Radio Ambulante – Preserving Voice in Storytelling

Radio Ambulante records and broadcasts exclusively in Spanish in order to preserve the voices of storytellers across Latin America.

Silvia ViñasPROVO, Utah (Jan. 30, 2015)—A story is more than just a collection of words. It’s also the voice of the speaker, whether it’s rocking with laughter or trembling with held-back emotion. These voices hint at a larger background and add the human element – an element that is often lost when translated to another language.

It’s a problem that Radio Ambulante seeks to resolve by collecting and presenting stories in the original, untranslated voices of their tellers – exclusively in Spanish.

Silvia Viñas, a producer and editor for Radio Ambulante, presented the program and its goals in a lecture hosted by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Viñas is a BYU alumna and has recently returned to Provo with her family after living in Chile.

Started in 2011, Radio Ambulante is a biweekly podcast focused on presenting personal, real-life stories from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Though there are similar programs that operate in English (for example, This American Life), it is the first program of its kind to broadcast entirely in Spanish.

Viñas began her presentation by addressing a question: Why only record in Spanish? Why not translate them from English like other programs do?

“Sound is king, and it needs to be authentic,” Viñas said. To illustrate her point, Viñas referred to an experiment by Radiolab to appeal to a Hispanic audience. The program recorded several episodes in English, translated them, then had Spanish-speakers re-perform the episode. Viñas played both the English and Spanish recordings.

According to Viñas, the Spanish recording came off forced and stale, with speakers imitating the natural reactions of the English speakers but failing to capture their authenticity. Even though the dialogue had been translated thoroughly and accurately, the voice of the original speakers had been lost.

Viñas tied this experience home for English speakers by connecting it to the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the first time in the Church’s history, speakers were encouraged to speak from the pulpit in their native tongues. At the time, many English-speakers complained that the English dubs played over the speakers lacked the emotion and personality they were used to hearing during General Conference. “Finally,” Viñas said, “you feel our pain.”

In order to preserve that voice, Radio Ambulante takes story submissions from Spanish-speakers all over the world and only broadcasts the original, untranslated recordings. Interviewers take it one step further by going to storytellers in their own homes or places of work, in the belief that the environments shape the stories being told.

Besides preserving voice, Radio Ambulante has been a strong tool for cultural interaction. The program often leaves detractors incredulous that it is able to sustain an international audience. “Some say, ‘No one from Ecuador is going to listen to a story from Chile,’” Viñas related. “And no one from Chile will listen to a story from Ecuador.”

These detractors have been proven wrong time and time again, and Radio Ambulante enjoys a large audience irrespective of borders. For example, “El estudiante rebelde” – an episode about a Chilean student criticizing his boys-only school – found its largest listening demographic in Brazil, which was especially impressive given that the country’s official language is Portuguese. The episode’s second largest audience was found in the US, followed by the rest of South America and Europe. Regardless of any story’s nation of origin, it is always able to find a ready audience abroad.

Radio Ambulante has established a strong following in the US. Viñas said, “We think that Radio Ambulante is so popular here because it’s a way to reconnect with Latin America.” Many residents of the US have come directly from Latin American countries, and the program gives them a chance to maintain ties with their roots. And for those who are interested in these same issues but do not speak Spanish, Radio Ambulante is producing a new English-language series for Public Radio International called Radio Ambulante: Unscripted.

Viñas further explained that – with over 54 million Hispanic Americans living in the US – she and the rest of Radio Ambulante consider the US to be part of Latin America itself. That’s a tie that Radio Ambulante will continue to strengthen as it grows, collecting more stories and sending them across the world.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Photo courtesy of Silvia Viñas