Ethics in translation

How do you use sound bites from an interview with someone whose native language is not English? The standard approach is to have their answers translated and use a voiceover for the bite you decide to include. That sounds simple enough, but it can get complicated, as Rich Beckman points out in NPPA’s News Photographer magazine.

Even in Spanish, the most common foreign language in the States, the same words and expressions can have different meanings depending on which country and region your subject is from. It’s important to have people who know these nuances to help you maintain accuracy.

Point taken. Now let’s say you have an accurate translation in hand. Who’s going to voice it and how?

In a comment on this excellent guide to ethical audio editing, CBC producer Lisa Hebert raises some interesting options.

You could argue that using real actors with the ethnic heritage to read the English translation of clips is closer to reality than having the reporter or someone else in the newsroom read it. The translation could also contain the real emotion of the clips.

Hebert makes it clear she thinks that’s okay in documentary production, not news. But I’ve heard this kind of voiceover translation in news stories as well, and it always strikes me as phony. Translations shouldn’t sound like they’re being acted, any more than they should sound robotic. Let the emotion come through in the bite itself by using at least some of the person’s sound up full. Let the translation convey the content conversationally. Overdoing the drama is a good way to distract your audience and wreck your story.


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