Subtitling vs. Closed Captioning

This terminology can get very confusing for our translation clients. When you are planning on creating subtitles or closed-captioning in a foreign language,  it is important to understand what these terms mean to the video editors and producers we work with.
In most countries, “subtitles” and “captions” are synonyms. However, in the United States and Canada:

  • “Subtitles” help viewers understand what is being spoken when it is not clearly audible, or they may not understand the accent or language. Obviously, for a translation agency like ASIST, providing subtitles in alternate languages is the most common scenario.
  • “Caption” text identifies each speaker and displays all spoken dialog—typically (but not necessarily) in the original language. It also describes music cues, sounds effects etc. for the hearing impaired.

Closed Captioning
“Closed” captioning is not automatically displayed to all viewers, but only when a viewer elects for caption text to be decoded and displayed onscreen. On modern televisions, this is the white text within black rectangles that you might see when the sound is muted (or all the time, depending on your menu settings).
In NTSC video (the format used in North America and a few other countries) caption text is encoded into line 21 of the video signal—the “vertical blanking interval” part of the video image that doesn’t show on your TV. Captioning ordinarily is not visible unless enabled via your TV’s menus or remote control. Line-21 captioning is actually part of the video signal itself, and is often incorporated into broadcast programs, videotapes and even DVDs.
Closed captioning for NTSC video is limited to the Latin character set, so this method is not suitable for Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Hindi, Thai, etc.—not to mention right-to-left languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. Indeed, even though the character set was expanded to better support diacritical marks in Spanish, French and Portuguese, these still may not display reliably on all viewing equipment.
PAL and SECAM video (used in Europe, much of Asia and South America) use a different method for subtitling, called “teletext.” If your source video in NTSC format must be converted to one of these formats for another country, the captioning would need to be recreated.
“Burned-in” Subtitles
Another option is to incorporate the subtitle text directly into the video image, as a permanent part of the video signal that can’t be turned on/off. For translation purposes, this offers various advantages: First, virtually any character set can be used (although certain video editing programs may have difficulty with right-to-left languages or alternate character sets). Second, the viewer doesn’t have to do anything special or know how to use the remote control, because subtitles are always on. Third, if the video is going to be converted for playback from a Web site, the subtitles (otherwise be lost in the conversion) already form part of the video image itself.
DVD Subtitles
DVDs support yet another subtitling method, where subtitle text is overlaid as a bitmap on the video signal by the DVD player, and can be turned on and off by the viewer. (Incidentally, video content on a DVD in NTSC format may also contain line-21 captioning.) DVD subtitles are stored in special track. Many different character sets and multiple languages on a single DVD are supported.
For translation purposes, the best solution is often to present a language selection menu on the DVD, when it is not certain that your viewers will know how to use the remote control to make language selections for subtitles. This is especially an issue when character sets other than Latin are involved.
Space Considerations
No matter which method you use, the positioning of subtitles can get tricky if your program already has a lot of text in the lower third of the video frame, or complex graphics whose legibility would be impaired when subtitles are sitting on top of them. When possible, try to plan ahead for this, leaving some neutral space across the bottom of the screen for subtitles.
ASIST Translation Services can help you decide the best method for your target market. We will typically begin with some basic questions:

  • How long is the program?
  • Which languages are required?
  • Will the video be delivered exclusively on DVD (or might it be broadcast, copied to videotape, or converted to web video)?
  • In which countries does the finished video need to be used?

ASIST Translation Services, Inc. is a full-service translation agency located in Columbus, Ohio. We provide translation, interpreting, proofreading, voice recording and media production, localization of interactive and Web content, and specialized language services to clients around the world.