Lots of companies are creating videos these days. It is so easy to do and a moving picture is definitely worth at least 100,000 words. Lots of companies are also translating their content these days. Into lots of languages.

Video translation poses a unique set of challenges that are different from text translation. In this post, I’ll demystify a few.

Dub or Subtitle?

Videos usually contain either “talking heads” or animation. A talking head video uses people who are either talking to each other or speaking to the camera. Animated video uses imagery and doesn’t usually show people speaking.

The first decision you need to make when you embark on a video translation project is how you want to handle the delivery of translation. The two ways of handling translation are dubbing the sound with the new language or putting translated subtitles on the screen. Each has pros and cons.

There are some good reasons to overdub your video. Dubbing allows the translation to have some flexibility in terms of wording, intonation, and voice. If done well, dubbing is considered more intimate than having the translation running in text along the bottom of the screen. In fact, if your video is animated, your audience may not know that the audio is actually an overdub of the original version.

Dubbing a talking head is definitely difficult. And, if not done well, you can end up with a video that has audio synchronization problems. (Kind of like watching an old Godzilla movie that is over-dubbed from Japanese to English.) Because of the inherent differences in languages – mouth formation, length of sentences, and so on – I don’t usually recommend a dubbed talking head video.

Dubbing is also an expensive option. Not only does the content need to be translated, it then needs to be performed and edited.

Subtitling, while somewhat removed and “colder” than audio, is easier to do and costs less money. However, it doesn’t allow for adding intonation, cultural-specific sounds, such as exclamations, and is not as intimate.

Jargon Just Doesn’t Fly

It is amazing how “imperfect” our language becomes when we are speaking rather than writing. It’s hard enough to maintain proper grammar and style creating the written word. When you move to voice, the opportunity for grammar and style errors to sneak in definitely exponentiates.

For this reason, it is really important for your speaker to stick to the script. Oh – and it is really important to have a script! Trying to translate videos that are ad hoc is a painful task.

Once upon a time, I had a customer that asked us to subtitle a number of “CEO Chats.” These were videos of conversations between the company CEO and another speaker. The script was designed and written. It was even translated in advance. However, the CEO constantly went off-script on tangents. And the tangents contained all sorts of idioms and jargon. Plus, the tangents were not grammatically correct.

When it came time to subtitle these conversations, we had a real dilemma. Should we try to translate and subtitle what the CEO was actually saying? Or should we try to “shoehorn” (see, I did it again) the translated script into the actual scenes? Should we transcribe the new content, normalize it, and then translate it as best we could? We ended up selecting option three. We transcribed all of the chats, normalized the content the best we could, and had the tangents translated. It ended up costing significantly more money to do this, but in the end, that is what the customer wanted. It provided a good balance between translating everything the CEO said and making sure the translations made sense.

Languages Expand and Contract

Languages come in a variety of shapes and sizes. What takes a few words in English might be captured in a single Kanji character. And what takes a few words in English might turn into a paragraph when translated to German.

When you using translated subtitles, two problems are possible:

  • Do I have enough time in the video available to display an expanded translation? People often speak more quickly than they read. If I’m taking your spoken text, translating it, and putting subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I might not have enough time to display all of the words before you move on to your next thought or sentence. Timing is an issue that we run into frequently.
  • Do I have enough screen real estate available to display all of the words in an expanded translation? This problem is also a function of time. Imagine a German translation that needs multiple screens for scrolling text when compared with other languages and the original audio.

Both of these problems point to the need for a professional videographer and editor. These folks understand how to stretch and squeeze the video to help accommodate the new language.

In addition, ask your speaker to slow down. If they speak just a bit more slowly, it often gives us enough time to get all of the written words onto the screen before the speaker moves on to the next thought or sentence.

If your video is animated, we usually have more flexibility in timing. However, even with animation, there is a always need to time specific words with specific on-screen events. Slowing things down a bit can make a big difference.

Bottom Line

It is quite likely that you will be asked to create video content at some point. And if you translate content, it is equally likely that you will need to translate the video. When that time comes, keep in mind these three things:

  • Dubbing works better in an animated video than a talking head video.
  • Your speaker needs to stay on script as much as possible.
  • The issue of language expansion can become critical when you have limited space and time.

If you need help making your videos global ready, please give us a call. We’re happy to help.

Val Swisher
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