Retelling a story that is being played out in the US from a different cultural perspective every week, be it from that of a Syrian refugee or a group of Ukrainian journalists, offers the chance to make an important and original show – especially in the context of the American-dominated podcast world. Unfortunately, NPR’s Rough Translation does not quite manage to succeed in realising its promise as what could be a truly exciting show.
The detoured interpretation of the topics which the show investigates sometimes manages to make the relevant feel irrelevant. The shows are also fairly short, which usually to their detriment. Episodes on race in Brazil and the role of fake news in the Ukrainian civil war both call to attention a significant, pressing issue then don’t really take it much further, the ending to both feeling abrupt and awkward. The vagueness of ‘story’ allows for varied interpretation, but this can cause the show to seem slightly directionless in its investigations, dancing around important difficult topics, failing to shed any deeper insight.
An episode which explores the exaggerated portrayal of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from the perspective of US news, is centred around the narrative of the white reporter who first exposed this. Hearing her cry over the backlash she received, it struck me as remarkable that none of the producers thought it slightly insensitive to make a story that uses women who are already so overlooked by society as the set pieces for one white reporter’s struggle. Ironically in a show that strives to challenge the western dominated news perspective Rough Translations can often appear to be chained to the white experience.
The show’s strong point is in its vivid narration, of strange places and situations, and powerful emotional journeys. One of its best episodes tells the story of two Somalian political prisoners, kept in solitary confinement, who learn to communicate through knocking on the walls. One ends up tapping out the only book which they are allowed, Anna Karenina, through the wall to the other, hearing the way it guides and sustains him during his imprisonment is an irresistibly moving experience. The show compels and inspires when focusing on the personal, depicting individual moments of remarkable bravery in kindness or standing up and speaking.
The show’s fundamental flaw is perhaps that it doesn’t have a clear identity; the show aims to simultaneously provide light hearted entertainment and educate its listeners on serious topics, which it doesn’t always pull off. However, this is forgivable for a first series, and Rough Translation still has a lot of potential – if it gives itself some more time to fully elaborate on its stories and finds a stronger, more cohesive, direction.
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