Subtitles vs. Captions – What’s the Difference?

Subtitles vs. Captions – What’s the Difference?

Subtitles and Closed Captions and Open Captions – Oh My! Read on to learn the distinguishing features of each transcription service.

You know subtitles and captions. They’re the words at the bottom of your screen that pop up as you binge the latest Netflix show. We tend to use the words “subtitles” and “captions” interchangeably – even Netflix does! And although their uses overlap, subtitles and captions serve very different purposes.

What are Subtitles?

Subtitles entered the scene in the 1930s, when we began transitioning from silent films to “talkies,” or films with audio. To accommodate foreign audiences, film creators began including subtitles to translate speech from the movie’s language to the viewer’s language.

Subtitles translate a film’s original language into the viewer’s language, and are displayed at the bottom of the screen.

Subtitles shouldn’t be confused with “dubbing,” which simultaneously translates spoken word from the original content to another language.

Why are Subtitles Important?

Interestingly, subtitles aren’t just used by those who don’t speak a film’s language. We’ve also used subtitles – quite successfully at times – to aid in learning new languages. When the viewer’s proficiency matches the film’s pace and language level, subtitles can significantly impact fluency in another language.

Subtitles and Captions for TV, a man pointing a remote

As our world grows smaller and more interconnected, providing media with subtitles that translate audio across languages is vital. 

Netflix stands as an obvious example of the need for subtitles, with entertainment from other countries starting to populate the global digital market and streaming platform. We can apply lessons learned with Netflix to most industries, as we use digital content to reach more global audiences. 

Any business looking to expand overseas could benefit from pairing their audio with subtitles for their target audience’s language.

What are Captions?

Captions were first introduced in the 1970s to assist the deaf and hearing impaired with understanding audio. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated all public television supply captions to increase accessibility.

The ADA created captions to increase the accessibility of audio content for the hard of hearing and deaf. In addition to broadcast television, the ADA mandates that all content played in a public space must provide captions. 

The ADA didn’t limit caption-mandated content to TV and movies. It also includes: promotional videos, commercials, PowerPoint presentations, educational lectures, webinars, employment services, legal services, and healthcare services. If you plan to share your content in a public space, the ADA legally requires you to provide captions.

You need captions if you are:

  • Producing services meant to be accessible to the public (from concerts to conventions and lectures)
  • Providing educational information
  • Creating video for or to appear on TV
  • A government program
  • A public entity
  • In a state with specific accessibility laws 

Your captions should include:

  • Spoken word
  • Narration
  • Words to songs played
  • Description of sounds that impact the story

Regulations surrounding captioning for online content and platforms are still murky. Best practice: include captions. Accessibility laws are constantly evolving, with a 2012 lawsuit categorizing Netflix as “a place of public accommodation,” suggesting it should comply with the same rules as public television.

At the end of the day, providing captions makes your content more accessible. Captions also show you’re going the extra mile to ensure everyone can benefit from and engage with your work.

Just because you comply with one set of regulatory laws – like the ADA – doesn’t mean you’re complying with all the regulatory requirements for your content. Read here for more information on the five major accessibility laws.

What’s the Difference Between Closed Captions and Open Captions?

When first mandated by the ADA, editors added captions as a part of the video which meant viewers couldn’t turn them off. This type of captioning is known as Open Captions

Later, captions that could be turned on or off based on the viewer’s preference – Closed Captions – were introduced.

Both caption types aim to ensure the viewer understands all audio components, including non-speech sounds critical to the story.

Nowadays most videos have captions, as captioning is required by federal law in countries around the world alongside the US.

A note: Some captioning requires real-time transcription for live events such as council meetings, concerts, classes, non-broadcast meetings, and lectures. Real-time captioning often requires a qualified captioner who transcribes simultaneously with the speaker with help from computer-based transcription programs.

To capture contextual and cultural idioms, industry-specific expertise, and slang – it’s still far more helpful for you to use human specialists than machine transcription alone.

What are the Quality Standards for Captions?

Although regulation for online videos continues evolving, the FCC has clarified its standard of television captioning.

Captions must:

  • Achieve 99% Accuracy in relaying the original intent and tone of the content, alongside the speaker’s words, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Exhibit Program Completeness, meaning captions cover all content.
  • Align with the pace of words spoken in the content and exhibit Time Synchronization. They also shouldn’t move faster than people can read.
  • Be legible, and cannot block other important information on the screen. This component is called Placement.

To Summarize

Designed to increase accessibility for the hard of hearing and deaf, federal law mandates you include captions if you’re planning on sharing your video or audio-visual material in a public space. Captions include both spoken word and non-speech sounds.

Subtitles translate spoken words for those who don’t speak the original language.

Subtitles are not a suitable substitute for captions, as their purpose is entirely different. Where subtitles translate across languages, captions help the hard of hearing by capturing non-speech sounds imperative to the story.

Looking for a qualified captioner to help transcribe your videos? Maybe you need someone to provide subtitles for team members or clients in another country. 

Whatever your business needs, we at Arriva Translations are here to help. With over 5,000 translators and interpreters in our network qualified in over 200 unique languages and dialects, we offer bespoke, white-glove translation and interpretation services to high-quality clients in the legal, financial, and medical industries.