For anyone who has ever gotten lost in the maze of settings on a DVD or Blu-ray disc, played with the settings on YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix, or – for readers over a certain age – anyone who remembers seeing the “Closed Captioning Where Available” message before your favourite TV show, today’s word is certainly nothing new. Still, though it’s a familiar term, there’s still the question of what a “caption” actually is, what the difference is between “open” and “closed,” and how that little box got down there.
Starting with the word itself, it originally had nothing to do with little boxes of words on the screen. Possibly coming to English via the Old French capcion, meaning ‘arrest, capture, or imprisonment’, or directly from the Latin captionem, meaning ‘catching, seizing, or holding’, our word originally had the meaning of ‘taking, seizing, or capturing’ something. This can be seen in the first use of the term, coming from the Wycliffite Bible in 1382, which states: “Beasts, kindly in to caption, or taking” (2 Peter 2:12).
While still having the implication of taking, the beginning of the 17th century saw our term being broadly used to take something else – an exception. Francis Bacon’s 1605 book, The Advancement of Learning, treats caption as synonymous with fallacious arguments and trivial objections, writing: “The degenerate and corrupt is use for Caption and Contradiction.”
The remainder of the 17th century saw our term being newly applied mainly to the application of laws, or, if you will, taking authority. Appearing in prosecutor and judge John Skene’s 1609 digest of the law of Scotland, Regiam Majestatem as: “The form of the judge of caption of a debtor.”, using the term as a judicial process of arrest. Later in the century, this idea of authority would morph from actions of a judge or magistrate into the specific overall authority of any legal instrument or body, such as a commission, indictment, etc., which was first witnessed in Thomas Blount’s 1670 Nomo Lexikon: A Law-Dictionary, which records: “When a Commission is executed, and the Commissioners names subscribed to a Certificate, declaring when and where the Commission was executed, that is called the Caption.”
Expounding on Blount’s idea of the caption as an explanation of guidelines, a century later, Founding Father James Madison used the term to define the heading of a chapter or section of a piece of work: written in 1789 and recorded in 1904’s The Writings of James Madison: “You will see in the caption of the address that we have pruned the ordinary stile of the degrading appendages of Excellency, Esqrs. &c.”
When it comes to what we would recognize as captions, the first appearance of this can be found in Harry Leon Wilson’s 1919 novel Ma Pettengill, where our term relates to a sub-title or brief explanation underneath a photo or picture, as characters in the book recount: “The caption says of Vida Sommers: ‘Her love has turned to hate,’” while looking at photos of a film actress.
Of course, for us, captioning is almost wholly the language that accompanies a (usually moving) visual medium. Open captions, meaning captions that were permanently embedded within the video and synchronised with the audio, first began appearing regularly in 1972; this initial breakthrough led to the development of closed captions, meaning captions that can be turned on or off by the viewer, soon afterwards.
In relation to translation, “open vs closed” is really a question of what works best for the client. For example, closed captioning gives individual users (or groups) more control, can be easily edited or reformatted, and is suitable for a variety of media; however, open captioning, being somewhat monolithic, is better for widespread use (like the general public), and is more user friendly, not requiring additional files, software, or formatting. Regardless of what you need to caption and what audience you are trying to target, EVS Translations can tailor and deliver a quality solution to meet all your needs.
Read an interview with EVS Translations USA Translation Engineering team leader to learn more about the steps behind the process of creating open and closed captions.