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Captions vs. Subtitles: Do You Know the Difference?

Published on June 16th, 2022

Closed captions (CC) and subtitles may look similar on-screen, but they are two different language services designed for different purposes. Choosing the wrong option on your video project could alienate important audiences, so it is important to understand the differences between these two creative language service solutions.

In this article, we outline the key differences between captions and subtitles so you can choose the right solution for every video project.

Captions vs. subtitles: key differences you need to know

Before getting into the differences between captions and subtitles, it is always useful to discuss definitions.

What are closed captions?

Closed captions (CC) place text over video content to depict spoken dialogue for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, as well as additional contextual information. This includes identifying speakers and describing contextual sounds (e.g. door knocks, sirens, waves crashing, etc.).

What are subtitles?

Subtitles place text over video content to depict spoken dialogue, often translating speech into foreign languages for audiences who are unable to understand the source language. Unlike closed captions, subtitles are not required to identify speakers or describe contextual sounds, but they will translate important on-screen text (e.g. a newspaper headline read by a character in a film).

From these definitions, you can get a good sense of how captions and subtitles differ, despite having much in common. Essentially, both place text over video content to help viewers understand what is happening, but they are traditionally designed for different audiences.

To clarify how captions and subtitles differ, discussing the key characteristics of each that make them suitable for different scenarios, is beneficial.

Also Read: Voice overs, subtitles or captions – which is the best approach for video translation?

7 characteristics that differentiate closed captions

  1. Originally designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences
  2. Aim to provide a complete understanding of the on-screen action in the video
  3. Normally provided in the same language as the original material
  4. Identify speakers
  5. Describe contextual sounds
  6. On-screen placement can change if captions obscure visual elements
  7. Synchronisation with dialogue may be less precise when the priority is to convey more information

7 characteristics that differentiate subtitles

  1. Originally designed for foreign-speaking audiences
  2. Aim to provide an understanding of the on-screen dialogue and important text that appears on the screen
  3. Normally provided in different languages to the original material
  4. Do not identify speakers
  5. Do not describe contextual sounds
  6. Translate important on-screen text
  7. Synchronisation with dialogue is crucial

Understanding these seven key differences between captions and subtitles helps in terms of knowing which one is most suitable for each audience.

Captions vs subtitles: which one is suitable for my video project?

The most important thing to understand about captions and subtitles is that they are designed for different audiences. Closed captions were initially created for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, while subtitles were designed for translating video content into foreign languages.

This is why closed captions are generally the preferred method for TV broadcasts and subtitles are more common in foreign cinema.

However, to say closed captions are better for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences while subtitles are better for foreign-speaking audiences is an oversimplification.

Including both closed captions and subtitles in video contents will help cater for the widest possible range of audiences. This way, video content becomes inclusive for all of the foreign languages covered, as well as for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

In an ideal scenario, this is the most ethical and inclusive approach to take.

Certain video producers and distributors choose to provide closed captions for each target language so the same solution covers foreign speakers, as well as deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. This can be an effective compromise, as long as you are aware that closed captions can provide more information than foreign-speaking audiences require and may provide a different viewing experience than the one these audiences would normally have if provided with subtitled text instead.

It is also important to understand that closed captions do not only benefit viewers with hearing issues, either. We are living in a hyper-connected digital era where online video content is now – more than ever – used every day by brands to reach online consumers no matter where they are based. A high percentage of this audience prefers to watch video content with the sound turned off. Many people also find themselves in situations where they are unable to watch videos with the volume turned up (for example when using their mobile devices or laptops in public spaces) or clearly hear videos on maximum volume (e.g. while travelling or other scenarios).

Likewise, most social media apps and platforms play video content on mute by default and this is where the majority of video content is now seen.

To choose between captions vs subtitles is not always as clear cut as it may first appear to brands and companies looking to produce videos. The best option could be to include both. One of the many benefits captions and subtitles share is both can be relatively affordable to produce, enabling you to make video content accessible to a wide range of audiences – and this is what videos are all about.

If you need help deciding between captions and subtitles for you next video project or translating your next video campaign, translate plus can help. We provide a range of creative language services including subtitling, dubbing, voiceover, captions and much more. Get in touch with us via this page or submit a request for quote here.

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Posted on: June 16th, 2022