Subtitles and Captions - spot the difference!

by Knockhundred Admin

We’re frequently sent short films that need subtitling. They can be in (almost!) any language. And sometimes we’re asked to produce captions. While they sound like they could refer to the same thing, subtitles and captions are worlds apart. So what’s the difference? We asked one of our project managers to explain.

Interviewer: So, John, could you explain to me a little about subtitles and closed captions? I’m not one hundred per-cent clear on the difference.

John: Well, I should think you are familiar with subtitles? Usually this is where we’ve got a film or video that has been shot in one language and it needs to have the speech translated and appearing on-screen in another language. The ‘source’ and ‘target’ languages can be literally anything, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese… the list goes on. Essentially a linguist needs to watch the video and ensure that everything that is said, is shown as text on the screen - subtitles.

Interviewer: But how do they fit everything in?

John: Well, that’s a good question. If someone is speaking really fast, then it can be a bit difficult. Subtitlers usually have to condense what’s said, to some extent. So they have to be able to abbreviate the spoken word, but still catch the essence of the meaning. It’s actually a pretty skilled job.

Interviewer: And are there any rules?

John: Well yes, of course. There are a set of conventions, that are pretty much standard throughout the industry (though you do, of course, see some pretty dire attempts, where these conventions have not been observed!) The subtitles should not be more than 35 characters (including spaces), should have a maximum of two lines and so on and so forth.

Interviewer: OK, I understand that, all clear! So what are ‘closed-captions’? I’ve always wondered about that.

John: OK, well closed captions are not the same. They’re entirely different. Subtitles and closed captions both display text on-screen. But whereas subtitles are essentially transcriptions of the audio, closed captions assume that the audience cannot hear the audio and need a text description of what might otherwise be heard. Closed captions also describes noises, or other sounds that need some kind of description, like a police siren for example. Closed captioning is typically used for hearing impaired audiences.

Interviewer: Got it! Thank you.

John: No problem, have a great day.

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