Thoughts On Translation: Eleanor McDowall

photo of Eleanor McDowall

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.

Keeping The Magic Alive

“Translation is a kind of transubstantiation” writes Anne Michaels in her novel Fugitive Pieces, “the poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life [both] try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications. . .”

Translation can knock the life out of a documentary. In an intimate close up of two lovers whispering to each other — the language of heavy sighs and meaningful glances — translation often stumbles into the frame and proceeds to shout at the audience, drowning out the lovers’ words, loudly telling us how moving we’d find this if only we understood what was going on.

For just over a year I’ve been trying to help documentaries move from one language to another, to keep their magic, not just their meaning, alive. I run an online platform and podcast called Radio Atlas, which transforms innovative audio documentaries into subtitled films. It’s long baffled me that in audio we seem willing to miss out on so much of the work that might inspire, challenge and provoke us, just because it’s being made in a language we don’t understand. As if, in the world of cinema, they’d learned that people in Iran, Argentina and Italy were making films, but thought they were unlikely to learn anything from them and should stick to producing endless James Bond sequels instead.

Diving into the world of translation, I’ve been thinking about exactly what we’re trying to preserve as we move from one language to another — what keeps the feeling in an interview alive? How do you translate both the text and the tone of a scene? I’ve tried to develop subtitles that work in concert with the sound — that mirror the delivery of a phrase so you can hear when a voice cracks under the weight of emotion or an interviewee fails to land the punch line of a joke.

Translation is an attempt to capture the muscular music of an interviewee’s delivery, the stutters and breaths, the weight of silences. And we need these signs of life whether we’re translating with visuals or within the sonic landscape of a radio broadcast.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned from listening to producers, not working in English, about how to move from one language to another without killing the moment.

Translation Is Not Neutral

One of my favorite short documentaries of the past couple of years is Katharina Smets’ Writer. Broadcast on the Dutch radio station VPRO, it features an interview with an American author who, in an act of reverse nominative determinism, has changed his name to ‘Writer.’ Katharina wants to talk to him about his work; Writer wants to turn the interview into a date. It’s an uneasy world to wander into — one built around misunderstandings and malicious misinterpretation, a perfect example of what can be lost in translation between two people.

The feature dances artfully between Katharina speaking English in the interview and her Dutch narration. She translates sparingly — pulling out the poetry of the moment, offering glimpses of her internal monologue and the thoughts she wouldn’t dare articulate whilst alone with this man. This is not a neutral translation, it’s a translation with teeth, constantly reframing the experience with the power of time and distance.

While it’s designed for an audience with a reasonable grasp of English as well as Dutch, there’s a lot to learn from the selective nature of what she chooses to translate, as well as the way in which she uses her two voices within the documentary. In the translation she’s explicitly leading our interpretation of the scene — choosing what to emphasize, conveying the mood as much as the meaning.

Katharina told me, “I don’t really believe in a functional, neutral translator. There’s no such thing as a neutral voice . . . The translator/narrator [in Writer ] was involved, impure, attempting to keep a distance but obviously failing since it was me and I was part of the story.”

Rather than attempting to hide the preoccupations of the translator behind a false neutrality, she pushes them front and center. We feel her humanity, vulnerability and power as she shows us that this voice is not just a dispassionate observer but a tool to communicate the unsettling feeling of the moment.

The Translation Voice Is A Creative Tool

In My Share of the Sky the Danish producer Rikke Houd and the Iranian journalist Sheida Jahanbin artfully capture the disorientation of seeking refuge in a new country. They offer an inventive audio language which cracks and fragments — English, Persian and Norwegian jaggedly interrupting each other.

Made for the Norwegian radio station NRK, the documentary is built from audio diaries and recordings made by Sheida as she embarks on a new life in Norway. We listen to Sheida split into three voices: her fluid Persian, spoken with family; her careful English, in which you can almost hear her reaching for the right words; and a third voice, that of a young Norwegian woman who translates sparingly but also picks up the thread of the other voices and pulls us in a new direction — into Sheida’s inner thoughts.

The documentary boldly plays with the limits of understanding. We’re thrust into Sheida’s experience — navigating a world which can only be grasped in fragments. It’s a powerful reminder that translation is not just a functional tool, but a creative one to be played with. The effect is not to distance a listener from the subject, as translation voices often can, but to draw us closer. We don’t have to translate everything in order for a listener to know what we’re trying to say.

“I think of a story as a universe,” Rikke says, “the universe of a story is, as I imagine it, surrounded by a thin, almost invisible membrane, a bubble . . . I like to feel that the universe of the story expands and deepens, but I don’t want to break the bubble. . . A clumsy, routine translation has ripped me out of many wonderful stories. One moment I am in a place somewhere, in a situation, let’s say with a goat shepherd in Afghanistan. This radio-maker has taken me there because that’s what radio can do, make us travel in place and time. But then — bang! The shepherd is faded down (uh, I hate that!) and some totally unrelated voice recorded in a studio back home pops into the story. They are in a studio! I do not believe in them! The magic just disappears. . . If I want the listener to move close to the story, to stay and become immersed in the universe I am creating, then I will look for translation solutions that create proximity of some kind. Proximity to place, time or emotional proximity.”

Let Sound Speak When Language Can’t

“Translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation . . . Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography . . . are representational.” — Edith Grossman

Charo Calvo’s Qualia sees five women artists detail, in their mother tongue, an intense sensory experience that left a physical imprint on them. At its heart, Qualia explores moments beyond words, with women caught between languages. Originally broadcast on the much-missed Australian series Soundproof, it often leaves its English-speaking listeners in the dark about what is being said.

But where words fail, sounds speak — as Charo vividly conjures memories, creates atmospheres, holds a listener within the moment. It’s a powerful reminder of the limits of language, of what we struggle to articulate even in our own tongue.

[Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece.]

Regardless of language — I think the work that gets under my skin always shows and doesn’t tell. It knows the weight of sound and silence and how to communicate beyond what’s being said. It doesn’t fear ambiguity. When we’re moving voices across borders we need to remember to hold onto the moments beyond words.

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