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Podcast Review: Radiolab on Translation, Part 1

I have chosen to kick-start this blog with a review of a rather aptly timed podcast episode about translation. Having been introduced to Radiolab (and the world of podcasts in general) not so long ago, I have since avidly consumed a good chunk of this fabulously interesting and engaging series. It was just as I was considering starting up a new blog that I came across their episode on translation — what better way, I asked myself, to get a blog rolling than by diving head first into a three-part review, segueing into a light discussion of translation theory? None, I hear you say!

The podcast presented a very varied interpretation of the subject at hand — from technological advancements that are helping to “translate” the world for deaf or blind individuals, to the way in which RNA “translates” DNA to create each of us — leading to eight fascinating stories. Taking a more traditional view of translation, however, I would like to focus, over three blog posts, on the three stories that most caught my interest.

Firstly, although it took me a little while to get used to the highly edited, sound effect-laden style of Radiolab, I greatly enjoyed the way in which this episode was presented. The presenters, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, play well off one another, often presenting opposing views on the show's more controversial topics. Their guests are knowledgeable, drawn from diverse walks of life but all treated equally, and the subjects covered range widely, from the discovery of enormous viruses to passionate arguments for why professional wrestling embodies the human desire for truth.

For this particular episode, each story was bookended by well known songs sung in other languages and excerpts from a spoof language-learning recording, which elicited a chuckle and served as reminders that the theme was, indeed, translation. The presenters approach each story with open minds, often honing in on the human element in each one and helping the listener to place themselves in the shoes of that story's subject. What do you imagine it would be like to "see" the world through vibrations on your tongue? How do euphemisms such as "PTSD" make you feel? How would you feel after acting as a telephone interpreter for a troubling 911 call, then immediately having to interpret for a client trying to book a hotel room? Could you remain professional? The success of this podcast is, I feel, not only the presenters' unending curiosity (and that of the team behind them), but also their ability to make each story personal.

The episode kicks off with a discussion led by Douglas Hofstadter, an American professor of cognitive science and comparative literature, concerning his project to translate a 28-line poem entitled 'Ma Mignonne' from French into English. Written by Clément Marot in the 1500s, the poem was intended to cheer up the young daughter of a friend during a period of illness. Despite the simplicity of the source material, Hofstadter has nonetheless amassed hundreds of translations, each unique in its rhythm, form, tone and meaning.

The fundamental point that Hofstadter makes is that, by translating the poem, you are moving from one universe of language to another. As a translator, you can almost never capture fully the exact sentiment, connotations, sound, rhythm, shape and meaning of even one single word in the original; all the more so when we consider how much language usage and conventions have changed in the 500 years since the poem was first written. Whatever the translator produces will, therefore, never be more than a rewriting of the original: a new version, seen through the translator's eyes. Some of the people to whom Hofstadter sent the poem chose to mirror the shape of the source text — 28 lines, 3 syllables per line, rhyming pairs, the same opening and closing line — to the detriment of the poem’s playful tone, whereas others carried over only loosely the same form, preferring to recreate (or even emphasise) the bouncy rhythm and playful voice of the original by using modern slang and snappy rhymes.

Anyone who has ever participated in a translation workshop will know the feeling; when several translators are asked to discuss their own translations, even the most non-literary of texts can become a (congenial, usually) battleground of debate. During translation seminars at university, we could easily eat through nearly a whole hour discussing the merits of a single turn of phrase, often with each individual defending their own particular choice fiercely. That is both one of the challenges and one of the joys of working as a team on a translation, as it presents an invaluable opportunity to see a text through another person’s eyes and to ask yourself what part of the original you are most willing to sacrifice for the sake of the rest (or, conversely, to ask whether any part can viably be sacrificed).

The best that any translator can do is to decide what features of the source text are the most important (in their view, at least) and to preserve those aspects to the best of their ability. This means that every translated version of Marot’s poem — no matter how radically different — is equally valid.

For your amusement, and as another example of this point, I have included below three translations of the first stanza of 'Jabberwocky', the famous nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. I have included my own translation at the bottom, which I wrote many years ago (already more than I care to remember) as an undergraduate in a Spanish translation class.

Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Chacaloco, by Erwin Brea

Era brilligio, y los rebalosioso mocasos

Giraban y girareon en las ondabolsciabo:

Todo debilirana estaban las ramianandos

Y los momiasera ratianeras fuerandabando.

El Jabberwocky, by Adolfo de Alba

Era la asarvesperia y los flexilimosos toves

giroscopiaban taledrando en el vade;

debilmiseros estaban los borogoves;

bramatchisilban los verdilechos parde.

Farfusinato, by Jennifer Blundell

Fulgervía y los babosinos tejonados

Brintorcían y enrospentaban en el lobríos:

Tan flacobres eran los raígonados,

Y chirrifuñaban los toratos seriacríos.

Each translation is different from the original — inevitably so. Yet each presents a new version of the poem: de Alba’s translation keeps the original rhyming pattern; Brea’s version does not, but he does invent more words to reflect the nonsense English used by Carroll in his original.

None of these poems can ever be called the One True Translation; all have equal, if different, worth.

Therein lies the challenge — and the magic — of translation.

In part 2, I’ll be taking a look at how communication can break down even between speakers of the same language.

- The Radiolab podcast on translation is available to stream or download at

- For a French-language version of Marot's poem, together with some of Hofstadter's translations, visit

- Spanish translations of ‘Jabberwocky’ taken from Jabberwocky Variations,


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