I often listen to audio while doing something else: driving or working or cleaning my house.
Because my attention is divided, I listen to podcasts or audio stories recorded in English for the sake of convenience.
Of course, not all podcasts are recorded in English. But until recently, it’s been hard to find and listen to offerings from non-native speakers. Some shorter radio pieces use voiceover talent for dubbing, but that’s usually reserved for short audio clips in a piece reported by an English-speaking journalist.
Enter "Radio Atlas." The website was recently created by radio producer Eleanor McDowall, who helped pioneer “animated radio” productions in the UK, and who produces BBC Radio 4’s documentary program "Short Cuts" as her day job working as a senior producer at the radio production company Falling Tree Productions.
"Radio Atlas" is McDowall's latest side project, and it provides English-language subtitles for radio documentaries produced around the world. I’ve watched three of her subtitled projects so far, and the experience is a hybrid between listening to a radio piece and being immersed in an entirely new culture. I forgot that I was reading subtitles at one point; it reminded me of going to the opera and being able to understand the performers without speaking Italian.
I particularly like that "Radio Atlas" chose not to dub over interview subjects; this means that listeners have to view the subtitles, but it also means they can hear all of the subtle voice cues from the original speaker. Are there ways to make it an even more seamless listening experience? Possibly so — and doing so would open up all sorts of new ways to think about audio stories from around the world.
I asked McDowall if she would answer some questions about "Radio Atlas," how she thinks about translation, and where the platform could go next.
"Radio Atlas" is subtitling audio from around the world so that people can hear works of sound in languages they don't necessarily speak. How are you finding the material to translate?
To start with I was approaching producers whose work I already knew from international competitions, or who I'd met and struck up conversations with about intriguing projects they were working on. My hope, now that it's up and running, is that as more people stumble across I'll be able to tap into a producer hive mind and discover the exciting documentaries I wouldn't even know to look for. I've already had suggestions for Chinese, Welsh, Irish, French and Danish audio, so I'm looking forward to investigating those.
What is the workflow like and how often are you planning to publish?
I'm subtitling everything myself on Final Cut Pro, so it's slow. But I'm hoping there will be at least three new subtitled films up there every month. As far as film streaming sites go — the model is aiming to be closer to Mubi than Netflix. A small, curated space rather than a vast resource.
Where did you get the inspiration for the project?
It came from a personal desire really, to be able to access a more diverse range of documentaries, a more diverse range of styles and approaches. I've been so intrigued, excited and challenged by some of the audio I've heard in languages other than my own over the past few years that it made me sad there wasn't an easier way for it to become part of the mainstream.
I'd seen subtitled audio in event spaces before, mainly put together by the amazing In The Dark Radio here in the UK, and I loved how immersive it could be. It took it closer to a listening experience than a reading experience, which I'd found it could become when you were listening with a paper transcript, and allowed the audio to come to the fore. I wanted to build a platform for those kinds of experiences so that these fascinating documentaries could become as easily accessible as possible.
I really like that you give the original language breathing room in the piece — that the translation comes through visuals instead of audio. How did you come to the decision to do that, rather than have voice overs on top of (or instead of) the original material?
EM: Oh, I think for me it always had to be text and not audio! All the magic is in the sound — in the pregnant pauses, the swallowed sobs, the spaces between the words. If you dub over it than you're losing that authentic music, the delivery, the comic timing of the speaker. Although subtitling with text has its complications — it's still not quite an audio experience, it's at one remove, and it's asking more of a listener than just turning on the wireless. But hopefully, if spaces like iTunes, Soundcloud, Acast and Mixcloud start experimenting with ways of doing this then we can push towards the most natural way to seamlessly incorporate it into the listening experience.
Are there ways for people to experience these without visuals? So much audio is played through an app or through the car radio, while the person is doing something else while listening?
I don't know — but I'd be intrigued to find out! I know that programmes occasionally get reversioned into other languages (replacing the presenter, adding a layer of audio translation to interviews), so it can be done, but what interests me at the moment is getting as close as possible to the experience of listening to something in your own language.
Your first published interview is with the Belgian audio artist Katharina Smets, who is interviewing someone based in Detroit. I've heard many interviews about Detroit, but never one from someone in Belgium — and I have to say, I really liked the cross-cultural connections. How did you come across Smets' work?
I met Katharina Smets years ago when she had come to London to explore the radio scene over here. She played a little clip from "Writer" at a conference I was at last year and I was so intrigued by the dynamic of the documentary. It feels like it's crackling with tension. I have to say also that idea of hearing America from an outsider's perspective really appealed to me too. I was so used to hearing stories where Americans were exploring a new space, it was very exciting to hear that inverted and to understand what makes it into the on air translation and what doesn't. Her translation in the voice over is so interesting — poetic, rather than literal, and it trusts the listener to have understood a certain amount. I like that idea, that what we might need from our translation is poetry and an emotional understanding rather than just the facts of what's being said.
Veering in a slightly different direction, where do you look for inspiration in the audio world?
In the documentaries I make myself do you mean? A lot of my own work starts with music, I think that often sets the tone for me for a doc to spiral out from. I'd become obsessed with a piece of music that seemed to hold the emotional tone of what I was getting at and then try to build a sonic world around it...
So much of the U.S. podcasting culture is centered on U.S. podcasting, and aside from some from the BBC, I'm not sure many people know of or listen to podcasts or audio based elsewhere. What podcasts do you listen to?
My favourite thing at the moment is an independent UK podcast called "Imaginary Advice" — it's made by a poet and filmmaker called Ross Sutherland and it's filled with ingenious ideas, odd audio experiments, true stories and bizarre dramas yet somehow he manages to draw it all together with a unified tone (I'd start with the episode "Six House Parties" if you want to try it out).
Other than that I love the audio drama experimentation in the "Serendipity" podcast (that's a collaboration between Ann Heppermann and one of my favourite Swedish producers — Martin Johnson) as well as the intricacies and intimacy of "The Heart" from Radiotopia. "Sound Matters" by the Danish producer Tim Hinman (in English) has just got going and sounds very interesting and the Australian podcasts "Soundproof" and "Radiotonic" are stuffed with inventive ideas.
Oh and the "Adam Buxton" podcast! This may be very UK-specific but the first thing that made me care about podcasting was a show hosted by two comedians, Adam and Joe, on an alternative music station over here called Xfm. I think secretly every time I listen to a new podcast I'm just trying to find a substitute for the Adam and Joe-shaped hole in my iTunes app. Adam Buxton has recently started a new podcast on his own and it's a complete and utter joy.
What else are you working on?
In my normal working life ("Radio Atlas" is just happening in my spare time) I'm a documentary maker at the independent production company Falling Tree Productions. So at the moment I'm working on a BBC documentary all about ballet dancers last dances and gearing up for the new series of "Short Cuts," a documentary podcast and BBC Radio 4 series that I make with the comedian Josie Long.
Where would you like to see "Radio Atlas" go next?
I'd love the platform to keep expanding, possibly becoming an open, searchable space for other people's submissions too further down the line. I'd love it to be a big useful resource, a rabbit hole to fall down, in which people can discover new ways of making radio, accessing ideas and techniques that they couldn't elsewhere.
Outside of that my dream would be that the project inspires someone more tech-savvy than me (ideally one of the big audio companies) to keep pushing subtitling technology and to build something that can seamlessly integrate into a podcast app. I'd love to see more of a conversation around how we subtitle, how we translate, why we don't do it very often and what the most natural way to experience audio in a language we don't speak might be.