Spanish Subtitles vs. Spanish Closed Captions: What’s the Difference?

Updated: January 4, 2018

According to a Nielsen report, Hispanic Americans watch 62% more digital video than non-Hispanics. Combine that with recent FCC regulations for Spanish-language closed captioning, and you can expect to see huge demand for Spanish transcription services.

American broadcast companies are accustomed to stringent closed captioning regulations for English-language television. Now broadcasters must adapt their pre-recorded workflows to transcribe and caption Spanish video en masse.

Does this mean that all English TV shows will also be available in Spanish?


To clarify why that is, we need to distinguish between Spanish subtitles and Spanish closed captions.

Subtitles vs. Closed Captions

Subtitles and closed captions are not the same thing. While elsewhere in the world, the terms ‘subtitle’ and ‘caption’ are used interchangeably, the United States makes a distinction between the two.

Closed captions represent both speech and non-speech sounds in time-synched text. Non-speech sounds are included if they are considered essential for understanding what’s happening, such as laughter, footsteps approaching, a doorbell ringing, music playing, etc. Closed captions are provided with the assumption that the reader cannot hear the audio.

Subtitles are provided for viewers who can hear the audio but who can’t understand the language being spoken. For that reason, subtitles don’t need to include non-speech sounds. Subtitles will display in a language other than the one being spoken in the video.

In other words: closed captions make video accessible to deaf or hard-or-hearing viewers, while subtitles make video accessible to people who don’t understand the language being spoken.

When Do You Need Spanish Subtitles?

With this distinction in mind, what are Spanish subtitles?

Spanish subtitles display Spanish dialogue for content spoken in another language, such as English. It would not include noises and sound effects. These subtitles are provided to help the Spanish-speaking viewer understand what’s being said.

Spanish subtitles are not part of the FCC captioning rules, so television programming in English is not required to provide a Spanish translation.

When Do You Need Spanish Closed Captions?

Spanish closed captions display Spanish text and essential non-speech sounds on Spanish language programming. This makes the content accessible to deaf or hard or hearing, Spanish-speaking viewers.

This is what is the FCC requires for all Spanish TV programming in the US. It does not require that English closed captions be provided for Spanish content.

How to Get Spanish Subtitles or Closed Captions

If your video is in English, you’ll need to translate the transcript in order to create Spanish subtitles.

If you need Spanish closed captioning, you’ll need to create a Spanish transcript and caption file that includes sound effects and time-sync data.

Read the free report: 2017 State of Captioning.

The closed caption CC icon shown in the middle of a TV.