Localizing E-Learning: The ABCs of Voiceover and Subtitling

Category: Multimedia

This article, written by Ora Solomon, was originally posted on the TrainingMag.com website in March, 2013.

Imagine you just had a meeting with your company’s chief learning officer. Your mission for 2013: Expand your corporate e-learning and training programs to include employees in Mexico and French-speaking Canada. And to really keep you on your toes, your CLO has given you only one month to develop and initiate your localization strategy.

After a quick calculation, you decide that reproducing your training program from scratch in Spanish and French would be too costly. You have at least two other options to consider for your multimedia localization: voiceover and subtitling. Both are tried-and-true techniques for adapting e-learning programs to international markets.

But how do you decide which approach to use? A better understanding of the technical process, as well as the advantages and drawbacks of each technique will empower you to make an informed choice.

Voiceover Options

Most corporate training programs fall into one of the following three categories for voiceover requirements: off-camera narration, United Nations-style, or lip-synch.

1. Off-Camera Narration

If you’ve ever watched The Discovery Channel, you’re familiar with what technicians call off-camera, or “voice of God,” narration. Using this approach, an invisible narrator describes on-screen action, which, on Discovery, may include anything from a solar eclipse or calving glaciers to a herd of migrating antelope. In the context of corporate training, this format typically is used for hard-skill training using PowerPoint presentations, Captivate videos, and other tutorial software.

2. UN-Style

Turn on the BBC news tonight and you’re sure to see and hear this type of voiceover. An on-screen subject, typically a politician or diplomat, starts speaking, and then there’s a short pause before the English audio begins. In this approach, ambient sound remains audible, as do the speakers’ voices. However, the original audio track plays at a softer decibel level to ensure viewers can clearly hear the voiceover. This type of voiceover is aptly called “UN-style,” as it is used frequently in United Nations conferences.

This is an appropriate voiceover option when only one voice is audible at a time. An example would be a video of one of your brand managers talking about a specific product line, or a welcome message from your CEO for new hires.

3. Lip-Synch

Another, more complex form of voiceover is lip-synched dubbing. Much-loved in France, Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart appear to speak French fluently, thanks to the voice talent of Thomas Roditi and Noémie Orphelin.

Unlike “wild” voiceovers techniques, such as off-camera or UN-style narration where the audio track does not need to perfectly coincide with on-screen action, lip-synched dubbing relies on impeccable timing and seamless integration of lip movements with spoken text. Ideally, the viewer has the impression that the on-screen actors or participants actually are speaking the dialogue. All ambient sound needs to be carefully preserved and mixed to create this illusion.

If the goal of your training tool is to convey soft skills—proper sales techniques, sensitive human resources management, or friendly client service—carefully timed lip-synched dubbing might be your best choice. Compared to narration or UN-style dubbing, lip-synchs can be less “distancing.” That said, this technique does require considerably more studio time and involve a much bigger team of technical talent.

In comparison, because off-camera narration and UN-style techniques are both relatively simple and less labor-intensive, they cost less than lip-synched dubbing. Production turnaround times are also quicker.


Unlike voiceover, subtitling does not affect the original audio track of your training tools. Subtitles do intrude on the visual aspect, however. Whether you choose to provide a verbatim translation of on-screen dialogue or a simplified interpretation, subtitles occupy screen space. To minimize the impact, subtitles rarely exceed two lines. This limitation also ensures that viewers have the time to read the subtitle and still absorb the scene.

Keeping subtitles short and sweet, however, presents you with yet another challenge. Translations from English to most other languages are longer. For example, in the current scenario, the Spanish and French translations for your localized training tools may be 15 to 30 percent longer than the original English. So, even if the written transcription of the English meets the space specs imposed by subtitling, the translation might not. As a result, making sure that subtitles don’t exceed the two-line limit often involves as much translation as it does rewriting.

The biggest advantage to subtitling is probably cost savings. Unlike voiceover, subtitling doesn’t require voice talent, skilled sound professionals, or studio time to mix and synch audio tracks. In addition, thanks to Web-based technology, subtitlers no longer need to be physically close to the production facilities. Technology also has made respecting time and space constraints much easier.

In terms of viewer experience, your trainees who easily understand the language of the original audio can still hear it because subtitling doesn’t obscure the original audio track.

Like narrative voiceover, however, subtitles can distance viewers and distract from what is happening on camera. Also, when more than one person is speaking, juggling time and space constraints can be tricky.

Subtitling is a viable, lower-cost alternative to narrative voice-over, and well adapted to hard-skills e-learning training programs with fairly static content. As speakers and action multiply, however, so do the challenges. If a great deal of on-screen text becomes necessary, stick to voiceover approaches.

Clearly, when deciding how best to adapt your corporate training program to new markets, one of your main concerns will be return on investment. That return will depend on the quality and, ultimately, effectiveness of your localized training program. A translation partner with e-learning and training expertise can help you select the right approach for your specific business goals. Once you have your translation partner and strategy in place, you’ll be poised to clearly and effectively train your international staff…and impress your CLO in the process.