Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is beginning a series of advice columns on how to handle language translation on the radio. Our first feature comes from producer Ann Heppermann who gives us her tips using audio examples from her work on the Mexican border and with Burundian refugees. There are lots of languages in the world and stories to go with them. Check these tools for telling.
Translation Advice from a Dumb American
I was raised Catholic, so if you’ll humor me for a second, I would like to start off with a confession. I am a dumb American. I speak English and that’s pretty much it. There are a few stray French phrases tucked away from Madam Petrowski’s AP class. The only one I can pull out of my pocket is, “Je suis desolee, mais j’ai oublie mon francais.” Google Translate decodes it as “I am sorry, but I forgot my French.”
And as much as I wish I could change, my nearly 40-year-old brain is a language sieve rather than a language sponge.
But I am actually very respectful of language. And over the years, I have done numerous stories where the person on the other end of the microphone does not speak the same language as me. I think about translation in radio all of the time. Nothing irritates me more than what I call “The Duck and Cover.” You know what I am talking about. This is the point in a radio story where you hear a person speaking her native language for two seconds, only to have her voice instantly replaced by an intern who was handed a script and told, “Here, read this. You’re a young woman from Senegal. Go.” In reality, I’m sure the execution is not so thoughtless, but “The Duck and Cover” just sounds so dehumanizing to me.
The voice is intimate. It’s part of what makes us human. When we treat unfamiliar languages simply as words to translate, we create unnecessary distance. It’s hard enough for a listener to cross a language gap and connect with the people in our stories, why put up barriers? So throughout the years, I have compiled a few strategies that I hope help listeners bond with the voices in my stories — even if they don’t understand a word spoken.
Main Characters As Interviewers and Translators
In the summer of 2013, I produced a story called, “The Real Housewife of Juarez” for This American Life. It is an audio diary by Emily Bonderer Cruz. Emily is a United States citizen. She fell in love with and married Raymundo whom she met in Phoenix. Raymundo had crossed into Arizona illegally years before they met. After the anti-immigration bill SB1070 passed, the couple constantly worried that Raymundo would be picked up by the local police and sent to jail. So in 2010, they moved to the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Juarez is just across the border from El Paso, Texas. Emily crosses the border to work while they live in Juarez. Back then, Juarez was known as “The Murder Capitol of the World” as the drug wars played out in its streets. Moving there seemed like an unimaginably crazy idea to a lot of people, but for a lot of reasons it made sense for them.
When I was reporting their story, I knew that Emily was going to be the main character. She is charming, hilarious, sometimes bawdy, and a wonderful tour guide. At the center of everything though, was the love between Emily and Ray. They have an incredible marriage. They laugh all the time and are best friends. I wanted to make sure that their relationship was front and center in the story. However, Ray did not speak English, and I was worried that an essential part of their story would be lost.
Emily and I decided that she would interview her husband in Spanish and then translate the tape later. I gave Emily a list of questions beforehand. This process benefited the storytelling in a few ways. First, since I was not there, Emily and Ray could talk without Emily having to stop the conversation every sentence or two in order to translate for me. Also, since the conversation was between just the two of them, Ray could be himself and the fun loving nature of their relationship would more easily come through. I particularly love this tiny moment.
After Emily interviewed Ray, I gave her another recorder to translate into. What happened next was surprising and wonderful. As she was listening, Emily gave mini commentaries and insights into their conversation. She did things like reveal the semi-secret details about how they met.
Emily translates, yes, but she also adds her own version to her husband’s story (“Doesn’t he see all this?” slays me every time). The story becomes richer because of it. Emily also brings the listener into the unfiltered version of the time they met. It’s so relatable. I am sure there was more than one couple listening to their story and smiling about how fast things moved with their own partner.
So, if it works for the story, have your main character act as an interviewer and as a translator. You need to make sure that the people you’re working with are comfortable collaborating with you in such a way. You will also be acting as a teacher here because you will need to train them on recording and interviewing.
Translators as Part of the Story
In 2007, Kara Oehler and I produced a series for Weekend America called, “One Thing.” The stories profiled various refugees relocated to various cities in the United States. We asked them about the one thing they cherished most from their home country.
For “One Thing — From Burundi to Phoenix,” we interviewed two women, Jean and Claudine, about their harrowing journey from Burundi to Phoenix, Arizona. Thousands of Burundian refugees were being resettled there after spending years in Rwandan refugee camps. At the time, Jeanne Nizigiyimana was a caseworker with Catholic Charities. She was helping many of the Burundian refugees transition into their lives in Phoenix. She is also from Burundi.
Like Emily, Jeanne became both translator and story commentator. She was the translator for our interview with the women, Jean and Claudine. Jeanne wanted to teach us more about Burundian culture. One night, Jeanne hosted a party at her house with other Burundian women in the area. It was a festive evening where they made Burundian food, showed us a few traditional dances, and played musical instruments. We recorded everything.
In the final iteration of the story, we used Jeanne as our main guide; she commented on the plight of the women and the situation of Burundian refugees. We also used the Burundian women that Jeanne introduced us to as the voice-over actors. My opinion is that you should strive to find voice-over actors from the same country as the people you interview — particularly for a smaller country like Burundi. We wanted Weekend America’s listeners to hear Burundian accents.
Listening back, I realize that we tried to be sonically creative at nearly every turn. We had the voice-over actors read the translation for both women in order to layer the storytelling at particular points in the piece. We did a lot of quick cuts between the interviewees, Jeanne, and the voice-over actors. For music, we used sounds from the traditional instrument and whispering song that one of the women played in our Burundian educational evening. Language has such a musical quality to it. Try to find it and the result will be a much more nuanced, appealing piece.
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You Don’t Have to Translate Everything and Universal Sounds
One night, I was with Marianne McCune and had her listen to an early version of “The Real Housewives of Juarez.” I particularly wanted her opinion on one scene. I did not know if I should include it. Emily and Ray are driving to work. It’s early in the morning; about 5 a.m. Emily tells you that they’re tired and not morning people. While she is giving a bit of commentary on the plight of maquiladora workers, they get into a fight.
Marianne urged me to keep it in. The tape was emotional and said a lot, even if you didn’t translate it. It’s an early morning spat between husband and wife. Plus, Emily diffuses the scene at the end with her lighthearted take on the scene and “Have a good day.”
There are times when emotion trumps language. For me, this is also true of the smaller moments — sighs, yawns, laughter. I find that when I am working with a story that requires translation, I will highlight these sounds more often than I normally would. My gut tells me that this is because in a story where someone is speaking a language unfamiliar to most of your listeners, you need to use as many universal sounds as possible. We all know what a yawn means.
Hire Actors To Do Your Voice-overs
Actors are trained professionals. If you have the time and the resources, hire an actor to play one of the people in your story rather than have just anyone read the script. If possible, find someone who understands the language of the person you’re translating. This way, you can play the actor the original tape and they can better match the timbre and tone of the interviewee.
One of the privileges of making radio is that we have a professional excuse to talk with strangers. It’s like an EZ Pass to intimacy. And part of my job is to make sure that our conversations don’t end up like The Telephone Game — garbled and unrecognizable. It’s particularly important when the people sharing stories do not speak the same language as our listeners. Translation is more than simply deciphering words; it’s about articulating a person’s experience. So as radio reporters and producers, we owe it to our interviewees and our listeners to come up with better strategies than “The Duck and Cover.”
One last bit of advice. If you are reading this and you’re in high school or college, do yourself a favor and study another language. Spend a year abroad. Make it a goal to be fluent in at least one other language before your brain calcifies. Or you’ll end up like me, Ann Catherine Heppermann, just another dumb American.