Fuzzy on the difference between subtitles and captions? We tend to use the terms fairly interchangeably, lumping them into some vague notions about "boring films" and closed captions on TV "for the deaf." But they are distinct animals, and here I'll share some straightforward info about the two, why the distinction matters, and why they're necessary.
Let's start chronologically, with subtitles. Before talkie films, silent films relied on cards with text shown for several frames, to insert dialogue or other information relevant to the story. Later (see the links provided under History to fill jump ahead), subtitles were introduced so that audiences of foreign films to translated the actors' words. Although helping hearing people understand the language, subtitles are also used in teaching scenarios, as visual reinforcement of the audio aids language acquisition.
Subtitles tend to be at the bottom centre of the screen (although that convention is changing in some productions), they can be turned off (they can be "closed"), and they never mention the onscreen audio language, although they may when another language is used in the action. They often are not used if the audio is considered common knowledge or if the word sounds the same in the translated language (e.g. a lot of languages use some form of the word "cool" or "okay"). Subtitled films can subsequently be captioned. You'll see why below.
Captions are intended for the Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing, people with a variety of hearing issues (such as the ones I outlined in the here), and in situations that aid the hearing audience: noisy spaces or places where the sound has been turned off. They can be closed (optional) or open (embedded in the video). Sometimes their position moves to indicate who is speaking or that name can be explicitly shown, such as [VANESSA:] or >> TV anchor. They are usually in the same language as the audio and provide all utterances, tone of voice, atmospheric sounds or other effects. They can be added to subtitled work if this latter information needs to be conveyed for the CC audience.
The commonality is that both are often poorly written, or lack lustre at best. Many countries now have laws and regulations in effect to require that film productions and TV shows are distributed and broadcast with content that communicates with almost perfect verbatim accuracy and correct syntax, presentation, etc. That's where we come in.
Communication is a right, not a privilege.
In my work experience, subtitlers are professional translators and titlers who, despite their advanced training and skills, are hired at very low rates and with unreasonable turnarounds. It's no surprise, then, that they are too rushed to create a perfect file or that less trained people are awarded files. Unfortunately, subtitles are not considered important, seemingly something to slap on the end product to say it was done, without considering how their level of quality affects the viewer's immersion in the film. Which is counterproductive to critical and popular success, isn't it?
Closed captions are created with the same attitude (again, in my experience; others might have had better luck): captioners are typically not paid a living wage, and the speed at which they have to process material before broadcast encourages errors in spelling, grammar and written style. [However, house styles and extenuating circumstances in the material can force those shifts and they are then not errors.] Often they are hired largely based on keyboarding speed, and writing and editing training is erroneously considered irrelevant. When I captioned, the employees processing several shows or movies per day had no time or knowledge to be able to apply the editing I do, and the quality assurance supervisors were in the same boat.
So, while their form and function can be quite different, subtitles and captions both require editing. Google "caption errors" and the images that show up readily prove my point. No one is offering the editing Reel Words is, despite the very real need. And it's a shame because it is disrespectful of viewers who require the accessibility to fully participate in current culture and it ruins the enjoyment of audiences who love foreign films. Basically, the current state of affairs in subtitling and captioning is unacceptably abysmal.
The goal of all film storytellers is to keep their audiences completely immersed in the content; once attention is sidelined by errors, the flow is lost while the brain struggles to figure out what was (not) communicated and to keep up with the subsequent titles.
Our view is that we all deserve better—whether we are hearing or non-hearing. We expect outstanding CGI reults and online variety, but captions and subtitles are ignored. Part of the ethos of Reel Words is to advocate for actual improvement in standards, not just on the books. No More Craptions! may be lighthearted in tone, but the rallying cry is serious in vision.
Closed captions used to be considered a frill, and now they are required. Together, let's demand improvements in quality. If you are a producer, you can start by having your subtitle or caption file edited.
Photo source: frankieleon, let's compare apples and oranges, May 3, 2009 on Flickr.com