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BOOGABOOGA Knowledge Library


Subtitles and Captions: What’s the Difference?

LocalizationVoice Overs & Subtitling


Subtitles and captions are similar but distinct means of enhancing communication in visual media.

But which one’s which?

By better understanding the differences between subtitling and captioning, you can make the right choice as to which option will best serve your communication needs.

Different Contexts for Subtitles and Captions

Subtitling is most frequently used as a way of translating a medium into another language so that speakers of other languages can enjoy it. Foreign films are an obvious example: without subtitles, English-speaking audiences would be unable to easily follow the plot of a French or Spanish movie, for instance. Subtitles are best-suited and most often used for pre-recorded videos, such as movies and TV shows.

Captioning, on the other hand, is more commonly used as a service to aid deaf and hearing-impaired audiences. They are more adaptable to live broadcasts, such as news broadcasts, sports events and television shows broadcast live. Usually, captions (also called closed captions) appear as white text within a black box, appearing a second or two after being spoken.

Considerations to Make When Using Captions and Subtitles

Due to their different contexts and purposes, captions and subtitles are characterized by a few important differences. Subtitles, as the name suggests, are usually placed at the bottom of the screen. Captions on the other hand, may be placed in different locations on the screen in order to make clear to the audience who is speaking. This is especially useful for deaf individuals who can’t rely on voice distinctions to pinpoint the speaker.

Subtitles and captions have some of the same hurdles to overcome, such as the vocabulary and reading skills of the program’s target audience. For example, both the subtitles for a children’s movie and the captions for a children’s television program need to consider the viewer’s reading time. Since most children don’t read as quickly as adults, this may mean using age-appropriate synonyms and shorter words.

Cultural localization must also be factored in. The UK subtitles for a French film might use the words “lift” (“elevator”) or “lorry” (“truck”) — words which may need to be altered for American audiences.

Why Smart Businesses Invest in Captions and Subtitles

The primary goal of captions and subtitles is expanding audiences. By adding appropriate subtitles or captions to a TV show, for instance, audiences that would otherwise not be able to fully comprehend the show, whether because of a linguistic barrier or hearing impairment, can then enjoy it. This means a larger audience — and better business.

For example, foreign language films that include subtitles in multiple languages have been able to break into global markets, and top foreign films sometimes achieve high honors in Hollywood. Without subtitles, such films would have had great difficulty gaining such vast popularity (and making so much money!).

By expanding the audience, subtitles and captions can boost business while opening up new cultural horizons to a greater number of people.


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