Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Four disabled journalists on how news outlets can support staffers and audience members with disabilities
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
July 27, 2023, 12:45 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   July 27, 2023

In the new — and final — season of NPR’s Rough Translation, a podcast hosted by Gregory Warner that collaborates with the international desk to narrate stories for a U.S. audience, listeners will get a new format. Instead of one story per episode, the five-episode season of “Love Commandos” tells the complicated story of an Indian organization by the same name that for 10 years sheltered couples from different faiths and castes when they faced rejections from their families.

That support came at a cost, as the series reveals, when Love Commandos founder Sanjoy Sachdev was arrested  in 2019 for supposedly extorting couples he was helping. The podcast is a true crime story that explores the changing notions of love and marriage in India and the influence of Bollywood films that have romanticized inter-faith and caste relationship struggles for decades.

To tell the story in a way that would make it resonate with both English and Hindi-speaking audiences, NPR enlisted — alongside correspondent Lauren Frayer — journalist and author Mansi Choksi, who has reported extensively on the subject, as the season’s guest co-host, former NPR India producer Raksha Kumar, and producer Parth Shah, and journalist and translator Syed Bismillah Geelani to craft the story in a way that highlights the voices of the Hindi-speaking sources, rather than translating over them.

Geelani transcribed all of the interviews into Roman Hindi (Hindi words spelled out using English letters instead of the Devanagari script) and then translating them into English so that bilingual producers could see and pick out the unique soundbites in the original Hindi while the non-Hindi speaking producers could follow along with the translation and identify soundbites from the phonetic transliteration.

“A lot of this Rough Translation story on Love Commandos is culture-specific, and that can be brought about in the language that is closest to the characters,” Kumar said. “Audio storytelling can do that, as opposed to translating while we write text pieces, so I think this is the best way to use the audio format’s full potential…rarely do we get to hear the voices of the characters, in their language, telling their story to a global audience.”

The podcast isn’t bilingual and is predominately in English (though the first episode features quick Hindi quotes and music from iconic 90’s Bollywood films). Throughout the series, listeners will hear the original Hindi (so that bilingual Hindi speakers can hear the sources in their own voices without redundancy), followed by a loose interpretation with context in English by Kumar (so English-only listeners can follow along). Doing it this way maintains the essence of the story while keeping all listeners on the same page.

“Subtitles in Bollywood movies sometimes make me cringe — the translations can feel clinical and simplistic. One challenge, and joy, was retaining the cleverness of the Hindi,” Shah said. “We cut actualities with a cadence that matched surrounding narration, avoiding fast fade outs. In longer scenes, we let the Hindi linger low before jolting up between the English. The volume levels on those tracks move like a roller coaster.”

NPR canceled Rough Translation and two other podcasts, Invisibilia and Louder Than a Riot, this past March as part of a 10% staff reduction.

Listen to Love Commandos here and follow where Rough Translation goes next here.

Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Four disabled journalists on how news outlets can support staffers and audience members with disabilities
“The tools that journalists are given [should be] accessible — and designed with people like me in an advisory role.”
Press freedom means controlling the language of AI
Generative AI systems act like “stochastic parrots,” using statistical models to guess word orders and pixel placements. That’s incompatible with a free press that commands its own words.
What is news, anyway? Readers’ answers depend on how much they see people like themselves in the story
“The disconnect many young people feel may come from a lack of representation, which we show violates a fundamental aspect of how audiences — teens and adults — define what is news.”