Dubbing and subtitling: what’s the difference?

I have decided to start this blog with something that can be a bit confusing for those who are not familiar with this field. When I tell people that I translate and subtitle movies, series, or any other audiovisual product, most of them say: “That’s awesome! Which character have you dubbed?” Well, no, dubbing actors and actresses are in charge of this beautiful job. The translator is in charge of transferring and adapting the original text to the target text, thus being a kind of mediator between two cultures. Furthermore, although dubbing and subtitling are the most common audiovisual translation forms, we must bear in mind that there are others, such as subtitling for the deaf, voice-over translation, surtitling for opera and theatre or live subtitling. However, in this post we are going to focus only on dubbing and subtitling.

Let’s start with dubbing. It consists of replacing the voices of the original file in order to follow -as far as possible- the timing, the phrasing, or the lip sync of the original script. To do this, first, a translation of the original script is made. Second, the same translator or an adjuster will take care of the lip sync, which consists of adjusting the text in the mouth to make it as natural as possible for the audience. Third, the dubbing actors and actresses will be in charge of voicing and giving life to the characters of the translated script following the director’s instructions. Fourth, all these elements come together in the new version of the audiovisual product.

On the other hand, subtitling has different characteristics that we will see now. It is a text generally placed at the bottom of the screen and goes from the auditory channel to the written channel. Subtitles should not be a literal translation of the original text, since the ear is quicker to hear than the eye is to read. For this reason, we hear many people say: “Subtitles don’t say the same thing as the original dialogue”. Well, this is because it is often necessary to condense or delete a certain number of words, while maintaining the same information, as well as other elements that are relevant to the plot. In this way we find a middle ground between the sound and the duration of the subtitles, so that the viewer has time to read what is on the screen, taking into account the characters per line, per second, among other aspects.

Thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of translators who adapt scripts from other languages to our language, cinema has given us countless phrases that today are part of our language. For example: “My mama always said: life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get”, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, or “May the force be with you”. I bet these phrases sound familiar to you. Do you have any movie quotes that have made you think or that you use in your daily life? Tell me about them in the comments section below! See you soon!


Chiaro, D. (2009). Issues in audiovisual translation. The Routledge companion to translation studies, 141-165

Díaz Cintas, J. (2001). La traducción audiovisual: El subtitulado (1ª ed.). Salamanca: Almar.

Rica, J. P. (2016). Aspectos lingüísticos y técnicos de la traducción audiovisual. Bern [etc.]: Peter Lang.

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