Updated: Oct 26, 2021
If podcasts were a person, they’d definitely be the new cool nerd kid on the digital block. A kid with an insatiable curiosity for the world around them and a love of endless discussions on every topic imaginable, and, of course, with catchy musical interludes. But, would they only speak one language?
Ever since I started working as a translator nine years ago, both in-house and at home, talk radio has kept me company, making me laugh or cry with the stories they share, and has also been an incredible source of knowledge on a wealth of topics and issues. However, last year I made the move from mainstream radio to podcasts. Why? One reason might be because the specific format of podcasts allows the listener to immerse themselves deeper in a story or topic, anytime, anywhere. For me, listening to true crime stories, historical scandals and conversations between two mums about raising bilingual children while walking baby Luca around Turin in his buggy became my favourite “me-time”.
A growing podcast community
Looking at the figures, I’m not the only one embracing the podcast world. Now in its “teenage years”, this relatively new medium is becoming increasingly popular year on year, not only in the US, but also in Europe, Latin America and Asia. For example, the number of monthly podcast listeners in the US is as high as 32% , which roughly equates to 100 million people, while in Spain, 55% of Spaniards have listened to a podcast in the last month . The podcast community is not only growing in terms of listener figures, but also in terms of creators, with more than 2,000,000 active podcasts as of April 2021  and podcasts available in more than 100 languages.
Is there an audience for multilingual podcasts?
With such a huge, international market, anyone would assume that it’s pretty normal to find podcasts offering their stories in multiple languages, in the same way as platforms such as Netflix and Disney+ offer dubbed and subtitled content in a wide range of languages. However, multilingual podcasts are a rare find.
While listening to the addictive podcast “Serial” — a true-crime programme that delves into the murder of a high-school senior in Baltimore and the arrest and imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend for her murder— I started to wonder if translating this kind of format was actually possible. Would it feel the same listening to a dubbed version of the real conversations between the journalist and convicted ex-boyfriend, the detectives or the victim’s friends? Would these stories be universal enough to engage audiences from other countries outside the US? Well, the few multilingual podcasts out there confirm that it is indeed entirely possible to bring such stories to life in different languages, with impressive results.
Mija Podcast, telling universal stories about immigration
Mija Podcast is an exciting multilingual experiment created by Studio Ochenta that takes a close look at immigration through the personal stories of three families in four languages across three seasons. The fact that this podcast is available in different languages is also part of the story itself, as it represents the different identities, or layers that an immigrant or immigrant descendant has.
In Season 1 of Mija, Lory Martínez, the founder of the podcast, tells us in English, Spanish and French the story of a Colombian family living in New York. In each episode, Lory, the daughter, or mija shares in 15 minutes the anecdotes, joys and miseries of a member of the family, inspired by Martinez’s own immigration experience.
The beautiful thing about this podcast is that each episode feels like the original version in each of the three languages (four, in seasons 2 and 3). In each language, the narrator successfully conveys the strong emotions the characters go through in these key moments of their lives — when they leave their country or start their new adventure in a place where they don’t know anyone or barely speak the language.
However, in the following seasons, Studio Ochenta takes its multilingual experiment even further. It is not only about translating the story into other languages, but about transcreating it into other cultures. In seasons 2 and 3, they capture the universality of immigration through the eyes of two other mijas, the daughter of a Chinese family born in Paris and the daughter of an Egyptian family raised in London. And the result is as touching and moving as in Season 1.
Dr Death, trailblazing the podcast translation trend
The story of “Dr Death”, produced by acclaimed podcast studio Wondery, is powerful and chilling enough to pioneer the podcast translation trend for international audiences. In fact, in 2019, the programme was translated into standard Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Portuguese and Korean. Not only has it been translated into seven languages, but this summer, it has also been turned into a mini-series, starring Joshua Jackson as the sinister doctor.
This true-crime podcast, hosted by experienced journalist Laura Beil, unveils the gruesome case of Dr Duntsch, a charming neurosurgeon who was sentenced for malpractice resulting in the death of two patients and a further 31 patients seriously injured. The story recounted by Beil reveals her investigative research into the infamous doctor, includes interviews with witnesses and victims and features letters and e-mails used in the case against the surgeon.
For the translation of this podcast, a voice-over translation has been used — the same technique as used in TV documentaries — that incorporates the original voices in the background. It might not feel like an original version, unlike Mija, but it gives you a taste of the real voices and dialogues. In my experience as a listener, both versions, the original Dr Death and the Castilian Spanish Dr Muerte, are equally shocking and jaw-dropping.
Hopefully this translation trend in the podcast world will start to ramp up, as we have seen the case for other audiovisual platforms over the last few years. This will enable more people to be able to listen to stories or conversations from other cultures, backgrounds and languages. And that’s enriching for everyone — podcasters and listeners.
Tip from a former language teacher: If you’re learning a foreign language, multilingual podcasts are an extremely helpful tool. First, listen to the audio in your native language, and then in the language you’re studying. This way, you’ll feel more confident, as you’ll already know what the are talking about, which will help you pick up more words and expressions.