Subtitles vs. Captions: What is the Difference?

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When you see words displayed across the bottom of your screen, what term comes to mind? For some, they think of closed captions; others may call them subtitles. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but even though they have many of the same features, “captions” and “subtitles” can mean very different things, probably because they each began with very different purposes.

Let’s start with captions. Captions as we know them date back to the 1970s, then known as open captions because they were always on. These captions were created to allow Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers to understand the spoken dialogue and other audio content of their favorite shows. Soon after, these open captions became closed, allowing viewers to enable captions with the push of a button. The 1990s saw an emphasis on accessibility-focused laws and mandates, thus ushering in a new era of captioning.

Subtitles have been around since the 1930s, originating to help film transcend language barriers. Once films were developed with audio, subtitles were used to translate dialogue into text in a viewer’s preferred language, with the assumption that the viewer could hear other elements of the audio track. This is one of the primary ways in which traditional subtitles differ from captions.

Today, subtitles aren’t just for translation, and they often contain both dialogue and non-dialogue elements. The FCC mandates that captions must contain a text equivalent for all of a program’s audio. As audiences expand, evolve, and overlap, the value of presenting this information in subtitle form has become apparent, leading to the rise of SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing) services. We often create SDH deliverables for clients who wish to provide a version of their video with open subtitles, eliminating the need for technology to support “closed” captioning features and putting accessibility services front and center.

The line between captions and subtitles has changed and blurred over the years. Each term can now describe the workflow, file type, and content of the text. That’s why it’s always best to be specific when discussing the parameters of a project and the intended audience. Because of their origins, captions are generally assumed to contain descriptions of non-dialogue elements. When ordering subtitles, you’ll want to consider and specify whether the text should include these elements for your project. No matter what you call them, both captions and subtitles have the power to expand your audience and enhance your media.