A Guide to Subtitling and Dubbing of Indian Films Abroad

The last five years have seen an explosion of success of Indian films abroad. While the phenomenal overseas box office of Dangal at more than 17bn INR will be hard to match, each year brings another bumper crop of cinematic contenders for Bollywood’s worldwide fans, especially in these days a small-screen quarantine-fueled binge-watching. Titles like Secret Superstar, the Baahubali franchise and Hindi Medium are still making the rounds on streaming services, feeding the film-watching appetites of the Indian diaspora as well as growing appreciation of foreigners only now developing a taste for Bolly in their belly. Still, there’s good reason to believe that Bollywood’s push to tickle the eyeballs of international audiences is only growing. The question is how studios, distributors, and the TV and film production service industry can maximize receipts from Indian cinema.

Translating Cinematic Potential into Income by Expanded Titling

The two basic ways that films and TV programming recorded in one of India’s languages – mostly Hindi but with niche markets in Bengali, Urdu and others – can get through to foreign language audiences is through translation. In practice, video and film translation finds expression in two approaches: dubbing and subtitling. Each approach has its pros and cons, which we’ll tackle below. But in either case, the process begins with video translation by a linguist familiar with Indian as well as foreign languages. Their role is to “nail” the script in terms of localising Hindi dialogue into the language of the target audience.

Television and film production studios invariably have their own post-production resources. But producers and service providers in the film and TV industry need to be wary of relying primarily on locals. While India has an abundance of English speakers, there’s a world of difference between the English spoken in Calcutta and Mumbai with what a British, American, or Australian moviegoer or Netflix watcher will expect. So it’s always a good idea when developing an international marketing campaign to consult with foreigners and not just local talent and fixers.

The language barriers are even greater when it comes to cracking the billion-plus Mandarin Chinese market or the hundreds of millions of Arabic or Spanish speakers. These are languages which by and large lack local expertise among Indians. So Indian producer and video post services should cultivate overseas connections for both translating and marketing dubbed or subtitled films abroad. Happily, most of the larger translation companies on the international stage support most popular languages. Once you find a partner agency, it can be a one-stop shop for all of your translation needs. 

The Usually Excessive Risks and Costs of Video Dubbing

Dubbing is a relatively high-risk undertaking. There are plenty of ways things can go very wrong. And it can be very expensive to find out the hard way. So think long and hard before you choose dubbing as a way to convert dialogue to a foreign language. The attractions are clear: no one really loves to read titles as they watch a film. It detracts from the experience. It clutters the screen. It ruins the cinematography.

But dubbing is replete with risks and hidden costs. For each voice, you need to find a suitable voice actor in each foreign language. Then there’s the editing challenge of matching the voices with mouth movements. Often there’s a need to adjust the translation in post to fit the visuals.

No one likes to look ridiculous or listen to something absurd. That, unfortunately, is the result of many if not most dubbing efforts. As a rule of thumb, dubbing is best suited not for feature films but for single narrator documentaries or cartoons where the voicing and editing costs are relatively minimal.

Subtitling and Closed Captioning as the Default Solution for TV and Film

For the reasons listed above, the lion’s share of films and streamers today are titled, not dubbed. They are faster and cheaper to produce, and there’s less to go wrong. Subtitling is a subset of closed-captioning, which also “explains” sound effects and other non-verbal audio for the hearing-impaired.

Good subtitling, still, is not easy to find. It takes skill to reduce complex dialogue to its distilled essence.  There’s also the technical challenge of integrating titles into the post-production editing process, but most modern post studios have this down to settled science with specialized software. The key is not to skimp on the human element, making sure that the video-savvy linguist who localizes the dialogue is a native speaker of the language of the target audience. 

No one is expecting Bollywood subtitles to be pure poetry, but always test on local foreign audiences before releasing. That way you ensure that the meaning of your film or video, and its box office potential, is not lost in translation. 

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