NPR’s Rough Translation is a show with a pretty vague premise, but its vagueness works in its favor.
According to the show’s description, “host Gregory Warner tells stories that follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory.” The first two episodes, “Brazil In Black And White” and “Ukraine vs. Fake News,” follow that mission statement pretty closely as they examine race relations and “fake news”—topics that have obviously been at the forefront of many American socio-political conversations—from the perspective of citizens of other countries.
But Rough Translation‘s best episodes yet aren’t so clearly on-topic. “American Surrogate” and “Anna In Somalia” instead tell seemingly-random stories that cross national boundaries, but they lose nothing from looking into more obscure issues.
“Anna In Somalia” tells the story of an imprisoned man whose sanity is saved by a doctor in an adjacent cell. The doctor keeps the man grounded by reading him Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina through the wall via a tapping code-language. It’s a great tale of empathy and the power of human contact, and it has an unexpected ending that reminds you that real-life stories are rarely entirely poetic or romantic.
“American Surrogate” is even better. It hit me like a truck.
The episode, hosted by David Greene and reported by Marianne McCune, follows the story of an American woman named Jacquie as she acts as the surrogate mother for a Chinese woman named Jessie. (To protect the women’s privacy, only first names were used.)
Throughout the Jacquie’s pregnancy, she tries to foster a friendly relationship with Jessie. But for reasons that you can listen to the episode to find out, Jessie is hesitant to oblige Jacquie, and the pair’s relationship becomes even more complicated when some problems arise late in Jacquie’s pregnancy.
It’s a heart-wrenching episode. I came close to crying at least three separate times when I first listened to it sitting at my desk. And, like “Anna In Somalia,” its ending leaves you a bit unsatisfied, but for good reason.
Both of these episodes highlight the complexities of human relationships, and though their endings leave you wanting something more fulfilling, they do so in a way that reminds you of how real life doesn’t always end up how we’d like it to. It’s a nice break from Hollywood depictions of love and friendship, if still a little jarring.
Rough Translation is a well-produced, well reported show. I’d challenge you to find someone who isn’t at least a little surprised by the subject matter of one of the episodes. The topics are unique and intriguing, and the show is just good.
Join me again next week for another podcast spotlight.