Guest post: Audiovisual translation

Hi, there! How have you been? For those of you who live up North, enjoying the summer break? And for those who are on vacation, hope you find a minute or two to read today’s guest post. Valentina Ambrogio, Italian, is our first foreign translator guest.

Welcome, Valentina!


Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling vs Dubbing

If there is one thing I have learnt in my experience as Audiovisual Translator is that I will never be able to watch foreign movies – or any TV programs for that matter – the way I used to. Yes, because now I pay attention to every small translation-related detail! Imagine how thrilled my boyfriend must be when I start complaining about mistranslations or wrong subtitle segmentation, when the only thing he wanted to do was relax after a long day.

Let me tell you something about my specialisation.

What Audiovisual Translation is

Audiovisual Translation (AVT) is the translation of any audio, visual or audiovisual material to facilitate its distribution in a different market. When we talk about AVT we usually refer to dubbing, subtitling, localisation, and media accessibility (audio description, subtitling for the hearing-impaired).

Most of my workload deals with subtitling and dubbing, so I will focus more on these two subjects and my experience with them.


Subtitles help the audience understand the ‘spoken part’ of a movie while listening to the original dialogues. The widespread practice of fan-subbing made people think that subtitling is an easy job. Sorry to disappoint you, but it is not! As any other translation specialisation, the translator needs proper training, and the existence of degree courses on this subject should be a clear hint! Subtitling is not just mere translation (what is it after all?), and the subtitler has to pay attention to, for instance:

  • Character length – usually each line cannot exceed 40 characters, and two lines maximum can form each subtitle.
  • Duration – the viewer must have the time to read all subtitles appearing on screen. Average duration is 1.50 – 2 seconds for very short subtitles (one or two words) up to 6 seconds for longer subtitles.
  • Synchronisation – there must be a close correlation between film dialogue and the presence of subtitles on screen.

Audiovisual Translation is not just about translating dialogues though. There are other important elements -such as signs, letters, captions and other written text – which are often fundamental to the plot and therefore need to be translated. This becomes an issue when you have important pieces of dialogue and, at the same time, a relevant sign coming up on screen. In cases like this, the subtitler has to make an important choice and omit what he/she considers less relevant to the plotline. Good subtitles are like tailor-made dresses: they fit perfectly, but the tailor’s work is not visible.


Dubbing is the translation and adjustment of dialogues – or better, adaptation – to the mouth movements of the actor (lip synchronization), which is also one of the major constraints of dubbing. Once I read that dubbing is like an illusion that the characters talk in the target language. The translation approach varies significantly from subtitling. For instance, the translator has to give as many indications as possible to the voice-over actor, such as:

  • Name of the character;
  • Short/long pauses;
  • On-screen or off-screen dialogue – even within the same sentence.

There are a lot more, these are just a few. The final translation looks a lot like a movie script, but much more detailed than that. Other factors to take into account are body movements and non-verbal elements. Dubbing takes place during the post-production phase. It involves an entire team of experts, which is why dubbing costs are considerably higher than those of subtitling.

Subtitling or Dubbing?

There is a long and ongoing discussion about the pros and cons of these two very different techniques. In a nutshell: on the one hand, subtitling allows the viewer to enjoy original dialogues, which is good both in terms of language learning and even just for a matter of enjoying original voices and all their different nuances. Moreover, it is faster than dubbing, thus allowing earlier access to the media. On the other hand, not everyone enjoys a good movie with subtitles, which are perceived as a distracting element. This situation is more common in those countries where dubbing is the most common practice.

In Italy, some major dubbing companies managed by a small group of families take care of 80% of all movies and related dubbing work, including the translation part. The result is that all movies not only speak the language, but also use the same voices. This is, in my opinion, one of the major downsides of dubbing. Don’t get me wrong, voice-over artists are true professionals. They are impeccable and just as good as screen actors, but I believe dubbing interferes too much on the essence of the movie.

Well, I root for subtitling. My latest subtitling work involved adaptations of movies for international film festivals. Translating foreign movies allows me to get in touch with different cultures and different cultural movie styles. Sometimes I feel a real connection with these movies and I get really sad when I realise my job is done – this is how much I love this job. Isn’t this the best feeling?

Thanks a lot for your rich contribution to our blog, Valentina! I’m really glad you accepted my invitation and took the time to write something interesting to us. 🙂

Valentina also has a newly launched blog herselft. Check it out!

Comments or doubts?


About the author
fotoValentina Ambrogio is a professional English to Italian translator, localiser and subtitler, and director of Rockstar Translations. She is currently based in Rome, where she works as in-house translator. She (proudly) describes herself as TV-series addict, anglophile, potterhead and whovian. You can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Valentina has recently started a blog, called “The Translation Cauldron”.

9 thoughts on “Guest post: Audiovisual translation

  1. Yesss! Subtitles rock! I never find them distracting, on the contrary. I prefer listening to the original actors’ voices. Dubbing has its place and its advantages, of course, but subtitles are far better. Watching cartoons in English helped a lot of kids in my generation fall in love with this language and grasp at least some basic expressions. Now all cartoons are dubbed unfortunately.


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