Thoughts On Translation: Luis Trelles

photo of Luis Trelles in the field

Interpreters Of (Radio) Maladies

For many Americans, having a grandmother, a father or a spouse who doesn’t speak English is one of the defining features of life in this country. In a time when certain communities seem to be pushed out from the national identity, listening to the broad spectrum of accents, languages and ethnicities that make up this country is more important than ever. As a Puerto Rican producer who regularly works in Spanish, English and Spanglish, it’s very exciting to see how journalists from all backgrounds keep forging the future of audio storytelling by broadening the scope and reach of what a great American story sounds like, even if it’s not in English.

Audio can be an unforgiving medium for what have traditionally been labeled as foreign languages. Previous features in this series have highlighted the fact that there is no way of putting subtitles on a piece of audio. The next best thing is the voice-over, or as Ann Heppermann calls it, “The Duck and Cover.” I hate voice-overs, and have rarely heard a piece in which they actually work. More often than not, they end up sounding clunky and hopelessly out of date, (like listening to a BBC radio piece from the 50s that probably features cringe-worthy anthropological narration, and refers to people from non-English speaking countries as “natives,” or worse). In essence, voice-overs feel like they are rude, blunt instruments. They boil down to someone talking over somebody else in order to hit the audience over the head with phrases in English.

So, if the voice-over approach doesn’t work, what can be done to include the voices of characters that don’t speak English? I think that it all starts with selecting the right person to help tell their stories. From the beginning, the focus should be on who is doing the translating and why. Ideally, the right reporter or producer will either come from the community where the story takes place, or have an easy familiarity with it.

Something amazing happens when a bilingual, bicultural storyteller bridges the divide between her community and a broader audience. When the right elements come together, translation becomes almost unnecessary, at least in the classical sense in which a person gives a literal word-for-word version of what the speaker of a different language is saying. Instead, the producer takes on the role of interpreter, providing context, color and commentary, and finding themes that are universal in the process. I’m always on the lookout for stories like these in my podcast feed. It’s also what I’ve tried to pursue as a reporter and producer with Radio Ambulante, a podcast that tells the stories of Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S.

So, how do the right elements come together? Here are some thoughts:

It’s Not Just About Language

In “Man Choubam (I Am Good),” producer Sharon Mashihi explores the fraught relationship that she has with her mother. The piece is set against a very specific backdrop: the Jewish Iranian community in the U.S. At one point in the episode, Mashihi uses a phrase in Farsi to underscore the main theme of the story. It happens in a scene where Mashihi embarks on a self-help cruise with her mother. As she attends a live session by Iranian-American radio psychologist Dr. Holakouee — her mother is a big fan — she interprets the phrase for the first time.

Listen to ““Man Choubam” clip”

On a purely technical level, Mashihi is an unreliable translator. She says so herself, explaining that she “speaks Farsi, but not that well.” To be clear, she nails the exact meaning of “man choubam,” but getting a perfect translation of Dr. Holakouee’s seminar is not really the point. Mashihi weaves in and out of the self-help presentation through her narration, providing telling details (Halokouee looks like her grandfather) and essential context for understanding the scene.

Interpreting On Site, Eliciting Reactions In English

Another way of approaching interpretation is by doing part of the work during the interview. In Radio Ambulante, I often interview people who switch back and forth between English and Spanish. Making these interviews work for an English-speaking audience can be a challenge. I’ve learned that part of the trick is to let people express themselves freely, without forcing them to stick to one language. As an interviewer, I make sure to get the full sense of the parts that are coming out in Spanish while I’m with them.

I do that in this clip, from the Radiolab episode “Los Frikis,” about a group of punk kids in Cuba in the late 80s and early 90s. These young rockers were regularly persecuted by the police for the clothes they wore and the music they listened to. During the height of the HIV epidemic in the island, they decided to inject themselves with blood that had HIV, as a way of escaping their oppressive circumstances. It is, of course, a hard story about the extreme decisions that people make when they feel like they have no choice. At the center of the episode is a young rebel named Papo “La Bala” (Papo “The Bullet”), one of the leaders of this self-injector movement. In this clip his friends Jesus Díaz and Luis Hernández give us a first glimpse of what Papo was like.

Listen to ““Los Frikis” Clip”

My favorite part of this interview is the way in which Luis Hernández practically translates himself. He switches back and forth between English and Spanish to describe the way that Papo would defiantly wear a bandana with the American flag, as a way to rile up members of the Cuban Communist Party. Letting the natural flow of the conversation run its course is essential. During the interview, I interject only when necessary to fill in the meaning of any key words spoken in Spanish. I also react to Hernández’s anecdote in English, eliciting reactions from him in that language.

Paraphrasing In The Narration

Going through interviews in multiple languages can seem like a daunting process. It all starts with the producer’s ability to select the best tape. In the case of an interview that is not in English, the emphasis should be on finding the most expressive non-verbal moments. What makes a piece of tape great is not only what is said, but the way in which the person talking is expressing herself. Sighs, laughs, rising tones, whispers, sudden moments of silence or hesitation; all of these are universal gestures.

After selecting the tape, most of the interpreting usually takes place in the writing of the script. You can hear this at work in the next example. The Latino USA episode “In the Hands of the State” takes a deep look at the disproportionate way in which child welfare services in the United States separate children from women of color. Reporter Virginia Lora focuses on the story of Angelica, a Mexican woman who is struggling with depression while also trying to keep New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services and Families (ACS) from taking her four children away. In this next clip, Angelica recounts the fallout from a family separation that was later overturned in court.

Listen to “In the Hands of the State”

Reporter Virginia Lora keeps the actualities of Angelica brief and to the point, keeping only the most expressive tape. Instead of doing a literal, word-for-word translation, she paraphrases what Angelica is talking about in her narration. Note that the reporter does not use the first person when interpreting for Virginia, but instead refers to her in the third person, which comes across as more natural.

Translation Is A Two-Way Process

As a reporter/producer for Radio Ambulante, I’m often interpreting interviews and scenes that take place in English for a Spanish-language audience. In the episode “Welcome to the Jungle” I follow Alexis Figueroa, a Puerto Rican autograph collector who aggressively pursues his hobby in Chicago, where he lives. In this next scene, he tries to get the autograph of legendary Guns n Roses guitarist Slash, one of his childhood heroes, but he runs up against unexpected resistance from Slash’s bodyguard, and from the rockstar himself.

Listen to ““Welcome to the Jungle” clip”

Interpreting beyond language, doing on-site interpretation, paraphrasing into and out of tape in a “foreign language”. . . I end up doing a little bit of each, and it’s all in the service of interpreting an English-language scene for a Spanish-language audience. Most of the English-language clips are used for color, but they’re still accurate. This is important, not just for the veracity of any piece, but also because many listeners will actually know the languages that you’re working with (in this case English and Spanish), and will feel cheated if the narration doesn’t correspond to what is actually being said.

Hopefully, as more stories with important characters and scenes in different languages show up in podcasts and radio shows, there will also be a rise in bilingual or dual language versions of the same story. One of the versions would be for English-speaking listeners and the other in the native language where the story takes place. As podcasting becomes more international, I look forward to listening to English-language versions of stories produced throughout the world. More importantly, the idea that American podcasts are also made in different languages is very exciting. It makes our podcast programming sound as vast and diverse as the country.

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