• Rick White - Director of Client Services

Multilingual Voice-Over & Subtitling for eLearning Courses

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Both options for delivering audio have their pluses and minuses

You’re in the eLearning industry and you’re putting together a course that’s supposed to be implemented in your client’s offices in five different countries. And there are audio tracks so you’re going to need to choose between multilingual voice-over & subtitling. You’ve come to the agreement that you’ll get the course up and running in the next four months. But as you start getting close to finalizing most of the master content in English, you begin to wonder: should we use voice-over or subtitles for the different languages our client requested?

It’s a question faced by most eLearning professionals who produce content for global audiences. But which approach is better? And how cost effective is either approach? Well, that all depends on the parameters of your eLearning course. But to get a better understanding of either approach, let’s define them and what they actually entail.

Multilingual Voice-Over

Sure, voice-over is more expensive than subtitling. That’s because you have to first create a transcript of the original audio (if you don’t have one already) and send it off to translation so that the voice artists—who represent an additional cost—have a foreign-language script to read into the microphone. But there are some benefits to voice-over that subtitling just can’t provide. If you have an off-screen narrator or on-screen animated characters, for example, you could replace all traces of the original course language with fully synchronized, foreign-language audio, thereby creating a fully localized experience for your client’s international employees.

And of course, providing a course in a learner’s mother tongue carries with it a long list of benefits, from boosted self-confidence, increased psychological stamina, enhanced self-expressive skills, and an increased ability to comprehend more abstract concepts and meaning (source). While fully localizing the audio of a course provides a lot of benefits to learners, it can be a lot more challenging and time-intensive if your course features video of actual speakers. There are two common forms of voice-over used in such cases: dubbing and UN-style voiceover. You’ve probably seen foreign films where the spoken audio you hear doesn’t perfectly match the movements of the speakers’ lips. This form of voice-over is what’s known as dubbing.

While voice artists can try their best to sync their recordings with the movements of the speakers’ lips, it can be a very painstaking and time-intensive process and will, in most cases, never lead to absolute synchronization. The other form of voice-over commonly used for video is UN-style. This style of voice-over simulates the work that simultaneous interpreters do at the United Nations, where the interpretation of speech is delayed by one or two seconds. When applied to videos, a speaker will begin speaking in the original language, and the volume of her or his speech will be reduced slightly when the voice-over audio begins. Just like creating voice-overs for animations, this is the simplest and more straightforward approach to localizing videos of actual speakers, because it isn’t faced with as many constraints that could lead to higher cost and turnaround time.

Subtitling—pairs well with brevity

Subtitling is a great approach if you already have the spoken script of your eLearning modules written out. As we pointed out in our previous translation best practices blog on Articulate Storyline 2, the issue with requesting subtitles for multiple languages is that if you don’t already have the original script written out in English, your language service provider will first have to transcribe your audio files before sending them off to translation. Without a source text, such as a transcription, to work off of, translators will likely be somewhat at a loss. But why go with subtitling instead of voice-over? Well, it’s cheaper overall (seriously, if you’re trying to cut down cost, go with subtitling). That said, there are some things that you’ll want to ask yourself about your project before you request subtitling as a service:

  1. How fast do the narrators speak?

  2. Is the spoken script overly wordy?

We’re all familiar with subtitles—we see them in international films all the time. One commonality among most if not all of the subtitles you’ve seen in your life is that they appear as sets of one or two lines on the screen, never more. Why? Because the more text there is, the less attention viewers will be able to pay to the other things happening on the screen. It’s important to ask the first question, “how fast do the narrators speak?” because the ideal duration for two lines of text is 5 to 6 seconds. If your narrators are speaking too quickly, your language service provider will have to reduce the duration at which the subtitles appear. If this happens, viewers may not be able to finish reading the subtitles before they disappear and are replaced by the next set of subtitles.

It could be problematic to the success of your course if your viewers can’t read the text fast enough, since they may lose out on valuable information that your client requires its learners to know. That’s why our recommendation is that if you have an audio file for which you’d like to have corresponding foreign-language subtitles, make sure your voice artist speaks at a slower and steadier rate so that there’s enough time for the subtitles to appear and be read by the learner. A loss of information can also result from overly wordy spoken script (see question 2). If your narrator uses excessive jargon with complex sentences full of subordinate clauses, it might not be possible to fit all of that into two-line subtitles.

This is especially true if—as is common with translation from English to most other languages—the text undergoes text expansion (for Spanish, French, or German, for example, text could expand anywhere from 20% to 30%). If it’s okay for some of the less crucial information to get lost, translators could be given the freedom to adapt subtitles so that they retain the essential points, while fitting them into the subtitle text-length limitations.

Which one to choose?

Every eLearning project has its own requirements. To get a better idea of which approach will work best for your specific course, it’s useful to reach out to your language service provider and ask questions about the challenges you foresee, based on the considerations we listed above. While subtitling is great for certain types of courses, it might not always be a great approach for others. Same goes for voiceover. The best way to find out, though, is to reach out to your language service provider, who will have the expertise and knowledge necessary to discern just what your eLearning course requires.

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