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.
“How hard can this possibly be?” we naïvely asked ourselves.
After all, we had just concluded the inaugural season of our new radio show, Sippur Israeli, which — within the span of a few short months — had blossomed from a homegrown podcast with eleven downloads (no joke!) into a national radio show in Israel, aired during one of the most listened-to timeslots of the week.
We had set out with the utterly presumptuous goal of creating an Israeli This American Life and — at least in local terms — we appeared to be on the right path. Even Ira himself seemed to agree. Sort of.
There’s a Hebrew saying — im ha’ochel ba ha’te’avon — which means ‘appetite comes with food,’ or ‘the more you eat, the hungrier you get.’ And indeed, by the end of that initial season in Hebrew we had decided to embark on yet another new, and impossibly audacious, adventure: an English language version of our show. As some good folks pointed out at the time, this wasn’t the wisest of moves since we were, in essence, trying to create an American version of the Israeli version of This American Life….
Surely, there were many challenges to consider: we were about to enter a much larger playing field, and — somewhat dauntingly — one that included all the shows we admired and had worked so hard to emulate. (How, for instance, could we ever compete for the ears of listeners accustomed to Dylan Keefe’s masterful sound design at Radiolab?). And besides, we had no name recognition, no platform and no distributor.
But at least in terms of content, we were fairly calm. We had stories — a whole season of them — and all we seemingly had to do was select the “greatest hits,” translate them, and . . voila.
“How hard can this possibly be?”
The answer, we soon discovered, was “very hard.”
You see, what we failed to take into account was that radio isn’t like TV or film. You can’t just slap subtitles on the bottom of the screen and call it a day. Instead, we quickly found ourselves having to go back to folks we had interviewed in the past, and rerecord them, this time in a language that — as you can hear in the clip above — didn’t always roll off their tongue. Some stories actually improved, with clunky literal translations, hilarious Hebrew-isms and quirky turns-of-phrase creeping into the tape. My favorite was when an interviewee repeatedly talked about vacationing on the “Sinai half island.” It took me a while to realize that he was using the Hebrew phrase — hatzi ii (literally half an island) — for ‘peninsula.’ But more often than not, things started to fall apart. Subjects got confused, frustrated and impatient. Their sentences became long, cumbersome and often simply incoherent.
We began to employ a host of techniques to overcome these challenges. The easiest, of course, was dubbing. I won’t go into the extensive theoretical debate about dubbing and voice-overs (for wonderful insights on that check out, for instance, Jonathan Miller and Greg Warner’s articles in this series), but I will say that we tried almost everything:
We used dubbers who matched the interviewee’s age and gender.
We experimented with dubbers who were conspicuously younger.
And with dubbers of the opposite gender.
We tried out dubbers whose delivery was flat and removed.
And, conversely, dubbers who inserted a ton of emotion into the lines.
We worked with professional dubbers, such as actors, podcast hosts or radio broadcasters.
And at times we went to the other extreme, using friends or parents. (Here are my dear parents lending a helping hand).
Sometimes we let the original Hebrew play in the clear in its entirety, other times we placed the dubbing over the original tape (the dreaded “duck and cover” that Ann Heppermann so dislikes), and occasionally we cut the Hebrew tape out altogether.
In one case, we brought in an actress to record an entire first-person narrative (and a very personal one at that) in lieu of the real author, whose English was deemed to be too heavily accented to be heard at all. (Importantly, though, we opted for an actress who herself had a bit of an Israeli accent).
Every so often, we recorded a bunch of dubbers, till we felt we got the right one.
Now, listening to the trio of dubbers above, you might wonder whether the various takes are actually that different from each other. What made the third one, which is the one we ultimately used, feel like the “winner”? In my mind, the goal with dubbing is to keep the listener in the story. Anything too jarring, too different, too surprising or attention-grabbing simply takes the listener out of the narrative, out of the drama. For me, at least, the less you notice the dubber, the better. And since we inevitably lose layers of nuance in the process — elements such as the way a character’s voice trembles or inflects, the small idiosyncrasies of speech and the tonality of words — dubbing is best used sparingly.
Seen that way, it’s almost unmanageable to have the main character of a story fully dubbed. But on the other hand, if we never dub protagonists, we significantly limit the kind of stories we can tell. All non-English-speaking Israelis, who are the majority of the population, essentially become ‘off limits.’ That doesn’t seem prudent either.
What is prudent is this...
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But even when our interviewees had no problem retelling their story in English, we came up against serious translation obstacles.
We had often spent long months interviewing them the first time around. Since we never really knew what tape we would ultimately need, or even which parts of the story were most important, we would let the conversation flow in all directions. The result was a meandering stroll around the story, one in which the interviewer and the interviewee took parallel paths, explored surprising turns into other storylines, and came back to the main one, over and over again. This flexibility was crucial because we would often come in thinking the story was one thing, only to discover, mid-interview, that it was something entirely different. Only later, in the editing process, would we distill the dozens of hours of tape into bite-size inserts which would become the building blocks of the final audio piece.
The second time around, however, the process was completely different since we already knew what the story was about and which “building blocks” we would need in order to tell it. There was no need to recreate the meandering experience, or go on an explorative journey together. It was almost as if we had ‘lines’ we needed the interviewee to say, and it became an exercise in acting and directing, rather than in journalism. Here’s some raw tape of what that sounded like.
I’m sure documentary purists will have something to say about this practice. But in our defense, all we asked interviewees to do was repeat their own words, almost verbatim, in a different language. Never did we put new words into their mouths. Some interviewees — like Chaya Ben-Baruch who you can hear in the clip above — were amazing at “acting themselves.” (If you listen to the end result of that story, I doubt you will be able to tell how it was created). Yet for others, this task proved more challenging; you could hear that the tape lacked a certain spontaneity or freshness.
As a fun exercise, listen to the following two clips, each of which has the same segment of a story twice, first in English and then in Hebrew. Try to compare the two languages, even if you don’t understand the Hebrew. Does one sound more fluid than the other? Which do you think was the original recording — Hebrew or English? (Hint: in one case it was Hebrew and in the other, it was English).
Translating A Culture
If we approach translation merely as an attempt to convey words and thoughts in another language, there are a bunch of tricks and techniques at our disposal. We’ve explored some of them, and there are surely others as well.
But zooming out, there is a much more substantial translation challenge: how do you translate a culture? In our case, we were telling a largely American audience about life half-way around the globe. And we kept on asking ourselves whether everything is translatable, or whether some things are so culturally unique to Israel that they are simply impenetrable to an outsider.
It wasn’t only matters pertaining to Israel itself (say the name of an army unit, a certain neighborhood, a cliché song, etc.), but also concepts within Judaism. As our audience grew, and began to include an increasing number of non-Jewish listeners, we wondered whether we had to stop and explain what a yeshiva was, or a kippa, or Shabbat. What, we asked, constituted that evasive category of “common knowledge”? And were we — as people who did understand those cultural or religious references — good judges of this? I remember, early on, calling up friends with odd questions. “So Joe,” I’d poll my old, Catholic college roommate out of the blue, “do you know what Pesach is? And would it be clearer if I said Passover?”
Our speech is laden with meaning. There is the obvious, dictionary, meaning of the words, but then there is an entire world of subtext with which we convey additional information. What are we trying to imply by saying “franks” rather than “hotdogs” or “wieners”? And what about describing someone as “crunchy” or something as being “sooooo Brooklyn”? Surely this is meant to evoke a response from the listener. But it only works if you and the listener share a certain understanding, a certain cultural, historical, political or social knowledge. If you don’t share that common ground, you need to explain the references.
When we first set off, This American Life producer Nancy Updike told us about their ‘Edamame Rule.’ It is sort of a litmus test of what you can safely assume the listener knows and what you must explain. If I recall correctly, it came into existence when their staff debated whether it was okay to casually drop the word “edamame” in a sentence, or whether it required some sort of clarifying cause, such as “edamame comma the Japanese soy bean comma.”
We applied the ‘Edamame Rule’ frequently. Sometimes we determined that the payoff was worth the mini-ethnographic/historical/cultural aside, but more often than not, we concluded that it wasn’t. Overexplaining, we noticed, can swiftly become tedious. Over time, this began to impact not only the way in which we told stories, but indeed the kind of stories we decided to tell to begin with. Our English-speaking audience, we started to realize, didn’t always want the same content as our Hebrew-speaking listeners. Gradually, fewer and fewer of our stories were “remakes.”
Still, the mandate of our show remains telling stories from another place, and exposing listeners to our experience of Israel. And as such, we occasionally take risks with stories we aren’t sure will totally “translate.” Listen to this piece, about a famous hummus joint in Jerusalem.
This is perhaps the most culturally inaccessible piece we have aired, since it requires a ton of ‘inside’ information — about the weekly ritual of friends getting together on Friday afternoons to catch up over a bowl of hummus, about downtown Jerusalem, about taking military-like planning and applying it to civilian-life scenarios. Ultimately, after much internal debate, we decided that there was enough universal sentiment and humor to make the story work. And once we released it, something interesting happened: our listeners were fully divided in their feedback. About half of them (including my Italian wife) didn’t get it at all. They thought it was silly, pointless and — frankly — dumb. The other half thought it was fun, quirky and cleverly captured some sliver of Jerusalem’s insanity. Never before (or since) had we seen such a polarized reaction to a story. The only way I can explain this is that for some listeners this hyper-Israeli story “translated,” and for others it simply didn’t. (I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about this piece in the comments below).
Radio Is Translation
But when you stop to think about it, you realize that in a larger sense, translation is what producing radio stories is all about. It’s a challenge with which we are all constantly engaged. There are, of course, the obvious translation tasks — translating from one language into another, dubbing, voice-overing and the lot. But we are translating even when the words need no translation: we try to recount the experiences of people who live very different lives — in different towns and neighborhoods, different family structures, religious backgrounds, educational opportunities, class divides, professions, and the list goes on and on — and make them accessible to listeners who might have a hard time even imagining such realities. Getting that right, allowing listeners to step outside of their own lives and see the world through someone else’s eyes, is perhaps the hardest and most magical translation task of all.
[Note: The photo at the top of this post was taken by Federica Sasso.]