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Timing Translations To Match A Video's
English Can Be A Challenge - What To Do?

March 26, 2012

By Jamie Zubairi
Voice Actor

Do video production companies take into account the foreign markets when making their videos?

I’ve been doing voice overs now for nearly seven years, and am getting to notice things about foreign voice overs in particular. I speak Bahasa, which is a language spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia and, with the current economic interest in the region, there is a growing interest about investing in the oil and gas industries as well as manufacturing.

With this investment comes job, with jobs comes regulations and training. With that, comes e-Learning and instructional videos.

I have so far been involved in the translation and voicing of about 20 Bahasa Health & Safety and "how-to” videos for the airline industry, oil and gas, and manufacturing industries. Some are incredibly easy to voice, especially when it falls into the e-Learning category and there isn’t any video to sync to.


The problems arise when there is already an existing video, voiced usually in English, and all I’m given is the time code to fit in the translation.

Often I’m left frustrated and tearing my hair out as a simple sentence in English will sometimes be almost a third longer when in Bahasa.

I wonder if production companies ever take this into account when they know their client will be using their video for the worldwide market. It’s something to consider. I’m sure it’s the same case in Standard German with their portmanteau words.


In Bahasa, almost every consonant is followed by a vowel. For example:
There’s something in the air tonight = Ada sesuatu di udara malam ini.
That might look like a sentence of similar length, but consider that the English has 8 syllables and the Bahasa (in this case Malay) has 13 syllables. Fitting the amount of syllables within the start and end of a particular time code starts to make the sentence sound ridiculous.

The viewer will be have to first get over the hurdle of how ridiculous it sounds before they can start actually taking in the information, which may be about airline safety or toxic gases.


When I am translating for voice over I am always aware that someone is going to have to speak this at some point (often me), so the translation should match the length of the English.

I’m often in vocal booths editing words out of someone else’s hard work in order to fit the client’s specification. Which increases my time in the booth as well as my fee and the cost to the whole production.  

And to complicate the situation, the voice over client often has the video production company as the client, so there’s nothing the sound engineer can do.


I would love a situation where production companies producing the video made a slightly longer edit for the foreign markets their clients are selling to.

It would help the voice doing the work as well as the person having to take the information in.

What is the point of sitting your workers in front of a Health & Safety video if they can’t take it seriously and, by extension, feel that they are not being taken seriously by their employers?
Jamie Zubairi is one of the few completely bilingual English- and Malay-speaking voice actors in the United Kingdom. An actor, an artist-painter, poet, theatre-maker, blogger, Balinese dancer and photographer (and a part-time short-order chef!) he's voiced station idents for Al-Jazeera and read short stories for the BBC and Oxford University Press, as well as many corporate training and e-learning courses. He is currently working on his second solo play while redeveloping his first play with a live gamelan orchestra.


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Comments (3)
Melissa Exelberth
3/28/2014 at 8:29 PM
The article is dead on - although even more often, you don't get time code. Spanish is about 25-30% longer than English.

I learned years ago to ask at the beginning if the client is planning to re-cut the video for the Spanish version or if they're planning on just dropping the Spanish audio into the existing video. If the latter, I tell them they'll have to edit their translation before handing it off for recording or it won't fit. Or if they want me to handle the translation I tell them it will have to be adapted, not simply translated.

In most cases they're surprised - and then grateful I told them. It's just a matter of education - if they don't speak the language, how WOULD they know??? Even those who do know and tell me they've done exactly that thank me for telling them.
Andy Boyns
3/27/2014 at 4:34 PM
I wish all translators thought about the fact they're writing a script to be voiced. Most of my work here in Istanbul is text translated from Turkish to English, with the original video edit made to fit the Turkish.

One of the skills I've had to develop is changing reading pace to match the needs of the video with the script. Sometimes the translator is verbose, sometimes they skip detail. I've even dubbed documentaries while listening to the Turkish, proof reading and correcting, AND at the SAME time performed my narration. This was extreme multi-tasking!

On another occasion (for a major network) together with the producer we spent 3 hours recording 12 minutes, literally deleting sentences that we felt wouldn't be missed, because the text was so long.

It's one of the fun challenges of localising a production.

And then there's the unwieldy use of concepts, which might seem essential in the original text, but become meaningless when translated, because the culture of the second language doesn't expect to be over-informed about particular details. The joys of corporate videos, but that's going off topic.

I'm afraid the solution is one which is probably unacceptable to most clients as it will increase budgets. That is, each language version really needs to be treated as a unique production. The edit - both audio and video, the content, etc., all need to be localised.

What is perhaps more realistic is to hope that translators will, like you, think more about how their words will be used. We can dream.
Elizabeth Holmes
3/26/2014 at 7:38 PM
Jamie -- Thank you, so much, for this reminder! This happened to me on project that was translated and voiced by a native speaker. It was embarrassing for everyone to end up with a soundtrack where the narration had to speed up to fit an unrealistic time frame. Your advice is helpful for avoiding similar problems in the future.
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