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Language Lessons

My eye was caught this week by a new true crime podcast release — The Nobody Zone, which is a co-production between RTÉ in Ireland and Third Ear in Denmark. It covers the alleged crimes of Irishman Kieran Patrick Kelly on the London Underground between 1953 and 1983. But it wasn’t the content of this six part series that piqued my interest, but rather the fact that the show is being released simultaneously in five different languages: English, Danish, Spanish, German and Irish.

The trend for multilingual podcasts has really accelerated in the past year. Building on the existing work of shows like Radio Ambulante, Radio Atlas and the Spotify/Vice News collaboration Chapo, last August two big US podcast publishers — Wondery and iHeartMedia — both announced that they were beginning to make their shows available in languages other than English. Wondery started by translating Dr Death into Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Portuguese and Korean, while iHeart put together a slate including Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class to be translated into “Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, French, German and more” beginning early 2020.

The case for translation for these big English language providers is clear. Translating and rerecording episodes with new voice talent is a moderate one-off cost, but it makes the shows accessible to millions more people in markets where podcast listening is really ramping up such as South America and India. Not only are there plenty of listeners to acquire there, but via local distribution and monetisation deals, these new language editions of existing shows can bring in fresh advertising dollars.

That’s one big layer to this trend, but I’m also keen to understand how multilingual expansion looks from the perspective of independent podcasters. Translation and revoicing costs will be out of reach for most smaller creators, but there are producers working to bake multilingual options into their shows from the beginning of production.

Lory Martinez is one such — a Colombian-American from Queens, she’s now based in Paris and last year founded her own production house, Studio Ochenta, aiming primarily to produce multilingual podcasts, although the outfit is also making branded podcasts and providing consulting services as part of the business. Martinez works with a team of about 10 freelance producers around the world to make her shows.

This outfit’s flagship production to date is Mija, a fiction podcast that exists in English, Spanish and French. The first series of eight ten-minute episodes is centred on the titular Mija, the daughter of Colombian immigrants in New York City, who tells her family’s immigration stories. When I spoke to Martinez last week, she explained that she had deliberately designed Studio Ochenta’s formats to work well for multiple languages. “It’s basically designed for multilingual. All of our shows are narrative, mostly single voice. There are few interviews for that reason, because it’s very simple to translate that,” she explained.

The choice to work in fiction and Mija’s subject matter were also made with translation in mind. “It’s really all about being able to recognise a universal story and adapt it locally,” she said. “For me, that was an immigration story. Every market is looking at an influx of immigration and refugee migration stories are in the news every day. It’s something that’s top of mind for people [everywhere]. And I chose a Latin American, Latinx immigration story because it was my own.” Storytelling around language itself is also in the ascendance at the moment, with shows like James Kim’s Moonface exploring a relationship between two people who don’t share a language.

Aside from helping podcasts to reach more people, multilingual expansion has a strong educational impetus. Martinez has had feedback from people using Mija to practise their language skills, and says that providing transcripts really helps with this. Another Studio Ochenta production, How Not to Travel, is more in this didactic mode. The Nobody Zone, especially in its Irish version, also acknowledges this with RTÉ providing subtitled versions on YouTube. Language learning app Duolingo is also making podcasts specifically for this purpose, producing easy to follow non fiction stories in Spanish and French.

Martinez said that independent podcasters in the US should be more aware that they already have listeners all over the world, and consider taking advantage of it. “You already have an international audience. Why not tap into the rest of it?” She did caution, however, that the CPM-based advertising model commonly used in America isn’t applicable everywhere, and that some markets are smaller than others. “Different economic models are going to come up with this new growth, I think, because CPM models don’t work for every market,” she said. “In some places, it’s more about the value of the listener.”

For Martinez, multilingual production is closely tied to the nature of the content she wants to produce — she’s not translating anything just for the sake of it. The second season of Mija will come out in May, and will be available in a fourth language: Mandarin. “It’s because the story is gonna be about a Franco-Chinese Mija and her family’s immigration journey,” she explained. “We’re adding the Chinese not just because the Chinese market is big or anything like that. It’s because it fits the story.” It’s an ambitious blueprint, but one I suspect we will begin to see other independent podcasters following.