Lost In Translation

There’s an excellent scene in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation,” a movie about loneliness and cultural dislocation, among many other scenes. Early on in the movie, Bill Murray’s character fumbles through a Japanese whiskey commercial shoot, unable to understand the manic director’s instructions because of an overly polite translator’s reluctance to transcribe everything word for word.

DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.

INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.

DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in ”Casablanca,” saying, ”Cheers to you guys,” Suntory time!

INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

BOB: That’s all he said?

INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.

This is all to say that on more than one occasion, that was how I felt as a journalist in Rwanda. As a documentary producer, I’ve learned that what goes unsaid in interviews is often just as important as what is directly stated on camera. What seems like a fairly benign pause in an interview often speaks volumes later on in post-production; thus, it’s very important that field producers learn to take the emotional temperature of the room and read between the lines at all times.

This isn’t an easy task when you don’t speak the language or are from the culture you’re reporting on. The problems of parachute journalism are rife, and there has been plenty of fair criticism about working with fixers (often seasoned journalists who are qualified to tell their own country’s stories). But sometimes it does help to foreign correspondents who are familiar with an international audience, and more of a bird’s eye view of a story.

The 2019 IWMF-Malaria No More reporting fellowship wasn’t my first in the region, but it was still eye-opening to realize how much I had to learn when reporting in the country. In many ways, Rwandan culture reminded me of Southeast Asia, where I was born and raised. The upfront, casual approach of New York newsrooms I had learned over the past decade was not the tack to take in Rwanda.

Our fixers — thankfully not as demure as the one in “Lost In Translation” — gave valuable advice before interviews and calls, often giving a rough script before we ventured out into the field. This was useful for everyone from high-ranking government officials to community health workers. “Thank them for their time before you start the interview. Elders are to be respected. You must be polite when asking hard questions. Ask permission before taking photos. And for God’s sake, wear something nice to meetings.”

There were many times when I wished I spoke the language or lived in the region to better understand the nuances of the culture I was lucky enough to report on. (Surely, a couple of people must’ve made fun of me and my sometimes redundant follow-up questions?). I wish I could’ve understood every hesitant pause or tactful workaround. Our fixers surely did, but like in the movie, they knew what to withhold.