The Portrayal of Multiple Languages in Audio

In the retrospective Casting it Back today, there is one particular audio drama that has triggered my own reinspection of thoughts on an important subject: diversity in audio, and how that is displayed. It is supremely important that we uplift the voices of creators and performers of color, marginalized communities, and vulnerable peoples that otherwise would not be heard — and I’m not putting any kind of boundary on where we need to do this, because the answer is “everywhere”. How can we do this, in a responsible and positive fashion?

There’s a great many possibilities here! Today, I’m going to briefly talk about bilingualism in spoken and written media and how, in particular, The Eyeaccomplishes this perfectly for my ears. In books, we often see characters of other cultures who speak different languages and indeed, may even switch to their native tongue when in dialogue. Setting aside for the moment how that kind of code-switching happens in reality, a lot of the time I see words from other languages italicized to separate them from the rest of the text.

Here is Daniel José Older talking about why we shouldn’t do that in written text. It’s a hilarious little 2-minute video. Go check it out a moment, and then come back.

Done? This video resonates with me, and also makes me cackle every time he transforms into Stereotype Latino Man (I watched it at least three times while writing this). “But Ely, this is written text! You can’t do this in audio!”

You can, by wanting to show someone speaking another language — and then immediately making sure to translate it, usually via some contrivance that is flimsy and transparent in context. It’s one thing to have a character speaking a language other than the main one of the audio and have it be relevant plot content that needs to be translated at some point for everyone’s benefit. That’s a plot point, neatly co-packaged with developing a character. The White Vault does this successfully with its characters’ personal logs and letters, where actors begin by speaking in the native language and then it fades out with English voiced over. They also do this, if I recall correctly, by another method wherein the archivist narrator states something like “The following excerpt was translated from the original German.” This is the audio version of the following appearing in a written text: “Oh, my goodness,” she said in Spanish, horrified.

Done correctly and with care, they are both fine ways of portraying this multilinguistic problem in an audio medium. But translating every word these characters say somehow, even if unimportant to the plot, will feel fake and forced, especially to listeners from that culture. If you have a translator character constantly saying things like “She said ‘oh my goodness‘,” then it inevitably damages the flow of the scene and the creation of both characters (the speaker and the translator), and also weakens the use of tone, silence, and other aspects of audio and speaking to convey meaning. Some writers realize this, and decide to not include any kind of dialogue that’s not plot relevant — this also weakens the speaker character into basically a plot device, and not a real person. This kind of character/device insertion bothers me a lot, because this just shows a lack of care about actually portraying diverse, different people.

It is entirely another thing to have characters that code-switch (alternate between languages or dialects) ineffectively and unrealistically in order to make the point that they are “other”. Example time! I’m Puerto Rican, but I don’t go around appending the word ‘mano’ when I’m talking with my friends on the mainland United States who aren’t from my culture. They wouldn’t understand that I’m using the local Spanish equivalent of ‘bro’. This is what’s called a ‘tag’ — it’s a linguistic item that signals to other people that you are a member of a group that they too belong in. You probably don’t go around calling your college professors ‘bro’ (or if you do, I have some questions). This is the same concept.

So how can we not only effectively, but positively, include characters who speak multiple languages or languages other than the main text into our audio, without effectively othering them and without weakening our writing? In visual media, there are subtitles for translation — which have a tendency only to appear when the viewer needs to know what they are saying or when the protagonist of the film also speaks the language.  When the viewpoint character, and therefore the viewer, do not understand the language, then subtitles do not appear and we have the same amount information as the character.

The Eye achieves this exact same effect with Mandarin Chinese. The main character, Detective Victor Caine, is a man who does not speak Mandarin, but his companion is a woman who does (with a few extra quirks of her own). When it is necessary for Victor, she translates what other people are saying in Mandarin, and then we know what Victor knows. But if she doesn’t feel like it for any reason, there are sometimes entire conversations that happen in Mandarin like in episode 4, and Victor has no idea what is happening (and often will then comment on it in narration).

This has a lot of subsequent results. It positively and accurately represents the interactions of human beings from the same culture or location, and in this case people of color who require more positive representation. It may alienate the listener — until of course the listener realizes that Victor is in the same position they are, and it creates a bond between listener and protagonist and a firm baseline for understanding how information is going to be revealed throughout the course of the story.

It also brings to the story a lot of realism that I think sometimes we take for granted. The world is not monolingual, the internet is not in English, and I appreciate every single piece of fiction that helps lift up languages other than English, or even other than themself. Gisele Regatao created the phenomenal piece of work Sangre Celestial or Celestial Blood, a bilingual supernatural audio drama in the style of old-school Latin American soap operas (telenovelas!). It’s great — you can listen to the English version here and the Spanish version here.

What other kinds of ways can we incorporate speakers of other languages into audio fiction without alienating the audience? A slightly different discussion can be had about audio fiction in languages other than English, but I assure you this is an effect I have seen in Spanish writing and audio as well with languages that are othered like Indigenous ones.  What do you think about completely dropping translation for segments that are not crucial to the plot, but making sure they still happen? Tone and volume still convey meaning, and good writing means one doesn’t leave a listener adrift, so there must be something to hold onto in that case, such as the presence of Victor Caine who speaks only English. Let’s talk! This is a huge discussion about diversity in audio with a lot of moving parts, and this is only one piece of that picture. And at the very least, I hope I’ve convinced you to try a new audio drama or two.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #3, April 9 2018.