strategy for Attaining Exceptional Voice-Over Localisation Outcomes

Voice-over translation is a vital aspect of multilingual content creation, enabling audiences from different linguistic backgrounds to engage with audiovisual material seamlessly. The process of creating voice-over translation involves several stages, each essential to ensure the final product maintains linguistic accuracy, cultural sensitivity and compelling delivery. Let’s delve into each stage of the voice-over translation process.

Writing a script

At the heart of every successful voice-over translation lies a well-crafted script. Skilled translators or adaptation writers work on transforming the source content into the target language while maintaining its original meaning and context. The script must be synchronised with the video and audio timing to ensure a smooth and natural flow of speech during the recording phase – this is done by providing timecodes at which given utterances must be made. It should also include information about intonation.

Linguistic Quality Assurance (LQA)

Before proceeding with the recording, it is crucial to conduct a comprehensive Language Quality Assurance (LQA) review. LQA involves an in-depth examination of the translated script to identify and address any potential linguistic errors, cultural inaccuracies or misinterpretations. LQA may be performed by a separate team of experienced linguists or language experts who provide valuable feedback to refine the script further. Nevertheless, it is also common for the same agency to both create a script and edit it – in such cases, of course, it’s done by different people.

Choosing the voice talent

Selecting the right voice talent is a crucial step in any voice-over venture, as it significantly impacts how the final product resonates with the target audience. Factors such as accent, tone, age, and gender play a vital role in the decision-making process. The chosen person must possess excellent linguistic and articulation skills. They may be found among freelancers or be chosen by an agency from a portfolio of its contracted readers.

Recording

The recording phase is where the voice talent brings the script to life. Professional recording studios equipped with high-quality audio equipment are typically used to ensure clarity and minimal background noise. In recent years, it has also become increasingly common for voice-over talents to record themselves at home, with the use of solid, but not necessarily state-of-the-art microphones. In any case, during recording sessions, directors or language experts may be present to provide guidance to the voice talent and ensure the delivery aligns with the desired style and tone.

Mixing

After the voice-over recording is complete, the audio is mixed with the original video and audio content. The mixing process ensures that the newly recorded voice seamlessly synchronises with the visuals, maintaining appropriate timing and coherence. (Note, however, that for voice-over, synchronisation doesn’t have to be perfect, as is the case in dubbing.) Sound engineers fine-tune the audio levels, adjust for any discrepancies in volume, and integrate sound effects or background music if required.

Quality Check (QC)

The video with an adjusted audio track is sent to another person (or company) who watches it in its entirety and looks for potential mistakes that could still be present. It might be a mispronunciation, wrong intonation or lack of synchronisation. If any corrections are needed, such feedback goes to the reader who re-records problematic segments. When this stage is finished, the film – in all likelihood – is ready for distribution.

Multilingual voice-over services by LAH

Hopefully, all the information that we provided in this post is useful to you – no matter if you wanted to find out what voice-over is or were on the fence as to whether you should employ it in your business. Without a doubt, voice-over opens many possibilities for companies wishing to distribute their product (or motion picture!) abroad. In certain locales and for particular projects, providing the users/viewers with a voice-over is a necessity.

One of our clients, metal-working manufacturer Tribecco, required voice-over translation for a series of videos presenting their products. Our linguists prepared the translations, which we shared with a voice-talent agency. On their part, they recorded the voices and synchronised them with the video. Additionally, the client requested that the videos also have subtitles, which we promptly included.

This video is for presentation purposes and combines three language versions:

But video localisation wasn’t the only service that Tribecco requested. They were also interested in keyword research and Amazon content translation, which we readily provided. A case study concerning a similar project for a different client is available here.

If we have convinced you to choose us for your next voice-over project – or e-commerce collaboration for that matter – please shoot us a message!

[1] Franco, E., Matamala, A., & Orero, P. (2010). Voice-over translation: an overview. Peter Lang, 18.

[2] Matamala, Anna. (2019). Voice-over: practice, research and future prospects. Pérez-González, Luis (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation. Milton Park, Regne Unit: Routledge, 64–81.

[3] https://i.redd.it/jqxo9ibfw8ux.png

[4] Ibidem.

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