Could We Be Getting a Radiolab in Español?

For most podcast fans, their voices are instantly recognizable. After all, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad have been creatively tackling the sprawling questions about life in their crazy popular NPR show Radiolab for more than 10 years now. Described as “The Sound of Science” by the New York Times, the show is less stuffy than it seems – it’s a fluid exploration of the big stuff (i.e. time, death, morality, memory) that blends hard facts and speculation, journalism and theater. The final product is succinct, thought-provoking, and frankly addictive. But can its distinctive sensibility be translated? The show is on a mission to find out.

In late October, Radiolab announced an experiment: “Radiolab en Español.” Spearheaded by two fans, Alberto Ferreras and Walyce Almeida, the Spanish-language translation of the show began as a volunteer effort, a labor of love. The results of this experiment are not yet clear, but the exercise has raised important questions over the ambiguous nature of translation and all the baggage that it entails — in other words, just the kind of stuff that might get explored in a Radiolab episode.

Alberto Ferreras, the producer (and Español version of Jad Abumrad) of the Radiolab show in Spanish had this to say over a phone call:

“I translated a song for Madonna in the year 2000. When that song came out, a lot of people loved it and a lot of people were like, who translated this piece of shit?”

Translation, in other words, is a culturally fraught matter. There’s a reason verbs like butchered and mangled are used to describe linguistic errors; often, they are perceived as assaults, as though language is an innocent baby being beaten by a literary brute. The intricate and subjective process of translation is an art, and can be a daunting task. But in Ferreras’ case, the need to communicate trumps these concerns, and he was willing to brave criticisms in order to open a previously unexplored subject to people who might otherwise have never heard of it.  How do you go about this and stay true to your original voice while altering it to suit the conventions of another tongue?

This is simply impossible in a literal sense. As Ferreras said, “every translation is an interpretation.”

Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich
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Ferreras works in the entertainment and advertising industries. To cut a long and fascinating story short, he has an interesting life. When Almeida and Ferreras set out to do this, the quest became a maze of verbs, nouns and phrases that had to be reverse engineered for another language. If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. A recent Radiolab episode, titled Translation tackled the subject matter and came out a little bit after the Spanish podcast.  In the episode, they explore a French poem, which seems to have a straightforward translation at first. But Radiolab being Radiolab, the story turned out to be much more complex and the end result resembles a linguistic tetris; no one piece fits the same for everyone.  Ferreras continues:  “I also feel like a trillion people are gonna come and say well that’s not how you say this, that’s not how we say that in my country.”

Jad Abumrad is the co-host of Radiolab and Ellen Horne is the executive producer. I spoke to them over the phone last week and they were originally ambivalent about the exercise. When I asked Abumrad about his thoughts on this, he responded in part with “Our whole philosophy in general is to do these little experiments and try to collect information and see that we learn a little bit more about the world. There’s a huge part of the world that  we previously haven’t been speaking to and I don’t even know that we know how to, even if we knew the language well. I mean, half our staff seems to speak Spanish but I don’t even know if we know how to speak across that aisle.”

Ellen Horne felt similarly intimidated by the idea. “My concerns were ‘oh, the pacing, you’d never get the pacing and the sound design. The way that we interweave voices, none of those things will make any sense.  We’ve only done it that way because it’s documentary footage and if you were to take that and put it into a different language, the decisions that we made wouldn’t really make sense.”

The makers of a program acclaimed for distilling complex ideas into relatable and story-driven experiences were now suddenly at a loss for words.  As for Ferreras, the genesis for the project was personal. “I spent the summer with my three nephews that don’t speak English and what I would do is, I would go work out and listen to Radiolab. Then we would all get together and have lunch and I would tell them what this Radiolab episode was about.  Everybody was very interested and very engaged.”

There’s a reason verbs like butchered and mangled are used to describe linguistic errors.

Ferreras and Almeida created a sort of podcast pilot that laid out their vision for what Radiolab in Spanish would be. It would be conversational and inviting, just like its American counterpart. It would have hosts who sounded similar but were not carbon copies of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Its voice was in Spanish, but its heart was bilingual. Ferreras noted, “You have to compromise. It’s difficult because these guys are real people and you try to make something neutral but there’s something that’s lost.”

That was another problem. How do you preserve the voices and personalities of those being translated? Ferreras came up with a work-around. “I felt that what I wanted was [the original character’s] true voice to come through. So I expanded the copy to be a little bit more descriptive [and] wrote additional lines for Jad’s [Spanish] voice that describes what she was doing. I literally explained the situation so the Spanish listener can hear the true voice of this woman [without translation].” When you listen to the actual podcast, which, by the way, is called Unraveling Bolero, the choice is quite effective. It provides context, yet allows the listener to hear the woman sans approximation. You can hear the frustration in her tone, even if you can’t understand the actual words she is saying. A larger emotional truth is being conveyed, even through a filter.

Anne Adam’s ‘Unraveling Bolero’
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When Ellen Horne and Jad Abumrad first heard the podcast, they were taken aback but also excited. Abumrad said that “I was delighted by the whole idea. Maybe, 80% delighted, and 10% confused, and 10% horrified! It was a little weird to hear me as a Spanish person, strictly because the Spanish Jad seemed much bigger and broader shouldered than me! He had that sort of proud manliness to his voice.”

Over the course of our conversation, I got the sense that it began to dawn on the two that this translation experiment might have a shot. It was posted on the site alongside a Google survey to gauge the reaction of listeners. The results were mixed. A little under 1600 responses were tallied with 83.63% expressing interest in a Radiolab en Español. But when the survey asked for comments, that’s when the floodgates opened.

There were comments that were wholeheartedly supportive of the project. Others hated it. Some had reservations but were supportive (eg, the accent was bad, it was too stilted, etc.) Then there were the responses that were of little help (“Viva Cuba Libre” comes to mind). The results were all over the place, which certainly did not make the Radiolab team rest any easier. But for someone like Ferreras, this was expected.

It was a little weird to hear myself as a Spanish person.

Ferreras’ experiences in translating for advertising and entertainment are as varied as his talents. When he translated Madonna’s song, “What it feels like for a girl” into Lo que siente la mujer,” he had to change lyrics in order to maintain the rhythm and syllable count. When read side by side, the lyrics are similar and the message is similar in tone. But, as Ferreras memorably stated earlier, reactions were mixed. His outlook on this is simple. “As a translator you do the best that you can.”

In another instance, he worked for a time on Sesame Street and was going over the vocalizations for the Spanish versions of the characters. He went so far as to teach the Latino Elmo how to laugh.  If that seems excessive to you, then that is because you have been blessed with hearing the original American version and hence, have an expectation for what these voices sound like. For other countries, it’s the other way around. Dubbing is taken seriously around the world and the people who dub American voices are dedicated to their craft. It takes a lot of time and talent to create a voice that can credibly maintain the illusion that an American character is an Argentine or a Mexican man.

This is where it gets ugly.  According to Horne, some of the strongest reactions to the Radiolab en Español podcast landed on the accent. “It’s just interesting to hear what people say about it, there’s a whole other thing around accents… people feel very strongly, should it be Mexican, should it be Colombian. Should it be just a certain accent?” One of the survey questions stated that previous responses mentioned that it would be preferable to have a person with a Castilian accent narrate the show. While that seems like a small detail, it has large and uncomfortable implications.

Latin America has a complicated relationship with Spain which is not surprising. Yes, they gave us their language and faith and are a key component to much of our shared heritage. But, as you may have already guessed, they were less than noble in intent or in action. The legacy of Spanish rule is so convoluted that it is very much a paradoxical presence. Throw race into the mix and it’s a free for all of inferiority/superiority, suspicion and nationalist pride.  According to Ferreras;

“I warned them that gringos would tell them, ‘oh, if you’re gonna do it in Spanish, you have to do this in a Castilian accent, because, they’re superior.’ Because I hear that shit all the time from Americans who think that Latinos relate to Spanish the way [Americans] relate to English from England. I hear that constantly, in my line of business. People coming to me and saying those things; ‘oh Spanish from Spain is so much prettier’ and I’m like, bullshit or they tell me that people from Spain speak better than people from other countries.”

The interesting thing was that not a lot of people particularly wanted a Castilian accent. The number of people who explicitly preferred a Spaniard voice actor was low, whereas a lot of people were intensely against using a Castilian accent. Others were quite vocal in favoring their own nationalities as voice actors.

It is this fear of ethnocentrism that has made Radiolab reluctant to move forward with the project. They simply felt (and still do) that they might lack the cultural authority to do this in another language.  Radiolab’s listener base is mostly made up of English speakers, which is to be expected. When the team sent me a statistic on the percentage of listeners from Spanish speaking countries, the amount stood at 5%. The fear that Radiolab might offend someone in another country seems implausible; its co-hosted by a guy named Jad for crying out loud, but one only has to look at the 2012 episode Yellow Rain to see just what happens when one is accused of cultural insensitivity.

Krulwich and Abumrad hold their Peabody Award, the “Pulitzer Prize for Radio.”
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Abumrad remarked on the vagaries of treading into the linguistic unknown with this, “I’ll say two things, there’s this concept in translation where you’re not just translating but you’re actually creating a new intermediate thing that’s called transcreation. And in a way I was comfortable [with that], I mean I love the idea that stories we’ve labored over [could have] a wider audience and could travel farther in the world. But somehow when they become translated into Spanish, I wondered how people on the other end will relate to Robert and I. [We’ll have the same] names, but personality would not be the same at this point ,and it feels almost like it would be more organically better for it to be a different thing.”

As Abumrad mentioned, identity is yet another issue in this; one only has to look at a recent television show on a Spanish language channel, UniMas. Breaking Bad was a huge success for AMC, so much so, that they commissioned a Spanish remake titled, Metastasis. The show was an almost carbon copy of the original save for some tweaks to serve its new Colombian locale and its audience, which is used to telenovelas. The reactions were, again, mixed as people took to the internet to voice their dismay that an acclaimed American show would be remade in Spanish. But the show drew in viewers, lots of viewers who never saw the original, who never knew who Tuco Salamanca or Gustavo Fring were.  To be fair, this is not something Radiolab should expect, even though the age difference between Krulwich and Abumrad is eerily similar to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.  The show was seen as a cultural Frankenstein, with ideas and concepts that made sense in the US having to undergo cultural contortions and acrobatics in order to make sense in Colombia. It is neither fully American nor Colombian, but an intriguing half-breed.

‘Metastasis,’ the Colombian adaptation of ‘Breaking Bad’
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But, the inverse is also possible. Latinos/as are only second to Caucasian Americans in terms of population within the U.S. Commercial interests have taken note and are increasingly responding with marketing campaigns geared toward us, while Television has begun to cater or at least, treat us with more respect (a recent example being Jane The Virgin). Just as Abumrad and Horne are concerned that Radiolab’s identity may be muddled, the flip side of that coin is that the very idea that an NPR show is seriously thinking of this is in a way, a reflection of the increasing weight and acceptance of Latinos in the U.S. as an important voice.  In other words, Our American identity is something that is being reckoned with and that is only a good thing.

To their credit, it is clear that Radiolab is approaching this in a conscientious manner; if they are going to go the translation route, it is going to be amazing and nothing less. When Alberto Ferreras showed his friends in Latin America the podcast, the reaction was much more favorable.  “I played it for friends of mine who have never listened to Radiolab, friends of mine in Spain and friends of mine in Venezuela and they loved it, they were like, oh my God this is great!” When you expect something to sound a certain way, any deviation will seem unnatural. In Radiolab’s case, English speakers seem to be suffering from an aural version of the Uncanny Valley. Spanish speakers who’ve never heard Robert Krulwich or Jad Abumrad will listen with a blank slate.

The survey has been out for slightly over a month.  As of now, the project is up in the air. Neither Radiolab nor Ferreras have said what will become of this, mainly because the Radiolab team wants a broader response which will help them make a definitive decision. This is after all, an experiment. But one can dream of a Spanish Jad and Robert, bantering in between human and natural phenomena. When I asked Ferreras about his early life, one of his responses was that, “I grew up watching the Flintstones in Spanish and I to this day, think the Flintstones are better in Spanish than in English! Barney Rubble sounds much better in Spanish!

Would Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich sound better or as good in Spanish? Easy, just stream it above, or go to the Radiolab website and click the play button.

The Radiolab team is presently seeking your input on its Spanish language podcast. Please fill out their survey at the end. Trust us; this is worth your time.