Dubbing and Subtitling: What’s the Difference, and Why Do They Exist?


If you’ve ever seen a movie, TV show, or YouTube short filmed in a foreign language, you’ve probably borne witness to either dubbing or subtitling (or both). These two terms are probably familiar to many, and have been in the lexicon for over a century, but many may not know the meaning of the terms or the difference between the two.

So, what is the difference between dubbing and subtitling?

Dubbing is the process of mixing recordings into film post-production. In the context of this piece, dubbing is most commonly done to re-voice actors in order to either give their lines more clarity or provide their dialogue in another language so that foreign viewers can understand the video. For a better understanding, here is a video demonstrating howThe Simpsons sounds dubbed in different languages. Dubbing may also be referred to as “mixing” or “re-recording.”

Subtitling is the process of converting the screenplay or script of the video into text which is then scrolled along the bottom of the video. Subtitling can either be done in the same language in which the film is shot (in order to provide clarity), or in another language (so that foreign viewers can understand and enjoy the film). Subtitling is sometimes also referred to as “captioning.”

Let us explore the history and current uses of both dubbing and subtitling!

A Brief History of Dubbing and Subtitling

Subtitles and dubbing have been around almost as long as film itself. As many know, the first recorded films in the early 20th century were silent.  Therefore, special dialogue scenes called “intertitles” were spliced into the film in order to demonstrate to viewers what was transpiring in the film.

Subtitles evolved from intertitles in the 1920s as a way for studios to clarify lines of dialogue if an actor’s speech was inaudible. From there, they were used to aid comprehension for the hearing-impaired and foreign viewers.

Film dubbing first emerged in the 1930s. Originally, dubbing had been practiced in musical theatre when an actor had a bad singing voice. This tradition followed when musicals began to be adapted to the screen.

How Does This Relate to Translation and Localization?

In today’s high-tech, globalized world, there is a marketplace niche for a company which can add dubbing or subtitles to video. There are several scenarios when it may be necessary or beneficial for a company to request these services:

Foreign Film Distribution: Subtitling and dubbing are necessary for foreign film distribution – otherwise, the foreign viewership wouldn’t understand any of the dialogue.  Older Kung-Fu films are known for their hilariously off-kilter English dubs.

Educational Videos: Increasingly (with the advent of the internet), educational materials are being made available to wider swaths of the world’s population. These educational materials can include videos, which may need subtitling to facilitate comprehension.

Training and Marketing Videos: If a company has international business units or business clients, videos can be an invaluable tool for both training and marketing. As always, regardless of the video’s purpose, it is useless if the viewer can’t understand it – that’s where dubbing or subtitling comes in.

So, when do companies choose subtitling, and when do they choose dubbing?

Typically, companies will choose subtitling over dubbing, as dubbing is more expensive and labor-intensive. Dubbing requires voice actors and sound-mixing equipment. Hence, for companies who are watching their wallets and may be producing smaller-budget videos for training or marketing purposes, subtitles may be the way to go. Dubbing is typically reserved for larger-budget movies.

Lionbridge has the unique capability to translate video and add subtitles or voiceover. If your company has educational, training, and/or marketing material in need of this, come visit us at the portal.