An Interview with Kwiryna Proczkowska: Subtitling as a Learning Tool

Written by Amy Sexton

I interviewed Kwiryna Proczkowska, an audio-visual translator who works from English and German into Polish, about an audio-visual translation workshop she ran a few years ago with students from a local school, back when she worked as a researcher and lecturer in the Institute of German Studies at the University of Wrocław. I found out how she managed to use subtitling to inspire interest in audio-visual translation among young students, while also fostering motivation for language learning. We also spoke about starting discussions about subtitling in more public spheres.

Photo by Michal Czyz on Unsplash
Photo by Michal Czyz on Unsplash

So, you mentioned in the December Subtitle Chats that you held an audio-visual translation workshop in a school near you a few years back with a bit of a difference. Could you tell me a bit more about what you did, and how you approached it?


Let me give you a bit of background. It was part of a bigger educational and cultural project that was called (if you translated it into English) ‘School in Town’. The idea was to get schools involved in a different kind of teaching and learning – not to just be seated in a classroom, but to go out of the school and see other possibilities. Schools that took part in this project attended different workshops at universities, at museums and all kinds of cultural places. At that time, I was working as a lecturer at the institute of German Studies at the University of Wrocław and our institute also took part in this project. We welcomed students from different schools to give them the idea of how it feels to be at university and just to show them what we do. The idea was to get them interested in German as a foreign language.

In Poland, all students start by learning English as a first foreign language. They usually start when they are rather young and later they are required to learn another foreign language – in most cases it is German,  There isn’t the same level of motivation to learn German as there is to learn English. Students want to learn English, because they watch English shows, they listen to English music, and watch English YouTubers. English is all around them. It’s not that easy with German, so most students struggle with it. They are just there because they are required to take German as a foreign language.

So, the idea of the workshop was also to encourage them to learn German and to get them motivated, showing them that German can be fun as well. I did a couple of workshops with that school on different subjects and because I am interested in audio-visual translation (I was a researcher at that time and I am now practitioner), I wanted to get them interested in what I am interested in. So, I picked a German video that I thought would be manageable for them to subtitle. They were beginners, and didn’t have a lot of German, so the idea was that they translate something without really knowing the language that well. First, we watched a video in German with no subtitles. Then I asked them questions about who they thought the good character in this film was, who the bad character was, and what the general atmosphere in the movie was. This was something that they could understand without really speaking the language, and it also (in an indirect way) shows how we deal with audio-visual translation. We don’t just focus on the dialogues – we also need to focus on the music, on everything that is happening on the screen and in the background.

They were surprised to see that they were actually able to answer all the questions after watching the film in German, so they were already feeling a little bit more confident. After that, we started working on subtitles. I divided them into groups. I think the video was about 10 minutes long, and so I divided them into a couple of groups so that everyone was working on one scene. They worked together because their level of German was not good enough for individual work. They were provided with German subtitles, so they didn’t need to spot. The technical part was done. They were doing this in actual software, typing the translation into the software so they could see it on the screen.

I provided them with German subtitles that I prepared and I also printed them out. I tried to underline some of the phrases that they should look up as a unit, encouraging them not to go word-for-word, but to see the dialogues more as a bigger unit. For example, if they came across idiomatic phrases, something that is not meant literally, then I underlined it so that they knew that they had to look it up as an entire phrase, and then come up with a Polish equivalent. I think that this is another way to indirectly show them what audio-visual translation is all about: it is not just translating each word, but actually translating an idea, so it is a little bit more complex. They had to look at a sentence, understand it and then express the same idea in Polish. The task was much more complex than they are used to at school but they had a lot of motivation to do that because of the atmosphere of the entire workshop.

Image from Oli Lynch on Pixbay

They could see their translations on the screen – there was an immediate result to what they were doing. The idea of this workshop was to focus on task-based learning. The students are asked to do a particular task, knowing the specific requirements, and it was not just for the task’s sake. It’s not just opening a workbook and filling the blanks, it’s a practical task. Now, the requirements for a subtitling job are very specific. During the workshop, myself and the actual German teacher from school went around and we talked to them about the different possibilities they had. So, they had our help but it was their work. What I didn’t tell them was that I was going to add translator credits so that all of their names were listed on the final version. At the end of the workshop, I glued the translations done by different groups together, and we watched the clip one more time with their subtitles. They felt they could understand the entire film now because there were subtitles, and at the end, when they saw their names they started cheering! It was just like every subtitler when they get their first job. When they see their name on the screen, it’s a really powerful moment. It was really cool for them to see what they did. I wanted to recreate that feeling for them and I think it really worked because they were really excited about the result, knowing they had done it.

It sounds like they really enjoyed it. How do you think their attitude towards subtitling and learning German changed?

 I think if I had asked them before the workshop if they were able to translate from German, they would have said “no, I don’t speak German”, because that’s the usual answer. They are usually confident with English, but with German they have to learn it. I think they would have said at the beginning “I’m not going to do it, I’m not able to do it”, and at the end it turned out that not only did they do it, but they also did a really good job. It was a really good translation and the teacher was also really surprised. She was very sceptical because she said they were beginners. She wondered how they were supposed to do it, but I said to give them a chance. She took the subtitles later on and said she was going to show them at school. She couldn’t believe it – what her students had actually done.

Image by Gerd Altman on Pixbay

That was overwhelmingly positive. What do you think that says about using subtitling as a learning tool instead of something like a vocabulary list? There’s plenty of research to say it’s a good thing, that subtitling can be used as a learning tool, but from what you observed, what do you think academics should take out of this going forward?

 I don’t think there is any disadvantage to using such materials at school. We have to understand that learners change. The way they are able to learn changes with time, and we are way past the time when you could sit a student down with a book and ask them to read and memorise it and then pass a test. That doesn’t cut it anymore. Students like audio-visual materials – they are on their phones all the time, on TikTok for example. They not only watch it, but they also create it. It’s not surprising anymore that people at school have YouTube channels and that they post videos.  We can actually use their interests to raise motivation [for language learning].  If they are posting TikTok videos or anything on their YouTube channels, they can also subtitle it. If they can subtitle it in a foreign language as well  (of course it won’t be professional, but that’s not what we are aiming for: We just want them interested in translation and in languages), they can also get more views, so it is important for them. We can see the educational profits, and they can use it as a skill for whatever they want. Learning vocabulary for a test usually means cramming a list and then forgetting it 5 minutes after the test. We have so many more tools now. It doesn’t have to be audio-visual translation, but any kind of content that is interactive.

Image by Gerd Altman on Pixbay

So, with people engaging more with audio-visual content, are there any other ways that AVT professionals can bring subtitling into discussion outside the industry?

 I think SubComm is a great idea. It’s already a great beginning, because you are trying to bridge the gap between the audio-visual professionals and researchers. I also used to be a researcher at the University, so I have this background, and I know that sometimes researchers are completely unaware of what is actually going on in the industry. Of course, they are doing great research and then they are teaching their students at the university level about audio-visual translation, but if they don’t have the insights from inside the industry, it may be too theoretical.  From what I have seen, there tends to be separate conferences for researchers and practitioners. There are a lot of conferences that are attended only by researchers or that are very industry-centred.  The exception is Languages and the Media, I think that is the biggest one, and I think everyone knows about it, but I have seen many conferences attended only by researchers and that narrows the discussions.

Another thing (which I think was also mentioned at the last SubComm event) is that we should openly discuss the translation and subtitling process. The viewers tend to criticise dubbing or subtitles when they are not happy. They go online and they complain about it.  If we talk publicly, we can ask questions. Why are these translations so bad from the public’s point of view? On what level did something go wrong? I think that together we could put more pressure on big companies for providing better quality. If the viewers are not happy, and practitioners know how to make them happy  – how to provide good quality – we need to talk about it because obviously people in charge focus on time and money. Quality comes somewhere after, but the more people talk about quality, the bigger the chance that we will actually get it.

Image by Gerd Altman on Pixbay

One last question. Going back to your subtitling workshop with the students: If each one of them went home and started a discussion with their parents, what one important thing that they learned about subtitling that day would you have liked them to discuss?

 I think I would love for them to say two things, and the first is the major one. I would want them to say they had fun, that subtitling was fun and that they had fun translating from German.  This is something that parents would never ever have heard of in the context of German learning.

I would also want them to say that subtitling is not just translating words. They saw how complex it is and they did a great job in actually translating ideas, not just words. I think if they can realise it at such a young age  (I think they were about 13 or 14), and they can explain it to their parents, then that would mean that the workshop was successful.

Image from Anil Sharma on Pixbay

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