Thoughts on Translation: Ann Heppermann

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.

Listen to “Example 1”

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.

Listen to “Example 2”

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.

Listen to “Example 3”

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.

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.

Listen to “Example 4”

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.


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  • Carla Green



    Thanks so much for this! I don’t know if you’ll have any tips for this, but do you have any creative strategies for situations where the reporter speaks the foreign language, and the audience doesn’t? The use of a subject as a translator (and/or translator as subject) feels a bit false, in that case, but I’d still love to be able to avoid the “Duck and Cover” approach as much as possible.

  • Ann Heppermann



    Carla, I would say that you are at an advantage here. One thing that I did not go into in this article because I think it will be addressed by other contributors in this series is to read the translation yourself. Kelly McEvers and Gregory Warner have both done this so eloquently over the years. This is just my opinion, but I feel like when I hear the reporter translating a person’s words rather than some random voice, it creates a more intimate connection between the reporter and interviewee. I think doing this also changes the writing style so that the conversation that happened between the reporter and the person being interviewed comes more to the fore.

  • Federica Sasso



    Hello and thank you so much for this series! Constantly producing stories for a non-English speaking audiences is a beautiful but sometimes frustrating challenge and I find myself using the “Duck and Cover” way too much, especially in shorter, less narrative pieces. Thanks to Ann Heppermann and looking forward to the next features.

  • Gregory Warner



    Ann, loved this essay, especially the idea that we don’t have to translate everything. Such a great point to remember, and you provide a perfect example of that.

  • Jennifer Dunn



    Such an important issue that I’ve struggled with a lot reporting from China (where I can work on my own) and Colombia (where I usually had a translator along). Nothing worse than ‘that’ critical moment or intonation in someone’s voice getting burried by a v/o. It is so great when editors are sensitive to helping avoid that. But there are a few logistical challenges that surface in trying different approaces: 1.time constraints- usually isn’t time to let original voices run as long as desired. 2. If I voice the translation, then the vo is in 3rd rather than 1st person, which can take some impact away. I also worry about listeners getting bored with my voice, if I am essentially reading all parts. (Not that others don’t do that very well!) 3. When I am doing the mix, I usually can’t afford to hire actors for voicing. 4. When I am doing the mix from the field, I rarely have access to enough fluent English speakers wherever I am, and really scrounge to find enough people to help out. Sometimes this means friends back home taping voices on their iphones and sending them to me……
    Another issue is that of paraphrasing in translations, no matter who is reading it. People can jump around a lot- particularly in telling highly emotional personal stories- and a bit of paraphrasing is necessary, but always feels like slightly murky ethical territory.
    I really appreciate the discussion on this, such a major issue in all my reporting and sometimes it can feel a bit lonely navigating these issues.

  • Giovanna Lester (@cariobana)



    A masterful touch using native speakers as interpreters and for the voice-overs. I am an interpreter and listening to the couple – Emily and Ray – and then later to the Burundian lady in the voice-over did add a touch of emotion to the pieces. Thank you.

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