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Podcast Review: Radiolab on Translation, Part 3

The third story featured in Radiolab’s podcast on translation that I would like to mention involves another of the disciplines that sits under the “umbrella” of translation: interpreting.

In this story, the presenters interview Kymme Van Cleef, an American Sign Language interpreter who landed a job interpreting at a comedy festival. During the warm-up act, the festival compere, upon noticing how Van Cleef visually expressed his expletives, decided to draw her into the joke. Cue increasing outlandish and vulgar comments designed to force Van Cleef to act out a series of amusingly rude gestures.

How funny any joke is does, of course, depend on the audience, but in this particular case it went down a storm, largely because of the snap decision that Van Cleef made. She had, as she explains on the podcast, a choice to make regarding which register she should use. For those of you who have not read dozens of books on translation theory (and why ever would you not? I ask), register is a complex concept that can be simplified by describing it as a level or style of language situated somewhere along a sliding scale between “formal” and “informal”. When you speak to your boss, you are most likely going to use a “formal” register of English; you will probably avoid slang or rude words, tone down your accent or throw in more complex vocabulary. Conversely, when you speak to your friends, formality goes out the door and your use of language usually becomes more inventive and less constricted by grammar.

In the case of our interpreter, then, she had a choice as to how best to convey the comedian’s words. She could adopt a formal register by spelling out each rude word, thereby mitigating the impact; at the other end of the scale, she could act out each word as graphically as possible, conveying an extremely colloquial register. Placed in an unusual situation and given only seconds to decide, Van Cleef chose to use a casual tone, miming each vulgar act, albeit without the full gusto of a more colloquial register. This was, of course, the comedian’s aim, and so the joke was a roaring success. The interpreter chose to reflect the brash tone and raunchy jokes, rather than to filter the message and deliver merely the words.

The twist in the tale is that Van Cleef was interpreting for only one person in the thousands-strong audience. Her client, whom she had never met, was unfortunately mortified by the crowd’s laughter, thinking that their focus was on herself. Although the client decided to leave the show early, Van Cleef defended her choices even when challenged by one of the presenters, as she felt that her role was, primarily, to reflect the performer and his style (which, along the way, played into the comedian’s joke), rather than to present an interpretation that was any different to what the hearing audience was receiving.

When translating or interpreting, a wide range of factors must be taken into account, among them the target audience. Sometimes this involves adapting the translated text (or speech, or signs) to meet the needs of the audience, by choosing vocabulary, a style or a tone that they will understand; for example, if you were to translate a text about cardiovascular disease for a readership with no medical training, you may choose to use instead the term “heart disease” and to employ simpler sentence structures. On other occasions, however, the predicted preferences of the audience must be ignored in order to preserve the original message — in this case, the comedian’s intentionally louche jokes. It is not the job of the interpreter to dilute or censor the message.

The fact that the joke hung on the interpretation itself was an added element that rarely plays into such decisions. For the most part, the translator seeks to be invisible, aiming to produce a text that reads as seamlessly (or even more so!) in the target language as in the source language. This is, of course, a little more difficult for interpreters, who, by the nature of their role, cannot remain entirely invisible. On the whole, however, an interpreter avoids tampering with the message as much as a translator does. Van Cleef did the same — by adopting the most appropriate register, she gave her deaf client access to the same level of rudeness as the hearing members of the audience. One could even argue that she could have taken it further, using a more colloquial — and therefore graphic — register in order to represent fully the comedian’s own racy register.


On the whole, I enjoyed the discussion and the show (even if they did use “translator” and “interpreter” as synonyms!) as it asked many listeners to give thought to aspects of translation that they had, most likely, never before considered; aspects that make it a process akin to a juggling act, whereby the translator or interpreter must find a balance that works between style, content and form. Sometimes you must simply throw one of the balls away if you are to keep the others moving, as with poetry in translation. Other times you need to assess your audience, your source material and how visible (or invisible) you ought to be, and adapt your juggling style accordingly. And occasionally you may not even realise that you are juggling, which is when the biggest miscommunications are likely to occur.

Strained metaphor? Let’s just hope that my point wasn’t lost in translation.


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

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