Audiovisual translation: dubbing or subtitles?


Once being released in its country of origin one of the main goals of a movie or TV series is to reach an international audience. In this process of internalisation audiovisual translation plays a significant role.

Chaume (2013) describes audiovisual translation as a “mode of translation characterized by the transfer of audiovisual texts either interlingually or intralingually”. If compared with the translation of literary works, audiovisual translation (AVT) is a relatively new field in Translation Studies. As Monday (2010) points out,  AVT was initially overlooked by translation theory. It became more visible mainly due to the technological development and the rise of media streaming companies (such as Netflix) which offer movies and TV series on demand all over the world. There are multiple modes of AVT, but the two most important ones are dubbing and subtitling.


1.1 Dubbing


Dubbing consists of translating and lip-syncing the original audiovisual text, where the source language (SL) voice track is replaced by the target language (TL) voice track. The art of dubbing started to develop around 1930, when the first sound movies appeared. When the first American sound movie was projected in a French cinema in Paris, the audience wanted the characters to speak French because they could not understand them. The first solution was to re-film the movies keeping the same actors but making them speak different languages. This idea turned out to be inefficient because of its high costs and because  bad accents and bad pronunciation made it almost impossible for the audience to understand the dialogues.

In some European countries such as Spain and Italy dubbing is the most spread mode of translating movies. This is due to the fact that it was the preferred mode of translating movies during periods of dictatorship in the past of these countries. Benito Mussolini in Italy and Frances Franco in Spain prohibited all original versions with subtitles and used dubbing because it allowed them to change the dialogues and promote “higher moral values”. (Parini, 2008). However, dubbing also comes with its advantages and disadvantages. So, let’s take a look at some of them.

Dubbing is considered to be as much as ten times more expensive than subtitling. This is mainly because it involves a big group of professionals, such as dubbing directors, actors/dubbers, linguistic consultants etc. (Chaume, 2010). Also, translators are more limited in their choices because of lip-syncing. Another important disadvantage of dubbing is that it may lead to loss of important elements in translation. For example, in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglorious Basterds the character of Brad Pitt had a strong Southern accent which conveyed a special meaning to the movie and which was lost in the Italian translation.

The main advantage of dubbing is that the original soundtrack is replaced with the translated soundtrack and this allows the viewer to concentrate his/her attention on the movie/TV series without being distracted by the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. This mode is also convenient in countries that deal with high levels of illiteracy.


  1. 2 Subtitling

Subtitling consists of “incorporating a written text (subtitles) in the TL on the screen where an original version of the film is shown, such that subtitles coincide approximately with the screen actor’s dialogue ” (Chaume, 2010). The interest for subtitling started at the very beginning of cinematic production. The need to insert the characters’ dialogues on the screen led to the invention of inter-titles. The first movie to use inter-titles was the British film Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost in 1901 (Glavin, 2003). Like dubbing, subtitling has its advantages and disadvantages.

As mentioned above, subtitling is far less expensive than dubbing. Also, Danan (2004) showed that  both – intralingual and interlingual subtitles – proved to be beneficial for language learning (how many of us use TV series to improve our language skills?).

Among their main disadvantages is the fact that the audience focusses its attention on the text and often loses other important movie elements, like the movie set or the moves of characters. Also, in order to create easy-readable subtitles the translator must respect a set of rules known as “The Code of Good Subtitling Practice”  adopted by the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (Ivarsson and Carroll, 1998).

In conclusion, we can say that there is no right or wrong answer to whether we should watch movies dubbed or subtitled. The good news is that the media streaming companies usually have both versions and allow the users to choose according to their preferences. Let us know in the comments area below how you like watching foreign movies: dubbed or subtitled.


  • Munday, Jeremy (2011). Introducing translation studies: theories and applications. London, Routledge.
  • Chaume, Federic (2013). The turn of audiovisual translation: new audiences and new technologies. Translation Spaces, Vol II, p.105-123.
  • Glavin, John (2003). Dickens on screen. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ivarsson, Jan & Caroll, Mary (1998). Code of good subtitling practice. Language Today, p. 157-159.
  • Parini, Ilaria (2009). The changing face of audiovisual translation in Italy. The changing face of translation, p. 19-27.
  • Danan, Martine (2004). Captioning and subtitling: Undervalued language learning strategies. Meta: Journal des Traducteurs/ Meta: Translator’s Journal, 49 (1) p. 67-77.

Written by Daniela Loghin — Communication Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and a student of the Master Program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. Daniela has a degree in “Lingue, Culture, Letterature e Traduzione” at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. She speaks Romanian, Russian, English, Italian and French.