Subtitle Meaning: What Does “Subtitle” Mean?

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Korean director Bong Joon Ho made a compelling case for subtitles to a Golden Globes audience. Clutching the award for best foreign-language film, Parasite, he shared some advice in his native tongue. 

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

-Bong Joon Ho, Director of “Parasite”

That 1-inch-tall barrier is a bar at the bottom of the screen containing text and context for viewers. Those subtitles do a lot. They give all moviegoers the chance to watch a foreign language film in their own language. And yes, it’s difficult to study the screen and read subtitles at the same time. Most can admit to that. But subtitles are powerful tools that bring quality content to audiences worldwide in all languages.

What Does “Subtitle” Mean?

The word subtitle is the prefix sub– (“below”) followed by title. Of course, literary types may first think of a book’s title, with a subtitle below it. For video content, here’s a simple subtitle meaning — Subtitles are lines of text at the bottom of the screen that translate the spoken dialogue into another language.

Subtitles have some origin in captions as accessibility tools for the deaf. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, helped make physical structures more accessible to all. With technology, that evolved to include public communications on television in 1993. The ADA mandated captions for public television and a new standard was born.

A Closed Caption World

With closed captions on television, people could now read what was being said and differentiate who was talking. They could even read descriptions of music playing or background noise, like the sounds of a busy New York City intersection. 

These captioning tools made video content accessible to everyone. Along the way, people discovered they wanted to read audio versus listen to it. Middle of a busy office, sitting on the subway, even scrolling social media at home. Why stop, turn on your audio and grab your headphones when you can just read what’s going on? 

Is There a Difference Between Captions and Subtitles?

The terms captions and subtitles are often used interchangeably, but they vary in several important ways. 

Captions: an Overview

  • Captions are lines of text that transcribe what is being said audibly on a video, movie, or program. 
  • Originally, closed captions helped the deaf or hard of hearing understand spoken words and describe a program’s context. 
  • Now the term is often used to describe any on-screen text.
  • Alternate meaning: Text that appears below photos in publications and literary work is called a photo caption.

Subtitles: An Overview

  • Subtitles are translated captions of audio files, often foreign language films, motion pictures, or television programs.
  • In public settings, subtitles transcribe a film’s native language to the audience’s language. 
  • Multinational streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, or Disney +  can display subtitles in many languages.
  • Alternate meaning: Subtitles can also refer to the second, usually longer title in a literary work, such as a book, essay, or news feature.
Captions are transcriptions. Subtitles are translations.

How to Get Subtitles and Closed Captions offers both subtitle translations and closed captions for videos. Adding captions and subtitles to your videos can expand your audience globally and help the deaf and hard of hearing access your video content.

Studies & test have also proven that 85% of Facebook users watch videos without sound, and this is true for Instagram and several other social media platforms. Get started by uploading your video here to get subtitles and here to get captions.

Subtitle Guidelines

Here’s where it gets a little complicated. Captions and subtitles bring accessibility and ease of use for video content, but how easy is it to use and access those captions? Different content platforms have varying standards for subtitles and captions. In some cases, those guidelines are federal law. So when are closed captions required by law?

It all began with the ADA in 1993, when it required that live public television have closed captioning. The law evolved and soon it became necessary to provide captions for previously aired television programs as well. This was the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). 

Fast forward to now and the law is still evolving.  In early 2018, the U.S. government updated the law to make government communications accessible to those with disabilities. It was an amendment to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act called Section 508. The new standards aligned with the globally-accepted video accessibility requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).

This alphabet soup of federal law may be confusing for an individual looking to add captions or subtitles to their video content. But creating quality, easy-to-read captions is the first step to sharing good video content. Here are best practices for video captions and subtitles:

Best Practices for Caption and Subtitle Formatting

  • Captions should be 1 to 2 lines of text on the screen at a time.
  • Limit each line’s characters (not words) to 32.
  • The block of text should be visible onscreen for 3 to 7 seconds. 
  • Text should be Align Left, not Center
  • Time-sync captions to the audio.
  • Re-position the caption if it blocks onscreen text.
  • Identify multiple speakers by name or Speaker 1, Speaker 2
  • Use upper and lowercase letters, not all caps.
  • Use an easy to read sans-serif font, such as Helvetica.
  • Add sound effects like [MUSIC] or [LAUGHTER] in square brackets.

Source: Berkeley Accessibility Hub, Iowa State University ELO Design and Delivery