Subtitles in Podcasts: A Sound Idea

Radio Atlas shines a light on international audio

11 mins read

Imagine sitting in a small theatre, filled with people. As the lights dim, a quiet settles over the crowd. The screen illuminates, but instead of seeing images of CGI superheroes or lavish mid-century landscapes, you just see words.

Big, stark subtitles start filling the black screen. They’re following along with the audio of a conversation between two women, one young and one old. At first, you’re a bit disoriented. You aren’t used to non-English speaking voices taking centre stage in mainstream spaces, but soon you’re transfixed. The sound is rich and the voices are filled with emotion. The words you’re seeing translate what you’re hearing. And just like that you’re in a new world, listening to a granddaughter struggling to explain her recent breakup to her grandmother.

You may not understand exactly what’s being said, but you get what’s going on.

That’s the power of subtitles, bridging the language gap and opening up a new world for anyone who wishes to pay attention. And that’s the power the UK-based project Radio Atlas and its affiliated podcast want to harness for English speaking audiences.

Radio Atlas is the “English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world,” says creator Eleanor McDowall. She describes it as a great place to hear inventive documentaries, dramas, and works of sound art that have been made in languages you don’t necessarily speak. It’s like subtitled movies, if they didn’t have pictures. And it’s available online and wherever you listen to podcasts.

The idea for Radio Atlas was sparked after McDowall attended a live listening event by the collective of radio producers and enthusiasts known as In the Dark. They’ve been putting on live listening events in the UK for almost a decade.

“Radio Atlas wouldn’t exist without the work of In the Dark” says McDowall. “They were the first people who I saw subtitle an audio documentary and it transformed the way I interacted with work made in languages I didn’t speak.”

McDowall wanted to pass along that transformative experience to other English audio lovers, so she started Radio Atlas. It began with her making short subtitled tracks in her bedroom and posting them online. Soon, as the website grew into a podcast, she became enthralled with the process of translating the emotion alongside the actual words. “I wanted to see if I could experiment with the subtitles to try and make something even more sympathetic to the sound, so you saw when someone paused to hold back tears mid-sentence, or felt their comic timing (or lack of it) or the musicality of a voice.”

Radio Atlas is about more than just translation, it is about cracking open “a tiny window on the vast worlds of creative audio,” according to McDowall. It is a way to reinterpret the world, to shed light on the histories, ideas, and perspectives that may be lost in Western societies

Papa, We’re In Syria from Radio Atlas on Vimeo.

The rise of podcasting’s popularity is somewhat linked to the fact that you can do other things while listening. Many podcast lovers enjoy throwing on their favourite show while doing chores or in transit. In fact, one unspoken goal in podcasting is to get listeners so into the story that they stay in their car, even after arriving at their destination. These “driveway moments” are benchmarks in a producer’s career, but also proof that podcast makers understand how their shows are being consumed.

So it’s understandable why non-English podcasts aren’t as popular in predominantly English-speaking countries. To truly understand what’s going on, you need to be paying complete attention. Your eyes as well as your ears have to be available, which is another barrier to entry for some listeners and a drawback to the project.

But by opening the door to other languages, even just a hair, we invite new ways of interpreting the world around us. We’re offered new considerations of major life events and new ways to deal with tragedy.

Cassettes from Exile from Radio Atlas on Vimeo.

For McDowall, it was baffling that there wasn’t more curiosity around non-English audio and what it could mean for English listeners. “I hope that Radio Atlas shines a tiny sliver of light on the vast amount of creative work that listeners are missing out on—work that can challenge the stylistic modes in which we are used to hearing our stories and the perspectives from which we’re used to hearing them.”

Since its conception, Radio Atlas has shared work from twenty-six countries including Czechia, Sweden, Iran, and Croatia. Each audio piece is a collaboration between McDowall, the original audio producers, a sound engineer, and a translator. Sometimes the roles overlap, but the ultimate focus is on translating the ethos of the content, to preserve the spirit of the original piece as much as possible.

ROW-cub from Radio Atlas on Vimeo.

It is the only way to capture the sad comedy of pieces like Neena Pathak’s ROW-cub, or the tender love and humour of Sindre Leganger’s Still Glowing Strong, or even the terrifying energy of Ole Fugl Hørkildel’s The Pep Talk. Each entry illuminates a familiar world from an unexpected perspective. They tug at our humanity while expanding how we view the human experience.

I was first introduced to Radio Atlas at the 2019 Hot Docs Podcast Festival. During the POC Listening party, curator Aliya Pabani played ROW-cub. Just like Eleanor McDowall, I was transfixed by the tenderness of the story and just how expertly the subtitles captured the exasperation, sadness, comedy, and compassion of the interaction between two family members. There were feelings I knew so well, wrapped in a foreign veneer. It felt like I was witnessing something personal, but wholly familiar. It was magical.

Radio Atlas has received praise from CBC Radio One, Third Coast International Audio Festival, The Daily Telegraph, and audiophiles the world over, but despite the accolades within the industry, there still remains many barriers to finding, translating, and sharing non-English audio projects. “There’s so much I can’t access because of language barriers, rights restrictions, or a lack of contacts in a specific place,” McDowall says.

McDowall and her team are always looking for ways to broaden the types of pieces they feature, whether that be highlighting a new language or giving listening time to something that may be considered unconventional by English audiences. It’s all about finding new ways to feature a spectrum of voices.

Still Glowing Strong from Radio Atlas on Vimeo.

Hopefully as the project keeps growing, more international stations and podcasts will be able to work with McDowall and the rest of the Radio Atlas team. But until that day, she has no qualms with copycats; in fact, she encourages it. “I would dearly love to see it ripped off by lots of different people so that I can hear lots of work I wouldn’t know to look for in languages I don’t speak,” she admits.

Ultimately, this project isn’t about making money or gaining a gigantic audience. Radio Atlas, just like the In the Dark live events, was born out of a love of audio, a relentless curiosity, and an urge to keep pushing the medium forward into the weird and wonderful corners of the world.

I suggest taking a moment of your day to sit down and listen to something from Radio Atlas. You can be transported anywhere, from a Swedish watchman’s nightly walk to the first-person accounts of a Uruguayan’s journey back home after the 2009 financial crisis. There are big ideas told in personal stories in McDowall’s program. When you listen to it, you’ll learn something new about the world and maybe even something about yourself.

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