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Subtitles vs. Closed Captioning — What's the Difference? — movie with subtitles
Subtitles vs. Closed Captioning — What's the Difference? — movie with subtitles
Alex Mcomie 107x107
Jul 18, 2022

Subtitles vs. Closed Captioning: What’s the Difference?

You might call the text at the bottom of the screen during a TV show or movie something like “subtitles” or “closed captions.”

While many people use these two terms interchangeably, the truth is that subtitles and closed captioning are actually two different things.

In this article, we’ll explain the key differences between subtitles and closed captioning and explain why it matters for creative production.


What Are Closed Captions?

The phrase “closed captions” typically refers to captions that are posted in the same language as the content itself.

Closed captions are often intended for viewers who speak the same language, but who are unable to follow the content using the normal audio.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires media creators to offer closed captioning (along with other services) so that their content is accessible to all viewers.

These kinds of captions are often typed live and included with the television signal itself.

Accessibility for disabled viewers is a key motivation for closed captioning, but captions can also make content easier to follow for all viewers.

In fact, more than 80% of all viewers who turn captions on when watching videos don’t actually require captions for a disability-related reason.

Dialogue is usually included in closed captions, but you’ll also find other elements and sound effects that won’t be present in subtitles.

For example, there might be a caption for a ringing phone — this is designed so that viewers who have trouble hearing will still understand what’s going on.

Another distinguishing factor of closed captions is that viewers have the option to turn them on or off.

This makes them different from open captions, which are embedded in a video and can’t be removed.

If you’re watching a movie on Netflix, you can typically select either foreign-language subtitles or closed captions in the same language as the film.


What Are Subtitles?

While closed captions are mostly intended to assist viewers who have trouble hearing, subtitles are designed for viewers who can hear the content normally.

With that in mind, one key difference is that subtitles are usually limited to spoken dialogue.

Most closed captions include ringing phones, ambient music, traffic noises, and other sounds.

These sounds are generally easy for foreign viewers to understand, so there’s no need to explain them through subtitles.

Of course, creators may still decide that some additional notes are necessary to provide cultural context or other relevant information.


What About Open Captions?

Along with subtitles and closed captions, you may have also heard the term “open captions.”

The distinction between open and closed captions is that open captions are completely tied to the video.

If a video has open captions, there’s no way to turn them off or remove them from the screen.

Open captions are often used in situations where a movie or show contains short sections in a foreign language.

Since the creators don’t expect viewers to understand this language, they’ll burn captions into the video directly.

This strategy ensures that viewers won’t inadvertently remove captions that they need to understand the content.

The video below reinforces the difference between subtitles, closed captions, and open captions with examples of use cases for each.


Which One Should I Use?

Now that you know the basic differences between subtitles, closed captions, and open captions, the next step is determining which one to use for your project.

First, you should use captions rather than subtitles when your main concern is to provide a good experience for viewers who are hard of hearing.

This audience may not be able to fully understand your content if you only provide subtitles for dialogue.

On the other hand, subtitles are better suited to situations where you want to make dialogue easier to understand.

Foreign-language content is a good example, but it’s far from the only context where subtitles make sense.

Even native speakers often prefer to watch content with subtitles so that they don’t miss any nuances in dialogue between characters.

Keep in mind that you may want to produce both captions and subtitles depending on your needs.

For example, an English-language movie might come with captions in English as well as subtitles for speakers of other languages.


How Do You Add Captions or Subtitles to a Video?

The right way to add text to a video depends on the kind of project involved.

When you’re adding captions to a live event, for example, you’ll need to work with professionals who can provide an accurate text while typing quickly enough to keep up with the action.

If you’re working on a non-live event, you’ll be able to transcribe the necessary text and then embed it into the video through an SRT file.

SRT files are time-coded, which means they tell the video player exactly when to display each line.

These kinds of captions tend to be much more accurate than captions during a live transcription.

With that in mind, adding captions is more complicated than simply transcribing dialogue.

At Voice Crafters, we offer translation as well as embedding and other relevant services.

Check out our video translation services page to learn how we can help embed captions or subtitles in your video.

If you have accurate subtitles in the native language, you should be able to translate them while using the same SRT format for the target language.

That approach makes it easy to embed translated subtitles into the translated version without having to restart the process from scratch.


Final Thoughts

You might think that subtitles and closed captions are the same thing, but it’s important to use these terms precisely when you’re working on films, TV shows, and other forms of audiovisual content.

This will help you avoid any ambiguities when communicating with the rest of your team.

At this point, you’re ready to start developing whatever text makes sense for the work you’re creating.

However, you may still need help translating a video into other languages for foreign-language subtitles.

Here at Voice Crafters, we translate videos between more than 80 different world languages.

We also transcribe and embed subtitles in videos to help our clients localize projects for different audiences. Check out our website to learn more about our video translation services.

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