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Bridging The Familiar And Unfamiliar Around The World, In 'Rough Translation'

The Rough Translation podcast explores how ideas we wrestle with in the U.S. are being discussed in the rest of the world.
Cornelia Li for NPR
The Rough Translation podcast explores how ideas we wrestle with in the U.S. are being discussed in the rest of the world.

Two days before my first trip to Afghanistan, in 2007, I was terrified, speaking no Dari and having never interviewed anyone in a war zone. On impulse, I grabbed my little red travel accordion, mumbling something about using the "universal language of music" to connect with people whose world seemed wholly different from my own.

A week later, in Kabul, when I finally got up the courage to play, my interpreter (and later dear friend) Najib Sharifi turned to me in wonder: How did I know Afghan music? he asked.

I demurred. "These are just some old songs my mom used to sing," I told him.

Najib responded by belting out strange Dari lyrics to familiar melodies. That launched my journey to understand the legend of the "Afghan Elvis," a journey that would end with me on stage in Mazar-i-Sharif squeezing out a rough rendition of Johnny Cash. (Long story.)

Later, though, I would understand a deeper lesson: While we rarely find a "universal language," we can, if we're lucky, stumble on bridges between one national experience and another. In these rough translations across culture and geography, we get a new perspective on things we thought were all too familiar.

Rough Translation is a new international podcast from NPR.

Each episode, we go to a different country to drop in on a story or conversation that reflects back on something we're talking about in the United States. These are familiar conversations in unfamiliar territories: A Syrian refugee hires a flirt coach to decode the culture of romantic love in Berlin. A team of Ukrainian journalists tries to invent a "vaccine" against fake news from Russia. A baby is born and the adults around him must share tears through Google Translate.

NPR's international correspondents don't just report what's happening in a place. We try to translate what that news means locally. In Afghanistan, a tear shed by a president during a political speech may have seemed to me like an unremarkable moment of political theater, but sent shock waves across the country. Meanwhile, the things that shock me may leave locals underwhelmed.

In Brazil, a national mandate to give more jobs to Black people has led to commissions of judges who look at you and decide if your skin is dark enough — your hair curly enough — to qualify. And this is a system set up to make Brazil less racist! Spending time with Brazilians, though, I learned that this is shocking for an entirely different reason than I would have expected. (Click hereto listen to the first episode.)

We know that people often frame their stories differently for curious foreigners than they do when telling that same story to neighbors. Most of us at one point have probably been either the curious foreigner or the local storyteller. It's one of the wonderful and frustrating things about being a correspondent overseas. You might be squeezed into a woman's kitchen, hearing a traumatic tale that her neighbors would shame her for sharing, but that she feels relieved and grateful to confide in you.

Those are awesome moments shared with a stranger. But at other times, your foreignness cuts the other way. You can hear the story being curated to what they think you want to hear. You watch your own assumptions clouding the picture. For good or ill, your outsider-ness is part of the story. Usually, it's the part of the story that's hardest to tell.

But on Rough Translation, we're going to try. Because that's why we travel, right? It's about having that experience abroad that makes you see home in a different way, challenges your assumptions about the world and leaves a bit of your old self behind. (Speaking of which, my little red accordion is still in Kabul. I hope to retrieve it one day.)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.