Aug 27, 2020


How close can words get you to the truth and feel and force of life? That's the question poking at our ribs this hour, as we wonder how it is that the right words can have the wrong meanings, and why sometimes the best translations lead us to an understanding that's way deeper than language. This episode, a bunch of stories that play out in the middle space between one reality and another — where poetry, insult comedy, 911 calls, and even our own bodies work to close the gap.

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JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab. Today? Translation. We'll have eight experiments in translation, transcreation.


JAD: Hello?




JAD: Hi!






ROBERT: Oh boy!


JAD: So this episode was inspired by a guy named Doug.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Doug Hofstadter, professor of cognitive science, Indiana University, Bloomington.


JAD: You may know him as the guy who wrote Godel, Escher, Bach, which is a hugely influential book in certain circles. Published in, I think, 1979. But we actually got interested in him thanks to our producer Lynn Levy, because of an obsession of his which predates that.




JAD: The year, 1961.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I was taking a French literature class, and one day I came across this poem.


JAD: A tiny little poem that kind of sat right in the middle of the page.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Like a long thin sausage. Vertical. You know, three syllables per line.


JAD: So it was super skinny.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: And 28 lines long.


JAD: And long.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: 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.


JAD: The poem was basically a get-well card. It's written by this guy Clément Marot, who was a poet in the early 1500s.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: At the court of a queen.


JAD: And he wrote the poem for this queen's daughter. She was 7 or 8 and she had gotten sick.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: The flu or something.


JAD: And this poem was supposed to cheer her up.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: And -- and I thought it was very sweet.


JAD: Could you say it in French?


ROBERT: Yeah, let's just hear it first.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Okay. It's called A une Damoyselle malade. To A Sick Damsel, so to speak.


ROBERT: A sick young lady.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: A sick young lady. Ma mignonne, je vous donne le bon jour; le séjour, c’est prison. Guérison recouvrez, puis ouvrez votre porte et qu’on sorte vitement, car Clément le vous mande. Va, friande de ta bouche, qui se couche en danger pour manger confitures; si tu dures trop malade, couleur fade tu prendras, et perdras L’embonpoint. Dieu te doint santé bonne, ma mignonne.


LYNN LEVY: Oh my God, you must have gotten so many chicks when you were 16.


JAD: I know! That was really ...


ROBERT: [laughs]


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Exactly the opposite. I was -- I was the -- I wish.


JAD: Okay, so he reads the poem, files it away deep in the corner of his mind. Fast forward about 20 years, he publishes his first book. It becomes very popular and the publisher decides to have it translated.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Into a number of languages, including French.


JAD: And that process, which took years ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: 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 ...


JAD: That poem popped into his mind.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: And I said, "Ah, there's a challenge! Let's try to do this!"


JAD: And when you say challenge, like, what was it?


ROBERT: What is the -- what is the challenge?


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Okay. What I meant was to ...


JAD: So here's the thing. He says you got this poem ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Ma mignonne, je vous donne le bon jour ...


JAD: And if you just focus on the words, it's basically -- it's just this guy talking to a younger girl saying, "Hello my dear. I'm sorry you're sick. Being sick is like prison."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Le séjour c’est prison.


JAD: I, Clément, wish you to open your doors, get out into the world.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Car Clément le vous mande.


JAD: Get out of bed. Eat some jam.




JAD: So you don't look so pale ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Couleur fade ...


JAD: ... and lose your plump shape.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Et perdras l’embonpoint.


JAD: You know, it's sort of like, "Get better. Here's to your good health."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Dieu te doint Santé bonne, ma mignonne.


JAD: But just saying those words in English misses the whole spirit of the poem.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: The tone, the lightheartedness ...


JAD: And -- and this is key for Doug. It also ignores the poem's form.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Its wonderfully catchy ...


JAD: Little sausage shape on the page. The fact that the lines ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Rhyme. You know, AA, BB, CC, DD. And the first line ...




DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: ... is identical to the last line.




JAD: So it sort of has the feel of a palindrome?


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: It has the poet's name in the middle of the poem.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Clément le vous mande.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Oh, and I -- did I say three syllables per line?


ROBERT: No, you didn't. Not yet.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Of course. Three syllables per line. I mean, that's crucial. And then also 28 lines long. So all of those things added up to a set of constraints, you might say, on me.


JAD: So Doug sat down and got to work, and quickly became embroiled in the question of, like, how do you translate this poem? And along the way he even began to make little grids of possibilities for different lines of the poem. For example ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Va, friande de ta bouche, qui se couche ...


JAD: Like this line that basically says, "Don't wallow in bed."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: 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 bed. Instead of hurtling out of bed. Instead of hurting there. Instead of squirming in your bed. Instead of slurping slop in bed. Instead of burning up in bed. Instead of turning blue in bed."


JAD: On and on.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: And I came up with, you want me to read my first translation?


ROBERT: Yeah, please.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "My sweet dear. I send cheer. All the best. Your forced rest is like jail. So don't ail very long. Just get strong. Go outside. Take a ride. Do it quick. Stay not sick. Ban your 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 arise. So your eyes will not glaze. Douglas prays health be near, my sweet dear."


ROBERT: Oh. So Clément is now Douglas.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Yeah, Clément became Douglas. And I like the word ...


ROBERT: But jam became bread, though.




ROBERT: Buttered bread.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: 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.


JAD: Oh, how interesting!


ROBERT: Some people like to stick their fingers in jelly. No bread needed.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Okay. Okay, fair enough.


JAD: Feeling like he hadn't quite nailed it, Doug sent the poem to one of the guys that translated his first book into French.




JAD: A guy named ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Oddly enough, Bob French. And Bob was ...


ROBERT: [laughs]


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I said, "Hey Bob, can you do it?" And Bob said, "Well, I'll give it a try."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Fairest friend, let me send my embrace. Quit this place, its dark halls and dank walls. In soft stealth, regain health. Dress and flee off with me, Clément who calls for you."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Very different in tone, and really quite marvelous.


JAD: He got the pale face in there. He got the jam. He put Clément's name in the middle.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: But at the same time, it didn't have the lightness. The tone is much more ancient.


JAD: Which you could argue well, it's an ancient poem. But Doug says no, no. There's a bigger problem.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: It was 30 lines long. So extra long. And 28 was a sacrosanct number.


JAD: But that's just two lines though.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: No, no, no, no, no. Clément Marot wrote a three-syllable poem of 28 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.


JAD: 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 nail the form. And to make a long story short, he ended up sending the poem out to, like, 60 people.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Doctoral students ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Who my sweet, I entreat. One regard. Oh 'tis hard, dear recluse."


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Colleagues, friends ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Chickadee, I decree a fine day."


JAD: He even got his wife to do one.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Dart away from your cage and engage in brave flight, so you might flee the croup."


JAD: That was all bird-themed.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Hope you swoop into ham, apple jam and French bread.


ROBERT: Did you go running around from town to town saying, "Hey, I got a little poem. Anybody want to give it a translation?"


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I certainly did. I am a person of binges. This began a binge, you might say.


JAD: And that binge ended up becoming a 700-page book filled with translations of this poem.


ROBERT: Go ahead and read the best one now. This is the best one.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Yeah, right. Right. No, this is not the best one.


ROBERT: It is just one.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: No, stop it. Okay, here we go. Okay. Okay.


JAD: This is also one of his, but like the 20th one he did.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Pal petite, gal so sweet. Hug from Doug. Some dumb bug dragged you down. Zap that frown. Feel the urge, bugs to purge. From the scourge, you'll emerge in a trice. Sound advice from -- ahem -- Doug slash Clem. So smash flu. Come. Yoo-hoo. Come you who live to chew. Sheets eschew. Sweets let's chew. Pop a tart. Make your heart palpitate. Clem's mandate. Sure hope God cures your bod head to feet. Pal petite."


ROBERT: Sure hope God cures your bod! [laughs]


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: [laughs]. I must admit it's humorous.




JAD: Although not the best, he says.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I -- I do want to get to my mother's translation, because my mother's was somehow -- I'm gonna have to look it up here. Where was it? Where in the world was it? This book is long and complicated and ...


JAD: This one from his mom he says, came along years after he started.




JAD: And he thinks it might be the winner.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: "Hi toots. Get well. Hospital's prison and prison's hell. Get well. Flee your cell. Clément's orders in a nutshell. Go pig out. Open wide your mouth. Keep those sweetmeats going south. Unless you're hail, you'll turn pale. Lose ooh-la-la that wiggles your tail. God restore good health to you my little flower, mon petite shoe."


JAD: Wow! That's cool!


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Notice that she doesn't begin the poem and end the poem with the same line. She doesn't have 28 lines. She has maybe about 16 lines. She doesn't pay any attention to syllable count.


ROBERT: You must've hated this one.


JAD: Yeah, this ...


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I did. My first reaction was, "Oh, Mom. No, Mom. Come on! What do you -- come on! Didn't you pay any attention to the form?" 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.


JAD: 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 28 lines, she even, like, halved that, practically, is that a translation then or is that just a mom? I don't -- what is that?


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: One hundred 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.


LYNN: All right, but you can't read a hundred versions of every poem that you want to read.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Okay, okay. I agree. You're right.


JAD: It does make me question though, the rules of engagement in a way.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: There are no rules. There are no rules. It's all informal.


JAD: Okay, but there's jam in one of the translations and ham in the other. And they're -- like, they're factually different food substances. Somehow like the facts of the poem shouldn't be negotiable, should they?


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: What is -- what do you mean by a fact? I mean, a fact about the poem is that it was written by somebody in French. It's not in French anymore.


ROBERT: Wait, but now here's what Jad 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?


JAD: And even beyond that. Like, isn't the expectation that you as a translator are giving me him. Like, hey, 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.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: 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 Clément Marot.


JAD: Doug's 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, say, a poem or whatever is only gonna get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny refraction.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I mean look, we have one photograph of Frédéric Chopin. One photograph.


JAD: And in that picture he's scowling.


DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: What did Frédéric Chopin really look like? What was his smile like? 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 millions of different things that are united by analogy into something that we refer to as one thing.


JAD: 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, it's too disintegrated. But no smiles.




JAD: Number two.


JAD: I hear -- I hear the sound of a telephone. Hello?


GREG WARNER: Habari za asubuhi.


JAD: A story from Greg Warner.


GREG WARNER: Yes. Hi, Jad.


JAD: Greg is NPR's East Africa correspondent.


ROBERT: You are in -- what time is it where you are?


GREG WARNER: It's -- it's evening.


JAD: He's based in Nairobi.


GREG WARNER: Around 7:30 in the evening, which is embarrassing because I just told you "good morning" in Swahili, but I forgot how to say good evening. So ...


ROBERT: Oh. Okay.


JAD: So Greg, I mean we were just -- anyhow.


JAD: We called Greg up because he had written this article for this great website called 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.


GREG WARNER: 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.


JAD: Sure, yeah.


GREG WARNER: So -- so there's this word, and you wouldn't think of it as untranslatable, but it's the word "serious." And when you ...


JAD: Serious? Like ...


GREG WARNER: Serious. Like S-E-R-I-O-U-S.


JAD: Okay.


GREG WARNER: In my experience, when you hear this word "serious" in East Africa, it does not mean solemn or thoughtful or stern, it actually almost never has something to do with your mood. What "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 gonna be serious with me?" And it obviously means, "Are you gonna pay me a bribe?"




GREG WARNER: Usually, I pretend to misunderstand at the key moment. I say, "Yes, I'm a very serious international journalist." And -- but the story that I want to tell you, it took place a couple months ago.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: Good afternoon everybody. I'm really pleased to be back in Africa.]


GREG WARNER: Secretary Kerry ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: Addis Ababa.]


GREG WARNER: ... visited Ethiopia. And ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: City of enormous energy and in a country ...]


GREG WARNER: 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.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: I had a series of very productive meetings this morning with my foreign minister counterparts.]


GREG WARNER: And Secretary Kerry was giving this press conference.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: I shared my concerns about a young Ethiopian blogger that I met last year, Natnael Feleke, 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.]


GREG WARNER: 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 the country, blah, blah, blah. But ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: We remain committed to our partnership with Ethiopia.]


GREG WARNER: This comment was also wrapped up in a lot of praise of Ethiopia. And ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: I'd be delighted to answer a few questions. I'm not sure how that's -- you can do that?]


GREG WARNER: Then came time for questions. He took some vetted questions from the Ethiopian journalists, two more from the traveling press. And to Kerry's credit ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: You know, give this gentleman -- I want to give him a shot. I know he was very impatient.]


GREG WARNER: He sort of -- before he left the podium he was like, "You know what? We're just gonna try something different. We're gonna, like, call on an Ethiopian journalist.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: I want to make sure we get a fair distribution.]


GREG WARNER: Kerry points at this one guy in the second row. Young guy in his 20s, boyish face, wearing a mustache.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: I've only two questions for you, sir.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: I may have invited the hardest question of the day now. But one question. Fair enough? Okay.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: So let me choose. You have raised the issues of Natnael Feleke, who is a blogger, and his friends.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: Yeah.]


GREG WARNER: And then this guy's like, "Well, every time a journalist is arrested, the U.S. gives a statement about this, but ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: These things are ...]


GREG WARNER: This keeps happening.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Repeated -- repeating very much.]


GREG WARNER: So then he asks his question.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Is it lip service or are you seriously concerned about the arrest?]


GREG WARNER: Is this lip service, or are you seriously concerned? At this point everybody's 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's on camera asking this extremely sensitive question about the arrested journalists.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: We really demand a genuine answer from you. Thank you.]


GREG WARNER: And Kerry looks at him like ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: Well ...]


GREG WARNER: You got to be kidding.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: When I stand up in public 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 ...]


ROBERT: Kerry sounds to me like he's sort of insulted by the question. And -- and yet ...


GREG WARNER: Right. So remember "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."


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Kerry: 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.]


GREG WARNER: 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?"


ROBERT: We put in a number of requests to speak to John Kerry or someone in the State Department but there was no response.


JAD: Do you think he was aware of the misunderstanding?


ROBERT: Who, Kerry?


JAD: No, this -- this fellow.


GREG WARNER: Oh, yeah. No, I followed him out afterward.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Hey, man. Can you pronounce your name for me?]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: My name is Ananya Sori.]


GREG WARNER: He's a young guy in his 20s. He's an independent journalist.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Yeah, I used to work in different newspapers.]


GREG WARNER: And I was like, you know, listen what happened there -- and I almost felt like some kind of cultural guide.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Because Americans think serious means, "I'm standing here. I'm not joking. I'm serious." But when Africans say serious, and I'm using it generally, they say, "No, are you gonna not just speak, are you gonna do?"]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Yeah. That's -- that's exactly my point. Are you going to take sanctions maybe?]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Against Ethiopia?]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Yeah.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Do you feel that that question put you at risk?]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Maybe. Who knows? That is the job description doing journalism in Ethiopia. [laughs]]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Thanks so much.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ananya Sori: Thank you. Thank you. I'll give you a call.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greg Warner: Give me a call. My number is on there.]


GREG WARNER: So that conversation was about five months ago.


ROBERT: Do you know what his fate at all? I mean, have you found out whether -- did he suffer for this question in any way?


GREG WARNER: No, but I have his phone number so I can give them a call and find out.




GREG WARNER: Hi Ananya, it's Gregory. Gregory Warner.


ANANYA SORI: Oh, Gregory. How are you?


GREG WARNER: I'm good. I'm good.


GREG WARNER: 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'd better rethink what he said.


ANANYA SORI: That I better line up with the current government direction. And that ...


GREG WARNER: They said you should line up with the government's priorities?




ROBERT: These messages were from the government?


GREG WARNER: 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.


ANANYA SORI: It was an anti-terrorism task force are the ones that send these kind of message.


GREG WARNER: And were they threatening?


ANANYA SORI: Yeah, some of them were, you know, insulting and that I would be punished accordingly when the time comes. And it might come one day.


GREG WARNER: A newspaper he founded got shut down after publishing one issue. And he was planning for a while to flee to Nairobi.


ANANYA SORI: To secure my safety.


GREG WARNER: Leave his wife and kid behind, and then maybe return, grab them, apply for asylum in the United States.


ANANYA SORI: You know, my mother and my older brother are based in U.S. Washington.


GREG WARNER: Oh, okay. Washington.


GREG WARNER: Like a lot of Ethiopians, he's actually got some relatives in the States.


GREG WARNER: Did they hear that you asked the question to John Kerry?


ANANYA SORI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They have heard that.


GREG WARNER: What did your mom say?


ANANYA SORI: She said please don't do that. It's not good. They might be, you know, targeting you. Things like that. You know, moms are like that, eh?


GREG WARNER: Yeah, moms are like that.






JAD: Radiolab will continue in a moment.




[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Hello. This is Doug Hofstadter calling.]


[GREG WARNER: Hey, this is Gregory Warner, NPR's East Africa correspondent.]


[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: I'm supposed to read some text.]


[GREG WARNER: Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.]


[GREG WARNER: More information about Sloan at]


[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Radiolab is produced by WNYC.]


[GREG WARNER: And distributed by NPR. And also thanks to whose series on translation in radio stories got me thinking about some of these stories.]


[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Okeydoke. Thanks, bye.]


[ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.]


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. Today, eight experiments in translation lesson. In this one, Robert Krulwich and our producer Soren Wheeler talk to writer Adam Gopnik about George Carlin.


ROBERT: And why is George Carlin mentioned?


ADAM GOPNIK: Oh, because Carlin is the wonderful sort of folk philosopher of language.


ROBERT: You're talking about the comedian George Carlin?


ADAM GOPNIK: The comedian, yeah.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: And this next thing, this next thing is about the English language. It's about little expressions we use, we all say. And the little sayings and expressions that we use all the time.]


ADAM GOPNIK: It was one of his great subjects.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: And we never really seem to examine these expressions.]


ADAM GOPNIK: 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.


SOREN WHEELER: And one of Gopnik's favorite Carlin riffs, and I really like this one too, is about how Carlin ...


ADAM GOPNIK: Hated euphemism.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: 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.]


ADAM GOPNIK: And Carlin was wonderful about things like that. About bulls*** as he called it.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn't isn't that a tip?]


ADAM GOPNIK: And he was like, 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 a 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 he'll 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 were mocking is the absurdity of the effort to disguise something that you cannot disguise.


SOREN: But Carlin's real point was that it, like, dulls our reactions to it. That it actually has, like, a kind of a negative effect.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: And it gets worse with every generation.]


SOREN: And he has this whole bit. It's about shell-shock becoming PTSD.


ADAM GOPNIK: No, he goes -- no, it goes -- it's in four different things.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: In the First World War, that condition was called shell shock.]


ADAM GOPNIK: They used to call it shell shock.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Simple, honest direct language. Two syllables: shell shock.]


ADAM GOPNIK: And then it became ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Battle fatigue.]


ADAM GOPNIK: Battle fatigue.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say, doesn't seem to hurt as much.]


ADAM GOPNIK: And then after it became battle fatigue, then it became ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Operational exhaustion. Hey, we're up to eight syllables now.]


ADAM GOPNIK: Then it became post-traumatic shock disorder.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen!]


ADAM GOPNIK: And then it became PTSD.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain is completely buried under jargon.]


ROBERT: This was the Orwell notion that you could erase sensitivities if you blanded out the words. So if you stop saying, "Oh yeah, we just tortured the guy," if you say some phrase ...


ADAM GOPNIK: Force of interrogation or enhanced interrogation.


SOREN: That makes a big difference. And part of what Carlin is saying is that, like, now that it's PTSD, we are not having the appropriate reaction to it. I mean, it's f***ing shell-shock.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: I'll bet you if we'd have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I'll bet you that.]


ADAM GOPNIK: But now you're putting your finger on the -- this is where the rubber meets the road. Does the use of euphemism, does that really robbed us of some understanding?


SOREN: And Adam Gopnik surprisingly says maybe not.


ADAM GOPNIK: 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 abstract system of support. It's not because ...


ROBERT: Do you think that's the reason it's called PTSD is because it's a more complex and ...?


ADAM GOPNIK: 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 them on the Western Front.


SOREN: 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 II, we were thinking that's not quite right.


ADAM GOPNIK: It's not just shells exploding, right? It's the whole experience of battle.


SOREN: It's all the shooting and the death and the fear.


ADAM GOPNIK: So it becomes battle fatigue. You're trying to generalize it. You're trying to make it richer. That's the concept.


SOREN: But it also becomes fatigue versus shock. There's less violence in that.


ADAM GOPNIK: Right. Because it -- 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 II called Let There Be Light.


[FILM CLIP: These are the casualties of the spirit. The troubled in mind. Men who are damaged emotionally.]


ADAM GOPNIK: 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.


SOREN: Then around Vietnam he says, we realized you don't just see this on the battlefield, you see it with guys who aren't necessarily directly involved in battle.




SOREN: And so the question became ...


ADAM GOPNIK: 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.


SOREN: Hence the term "operational exhaustion."


ADAM GOPNIK: Now that's an example again where you're trying to enrich it. You're saying the guys aren't cowards, they're not in a 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 -- they have post-traumatic shock. And then once you have a whole apparatus to deal with it, then it becomes PTSD. My point is just that it's perfectly possible that the language of euphemism grows and becomes more abstract as -- as people actually are becoming more empathetic to the people who suffer from it.


ROBERT: Soren, do you buy -- I mean, he's basically turned Carlin on his head, and he's made these blander and blander words enrichments.


SOREN: I have -- I mean, my only move would be to hit play on Carlin.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, George Carlin: Poor people used to live in slums. Now the economically-disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. And they're broke. They're broke. They don't have a negative cash flow position. They're f***ing broke. Because a lot of them were fired. You know, fired?]




JAD: This is Emily.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: My name is Emilie Gossiaux and I'm an artist.


JAD: Some of you may remember that a couple years ago we did a story about Emilie 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.


ALAN: She's writing her name on the palm of my hand.


JAD: Of all the stories we've ever done, I think this one has gotten the most response. And when we left that story, Emilie had emerged from the coma and begun to recover. But she was blind.


JAD: Totally blind, right?




JAD: Like, no light. Nothing coming in.




JAD: Okay.


JAD: Needless to say, it was a very big adjustment.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: I just know -- I just had to develop my own ways to navigate throughout the world and trust myself and ...


JAD: And being a visual artist, she had to develop new ways to draw.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: I had crayons. And if you draw with crayons hard enough, you can feel the wax on the paper. Yeah.


JAD: But then one day in the summer of 2012, she gets a call.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: From the Lighthouse School in New York City.


JAD: The Lighthouse School?


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Yeah, it's a school for the blind.


JAD: Her mom had found out that they were trying out this brand new technology.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: I think they were doing this study for the FDA.


JAD: Very experimental. And her mom signed her up. Long story short, Emilie shows up at the Lighthouse School one day and walks into this room, and a guy named Ed gives her this thing.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: He gives me the device.


JAD: Can you describe it? I mean, is it a big helmet or ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: No, it's not. It's just like a regular pair of sunglasses.


JAD: 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.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: And then attached to the sunglasses was a little wire ...


JAD: That ran out of the camera and down to this little square piece of metal.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: I think it's made out of titanium, and it's just like the size of a postage stamp, or a little bit thicker though.


JAD: Ed explained to her that the little piece of titanium was filled with thousands of electrodes. And what was gonna happen is that the camera was gonna convert images into patterns of electricity on that little square. So he told her to take the little square ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Place it on your tongue ...


JAD: Put it right on the center of your tongue ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: And close your mouth. So I put it on and they turned it on, and it was like it started to tickle. Imagine a lot of Coca-Cola. Like, a lot of bubbles on your tongue and always like prickly, prickly feelings.


JAD: The idea behind this thing, according to science writer Sam Kean.


SAM KEAN: Author of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.


JAD: Is that we actually see with our brain, not our eyes. I mean, it might seem like our eyes are doing the seeing and our ears are doing the hearing and our fingers and the tongue are doing the tasting and the touching, but that's actually not how it works. Each of our senses sends signals into the brain as electricity.


SAM KEAN: As little blips on nerves.


JAD: And it is the brain that then converts those little blips into what you perceive as a sight or a sound or a 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?


SAM KEAN: In 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 ...


JAD: What if you could open up some of those routes?


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: He just let me sit with it on for an hour or two hours.


JAD: Emilie 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.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: And every time I looked around he'd say, "Oh, that's a chair. That's a door. That's me. That's your mom."


JAD: And it went on like this for a while. Ed showed her a ball and a square ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: A plastic banana.


JAD: And nothing was really happening for her except for the prickly feelings on her tongue. But then there was this moment.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Ed had this really long styrofoam rod and he flashed 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?"


JAD: Suddenly she says she just saw it.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: I was like, "Oh my God!" It just happened on its own.


JAD: What did it look like?


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: And so in my mind's eye, it look like a long white skinny stick.


JAD: Could you see the texture of the stick? Or ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: 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 Lite-Brite?


JAD: Yeah.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: So imagine like a black screen and little tiny white dots.


JAD: All arranged in a line. So Emilie was allowed to keep the brain port device for about a year-and-a-half. And during that time the Lite-Brite resolution of it did get better as her brain learned to speak tongue.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: It was awesome. When I saw the people moving ...


JAD: 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. And she told me that usually, you know, now that she's blind, when she's walking down the streets of New York City ...


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Especially Uptown where the streets are a lot wider.


JAD: She says people see her and her white cane and walk a really wide circle around her.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: 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 sounds of traffic, but not other people.


JAD: But she says when she put the device on and put that little sensor on her tongue, the sidewalk came alive.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: 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.


JAD: But she described them in a way that sounded almost like a painting.


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Like really soft blotches. Everything was really soft. Like, soft flashes of ink that could move. They're 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 a dress or pants. I just, like, see their shadows. And every now and then I see the light casted on them.


JAD: Really?




JAD: I imagine somehow, like, underwater creatures?




JAD: Squishy jellyfish-like?


EMILIE GOSSIAUX: Yeah. Yeah, like lighting up. Yeah like that.


JAD: And that for Emilie 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.




JAD: Next up, producer Tim Howard.


TIM HOWARD: Yes. Hi. Hello. So when I heard about this story with Emilie and the brain port, I immediately called up this guy.


TIM: Hey, John. Which microphone? Is it this one or this one?


JOHN: It's that one there.


TIM: Okay.


TIM: You might remember him.


DAVID EAGLEMAN: I'm David Eagleman. I'm a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine.


TIM: 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 ...


DAVID EAGLEMAN: The VEST, which stands for the Variable Extrasensory Sensory Transducer. And it's a vest that you wear underneath your clothing. And this vest has 24 motors on it, little vibratory motors just like the ones in your cell phone. And ...


TIM: The vest connects to your phone.


DAVID EAGLEMAN: So we pick up sound ...


[VOICEMAIL MESSAGE: Hi, this is Time-Warner Cable calling with an opportunity for you to provide us with valuable feedback.]


DAVID EAGLEMAN: ... through a cellphone. And the cellphone 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. Bzzt. Different motors running at different amplitudes. It actually changes every 20 milliseconds, so it's a moving pattern. And it might seem impossible that you could actually extract something useful about what's being said ...


TIM: 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 ...


DAVID EAGLEMAN: People get really good at word recognition.


TIM: Somehow they begin to intuitively recognize that this [BUZZING SOUND] means "Hi" or "Blue" or "Chair."


DAVID EAGLEMAN: 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 consciously. The brain is a specialist at extracting statistical information.


TIM: And because the brain is so good at this kind of translation says David, what he really wants to do is use this vest to create new senses.


DAVID EAGLEMAN: So what if you fed in stock market data and converted that into the buzzing?


TIM: 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 gonna crash today."


DAVID EAGLEMAN: You wouldn't be analyzing all this information, you would just feel it. We're also working on feeding in ...


[NEWS CLIP: You are seeing a tremendous amount of rainfall ...]


DAVID EAGLEMAN: Real-time weather data from the, let's say, 200 miles around you.


TIM: Question is, would you end up having an intuition ...


[VOICE: Peekskill ice storm.]


TIM: ... that's better than what the weatherman can tell you on the news. Or ...




TIM: What if we took 500,000 tweets per second, passed it through some natural language processing to sort of have a higher-level summary of what's going on ...


DAVID EAGLEMAN: ... and pump all that information through the vest.


TIM: Would you develop a sense of what's happening on the planet, where you suddenly say, "Ooh, 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 what the brain will be able to develop an immediate perceptual experience about.


JAD: More experiments in translation in a moment.


[DARLENE: 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]


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. And today, experiments in translation.


NATALIE KELLY: For an interpreter, you really do get a spectrum of life.


JAD: This is Natalie Kelly.


NATALIE KELLY: You know, you get a little taste of all these different things that are happening in the world. It really opens your eyes. [laughs]


JAD: She wrote a book called Found In Translation, and years ago ...


NATALIE KELLY: You know, I grew up in a very small town in the Midwest.


JAD: Back when she was just a kid ...


NATALIE KELLY: 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."


JAD: And she says she remembers her seven-year-old brain being like ...


NATALIE KELLY: Wow! There's a whole 'nother language beyond English that I could learn.


JAD: Fast forward many, many years. Natalie goes to college, and she just started learning languages.


NATALIE KELLY: Yes. Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, German, Italian, whatever I could get my hands on.


JAD: 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 is very strange job.


NATALIE KELLY: Called telephone interpreting.


JAD: 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 the switchboard and patch in someone like Natalie.


NATALIE KELLY: So I could interpret for them.


JAD: And Natalie, like a lot of these telephone interpreters, worked remotely. Which meant she would be in her house alone in her room, and every few minutes ...


NATALIE KELLY: Hello. This is Interpreter 3940. How may I help you?


JAD: She'd get a call. And it could be anything.


NATALIE KELLY: One minute you're interpreting for -- it could be a celebrity who's booking a hotel or a restaurant in Spain. And then you're interpreting for a court hearing, and then you're interpreting for a hospital.


JAD: And what was the most memorable call you ever got?


NATALIE KELLY: I was -- well, let me put it this way. I got a call. You never know where the call's gonna come from, and I heard that it was a 911 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, "Me va a matar."


JAD: Me va a matar.


NATALIE KELLY: "He's going to kill me."


JAD: Oh, my God.


NATALIE KELLY: The dispatcher said, "Where is he?" "¿Donde esta?" And she said, "Esta en la casa."


JAD: In the house?


NATALIE KELLY: Yeah, "He's in the house." And then the dispatcher said, "And where are you?" "Debajo de la cama."


JAD: What's that mean?


NATALIE KELLY: Under the bed.


JAD: Oh, my God!


NATALIE KELLY: "Does he have a gun?" "¿Tiene una pistola?" "Si." "Where is he now?" "In the hallway." "What's he doing?" "He's opening the door." And then click.


JAD: Oh, f*** off. Really?


NATALIE KELLY: Mm-hmm. Yeah, there was just a click.


JAD: That's it?


NATALIE KELLY: That's it. Yeah.


JAD: What sort of gets me about that is like, what a weird -- 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.


NATALIE KELLY: That happens. And then the phone rings again and then you're, "Hello. This is Interpreter 3940. 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.


ROBERT: And the next person is probably trying to buy trading stamps in Spanish or something.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: I can't imagine what it would like be to have to skip and jump like that.




JAD: Okay, so this next story, this next translation story or maybe it's a mis-translation story, I don't know. 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?


ELLEN HORNE: Yeah. We're rolling.


JAD: This one comes from our Executive Producer Ellen Horne.


ROBERT: Okay, so you should start the story, Ellen Horne.


JAD: Yeah. So, how did -- were you at this show? Like ...


ELLEN: Yeah. So you guys know Nick Nuciforo, who helped us arrange the tour for Radiolab?


JAD: Sure.


ELLEN: So he invited me to come to it.


[FESTIVAL MC: All right, it's Oddball 2014!]


ELLEN: So it's the Oddball Comedy Festival. And when we got there, you know, there's, like, huge crowds.


JAD: Tens of thousands of people kind of crowds?


ELLEN: Like, 14,000 people.


JAD: Oh, my God.


ELLEN: Yeah. So we sat down, and ...


[FESTIVAL MC: From this state of New Jersey the Roastmaster General Jeff Ross!]


ELLEN: Do you guys know Jeff Ross?


JAD: Uh-uh.




ELLEN: He's a insults comedian. He gets up. He's the MC for the night. And he kicks the show off.


[JEFF ROSS: How the hell are you Jersey? Yeah!]


ELLEN: And ...


[JEFF ROSS: How you doing, sir?]


ELLEN: He starts picking folks out of the crowd.


[JEFF ROSS: What's your name? Rob? I loved you on To Catch a Predator.]


ROBERT: [laughs]


[JEFF ROSS: Look at these two chicks. How you doing, ladies? You look very cute. Two fives make a 10.]


JAD: D'oh!


ELLEN: And then he looks to his left, and ...


[JEFF ROSS: Hi! There's a lady doing sign language over there.]


ELLEN: He sees the sign language interpreter.


[JEFF ROSS: Can I come over there?]


ELLEN: She looks like she's in her 50s. Brunette, glasses, wearing a tank top.


[JEFF ROSS: What's your name? Kymme? Give it up for Kymme.]


ELLEN: Stadium gives a polite clapping for Kymme.


[JEFF ROSS: This is wild, Kymme.]


ELLEN: And then he says ...


[JEFF ROSS: So anyway, I was jerking off the other day ...]


ROBERT: [laughs]


ELLEN: [laughs] And Kymme gives a, like ...


ROBERT: She has to -- is she translating him?


ELLEN: Oh, yeah.


ROBERT: Oh, God!


ELLEN: 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.


[JEFF ROSS: Then I stuck my thumb in my nose just 'cause I had a booger in there.]


ELLEN: So to translate, she has to stick her thumb in her nose.


[JEFF ROSS: And I decided to stick my pinkie in my own [BLEEP].]


JAD: Oh!


ELLEN: Kymme does a few signs, and then makes it look like she's sticking her hand in her butt. Crowd goes wild.


[JEFF ROSS: We're gonna have a lot of fun tonight, Kymme.]


ELLEN: So Jeff Ross takes it even further.


[JEFF ROSS: And afterwards I'm gonna get out my vibrator with a hand crank and give it to you old-school style.]


ELLEN: So now she has to do signs for, like, a vibrator, hand crank, sex.


[JEFF ROSS: I was squeezing my [BLEEP] this morning for, like, a half an hour. And it felt so good.]


ELLEN: And she's having to, like, rub her own boobs.


JAD: I'm troubled by how funny this is.


[JEFF ROSS: I love you, Kymme!]


ELLEN: Well, yeah. Because here's the thing. Halfway through the show, I noticed that Kymme wasn't there anymore.


JAD: Hmm.


ELLEN: She didn't translate for Sarah Silverman, she didn't translate for ...


ROBERT: Did someone else? Or was there just no translation?


ELLEN: No. There's no translation.


JAD: Huh.


ELLEN: So it made me wonder. What did I see there? What was going on? Jeff Ross was clearly using her, but was Kymme okay with that?


ELLEN: Okay.


ELLEN: So I found a list of all the sign language translators in the state of New Jersey.




KYMME VAN CLEEF: Hi. How are you?


ELLEN: I'm good. How are you?


ELLEN: And I found her.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: Okay, my name's Kymme Van Cleef, and I'm a certified American Sign Language interpreter. And we're here in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.


ELLEN: Turns out that Kymme lives part of the year, and -- and she has her entire life in a religious community on the beach in New Jersey.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: When I'm not doing comedy, I'm doing religious sign language. I interpret the services, and I'm in the choir.


ELLEN: And there's this venue nearby that does these big stadium shows. If there's any deaf ticket buyers, the venue's required by law to provide a sign language interpreter.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: So PNC called me. I do all their -- their concerts, all the musical concerts, which I've been doing for years. You know, Goo Goo Dolls, whatever. But I always can prep up for them. I get the set list, I go to I always -- you know, because a lot of times I don't know the Goo Goo Dolls. Yeah, I like Frank Sinatra and, you know, hip-hop. When he asked me to do comedy, I'm 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 ...


ELLEN: Did you know any of the comedians?




ELLEN: Eventually I ask her about the whole Jeff Ross thing.


ELLEN: So he's basically having you harass yourself.




ELLEN: And I am most curious to sort of find you and follow up and just find out, like, how that felt.




ELLEN: And she says the moment Jeff Ross started getting raunchy, she had a choice.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: There's -- there's registers in sign language.


JAD: Registers?


ELLEN: Yeah. You can be formal, you can be casual or you can be intimate.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: And you can pick signs from all of those registers.


ELLEN: Like, take for example the word [BLEEP].


JAD: Mm-hmm.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: Now the polite way to do it would be to maybe spell it.


ELLEN: So F-U-C-K. Or ...


KYMME VAN CLEEF: You know, there's the regular gesture.


ELLEN: You could do this.


ROBERT: So you're giving us the finger.


JAD: Two middle fingers, yeah.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: You know, there's quite a few.


ELLEN: She was just getting started.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: And then there's this one that actually shows people doing the action.


ELLEN: She takes out two fingers on each hand and smashes them together.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: There's the -- you know, this way, which is even more graphic.


ELLEN: Arms out and just pelvic thrusts.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: Receiving the physical act.


ELLEN: 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.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: He was down and dirty. I was down and dirty.


ELLEN: So you didn't have any discomfort with any of that? Or a little?


KYMME VAN CLEEF: No, I was having such a good time. I really -- I really was enjoying it.


ROBERT: So then why do you think she left?


ELLEN: So this never occurred to me. She was there for one girl. One deaf girl.


ROBERT: What? What do you mean?


ELLEN: So there's 14,000 people there, but one ticket buyer was deaf and asked for a sign language interpreter.


JAD: Just one?


ELLEN: Yeah. A young girl who was there with her mom.


JAD: Wow!


ROBERT: Did she know where this client was?


ELLEN: 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.


ELLEN: Can you describe what your client was doing?


KYMME VAN CLEEF: She was like, "Oh!"


ELLEN: Oh, so I see you're holding your hand over your -- over your eyes.


ELLEN: She said the client -- I mean, it was like a whole body cringe.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: Because I think she thought she was getting a lot of attention.


ELLEN: Like, the client was mortified. And ...


KYMME VAN CLEEF: At intermission, my client ...


ELLEN: Signed back to her. "We're gonna take off."


KYMME VAN CLEEF: "We're gonna go home now." So I'm like, "Okay."


JAD: So Kymme left because the client left.


ELLEN: Yeah.


JAD: I mean, did you manage to talk to this girl?


ELLEN: No. I've emailed her, I got the venue to call her, but she hasn't gotten back to me.


JAD: Huh. I'm suddenly feeling bad for this girl. I mean, feels somehow like she got a raw deal, you know?


ROBERT: Would you, Jad -- if you had been her, if you'd been Kymme, would you have, do you think, just enjoyed yourself a little less? Been little else graphic and been a little less playing with the comedian?


JAD: I think I would have dialed it down. Knowing me?


ELLEN: Oh my God, yeah. You would have dialed it down.


ROBERT: He's a good man, Jad Abumrad.


JAD: No, but it's actually ...


ROBERT: Terrible translator.


JAD: No, wait. Why would that make me a terrible translator? I mean, this is one girl in a crowd of 14,000, and the translator's there for her, not the 14,000.


ROBERT: No, but remember. Think about what the job is. She came to a comedy ...


ELLEN: But in -- was there in any way in which Kymme had an obligation to represent the client?




JAD: I think ...


ELLEN: She's in the middle between the two.


JAD: I think that that's -- 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.


ROBERT: Yes, she is!


JAD: No, she's there to -- to be a mutual representative of both people.




JAD: Why not?


ROBERT: She's at a comedy show, She's in the show. She's translating the show from the stage.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: You match the tone of the person.


ELLEN: That's what Kim said.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: 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.


ELLEN: 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.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: If the whole audience was deaf, I would have done the same thing.


JAD: Huh.


ELLEN: I was doing my job.


ROBERT: 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.


JAD: Hmm. 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 as betraying the client because she's not giving her the full experience.


ELLEN: 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.


JAD: Yeah.




ELLEN: Although Kymme did tell me she could have taken it way farther.


KYMME VAN CLEEF: For sure. I did not do the intimate. Oh no, I did not. No, I did not go there. I did it casual. Yeah, casual.




JAD: Do you guys mind if, in the remaining few minutes, we go on a RNA fishing expedition?


CARL ZIMMER: Sure, sure.


JAD: Because the -- here's our quandary, Carl.


CARL ZIMMER: Okay. So what's your situation?


JAD: Okay. So recently, we sat down with reporter and science writer Carl Zimmer to talk about RNA of all things. We were talking about something else and RNA came up at the end. Because here's why. Ever since we started doing this show, Robert got his -- got his ...


ROBERT: I got a little insistent, I think is what you want to say.


JAD: A little insistent, because you were like, "RNA! We got to do RNA."


ROBERT: Yes. I said that. RNA.


JAD: And I was like, "What do you want to do?" And you were like, "I want to do RNA." And I was like, "But is there a story?" And you were like, "No."


ROBERT: No, I didn't say that. I just said that -- that if you understood what RNA does, you'd realize that translation is profoundly important to our existence. That's what I said.


JAD: Yeah. Well, as often happens you wore me down. And I was like, "All right, fine. Let's just try it." So when we were talking with Carl Zimmer, we brought it up. Now, unfortunately, I think this was a day when you were out of town. I think your son was getting married.


ROBERT: Yes, he was.


JAD: But Carl was doing, like, tag team work for me.


CARL ZIMMER: Okay. All right. So the definition of translation in biology is taking a sequence in DNA, and using the genetic code to translate it into proteins.


JAD: Mm-hmm. Right.


CARL ZIMMER: And the discovery of this was maybe even more exciting than the discovery of the double-helix structure.


JAD: Really?




JAD: It was bigger than Watson and Crick?


CARL ZIMMER: Yeah. Well, at least equivalent.


JAD: Wow!


CARL ZIMMER: So here's the quick story. So what happened was ...


JAD: Okay, so just to set the table here. We all know that DNA is a thing, and that when you're born you get half your DNA from your mom half your DNA from your dad. Now Francis Crick and James Watson just figured out the structure of DNA, that basically the recipe of DNA your recipe is comprised of four bases in a long string: A, T, C and G. That's it. But here's the problem. See, like we humans we're more than DNA. We are these fleshy, peeing piles of muscle and bone, and all of that stuff, all the stuff stuff of us comes from proteins.


CARL ZIMMER: Yeah. We have, like, a hundred thousand different proteins in our body. Different kinds of proteins.


JAD: So the question was ...


CARL ZIMMER: Like, how -- how does all that get generated?


JAD: Like, how do those four simple bases become the amino acids, that become the hundreds of thousands of proteins that make us us?


CARL ZIMMER: How do you make the translation?


JAD: Hmm.


CARL ZIMMER: People were thinking of this as just this incredibly complicated problem that might never be solved. And the first person to really think seriously about this was not a geneticist, it was cosmologist named George Gamow.


JAD: Huh.


CARL ZIMMER: And Gamow just said, "Wait a minute. This isn't that complicated. This is just cryptography. This is a code problem.


JAD: Gamow thought, "Okay. I know that DNA contains four bases, A, T, C and G. And I know that they somehow create hundreds of thousands of proteins ..."


CARL ZIMMER: "So I just need to think of a clever way of, you know, creating a little code machine where you put in the DNA sequence and then out comes the protein. Like, what -- what simple code could I do to do that?


JAD: And just sitting there, no experiments, no nothing, just thinking, this guy Gamow decides ...


CARL ZIMMER: "I think that our cells read our genes three bases at a time."


JAD: Like, instead of AT, CG, AC, Gamow thought maybe it's ATA, CCG, TCA. In other words, whatever it was that was reading the DNA in the cell, maybe it was reading it in triples not pairs. Because if you have sets of three rather than two, Gamow figured, well that'll give -- mathematically would give you more possibilities. and that might put you on the path to making all those hundreds of thousands of proteins.




JAD: Now this was just a guess but shortly after, the double helix duo, Watson and Crick ...


CARL ZIMMER: ... and a group of other scientists worked it all out. They figured out how you get from -- physically get from DNA into proteins.


JAD: Here's how it works, sort of. Inside the cell the DNA is sitting there, all coiled up. A set of molecules come along, attach to it, unzip it.


CARL ZIMMER: And make a copy of it.


JAD: This copy's now made of RNA, which is like DNA. Very similar.


CARL ZIMMER: Still in a basic sort of four-letter format.


JAD: But it's now on the move, because it pedals over to this big old factory in the cell called ...


CARL ZIMMER: The ribosome. It's just this -- this crazy, floppy, convulsive collective of molecules.


JAD: And once the RNA copy is inside this big factory, another kind of RNA comes over and begins to bzzt bzzt bzzt, bzzt bzzt bzzt. Read the bases three at a time. Like ...


CARL ZIMMER: Okay. ATA. Well, that must be oh! You know, GGC. Well that's gonna be ...


JAD: And it begins to create this chain of amino acids, which are sort of the beginning of proteins. And eventually, the ribosome will take this chain and eject it out. So that they can ...


CARL ZIMMER: Do their thing. You know, grab oxygen or cut up your food.


JAD: Or make your hair, or the cartilage in your ear, your teeth or your toes, or the neurons that carry the thoughts you think.


CARL ZIMMER: Or whatever.


JAD: It does displace the quote "author" of you, because I mean I remember growing up thinking oh, DNA is my sort of like manual or my blueprint or something. All of me is in there, and that just somehow it opens and then out -- out pops me. But you're saying that there's this thing that is reading these three base pairs and forming any of a hundred thousand proteins? Suddenly. I'm thinking that's where their game and not -- not the DNA, but in the thing that's reading the DNA.


CARL ZIMMER: Well, yeah. I mean, DNA is just a totally meaningless molecule just flopping around unless there is a way of reading it.


JAD: But doesn't the build -- the reader of the DNA come from the DNA?




JAD: See, that's just weird.


CARL ZIMMER: Yes. So you have -- so you have genes for the parts of the ribosome.


JAD: At this point, producer Tim Howard and producer Soren Wheeler stepped in.


TIM: It's like a book that births its own reader.


JAD: That's ...


TIM: That will read the book.


CARL ZIMMER: Not exactly, though. Because that does -- you are sort of putting DNA up on that pedestal.


JAD: But it's -- sequentially, it is.




JAD: Sequentially, it is. It's first.






CARL ZIMMER: How's DNA first?


JAD: Well, you're saying it's -- in the order of events, you begin with DNA and then after that you get the ribosome and the RNA.


CARL ZIMMER: Events of what?


JAD: Of you.


CARL ZIMMER: Okay. But -- but you got to bear in mind that you, I don't know how far back you want to go with you. No, seriously. Where do we start with you? Do you want to start Jad the fertilized egg?


JAD: Well, sure. Yes. Yes.


CARL ZIMMER: Okay. Jad the fertilized egg has DNA and these ribosomes.


JAD: Oh, so the readers are already present.


CARL ZIMMER: When a cell divides, two new copies of DNA go into each new cell, but they also divide up all the ribosomes from the original cell. So they're taking the factories with them.


JAD: Oh.


CARL ZIMMER: So the DNA is never without the code.


TIM: So it's like Moses with the tablets together, right?


CARL ZIMMER: Can I just say I have never thought of it that way? So I might need to think about this. Right.


JAD: Well, what makes the ribosomes then? Does it come from the DNA?


TIM: I thought you just said that.




SOREN: But how does it make the ribosome without the ribosome to help it make the ribosome?


CARL ZIMMER: What? Wait. Okay.


JAD: We need a translator in here.


SOREN: You say the DNA codes for the ribosomes. So how do you make the ribosome without a ribosome to translate the code to make the ribosome?


CARL ZIMMER: You couldn't.


JAD: Wait a second. I'm -- I'm so confused right now.


CARL ZIMMER: You got to go -- you got to take the DNA and the ribosome partnership all the way back through billions of years. These two parts of the system evolved and became dependent on each other very early in the history of life.


JAD: In fact, Carl says a lot of biologists think that life ...


CARL ZIMMER: Started out as just RNA. No DNA. And so you would basically have these little, little organisms that would have these little kind of proto-genes made of RNA. And eventually these RNA molecules started to connect amino acids together to make the little building blocks of proteins.


JAD: So you're saying that people generally think RNA came first?


CARL ZIMMER: That is one of a couple leading hypotheses today.


JAD: Okay. So it's possible that RNA came first, then DNA. And somehow suddenly I'm thinking, "Oh, we should be -- we should have been talking about RNA all along."


CARL ZIMMER: Well I mean, just in general RNA has been incredibly neglected and ignored, and ...


SOREN: So the Bible, instead of "In the beginning was the word," should have been, "In the beginning was the person reading the word."


CARL ZIMMER: Or in the beginning was the code. Yeah.


JAD: Did you guys feel the Earth shake just now? I really -- no, there was some kind of vibration happening. And in my head too, because I was thinking I finally get it now. Like, I get it.




JAD: Because DNA got sold to us as, like, this is the first step in understanding the mystery of life, right? But it somehow doesn't feel like that anymore. I'm suddenly like, "RNA, the ribosome. That's where the real mystery is!"


CARL ZIMMER: I -- I like the way you're thinking.


ROBERT: And so Jad discovers that we are all translations. That translation is the true mystery. The deep secret of life.


JAD: Who invited you in here?


ROBERT: If I said, "I told you so," you wouldn't be able to translate that. Honestly.




ROBERT: That heroic translation from the Korean of Aura Lee is by Margaret Glaspy. So thank you, Margaret.


JAD: Yeah. And thanks to all our singers. Viesta who sang Old McDonald in Bambara, which is a Malian language.


ROBERT: Catherine McCarthy, who did our Italian version of Yankee Doodle Dandy.


JAD: Leah Torres, who did the German I've Been Working On The Railroad.


ROBERT: Azza Khalil, who did the Arabic Amazing Grace, and she's the mom of our intern.


JAD: Reem!


ROBERT: Reem, yes.


JAD: And of course our puppeteer from our Apocalyptical show, Miron Gusso, did our Russian version of You Are My Sunshine.


ROBERT: Kiran Ahluwalia, doing the Hindi version of Three Blind Mice.


JAD: And finally on -- with the piano and musical interpretation on everything, Jon Dryden.


ROBERT: Thank you, Jon.


JAD: Thank you, Jon. Oh and you know what? If you go to our website, you can hear a proto-version of Radiolab in Spanish, which we'd like your feedback on.




JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: Start of message.]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Hi, this is David Eagleman.]


[CARL ZIMMER: Hello, this is Carl Zimmer.]


[KYMME VAN CLEEF: This is Kymme Van Cleef.]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.]


KYMME VAN CLEEF: Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Soren Wheeler ...]


[CARL ZIMMER: Soren Wheeler, who produced this show. Whoo!]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Tim Howard, Brenna Ferrel ...]


[CARL ZIMMER: Molly Webster, Malissa O'Donnell, Dylan Keefe ...]


[KYMME VAN CLEEF: Jamie York ...]


[CARL ZIMMER: Andy Mills, Kelsey Padgett and Matt Kielty.]


[KYMME VAN CLEEF: With help from Adrian Rock, Reem Abdou and Clare Toeniskoetter.]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Special thanks to Nancy Updike, Larry Kaplow ...]


[CARL ZIMMER: Emily Condon, John Lonbergh ...]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Nick Nuciforo ...]


[KYMME VAN CLEEF: P.J. Vogt, Alberto Ferraro ...]


[DAVID EAGLEMAN: Wallace Almeida, Suzanne Franks, and everyone at Language Line.]


[ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.]


JAD: All right. So listen, the show's over, right?


ROBERT: It's definitely ...


JAD: Totally over.


ROBERT: We've said goodbye.


JAD: Yeah, yeah. So like, anyone ...


ROBERT: So this is like a -- this is now -- we're not even here, really.


JAD: No. This is -- this is for -- this is for the people who want to venture into some well, hideous territory, really. Awful territory.


ROBERT: Because we have -- we asked listeners to send in ...


JAD: Tell us what you think of us. Tell us -- you know, like, do you like us? And here's what we got.