Foreign language voice-over: what’s involved?

You’ve prepared a business presentation, an ad campaign, an e-learning module, or a product demonstration video with voice-over, and you need it localized for global audiences. Creating a foreign language voice-over includes:

  • Script translation
  • Voice selection
  • Actual voice recording
  • Delivery of the recorded files
  • Review of completed video

Foreign language voice-over step 1: transcription and script translation

For professional translation of your voice-over script, choose a language services partner (LSP) who can see you through all steps of the voice-over localization process. A project manager at the LSP will select translators with the subject matter expertise and language skills to create an accurate, compelling script appropriate to the region you wish to reach. If your project includes marketing materials intended to persuade and inspire, the project may also require transcreation by a translator with strong copywriting skills.

You should provide an English version of the script with time stamps. Time stamps matter because some languages require more words to express an idea. Text can expand by up to 50%, depending on the source and target languages. The time stamps help the translators spot areas where the words may not fit in the time allotted. They can find ways to condense the language without changing the message. And, of course, the time stamps will be critical for the recording process.

If you don’t have a time-stamped script (many clients do not), your language partner can arrange for transcription.

While the translation is taking place, the next step can be in process.

Foreign language voice-over step 2: selection of voiceover strategy and talent

Until recently, hiring a live voice-over talent was the only option for sourcing foreig language voice-overs.  In the past few years, text-to-speech (TTS) technologies have improved enough to become a cost-efficient alternative to live recordings. When choosing between human voice talent and TTS, consider the following:

Does your video deliver an emotional impact?

If you intend to encourage a purchase, inspire brand or employee loyalty, or persuade listeners to engage in health or civic activities, a computer-generated voice will ring false. The technology has improved, but not enough to fool most listeners into thinking it’s human.

We consider emotion an important driver of consumer purchasing, but keep in mind that emotion is also integral to business purchasing. Face-to-face sales meetings have decreased drastically since early 2020, and if you are creating media to fill that gap, think carefully about the human element of B2B sales when developing your multilingual sales strategy.

Will your message be used for informational or training purposes?

If your purpose is simply to inform your audience, TTS is more acceptable.  Many of our e-learning localization clients choose TTS, especially when the training is practical or undertaken to fulfill a regulatory requirement.  

Regardless of whether you choose a live voice talent or TTS, you’ll need to provide specifications as to the age, sex, and tone or personality. From there, your LSP can provide you with voice samples from which to choose.

If the target culture is one you are not familiar with, you may also want need advice on what kind of voice would resonate best. In different cultures, the same types of voices may not evoke the same feelings of authority, warmth, persuasiveness, expertise, or whatever emotion it is you are trying to convey. In our own experience, different cultures have different preferences depending on the subject matter. For example, when our team localized a health information app into 12 languages, we found that some cultures preferred health information delivered by a male voice, and some by a female voice. 

In addition, the regional accent can be very important. A video meant to capture the interest of a Canadian French-speaking audience may not be well-received if the voice talent speaks with a Parisian accent. Similarly, a British voice may not sound right to a North American. The regional accent will depend on the brand personality and the purpose of the video as well as the target market.

You may have trusted contacts or employees in the target cultures with whom you can consult. If not, your language service partner, with contacts all over the world, should be able to advise you.

Foreign language voice-over step 3: voice recording

Once you’ve determined the voice style, regional accent, and gender, we move to the part that most people think of first—the actual recording.

For recording by human voice talent:

A quality recording requires professional recording equipment—microphones, headphones, recording and editing software—and isolation to block out any unwanted noise. All professional voice recordings require post-production editing, but the recording venue itself can vary according to your purpose and budget.  Recording for broadcast advertising requires the budget to book time with a professional level recording studio and production staff in addition to voice talent. For other purposes, a freelance voice artist with a home studio and editing skills can create a perfectly suitable track. 

Regardless of which you choose, provide a pronunciation guide for any specialized technical and business terms and brand or product names. Businesses that are localizing for global audiences should already have made decisions on how their brand and product names will be pronounced in foreign markets. If you haven’t done this yet, now is the time.

The voice artist will need to fit the recording to the time codes on the script. As noted above, this can be a challenge when there is text expansion in translation. Even when the translator and project manager have attempted to adapt the text to deal with such problems, there may still be snags, and the voice artist will have to speak at the proper rate of speed to fit the text, or ask for modifications to the script.

The process of voice recording usually takes much longer than the length of the final product. The voice artist records and re-records until both she and the engineer are satisfied with the tone, flow, and cadence of every part of the recording and have verified that all the timing is correct. Then the sound engineer cleans up the voice track by removing breath sounds and the like.

For voice track production using text-to-speech technology:

For TTS-generated recordings, the script will require markup and adaptation before it can generate accurate foreign language voice-overs. This is particularly important if the script includes specialized technical and business terms and brand or product names. In preparing a script, a linguist might have to test various phonetic spellings for foreign words or brand names until arriving at a spelling that produces the correct pronunciation. Text expansion will impact the length of TTS as well, and although the translator may have adapted the script to fit, tweaks may still be required. In short, TTS has improved but you still need the human touch by linguists and the localization engineer to produce a quality audio track.

Foreign language voice-over step 4: delivery of the recorded files

As the client, you will need to specify the file format for deliverables as well as any other technical specifications. You should discuss the specs with the department or agency who created the original presentation or video and will be using the new voice-over. They may request a compressed format that does involve some loss of information, but it is usable for most purposes.

Even after delivery, your voice-over partner should retain uncompressed files (usually WAV, but also AIFF, or SDII) in case further engineering is needed. Changes to the files should be made on the uncompressed rather than on the compressed versions to retain as much clarity as possible. Modifications affecting things like volume, speed and pitch of the recording can be made without having to go back to the voice artist for re-recording. Certain other effects and edits can be made.

Foreign language voice-over step 5: review of the finished product

Once the foreign language voice-overs have been added to the presentation or video, the final products should be reviewed by someone who knows the language to be sure that everything is in sync. Your language service partner can also help you here.


Voice-over translation and localization is not simple or cheap, so you should work with a partner who can guide you through the whole process. In this article, we haven’t mentioned the other changes that you may wish to make to your video presentation, including localization of onscreen text, the addition of subtitles, or the substitution of new images for ones that might not be culturally appropriate for every locality. To make the greatest impact, you work on the whole package and get it right.