Rough Translation started as a germ of an idea while Gregory Warner was reporting in Nairobi, Kenya, as an international correspondent for NPR. He was hearing all of these stories that connected him back to the world he'd left at home, and surprised him how the same subject might be perceived in different places around the world. Three years and a few dozen episodes later, the world has changed dramatically. And the show's original purpose feels more urgent than ever. Each episode looks at a moment we're living through to see how it's changing and challenging who we are and how we connect with each other.
This summer, most of us can't travel to faraway places, so we pulled together this new Spotify playlist to let you explore the globe - virtually. It pairs vivid storytelling with songs that relate to each story, hand-picked for you by NPR correspondents, producers and sources.
Two radically different ways of seeing race come into sudden conflict in Brazil, provoking a national conversation about who is Black, and who is not Black enough.
One hundred and eighty recovering COVID-19 patients. One Jerusalem hotel. Secular, religious, Arabs, Jews, old, young. Their phones are out, they're recording. And the rest of Israel is... tuning in.
"One evening in quarantine at the Hotel Corona, Aysha, who's Muslim, took her meal tray and sat with strangers, an older Jewish couple, also quarantined. By the end of dinner they were all singing Enta Omri. It's a real classic. The 1964 original by Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum is about an hour (!), so we're sharing this shorter instrumental cover by Hossam Ramzy." — Daniel Estrin, NPR Correspondent, Jerusalem.
"This is one of my favorite songs that's just plain ridiculous and happy. It's an Israeli cover of a fabulous Lebanese oldie. Listen to the chorus in English and think of it as a playful riff on the Hotel Corona guests trying to get along." — Daniel Estrin, NPR Correspondent, Jerusalem
Two sisters attempt to use a 19th century novelist to outwit modern Pakistani restrictions on women. And a war reporter discovers the power of drawing room comedy to understand her own family.
"My husband and I played this super cheery song after we signed our wedding certificates – we were so happy to finally be married after all the obstacles we'd been through. I'd never really thought of the lyrics before and now I think it's pretty funny all things considered." — Diaa Hadid, NPR Correspondent, Islamabad, Pakistan
What happens when the employees of a French McDonald's take the corporate philosophy so deeply to heart, that it actually becomes a problem for the company?
"There is this longtime French singer songwriter called Renaud who has been, since the 1960s and 70s, a leftist critic of society and a poignant storyteller. He had a few really popular albums in the 1980s that my French 'sister' was listening to when I spent my senior year of high school with her family in Lyon. A lot of Renaud's songs talk about his struggle to resist society even while succeeding within it. Renaud has a lot of protest songs, of which France has so many great ones. And he also reminds me a little of Kamel: a great observer, a great storyteller, and man whose convictions have been tested as his power has grown." — Marianne McCune, Reporter
A man is trapped in a remote prison. And he's trapped in his own mind. Until he hears a knock on the wall... and words from another time and place.
"Much of the Somali music from this time period is on scratchy albums, poorly recorded, but if you can listen past the hiss and distance, you can hear the sound of Somalia before the wars: with whitewashed coral houses on the beach, women in colorful baati dresses, and a music influenced by funk, rock, jazz and Bollywood. These are the sounds that Mohammed and Ismahan fell in love to." — Gregory Warner, Rough Translation Host and Creator
Taliban poetry. An Afghan cooking show. The US military needs a better weapon. Up comes the perfect person for the job.
"Thinking about the war in Afghanistan spins melancholy, uncertain images through my mind, and this Paul Simon song is the soundtrack. 'War Poems' isn't a typical war story – but confusion about why things happen - that's very true to the reality of war." — Quil Lawrence, NPR Veterans Correspondent
A Chinese mom hires an American surrogate to carry her baby. Each needs something from the other that is hard to admit. The next nine months will be a crash course in transcontinental communication. And the meaning of family.
"There was a scene that didn't make it into 'American Surrogate.' When Jessie came to meet Jacquie, she in part came for the 5-month ultrasound. Jessie was worried about understanding everything during the session, so she asked me to help interpret for her. I'd never been there for this intimate moment — hearing the heartbeat and checking that the fetus was doing well. The anxiety Jessie felt was palpable — it was around this time in Jessie's own pregnancy that she found out something was wrong. It reminded me of this song, with the sounds of the ultrasound and the heart-like drumbeat." — Jess Jiang, Producer, Rough Translation
One man's mission to get hundreds of his fellow Venezuelans back home from Ecuador in a pandemic, even if it means walking all 1,300 miles. This story was originally reported for El hilo, a new podcast from the makers of NPR's Radio Ambulante.
"Orlando picked this song for two reasons. First, he loves salsa and most of the guys travelling with him love that genre, too. Second, he really likes Rubén Blades because his songs have a strong political and social message. He likes this song in particular due to the political questioning it has. Although the lyrics say, "buscando América" (searching for America), for him, it could work perfectly as "buscando Venezuela." — Mariana Zúñiga, Reporter
A Chinese idol had millions of fans who adored him for his kindness and good looks. Then, this February, one group of fans accused another of violating their image of him. What happens is a lesson in morality and revenge, love and hate, and how these feelings are weaponized on the internet.
"I listened to a lot of the song 'Hou Lai De Wo Men' by Mayday, a Taiwanese band, while reporting about Xiao Zhan. I chose this song because it's such an antidote to the vitriol and spite of cancel culture. The song is about someone looking back at an old relationship and hoping that in some parallel universe their love remains, but even if it doesn't, that the other person is strong and free." — Emily Feng, NPR Correspondent, Beijing
"For this story, I took a deep dive into the world of Chinese boy bands, which are commercial products in China, just as much as the singers themselves are. This one, X-NINE, emerged out of the reality TV show 'X-FIRE,' which followed the journey of prospective boy band stars as they formed a group. The show and the band were Xiao Zhan's first big break." — Tina Antolini, Producer, Rough Translation
How does India's caste system play out in the hiring practices of Silicon Valley? And what happens when dominant caste people in the U.S. grapple with their own inherited privilege for the first time?
"Researching caste, I came across this amazing Tamil-Indie band in south India called The Casteless Collective. They mix traditional Gaana folk music with hip-hop. The video for their song 'Magizhchi' is incredible: ancient Tamil icons, an elderly auntie in a sari rocking the electric bass, and a Snoop Dog lookalike rapping about caste-based oppression. Plus the ubiquitous Bollywood-style group dances! My other favorites are 'Jaibhim Anthem' – the title means 'long live Bhim' or 'victory to Bhim,' the nickname for B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit jurist, economist and social reformer who wrote anti-discrimination laws into the Indian constitution. And also 'Quota Song,' which has a ska-style feel to it, and lyrics about affirmative action programs for oppressed castes." — Lauren Frayer, NPR Correspondent, Mumbai, India
"This song is a romantic ballad from 'Sairat,' a Marathi movie about two star-crossed lovers – the girl is from a dominant caste, the daughter of a wealthy politician, while the boy, the son of a fisherman, belongs to an oppressed caste. It's a tragic love story about two people who dare to love outside their caste. It breaks my heart every single time. In addition to the amazing scoring, I also love the filming of the song, partly in slow motion, to portray the tender moments between the two unlikely lovers. They blush, they hold hands, they dance in the rain. 'Sairat,' directed by Dalit filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, is the highest grossing movie in the history of Marathi cinema. It was also lauded by critics for its depiction of casteism and caste-based violence." — Sushmita Pathak, NPR Producer, Mumbai, India
— The Rough Translation Team
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