Listener supported WNYC Studios. Wait, you're OK? You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Hey, this is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad. So in our last few episodes, you know about the evolution of typing in Chinese and Lebanese guys road trip across America, visiting all the towns in the US called Lebanon, just got us thinking about jumping across borders and, you know, borders of culture and language and technology.
And it reminded us of a show that we did a few years ago that was basically all about that called translation.
Hope you like it. It's time now to practice some very useful phrases. I'll see them first, you repeat, I will learn together again today seven experiments in translation. Lesson number one, the poem was by my mother to remember. Now you try.
Hello. Hi there. Hi, Doug. Yes. Oh, boy.
So this episode was inspired by a guy named Doug.
Doug Hofstadter, professor of Cognitive Science, Indiana University, Bloomington.
You may know him as the guy who wrote Google, Esher Bach, which was a hugely influential book in certain circles published in 1979.
But we actually got interested in him, uh, thanks to our producer, Lynn Levy, because of an obsession of his which predates that 16.
I was 16 the year 1961.
I was taking a French literature class. And one day I came across this poem, a tiny little bump.
It kind of sat right in the middle of the page like a long, thin sausage vertical of, you know, three syllables per line. So it was super skinny and twenty eight lines long and long. And it was delightful. It was very cute and funny. I fell in love with the poem immediately and memorized it. I still know it by heart.
The poem is basically a get well card written by this guy, Clement Morrow, who was a poet in the early 1980s at the Court of Queen, and he wrote the poem for this Queen's daughter.
She was seven or eight and she had gotten sick of flu or something.
And this poem was supposed to cheer her up. And I thought it was very sweet.
Could you say it in French? Let's just hear it first. Yeah, OK. It's called In Demoiselle Malad to a sick demoiselle, so to speak.
Young lady, a sick young lady, young done Boonchu Lucy Presell get his move over a sort of Gockley amount of command. Vafa to the Tarboosh execution. Don't reprimand Requiem for you to sit.
You do not hold Molad Coulthard to Paul pill to swallow born poor due to the salty bone. I mean young.
Oh my God. It must have gotten so many chicks when you were six.
That was really exactly the opposite. I was. I was. I wish.
Okay so he reads the poem, files it away deep in the corner of his mind. Fast forward about twenty years. He publishes his first book.
It becomes very popular and the publisher decides to have it translated into a number of languages, including French.
In that process, which took years, it put me into the frame of mind of thinking what kinds of crazy things can happen when you translate crazy texts and all of a sudden one day that poem popped into his mind and I said, Papa, there's a challenge, let's try to do this.
And when you say challenge, like, what was it? What is that? What is the challenge?
OK, what I meant was to so here's the thing. He says you got this poem Momina done.
And if you just focus on the words, it's basically it just this guy talking to a younger girl saying, hello, my dear, I'm sorry, you're sick.
Being sick is like prison presell. I klement wish you to open your doors, get out into the world, climb on the wall, get out of bed, eat some jam.
Coffee, too, so you don't look so pale. You lose your plump shade pale to all of you know, it's sort of like get better.
Here's to your good health due to the salty bone. I mean young.
But just saying those words in English misses the whole spirit of the poem, the tone, the light heartedness.
And and this is key for Doug. It also ignores the poems form.
It's wonderfully catchy little sausage shape on the page.
The fact that the lines rhyme, you know, A, B, C, D, and the first line, my minion is identical to the last line.
I mean, so sort of has the feel of a palindrome. It has the poet's name in the middle of the poem. Limonov woman. Oh, when I did I say three syllables. Perlow You did not cause three syllables per line. I mean, that's crucial. And then also twenty eight lines long.
So all of those things added up to a set of constraints you might say on me.
So Doug sat down and got to work and quickly became embroiled in the question of like, how do you translate this poem? You know, along the way he even began to make little grids of possibilities for different lines of the poem.
For example, the to the Tarboosh is so crucial, like this line that basically says Don't wallow in bed.
I had a lot of possibilities and I'll just read you the little diagonal display here.
Instead of spurting blood in bed, instead of burping in your bed, instead of bursting out in bed, instead of lurking in your instead of hurtling. Out of instead of hurting there and instead of squirming and instead of slurping slop and instead of burning up in bed, instead of turning blue in bed on and on, and I came up with, you want me to read my first translation, please, my sweet dear, I sent here all the best.
Your forced rest is like jail, so don't ehl very long.
Just get strong, go outside, take a ride, do it quick. Stay not sick. Banyo ache for my sake.
Buttered bread while in bed makes a mess. So unless you would choose that bad news, I suggest that you'd best soon rise so your eyes will not glaze. Douglas praise health. Be near my sweet dear. So so claymores now Douglas Claimable became Douglas, and I like the way jam became bread, though, buttered bread and butter. Buttered bread. Yes, well I just figure jam and jelly.
They are words, but the words represent concepts and the concepts have a kind of a halo around them. I mean, when you talk about jelly, you're implicitly talking about bread and things that you spread it on.
Oh, her just some people just stick their fingers in jelly. No bread. Need it. OK. OK, fair enough. Feeling like you hadn't quite nailed it.
Doug sent the poem to one of the guys that translated his first book into French. Yeah.
A guy named, oddly enough, Bob French, Bob.
And I said, Hey Bob, can you do it? And Bob said, Well, I'll give it a try first friend.
Let me send my embrace. Quit this place.
It's dark halls and dank walls in soft. Still regain health dress and flee off with me.
Clement, who calls for you very different in tone and really quite marvelous.
He got the pale face in there.
You got the Jim Clement's name in the middle, but at the same time it didn't have the lightness. The tone is much more ancient, which you could argue.
Well, it's an ancient poem, but Doug says, no, no, there's a bigger problem.
It was thirty lines long, so extra long and twenty eight was a sacrosanct number.
Well, that's just two lines, though. No, no, no, no, no. Claim on my whole wrote a three syllable poem of twenty eight lines that rhymed wonderfully and the essence of his poem was a form rather than a than a message.
That is the message was get well which is pretty simple. But Doug would argue no, it was the form, that's what made the thing funny and charming. And so the question for him was who could get the feel but nailed the form.
To make a long story short, he ended up sending the poem out to like 60 people, doctoral students who my sweet I entreat one regard otes hard dear recluse, colleagues, friends, chickadee.
I decree a fine day. Even got his wife to do one dart away from your cage and engage in brave flight so you might flee the group. That was all bird themed. Hope you swoop into ham, apple jam and French bread.
You go running around from town to town saying Hey I got a little poem. Anybody want an ice cream? I am a person of binges.
This began a binge, you might say, in that binge ended up becoming a 700 page book filled with translations of this poem. Go ahead and read the last one.
Now, this is the right, right? No, this is not the best one. This is just one. Stop it.
OK, ok, ok. This is also one of his.
But like the twentieth one, he did palpitate go so sweet hug from Doug. Some dumb bug dragged you down. Slap that frown feel the urge bugs to purge from the scourge. You'll emerge in a trice sound advice from him Douglas.
I'm so smash flu.
Come you come you who live to chew sheets eschew sweets let's chew pop tart make your heart palpitate Clem's mandate sure hope God cures your bad head to feet pounding you've got your.
But it's humorous although not the best, he says.
I do want to get to my mother's translation because my mother's was somehow I'm going to have to look it up here. Where was it was like this book is long and complicated. And this one from his mom, he says, came a long years after he started.
Here it is. And he thinks it might be the winner.
Hi. To get well, hospitals, prison and prisons. He'll get well fli yourself. Klemens orders in a nutshell. Go pick out. OK, did your mouth keep those sweetmeats going south. Unless you're Hayle you'll turn pale loose Bulahdelah that wiggles your tail. God restore good health to you my little flower tissue.
Well, that's cool. Notice that she doesn't begin the poem and the poem of the same line, she doesn't have twenty eight lines. She has maybe about 16 lines. She doesn't pay any attention to syllable count.
Must've hated this. I did. My first reaction was, oh, well, no, mom, come on.
Didn't you pay any attention to the form. And and she said I did what I wanted to do. This is my feeling, you know, just that's what I did.
And actually, you know, I have to say, it has stood the test of time.
It has some kind of pizzazz that no other one ever had.
But if she didn't respect the form, she didn't do the syllables. She didn't rhyme it the way it's supposed to rhyme. She didn't give you twenty eight lines. She even like have that practically.
Is that a translation then or is that just a mom.
I don't let the flowers bloom. As I got more and more deeply into this poem, my philosophy started to become Chairman Mao's statement Let one hundred flowers bloom.
In other words, you can look at it from so many angles and each new angle enriches it and makes it more fun.
All right. But you can't read a hundred versions of every poem that you want to read. OK, ok. I agree. You're right. It does make me question, though, the rules of engagement in a way there are no rules is there are no rules.
It's all informal.
OK, but there is jam in one of the translations and ham in the other. And they're like they're factually different food substances.
Smell like the facts of the poem shouldn't be negotiable, should they?
What is what do you mean by fact? I mean, the fact about the poem is that it was written by somebody in French. It's not in French anymore.
Now, here's what I think was really wondering. Is the mission we thought was what was he saying?
Not what do we make of what he's saying? What are the flavors of what he's saying? What are the variants of what he's saying?
And even beyond that, like, isn't the expectation that you as a translator are giving me him like this? This man is lost to time and now suddenly I get to experience him.
But if a hundred flowers are blooming, that somehow feels like I'm not getting him at all.
Obviously you're getting to the question of what is translation and can it be done?
My my feeling is that even though these translations that we've heard are all very different, they all show something about claim on the whole dugs.
Basic point is that like any person is kind of a universe, they're too big to comprehend in their entirety. And so any translation of a poem or whatever is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny refraction.
I mean, look, we have one photograph of Frederic Chopin, one photograph in that picture. He's he's scowling. Why did Frederic Chopin really look like what was his smile?
You know, you look at a photograph of Chopin and you say, oh, this is what Chopin looked like. Well, no, Chopin looked like many things, even the very day that that photograph was taken. He had thousands of different expressions on his face. But then what about a year earlier or 10 years earlier? I mean, knowing Chopin is a very complex thing. It's not one thing.
It's a millions of different things that were united by analogy into something that we refer to as one thing we should say. We looked into it and there are actually two pictures of Chopin, but he's kind of scowling in both or you can't really tell in. The second one is to disagree, but no smiles. Caught on Magnacca photo eio for Cono Michou beginning no eroei your young family. Move, move, move, move, move, move, move or make dhanuka photo in your yard.
Your reference number two. Are you just talking or are you doing to market what you do now.
You try. Number two, I hear I hear the sound of a telephone, hello, Habas Astbury, a story from Greg Warner. Yes, hi, dad. Greg is NPR's East Africa correspondent. You are in what time is it where you are?
It's it's evening. He's based in Nairobi on seven thirty in the evening, which is embarrassing because I just told you good morning in Swahili, but I forgot how to say good evening. So. Oh, OK.
So Greg, I mean, we were just a anyhow, we called Greg up because he had written this article for this great website called TransAm Doug about being a foreign reporter and working with translators and all the mishaps.
You know, when you have to go from one language to another.
But there's actually a really good example that I didn't use in the piece about the failure to communicate. I could tell you that story. Yeah. So so there's this word and you wouldn't think of it as untranslatable, but it's the word serious and when serious, like a serious, serious like S.R.O. us.
OK, in my experience, when you hear this word serious in East Africa does not mean Sollom or thoughtful or stern. It actually almost never has something to do with your mood. But serious tends to mean is are you just talking to me or are you serious? Are you doing something? And usually doing is like some kind of transaction, usually financial. I've been asked by, you know, many East African officials, are you going to be serious with me?
And it obviously means, are you going to pay me a bribe? Oh, usually I pretend to misunderstand that they came home and I said, yes, I'm a very serious international journalists.
And but the story that I want to tell you took place a couple of months ago.
Good afternoon, everybody. I'm really pleased to be back in Africa. Secretary Kerry, Addis Ababa visited Ethiopia and have enormous energy.
And just a few days before Kerry's visit, nine journalists had been arrested under this relatively recent anti-terrorism law that basically says that any criticism of the government is illegal.
I had a series of very productive meetings this morning with my foreign minister counterparts, and Secretary Kerry was giving this press conference.
I shared my concerns about a young Ethiopian blogger that I met last year, not Nilesh A who with eight of his peers have been imprisoned. And I firmly believe that the work of journalists, whether it's print journalists or in the Internet or media of other kinds, it makes societies stronger.
You know, he said all the things that you'd expect him to say. He said, we believe that free speech and open dialogue is important to the economic development of country, blah, blah, blah.
But we remain committed to our partnership with Ethiopia. This comment was also wrapped up in a lot of praise of Ethiopia, and I'd be delighted to answer a few questions.
I'm not sure how that's going to do that.
Then came time for questions. He took some vetted questions from the Ethiopian journalists to more from the traveling press.
And to Kerry's credit, you know, give this gentleman I want to give him a shot. I know he was very impatient. He sort of before he left the podium, he was like, you know what? We're just going to try something different. We're going to, like, call on an Ethiopian journalist.
I want to make sure we get a fair distribution. Kerry pointed this one guy in the second row, young guy in his 20s, boyish face wearing a mustache.
I've only two questions for him, sir. I may have invited the hardest question of the day, but one question. Fair enough.
OK, so let me choose. You have raised double the issues of Nathanael Fallica, who is a blogger and his friends death.
In my opinion, this guy is like, well, every time a journalist is arrested, the US gives a statement about this.
But these things are this keeps happening repeated repeating very much.
So then he asks this question, is it lip service or are you seriously concerned about their arrest?
Is this lip service or are you seriously concerned? At this point? Everybody is just not looking at Kerry. They're all looking at this journalist who obviously had to take considerable personal risks in a place like Ethiopia in a crowd of journalists, including state run TV stations. He's this guy on camera asking this extremely sensitive question about the arrested journalists. We really demand a genuine answer from. And Carrie looks at him like, well. You've got to be kidding when I stand up in public and I and I say something, I try to be serious about it.
And I think the fact that I'm doing that is serious. And when I raised him by name in my comments today, Kerry sounds to me like he's sort of insulted by the question.
And so so remember how serious the word serious in East Africa can be translated very much as are you doing something preferably like a financial transaction. Right. And so what this journalist is saying is, are you just talking about this or are you doing something, maybe threatening Ethiopia with withdrawing aid or withdrawing support? And Kerry says, I am very seriously talking about this.
We have previously called for the release of these individuals and that is the policy of our government and it's a serious policy. Thank you all very, very much.
Appreciate it. And it seemed to me maybe, you know, you can judge, but it seemed like he was almost like, look, I'm like the most serious politician that's out there.
I mean, I lost the presidential race in 2004, in part because I was deemed too serious by the American public.
You know, like what are you accusing me of not being serious?
We put in a number of requests to speak to John Kerry or someone in the State Department, but there was no response.
Do you think he was aware of the misunderstanding? Who, Kerry? No.
This this fellow. Oh, yeah.
And I followed him out afterward. Can you pronounce your name for me? My name is unnecessary.
He's a he's a young guy in his 20s. He's an independent journalist. Yeah. I used to work in different newspapers and I was like, you know, when you when you listen what happened there?
And I just felt like some kind of cultural guide.
I mean, because Americans think serious means I'm standing here. I'm not joking, I'm serious. But when African space is serious and I'm using it generally, they say, no, are you going to not just speak? Are you going to do.
Yeah, that's that's exactly my point. Are you going to take sanctions maybe against Ethiopia in this year? But do you feel that that question put you at risk? Maybe. Who knows? That is a job description doing journalism in Ethiopia. Thanks so much. Thank you. Thank you. I'll give you a call. Give me a call. My number's on there. So that conversation was about five months ago.
Do you know what his fate at all? I mean, have you found out whether did he suffer for this question in any way?
No, but I have his phone number so I can give him a call and find out. Hello. Hi. And then it's Gregory Gregory Warner. Oh, Gregory, how are you? I'm good. I'm good.
So I reached him by Skype.
He told me that actually after that press conference, he did get strange calls to his home and some Facebook messages from people he didn't know, telling him that he better rethink what he said, that a greater line up with the current government direction and that they said you should line up with the government's priorities.
Yeah, these messages were from the government. It's hard to tell. It has been reported that this Ethiopian anti-terrorism task force will wage social media attacks by getting people to send messages on its behalf, especially in the anti-terrorism task force.
Are the ones that sent this kind of message. And were they threatening?
Yeah, some of them were, you know, insulting and that I would be punished accordingly when the time comes and this might come one day, a newspaper refounded gets shut down after publishing one issue, and he was planning for a while to flee to Nairobi to secure my safety, leave his wife and kid behind and then maybe return, grab them, apply for asylum in the United States.
You know, my mother and my older brother are visiting U.S. Washington. OK, Washington.
Like a lot of Ethiopians, he's actually got some relatives in the States. Did they hear that? You ask the question to John Kerry? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard that. What did your mom say? She said, please don't do that. It's not good. They might be targeting you, things like that. You know, moms are like that. Yeah, I like that. And. So on said the mass, said, yeah, boy, oh, yeah, but, Tony.
In my mind, I wish I had a guy. Blasts on sabotage Radiolab will continue in a moment. Message one.
Hello, this is Dr. Halstead. Hey, this is Gregory Warner, NPR East Africa correspondent. I'm supposed to read some tracks. Radiolab, supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, saying Public understanding of science and technology in the modern world for information about slowness of has flown. That or Radiolab is produced by WNYC and also thanks to Transcend Dog series on translation and radio stories. Got me thinking about some of these stories.
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And this message science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science. Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
Day, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab today, eight experiments in translation. Lesson number three, recall that shell shock Dubravka Galatas discovered a shell shock. Now you try. And this one, Robert Krulwich and our producer, Sean Wheeler, talked to writer Adam Gopnik about George Carlin. And why is George Carlin mentioned? Oh, because Carlin is the wonderful sort of folk philosopher of language you about the comedian.
The comedian. Yeah. And this next thing this next thing is about the English language. It's about little expressions we use. We we all say in the little sayings and expressions that we use all the time is one of his great subjects really seem to examine these expressions and all the more interesting because he was he didn't even have a high school education, you know, so it was not something that he got from schooling.
And one of Nick's favorite Carlin riffs, and I really like this one, too, is about how Carlin hated euphemisms.
I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms. And American English is loaded with euphemisms because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. And Carlin was wonderful about things like that.
What about Bush, as he called it?
We have no more old people in this country, no more old people. We ship them all away. And we brought in these senior citizens and he was unsympathetic.
The reason we use euphemism I just been through my father in law died four months ago and we went through those same horrible business that we all go through in an intensive care ward where the doctors and nurse practitioners have a language that they've been taught. We just want your father to be comfortable. He's gravely ill. He's gravely ill, means he's dying. Right. And we want him to be comfortable. Means can we give him enough drugs so that hill pass out before he dies and so on.
And so it's certainly true that euphemism can be a repellent thing, but no one is fooled.
What we're mocking is the absurdity of the effort to disguise something that you cannot disguise.
But Carlin's real point was that it it like dulls our reactions to it, that it actually has like a kind of a negative effect and it gets worse with every generation.
He has this whole bit. It's about shell shock becoming PTSD.
You know, he goes, you know, it goes it's in four different things. In the First World War, that condition was called shell shock.
They used to call it shell shock, simple, honest, direct language, two syllables, shell shock.
And then it became battle fatigue, battle fatigue. Four syllables now takes a little longer to say. Doesn't seem to hurt as much. And then after it became battle fatigue, then it became operational exhaustion.
Hey, we're up to eight syllables now. Then it became post-traumatic stress disorder.
Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen and then it became PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain is completely buried under jargon.
This was the Orwell notion that you could erase sensitivities if you blended out the words. So if you stop saying, oh yeah, we just tortured the guy.
If you say something for some interrogation or enhanced interrogation, that makes a big difference.
And part of what Carl is saying is that like now that is PTSD. We are not having the appropriate reaction to it. I mean, it's shell shock.
I'll betcha if we have still been calling a shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time of.
But now you're putting your finger on this. This is where the the rubber meets the road. Does the use of euphemism, does that really rob us of some understanding?
And Adam Gopnik surprisingly says maybe not.
The truth is just the opposite. We actually have more of an apparatus to help people with PTSD than they did in 1915 to help guys with shell shock. The reason the word gets more abstract is exactly because you have a much more complicated and abstract system of support.
It's not because that's the reason it's called PTSD, because it's a more complex.
And yes, because think about what that evolution says. The initial thing was, oh, these guys are being driven crazy because the shells are exploding all around.
On the western front, Gopnik says the thinking was, you know, it was temporary. The shell goes off, it explodes. In a moment, they have a moment of shock and they need a moment of rest and then they can go back in. But by World War two, we are thinking that's not quite right. It's not just shells exploding.
Right. It's the whole experience of battle. It's all the shooting and the death and the fear. So it becomes battle fatigue. You're trying to generalise it. You're trying to make it richer as the it also becomes fatigue versus shock.
There's less violence in that.
Right. Because because you're looking at guys who may not exhibit the symptoms of shock necessarily, but over time, it becomes impossible for them to go on. There's a wonderful film from World War Two called Let There Be Light.
These are the casualties of the spirit. The trouble in mind, men who are damaged emotionally about guys with what they were then calling battle fatigue.
And the reason they were calling it that was because you didn't necessarily see it right away.
Then around Vietnam, he says, we realize you don't just see this on the battlefield. You see it with guys who aren't necessarily directly involved in battle. And so the question became, what's the source of it? It's you say, well, it's nervous exhaustion. You say the human nervous system can only take it for so long and then everybody's nervous system shuts down, hence the term operational exhaustion.
Now, that's example. Again, when you try to enrich it, you're saying the guys aren't cowards and not in the state of shock. They're behaving the way all human beings do.
And then you get more concerned about them and you say the real problem isn't their just their experience on the battlefield. The problem is, is that they're in a constant state of disorder because it lingers on long after you think it's over. You can't just get these guys into a hospital for six months and think they're going to be better. They are permanently you. They have post-traumatic shock.
And then once you have a whole apparatus to deal with it, then you becomes PTSD.
My point is just that it's perfectly possible that the language of euphemism grows and becomes more abstract as far as people actually are becoming more empathetic to the people who suffer from it so often.
Do you by I mean, he's he's basically turned on his head and he's made the blander and blander words enrichments. I have. I mean, my only move would be to hit play on Carlin, poor people who used to live in slums.
Now the economically disadvantaged occupies substandard housing in the inner cities. And they're broke. They're broke.
They don't have a negative cash flow position and plough.
Because a lot of them were fired, you know, fired soon on ragazzo Yankee Doodle, Yankee Doodle follow Moyal Ferrone portended to some Montorgueil called your children Ragazzo Yankee Doodle Joy, Yankee Doodle, Yankee Doodle Wondrously Parkerville Carter Sonoi.
I go to Yankee Doodle lesson number four. Imagine a lot of cocacola like bubbles on your tongue fishtailed Coca-Cola. That's on the market. Now you try.
Pretty good. This is Emily. My name's Emily Gosu and I'm an artist, Frazier and Ali.
Some of you may remember that a couple of years ago we did a story about Emily, where she'd been hit by a truck, gone into a coma, and then her boyfriend at the time, Alan, had brought her back by writing on her hand.
She's writing her name on the palm of my hand.
And of all the stories we've ever done, I think this one has gotten the most response. And when we left that story, Emily had emerged from the coma and begun to recover.
But she was blind. Totally blind, right? Yeah. And like, no light and nothing coming in now. OK, needless to say, it was a very big adjustment.
I just know I just had to develop my own ways to navigate throughout the world and just myself and and being a visual artist, she had to develop new ways to draw.
I had crayons and if you draw with crayons hard enough, you can feel the wax on the paper.
Yeah, but then one day in the summer of 2012, she gets a call from the Lighthouse School in New York City. The Lighthouse School. Yeah, it's a school for the blind.
Her mom had found out that they were trying out this brand new technology.
I think they were doing this study for the FDA, very experimental. And her mom signed her up. Long story short, Emily shows up to the Lighthouse school one day and walks into this room.
And a guy named Ed gives her this thing. He gave me the device. Can you describe it? I mean, is it a big helmet?
No, it's not. It's just like a regular pair of sunglasses, though.
They were a little heavier than your normal sunglasses, she says, because right on the front, like on the bridge of the nose, was a little camera pointing forward.
And then attached to the sunglasses was a little wire that ran out of the camera and down to this little square piece of metal dinghies made out of titanium.
And it's just like the size of a postage stamp. A little bit thicker, though.
It explained to her that the little piece of titanium was filled with thousands of electrodes. And what was going to happen is that the camera was going to convert images into patterns of electricity on that little square.
So he told her to take a little square, put it on your tongue, put it right on the center of your tongue and close your mouth. So I put it on and they turned it on and it was like it started to take off. Imagine a lot of CocaCola, like a lot of bubbles on your tongue and always like prickly, prickly feelings.
The idea behind this thing, according to science writer Sam Kean, author of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, is that we actually see with our brain, not our eyes. I mean, it might seem like our eyes are doing the seeing in our ears and doing the hearing in our fingers and tongue, the tasting touching. But that's actually not how it works. Each of our senses sends signals into the brain as electricities, little blips on nerves. And it is the brain that then converts those little blips into what you perceive as a sight or a sound or smell.
Now, obviously, someone who is blind, their retina is not sending those signals anymore. But what if there is another way to get signals for light and dark and color into our brains and all of our brains? There are lots and lots of pathways going from every part of the brain to every other part of the brain. And normally your brain isn't using those pathways even though they exist. It's like there's a road there, but it's shut down and traffic can't be on it.
But what if you could open up some of those routes?
You just let me sit with it on for an hour or two hours.
Emily says at first she had no idea what was happening. She would just swivel her head around and feel the patterns on her tongue change.
And every time I looked around, he say, oh, there's a chair, that's a door. That's me. That's your mom. And it went on like this for a while. It showed her a ball in a square of plastic banana. And nothing was really happening for her except for the prickly feelings on her tongue.
But then there was this moment and had this really long Styrofoam rod, and he lost it in front of me, he moved it up and down in front of my face.
And I was like, oh, my God, what was that? Suddenly she says she just saw it.
I was like, oh, my God, it's just happened on his own. What did it look like in some of my mind's eye? Looked like a long, white, skinny stick.
Could you see the texture of the sticker? No, I couldn't see texture. I couldn't see in three dimensions. It was very flat. It was kind of like that kid's toy light, right? Yes. So imagine like a black screen and little tiny white dots all arranged in a line.
So Emily was allowed to keep the brain power device for about a year and a half, and during that time the light bright resolution of it did get better as her brain learned to speak tongue. It was awesome when I saw people moving in. And one of the things that really struck me in our conversation was I asked her about this video that her mom had sent me, showing her wearing the device and walking down the street.
She told me that usually, you know, now that she's blind when she's walking down the streets of New York City, especially uptown, where the streets are a lot wider.
She says people see her in her white cane and walk a really wide circle around her. So I yeah, I hardly ever notice other people walking around me. It feels like I'm just walking alone.
I can always hear the traffic and the sound of traffic, but not other people.
But she says when she put the device on and put that little sensor on her tongue, the sidewalk came alive.
I thought it was amazing. Like I didn't know this. Many people were on the street at the same time as me. And now they're all they're all there again.
But she described them in a way that sounded. Almost like a painting. Like really soft lashes. Everything was really soft, like soft flashes of ink that could move. There's walking and I could see their legs moving and I could see them their gait, but I couldn't see them clearly, like I couldn't see their features or whether they were wearing a shirt or shorts or address or pants. I just, like, see their shadows. And every now and then I see the light kasit on them.
Really? Yeah. I imagine somehow like underwater creatures. Squishy jellyfish, like, yeah, yeah, like Lyonya. Yeah, like that. And that, for Emily, is what it's like to translate the city with your tongue. New York City becomes this. Hazy sea of walking fish that make their way along in the sunshine. I know not to put more thought, oh, fuck, covid. One of. Not to put her out play, beat me No.
Lesson number five, I feel like oil futures are going to crash today more than the year. Now you try.
Next up, producer Tim Howard. Yes, hi. Hello.
So when I heard about this story with Emily and the brainwork, I immediately called up this guy, John.
Which Mike is it? This one. OK, you might remember him. I'm David Eagleman. I'm a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine.
Called him up because I came across this thing that he's working on that is sort of like the next generation of crazy.
It's called the vest, which stands for the variable extra sensory sensory transducer. And it's it's a vest that you wear underneath the clothing.
And this vest has 24 motors on it, little vibrating motors, just like the ones in your cell phone. And the vest connects to your phone. So we pick up sound.
Hi, this is Time Warner Cable calling with an opportunity for you to provide us with valuable feedback through a cell phone.
And the cell phone does all the computational work to then convert that sound into patterns of vibration on the vest.
And you feel a buzzing all over your torso, different motors running at different amplitudes. It actually changes every twenty milliseconds. So it's a moving pattern.
And it might seem impossible that you could actually extract something useful about what's being said.
But when David brings deaf volunteers into the lab and has them do a particular training on the vest, he says that over the course of 12 days, people get really good at word recognition.
Somehow they begin to intuitively recognize that this means high or blue or chair.
If you tried to concentrate on it and figure out how each motor translates to some part of that sound, you would never figure it out. But the good news is you don't have to do it consciously.
The brain is a specialist at extracting statistical information.
And because the brain is so good at this kind of translation, says David, what he really wants to do is use this best to create new sensors. So what if you feed in stock market data?
I could say seventy five hundred twenty five seventy five point seventy eight and converted that into the buzzing.
Could you develop an immediate perceptual experience of the economic movements of the planet? And would you without having any conscious awareness of how or why you're feeling a certain way, could you have an intuition like, you know, I kind of feel like oil futures are going to crash today.
You wouldn't be analyzing all this information. You would just feel it. We're also working on feeding in.
You are seeing a tremendous amount of rain, real time weather data from the, let's say, 200 miles around you.
Question is, would you end up having an intuition, Peekskill, a store that's better than what the weatherman can tell you on the news or this one?
What if we took 500000 tweets per second, passed it through some natural language processing to sort of have a higher level summary of what's going on and pump all that information through the vest?
Would you develop a sense of what's happening on the planet where you suddenly say, oh, I feel like something just happened in Nairobi? And, oh, I think the Canadians have just, you know, finalized their election of something. And I don't know what this will be like yet, but there's no reason to expect any limit on on what the brain will be able to develop an immediate perceptual experience about.
More experiments in translation. In a moment, this is Darlene calling from Kampala, Uganda. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at W w w dot Sloan dot org.
Amjad Abumrad. I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab, and today, experiments in translation. Lesson number six. Thank you very much. Interpreter 39 40, VENKATARAMAN Court reporter. Now you try.
For an interpreter, you really do get a spectrum of life. This is Natalie Kelly.
You know, you get a little taste of all of these different things that are happening in the world. It really opens your eyes.
She wrote a book called Found in Translation. And years ago, you know, I grew up in a very small town in the Midwest back when she was just a kid. I remember going to work with my dad and there was a janitor and my dad said, you know, he actually speaks another language, another language on top of English.
And she says she remembers her seven year old brain being like, wow, there's a whole nother language beyond English that I could learn. Fast forward many, many years.
Natalee goes to college and she just started learning languages.
Yes, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, German, Italian, whatever I could get my hands on because she had this basic idea that it would just connect her to the wider world.
But what it actually led to, at least initially, was this very strange job called telephone interpreting.
This is a job I never actually thought to think about until now. But basically when anyone calls a business and there's a language barrier, the operator can call switchboard and patchin someone like Nathalie's, I could interpret for them. And Natalie, like a lot of these telephone interpreters work remotely, which meant should be in her house alone in a room and every few minutes.
Hello's is interpretor three nine four zero. How may I help you? She'd get a call and it could be anything. One minute you're interpreting for it could be a celebrity who's booking hotel or a restaurant in Spain. Then you're interpreting for a court hearing and then you're interpreting for a hospital.
And what was the most memorable call you ever got? I was well, let me put it this way. I got a call. You never know where the call is going to come from. And I heard that it was a nine one one call. And most of these calls are actually not real emergencies. But I knew immediately something was different. The dispatcher was connected and I heard this woman whispering on the other side of the phone. She said at that by the time he's going to kill me, oh, my God.
The dispatcher said, where is he gonna stop? And she said, Is Gasa in the house? Yeah, he's in the house. And then the dispatcher said, And where are you, the Alabama with something under the bed?
Oh, my God. Does he have a gun? Tinana pistola. See, where is he now? In the hallway. What's he doing? He's opening the door and then. Golf, really? Mm hmm. Yeah, there is just a click. That's it, that's it. But. It sort of gets me about that is like, you know, like if you got into it for the connection, then what a weird place to end up in where like you're by yourself in your room and then suddenly you're dropped into the middle of the most intense moment in a person's life, but then ripped out before you can know who the person was or what's about to happen to them.
And then you're back in your room again by yourself. That happens.
And then the phone rings again and then you're. Hello, this is interpretor three nine four zero. How may I help you? And you're back to it and you're interpreting, you know, something, you know, literally within a minute after that phone call ends and the next president is probably trying to buy trading stamps in Spanish or something.
Yeah, I, I can't imagine what it would be like to have to skip and jump like that. I unemployed one small nonsense. I thank them for. Lesson number seven, we got down and dirty, so I got down and dirty to put down what you didn't do. Now you try.
OK, so this next story, this next translation story, the mistranslations right now, you try.
Hey, this next story, actually, we should say it contains a lot of obscenities, a lot of obscenities coming up, a lot of strong graphic language. If that's not something you're into or if you've got kids around, I would advise you to skip forward about nine and a half minutes. All right, if you're still here, yeah, we're rolling. This one comes from our executive producer, Ellen Horn. OK, so you should start the story, Ellen Horn.
So how did were you at this show like. Yeah.
So you guys knew Nick Nucifora, who helped us arrange the the tour for Radiolab. Sure. So he invited me to come to.
All right. Its oddball 2014. So it's the oddball comedy festival.
And when we got there, you know, there's like huge crowds, tens of thousands of people kind of crowd like 14000 people.
I'm like, yeah, yeah.
So we sat down and from the state of New Jersey, the roast master general Jeff Ross. Do you guys know Jeff Ross?
No, he's an insult comedian. He gets up. He's the emcee for the night and he kicks the show off.
How the hell are you, Jersey? Yeah. And how are you doing, sir?
He starts picking folks out of the crowd. What's your name? Rob. I loved you. Want to catch a predator. Look at these two chicks. How you doing, ladies? You look very cute to fives. Make a ten doll.
And then he looks to his left and hi, there's a lady doing sign language over there.
He sees the sign language interpreter. Can I come over there?
She looks like she's in her 50s. Brunette glasses wearing tank top.
What's your name? Kim.
Give it up for Kim Stadium because the polite clapping for Kim.
This is while Kim and then he says so anyway, I was jerking off the other day and Kim was like, she has to be translating. Oh, yeah. Oh, God. She cups her hand and quickly moves it up and down in the air, gets a big laugh. And so Jeff Ross seeing this, he escalates.
Then I stuck my thumb in my nose just as I had a burger in there.
So to translate, she has to stick her thumb in her nose.
And I decided to stick my pinky in my own. Kim does a few signs and then makes it look like she's sticking her hand in her butt, crowd goes wild. So Jeff Ross takes it even further.
And afterwards, I'm going to get out my vibrator with a hand crank. I'm troubled by how funny this is. I love you, Kim. Well, yeah. Because here's the thing, halfway through the show, I noticed that Kim wasn't there anymore and she didn't translate for Sarah Silverman, shouldn't translate for did someone else. With no, there's no translation.
So it made me wonder, what did I see there? What was going on? Jeff Ross was clearly using her, but was Kim OK with that?
OK, so I found a list of all of the sign language translators in the state of New Jersey. Hi, how are you? I'm good, how are you? And I found her OK.
My name is Kim Van Cleef and I'm a certified American Sign Language interpreter, and we're here in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.
Turns out the Kim lives part of the year and she has her entire life in a religious community on the beach in New Jersey.
When I'm not doing comedy, I'm doing religious sign language interpreter services and I'm in the choir.
And there's this venue nearby that does these big stadium shows. There's any deaf ticket buyers, venues required by law to provide a sign language interpreter.
So Pensee calls me. I do all their their concerts, all the musical concerts which I've been doing for years, you know, Goo Goo Dolls, James, whatever. But I always can prep up for them. I get the set list, I go to lyrics, dotcom. I always you know, because a lot of times I don't know the Goo Goo Dolls. You know, I like Frank Sinatra and you know, hip hop. When he asked me to do comment, like there's no prep for that, I didn't know what was coming at me.
I had no idea who any of these comedians are. Of course, I went, you know, any of the comedians.
Eventually I ask her about the whole Jeff Ross thing. So he's basically having you harass yourself. Yes. And I am most curious to sort of find you and follow up and just find out, like, how that felt.
Well, and she says the moment Jeff Ross started getting raunchy, she had a choice.
There's registers in sign language registers.
Yeah, you can be formal, you can be casual or you can be intimate and you can pick signs from all of those registers, like take, for example, the word now, the polite way to do it, to maybe spell it so f you speak or, you know, there's the regular gesture.
You could do this to you.
You're giving us the finger, two middle fingers here.
You know, there's quite a few of us just getting started. And then there's this one that actually shows people doing the action because he takes out two fingers on each hand and smashes them together.
There's that, you know, this way, which is even more graphic.
Arms out, just pelvic thrust receiving the physical. Yeah. So she had a lot of options. But with Jeff Ross, she figured that what was necessary was this kind of intimate, graphic tone.
He was down and dirty. I was down and dirty. So you didn't have any discomfort with any of that later? No.
I was having such a good time. I really I really was enjoying it. So then why do you think she left?
So this never occurred to me. She was there for one girl, one deaf girl. What what do you mean? So there's fourteen thousand people there, but one ticket buyer was deaf and asked for a sign language interpreter. Just one. Yeah. Young girl was there with her mom. Wow. But she know where this client was. Yeah. Oh yeah.
She was in that position on the stage because she was near where the client was. And so the whole time she's signing towards the client and seeing her reaction.
Can you describe what your client was doing?
She was like, oh, so I see you're holding your hand over your over your eyes.
She said the client I mean, it looks like a whole body cringe because I think she thought she was getting a lot of attention. Like the client was mortified. And at intermission, my client signed back to her. We're going to take off.
We're going to go home now. So I'm like, OK, so Kim left because the client left. Yeah.
I mean, did you manage to talk to this girl?
No, I emailed her. I got the venue to call her, but she hasn't gotten back to me.
Huh. I'm suddenly feeling bad for this girl.
I mean, it feels like she got a raw deal, you know, would you if you had been her if you'd been Kim, would you have, do you think just enjoyed yourself a little less been a little less graphic and been a little less playing with the comedian?
I think I would have dialed it down knowing me. Oh, my God. You would have dialed down.
He's a good man, Jessica. I know, but it's evidence of that translator.
Why would they make me a terrible translator? I mean, this is one girl in a crowd of fourteen thousand, and the translator is there for her, not the forty thousand.
No, but think about what the job is. She came to a comedy.
But was there any way in which Kim had an obligation to represent the client? No, she's in the middle between the two, I think. And I think it's a fair question. I think it's a fair question. I mean, she's not just there to represent Jeff Jeff on stage.
You know, she's there to to be a mutual representative. Both people know why not a comedy show?
She's in the show. She's translating the show from the stage.
You match the tone of the person. That's what Kim said. And if they're yelling and screaming, your signs are bigger, your face is exaggerated. You know, I made it clear the tone that he was projecting, but I asked her, like, do you feel bad at all?
Did you do you feel like you lost sight of her and you started translating for the whole crowd? Did it feel like you went behind enemy lines at all? She just said no.
If the whole audience was deaf, I would have done the same thing. I was doing my job.
Yes, because that's what a translator does. A translator is making what is happening up there available to me, not creating a middle space.
And I guess you could argue that if she had made the choice to finger spell so that she protected the girl, you could see that from her perspective that's betraying the club because she's not giving her the full experience.
But it's weird because in her making the equal experience and her doing that, she makes it an experience that the girl doesn't want to have.
Yeah, well, although Kim didn't tell me she could have taken it way farther for sure.
The intimate. Oh, no, I did not register. No, I did not go there. I did it casual, but yeah, casual.
I mean and to have been unbaked you have they got casaba that they got it but it did.
But make it better. Sjöberg This Nejat. On Cape Cod, Scott is a. Client is the only two. Very good. And now let's say goodbye to this very bright.
Now, you try Mike, put on Saturday night, I'll come on set on the album day to day, I knew Qanuni, she knew naysaying. You want Monday, could he go Gnangara again?
The song, like I put it on Saturday night and I'm done.
So it doesn't make any sense because all the syllables are totally off. OK, good ECan and some gold.
But heroic translation from the Korean of Aurally is by Margaret Glaspie. So thank you, Margaret.
Yeah, and thanks to all our singers called on dhanuka for the fiesta ja ja ja who sang Old MacDonald in Bambara, which the milland language song on Ragazzo Yankee Doodle.
Catherine McCarthy, who did our Italian version of Yankee Doodle Dandy Short but.
Leah Torres, who did that German I've been working on the railroad, too, as a khaleel who did the Arabic Amazing Grace, and she's the mom of our intern.
Yes. So. And then my yes.
And of course, our puppeteer from our apocalyptical show, Myron Gussow, did our Russian version of You Are My Sunshine Bean Unbaked, you, Kiran Ahluwalia, doing the Hindi version of Three Blind Mice and finally on with the piano and musical interpretation on everything.
John Dryden, thank you. Thank you, John. Oh, and you know what?
If you go to our website, Radiolab dot org, you can hear a Proteau version of Radiolab in Spanish, which we'd like your feedback on.
Yeah, I'm Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich about Catorce. Start of message. Hi, this is David Eagleman. Hello, this is Carl Zimmer. This is Kim Van Cleef. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.
Our staff includes Ellen Hawthorne, Wheeler, Susan Wheeler, who produced this show, Tim Howard, Brenna Farrell, Molly Webster, Melissa O'Donnell, Delante Faye, New York, Andy Mills, Kelsey Padget and Matt Kielty with help from Adrian Laucke Ream of two. And Clarkson is Scudder special thanks to Nancy Updike, Larry Kaplow, Emily Condon, John Lonberg, Nick Nucifora. He gave Alberta, Ferrare Wallace, Almeda, Suzanne Franks and everyone at Language Line.
And this message. All right, so listen, where it's the show's over, right? It's definitely totally over. We've said goodbye. Yeah. So like anyone, this is like this is now we're not even here, really?
No, this is this is this is for the people who want to venture into some, well, hideous territory territory.
Because we have we asked listeners to to Sydney and tell us what you think it was like.
Do you like us? And here's what we got.
Milbury I'm here for to do Hosta. Vice, I could take you to keep and should Mother Niazi, if I can almost guarantee you.
Oh my gosh. Did you make I want to pull together but you're too modest for the.
How much of that give. I mean I watch Zevi you take it all. Oh I just couldn't watch the Silva.
I do feel the impact will be the ultimate. Boudicca now in English your.
Of a bird.