The Sound of Subtitles

Podcasts may be a global phenomenon, but British radio producer Eleanor McDowall thinks it’s a pity that she can only listen to audio in English. So she began a project subtitling radio from around the world, especially Denmark

You can watch a subtitled film, read a translated book, or paste an article into Google Translate and receive some awkwardly phrased sentences in return. But unless you understand the language in which it was produced, there’s really no point in listening to a podcast.

A form of ‘radio on demand’, podcasting has risen from fringe digital entertainment to global cultural phenomenon over the past decade. Podcast apps on our smartphones tap into the needs of an eternally busy generation, allowing us to download podcasts wherever we are and be entertained or informed on-the-go.

Podcasts are now almost as diverse as cinema or television, ranging from scrappy, amateur interviews recorded with a smartphone to highly stylised productions. But the podcasts that go viral – and the ones dominating the iTunes charts – all tend to be in the English language. US cult podcast Serial racked up 50 million downloads with its second season this year.

For radio producer Eleanor McDowall, who produces the award-nominated documentary series ‘Short Cuts’ for BBC Radio 4 in the UK, it means podcast culture is becoming a one-sided conversation.

Transporting listeners
“We have a conversation about story-telling and radio that is so dominated by the English-speaking world,” says McDowall when we meet in a cosy arthouse cinema in downtown Copenhagen. She’s slightly flushed after presenting a talk in the theatre. Despite working in radio, the soft-spoken producer confesses to a “complete terror” of her own voice.

Last month, the Londoner visited Denmark for Københavns Radiobiograf Festival (Copenhagen Radiocinema Festival), which invited international radio producers to ‘screen’ their favourite audio samples at Copenhagen cinemas and discuss the future of radio and podcasts.

McDowall is fascinated with audio experimentation and pushing radio to its outer limits. Her lecture focused on audio’s capacity to stimulate the body and invoke visceral reactions – such as cringing, crippling fear, or nausea. McDowall opened the event by switching off the cinema lights and broadcasting an audio clip about pleasuring yourself in public bathrooms – complete with sound effects. Suddenly, the audience was plunged into an oppressive darkness, collectively listening to the tell-tale sounds of someone masturbating. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats, unable to escape the awkwardness. When the lights came on, some were blushing. McDowall smiled, her point proven.   

As a podcast connoisseur, however, the producer is also concerned with breaking through other kinds of boundaries – linguistic ones.

Last year, McDowall launched ‘Radio Atlas’, a one-woman project that subtitles audio from around the world into English. In her spare time, the producer transforms radio documentaries, dramas, and sound art into miniature subtitled films. The only visuals are the subtitles, as McDowall doesn’t want imagery to distract from the experience of listening.

Converting endless pages of transcripts into subtitles is a painstaking effort. One 30-minute audio piece can take McDowall twelve hours to subtitle, which is why Radio Atlas’ website offers only a handful of curated audio clips.

“It’s certainly a labour of love,” says McDowall. But she’s committed to seeing the podcast scene become more accessible and democratic. Otherwise, she says, we’ll never know what we’re missing out on.

Danish to English
Of the seven podcast episodes available on Radio Atlas, five hail from the Nordic region, and three are in Danish. McDowall says the project was partly inspired by a prior visit to Copenhagen for a documentary festival that left her dying to dive into the radio documentary scene and frustrated with the language barriers that prevented her.

When it comes to audio content, Denmark is certainly making interesting strides. There’s Third Ear, a multi-layered audio magazine which McDowall says she’s long ached to access, and which currently offers only one English-language episode.

Danes loved the podcast Album so much they crowd-funded a third season to hear the hosts spend episode after episode dissecting individual records in the vein of a drunken pub argument.

McDowall also swears by Danish radio producer Rikke Houd, whose documentary Leaps and Dunes evokes the experience of teetering on the cusp of adulthood, and appears subtitled on Radio Atlas.

The problem is that only Danish speakers can enjoy the country’s unique audio landscape.

“The Danish stuff I have heard, I have loved, and I wish I could recommend it to people back home in the UK to show how exciting and interesting it is,” says the producer.

Eleanor McDowall. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Eleanor McDowall. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Unchallenged ears
Far from just missing out, however, McDowall believes that saturation of English-language content could cause the podcasting genre to stagnate.

“You’re constructing this slightly surreal audio space, which strips visual prejudices away – it’s a wonderful way to tap into someone’s head without prejudice. But because UK, Australian and North American content is penetrating the podcast charts, nothing is coming back to challenge our production assumptions and pushing us to experiment,” she says.

She points out that the iconic US radio programme This American Life, which broadcasts on public radio and produced the smash-hit Serial, is now so ubiquitous that radio producers fail to look further afield for inspiration.

“I personally love This American Life, but newer podcasts are often ripping off its storytelling style – minus its journalistic element or public service mandate. They just take some interviews and overlay it with some music, and suddenly that’s a podcast. We don’t get the sense that there are other ways to tell audio stories, for example by using non-linear narratives.”

Much like international musicians who sing in English in order to access more listeners, McDowall fears that radio producers will feel forced to take the same approach with their podcasts, and other documentary traditions will be lost.

“It would be a nightmare if everyone thought that the only way to do a podcast would be to do it in English. Producers might start ruling out contributors and stories if interview subjects don’t speak English.”

Perfect timing
McDowall’s method of subtitling almost feels like an art form unto itself. She takes great pains to ensure that the words appearing on the screen match the speaker’s delivery.

“You’re never going to replicate the experience of understanding an Icelandic radio documentary without speaking Icelandic. But the subtitles can convey the tone and delivery of the words in that language – by pausing when there’s a pregnant pause in the audio, for example. Or making sure the subtitles never ruin the punchline of a joke.”

In McDowall’s subtitled audio-films, fragmented sentences seem to dance across the screen to the beat of the spoken language. One radio documentary explores memory and nostalgia, so McDowall chose to have the words fade in and out slowly, to match the transition of the speaker into different emotional spaces. In contrast, functional dialogue hits the screen fast.

“The experience of watching it should mirror the experience of listening. That way, the listener can get a feel for the musicality and poetry of the language, and how long it takes to express ideas in that tongue.”

But armed with only her transcript in hand and going by audio cues, McDowall says the process of guessing what word should go where, and when, can sometimes be a stab in the dark.

“Making the Icelandic podcast was a nightmare because Icelandic words are much longer than English ones. I kept inserting sentences and then saying, ‘hang on, that can’t be right…’.”

I ask whether the experience has transformed her into a polyglot. McDowall laughs.

“I have a terrible ear for learning to speak languages! But immediately after I finish something, I do feel a bit like I can speak it afterward, I definitely felt like I almost spoke Finnish once. But now the only word I remember is the Finnish word for ‘black’ because they kept describing a black road.”

When I ask about the future of the project, McDowall jokes that Radio Atlas will soon been staffed by 100 people. But for the moment, the handful of clips she can produce in her spare time is one of the only ways listeners can access international radio content.

McDowall says the onus is on major companies such as Apple or soundcloud to create the necessary tools to produce subtitled audio en masse.

“We need to demand this as consumers. It astonishes me that we don’t care more that we’re not hearing the majority of audio being made in the world.” M

Features, Culture

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

Facebook comments