Thoughts On Translation: Gregory Warner

This is part of Transom’s occasional series of advice columns on how to handle language translation on the radio. You can find the entire Thoughts On Translation series here.

Getting good tape from a foreign-language speaker shouldn’t be any different from getting good tape, period. As with any interview, we want more than thoughts and opinions. We want emotion. Reaction. Tape that conveys a sense of what it feels like to be in that person’s presence.

Foreign-language tape makes that task much, much harder.

Because when we take our tape back to the studio to produce our piece, we’re going to have to cover up most of that good tape with someone else’s words. The meaning gets through, but the voice is lost. The emotional color is muffled. The person is disembodied. And since they’re talking to us through a third party, that sense of conversational flow is gone.

In most interviews, in most news stories, a word-for-word, studio-recorded translation suits fine. But to make foreign-language interviews into powerful, whisper-in-your-ear radio, we can enter the interview aware of these handicaps, looking for ways to collect better translation tape as well as moments that need no translation at all. Here are five techniques you might try.

1. You Translate In Scene

This is basically like a reporter’s stand-up, except instead of describing what you’re seeing, you translate what you’re hearing. Rob Gifford’s example below is acrobatic, but you don’t have to be fluent like Rob, and you don’t have to tackle more than a phrase or two. As in Lourdes’ example below, even a brief moment of direct exchange can make a scene pop out.

Listen to “On The Road in China”

(You can listen to this piece in full here.)

Listen to “Mexican Migrants Leave Kids, Problems Back Home”

(You can listen to this piece in full here.)

2. Use Your Field Translator

There is often more energy and presence in your field translator’s words than anything you’ll recreate later in a studio. Have your translator use the “I” form (unless you’re going to use the same translator for multiple voices, in which case you want third person.) This piece from Kelly McEvers does the trifecta: first person, third person, as well as translation by Kelly herself.

Listen to NPR’s “For Those Still in Syria, A Daily Struggle” by Kelly McEvers

To make editing easier, coach your translator to translate often, every few sentences if possible. (If the subject balks at the frequent interruption, explain to them that you’re trying to get all their words accurately, which has the advantage of being both flattering and mostly true.) Match the gender of your translator and subject, or use a woman translator — the ear can better tolerate a female voice translating for a male speaker than vice versa. And don’t hesitate to treat your translator as an interviewee: encourage him to restate or clarify or even gently correct pronunciation.

In this story I did from Afghanistan for This American Life, the first words we hear from our hero Mohammed Sabir are in English. Since he’s going to speak in Dari for the rest of the piece, it’s nice to establish his real voice up top of the piece. Then he switches to Dari, and the interpreter takes over, summarizing a phrase that I thought sounded better in the original. (I speak almost no Dari, but at the time I was going to a lot of Afghan restaurants, where you frequently hear those two words: sweet and tasty.) So I corrected the interpretation, and then he added more to that, and in the final we left in the whole exchange. I’m not sure why we left in my voice, but it seems to work, and looking back I think one of the reasons it works is that by showing the seams on the imperfect act of translation, it establishes both interviewee and interpreter as distinct characters.

Listen to “A Good Year For Grand Gestures”

(You can listen to this piece in full here.)

Finally, when using field translation, safeguard for accuracy. When producer Michael May was reporting this piece about forced labor in textile mills in rural India, he interviewed two teenage girls who told him, through a translator, that they were being worked so hard that their menstrual cycles had ceased.

After Michael said goodbye to the girls and drove the six hours back to the airport and flew back to America and had the interview professionally translated, he discovered that this and many other strikingly intimate details were not actually in the tape! His field translator, a local aid worker, had either made up those details to bring the interview more pathos, or else added details that he knew to be true but that the interviewees had not themselves disclosed to a Western reporter. This is frustratingly common. Many of the untrained interpreters who we conscript in far-flung places perceive their job as more interpretive than interpreter.

So even on tight deadline, take a few minutes to check that the translations are the right ones. However, the messiness of field translation is what makes it spark. Some of my favorite moments of field-translated tape are when the curtain is pulled back a bit and the interpreter herself emerges as a human being. This example from Nancy Updike and Larry Kaplow in Iraq is one of the most powerful. It hits me every time.

Listen to “Iraq After Us”

(You can listen to this piece is full here.)

3. Slov Ni Nada

As anyone who has attempted to navigate a taxi or make a new friend in a foreign country will know, words aren’t the only way we communicate with our fellow humans. Grunts and howls can do the job. In this story I produced from Ethiopia, the emotional expressions are like clues that make the audience a more active part of the translation process. We hear the laughter, then we hear the sobs, and both times we’re already guessing the meaning even before the translation kicks in.

Listen to “This Story Changed a Photographer’s Lens”

(You can listen to this piece in full here.)

4. What We’ve Got Here is a Failure To Communicate, and That’s OK

Ilunga is a word in a local language of Southwest Congo that roughly translates to “someone who forgives the first offense, tolerates the second, but neither forgives nor tolerates the third.” That’s an untranslatable word, and you’re lucky if your interviewee uses one. Keep your ears alert to hiccups and breakdowns in the act of translation. In this piece, a Russian-speaker in Eastern Ukraine named Misha is trying to explain to me the difference between the pronunciation of Homer (of The Simpsons) in Russian vs Ukrainian:

Listen to “What The Simpsons Says about Ukraine’s Language Divide” by Gregory Warner.

Listening back to this piece from early April is a bit unsettling, given that NPR host David Greene’s premonition came so rapidly true — Russian separatists did use language politics as a justification for war. In that light, Russian-speaking Misha’s failure to explain his love for Ukranian (or the failure of my American ears to hear the difference), and his little resigned laugh that follows — reveal much more than his words allow.

5. A Taste of the Mother Tongue

One last thing about Misha. He didn’t want to speak English. He would have preferred to do the whole interview in Russian, if I’d let him. (We did the interview half in English, half in Russian.) This may be heretical to admit in a series that’s supposed to be all about using translated tape, and of course we want our interviewee to be as comfortable and self-expressive as possible, which often means accommodating their native language. But on the other hand, if your foreign language speaker can deliver some snippets of intelligible English — even “my name is,” even “yes” — that will give you the option of producing a piece that contains some of your subject’s authentic, untranslated voice that listeners can more easily connect with.

And there’s another kind of connection that can result from encouraging your interviewee to talk directly to you instead of to your translator. Some years ago, driving down a dusty road in northern Afghanistan, I came upon an old man with a white beard standing next to a pothole holding a shovel. Every time a car passed, the man would fill in the hole with a bit of dirt. For this labor, critical to preventing the pothole from reaching axle-cracking depths, passing motorists would give him about three cents. I stopped the car, pulled out my microphone and heard his story: he had broken his leg, so was unable to farm; he had 13 daughters, so no son to earn money; most motorists never gave him any money at all, etc, etc. It was all very grim, and, I’m sorry to say it, forgettable. Just another poor dude scraping by in the global economy. So I mustered up the courage to ask him: did he speak any English? The poor illiterate farmer was angry and embarrassed at the question. Against all rules of etiquette, I persisted. A sentence? A word? Finally he relented, with a single word: “Bush!” (as in George). Then he laughed. I laughed. The picture above was taken. In that moment, he wasn’t talking to my translator but directly to me. Actually, I suppose he was poking fun at me, his first American interlocutor, and tickled with himself that he could.

As much as making meaning, language in a radio story is about creating a connection — between you and them. Between them and your listener. Between a radio in America and whatever country your microphone happens to be in. Sometimes, even a single word can be the bridge.


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  • Marco Raaphorst



    This is an interesting series! A couple of months ago I did a radio documentary for Dutch Radio. One of the interviewees was English, the rest was Dutch and Belgium (Dutch speaking Belgiums I should say). That was not a problem, the producer told me, people in the Netherlands should be able to understand English. Nice one, but now I have a documentary which the rest of the world doesn’t understand because it contains Dutch (link to the audio-file I have decided to make an English transcript of it which I will make available online soon, I hope. But it leaves me wondering what to do next. Dutch radio want me to produce Dutch documentaries but when they go online they have a problem in my opinion… so, I am looking for a solution. Maybe do 2 versions? Any ideas?

  • Gregory Warner




    This is a great question, and a dilemma that I haven’t really had to grapple with. One thing I’ve seen, at Third Coast and other seminars, is producers providing an English-language transcript of their foreign-language doc, as you’re planning to do. That’s far from ideal, but since your envisioned English-speaking audience is accessing the work online, then it sounds like the transcript link will at least let you share the work with non-Dutch speakers. Slightly more work would be to simply produce another version overdubbing the Dutch parts with an English voice. You could think about hiring actors to make the dubbing sound less tedious.

    There are really brilliant radio producers out there that deal with the issues of audiences in two languages, like Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Rikke Houd, Kaye Mortley, and many others that might have some creative solutions that you can adapt. But it sounds like if you’re going into the reporting of these two new Dutch-language documentaries with your two audiences in mind, you might find your own unexpected solutions in the field. Just imagine there’s a little English-speaker inside your microphone who, every so often, needs to be clued in about what’s going on. Guide that listener a bit, in whispers if need be. “So,” you might quietly say into your mic, “Nigel van Wees is now guiding me along the outer rim of the smelting plant, shaking his fist at the kokenfaadel, or little hot stones.” (FADE UP: van Wees shouting ‘kokenfaadel’ against the roar.) That sort of brief English-language stand-up and on scene translation will allow you later, in the English-only version, to cut in more of your own voice in scene and less of the Dutch voices that you’ll end up unfortunately having to overdub anyway.

  • Juan



    I just found this article, so I hope you still see my question.
    I really like this advices about translation, but here is something I wonder everytime I listen to a piece that presents two different languages and you have translation on the scene:
    How do you work technically? does the translator uses his own mic and recorder or do you keep your mic going going from subject to translator back and forth?
    Juan – Caracas, Venezuela

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