“El Chapo”: How to go beyond language when adapting a podcast

On November 1st, El Chapo: el jefe y su juicio released its first episode, a podcast that uniquely offers simultaneous English and Spanish versions. This process of creating stories in multiple languages ​​could seem like a linear process, but in reality it is extremely complex, where the singularities of adapting a project in audio arise. Here’s how the team at Adonde Media did it.

By Mariano Pagella with an introduction by Martina Castro.

The first episode in English.
The first episode in Spanish.

In the United States, I’ve given several talks about why podcast producers should consider the 400 million native speakers of Spanish in the world, or at least the 50 million Spanish-speakers that live in the U.S. (more than in Spain!), when they choose their podcast’s audience. I tell them that the moment they decide to speak only to those who understand English, they are shortening and minimizing the lives and impact of their stories. We are living in a world where we can’t afford that luxury. I believe that only through a cultural exchange, primarily through the stories we have to tell, are we going to be able to live together in peace.

Normally, this argument raises the question: “But how do we do it? We don’t speak Spanish.” And I respond by telling them that there’s a whole community of talented bilingual producers with whom they can work, but they have to be willing to experiment, to let go of being the experts, and to collaborate openly and fully. When VICE News asked us to adapt the podcast they were making about El Chapo in English into Spanish, that was exactly the way we collaborated — with an openness to experiment, and on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.

I hope our experience can serve to inspire many more collaborations like this and thus demonstrate not only that it’s possible to make a much more powerful and relevant series when one takes into account audiences that don’t speak English, but also — and perhaps more importantly — that it’s worth doing.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo”, is one of the most renowned drug traffickers in Mexico and probably the world. In 2017 he was extradited to the United States and, next week, his trial begins. He is accused of multiple crimes, including ordering the death of at least 33 people.

This trial is probably the most important of the last three decades for the United States in terms of the war on drugs. The news organization VICE News decided to make a podcast, not only to cover the event, but also to recap the history of the drug trafficker, his origin story and his impact on both sides of the border.

From the Vice News team, Kate Osborn, Keegan Hamilton and Miguel Fernandez traveled to Mexico, where they conducted numerous interviews (including with relatives of El Chapo) to build this story. And as a local expert guide they counted on the collaboration of Miguel Ángel Vega, one of the journalists who specializes in covering drug trafficking and who grew up in the epicenter of the operations of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Taking into account that this issue hits the Latino audience very close to home, a very risky decision was made: that the podcast have versions in English and in Spanish. This may seem like an obvious choice, but currently it’s very rare to find projects of this size carried out in a bilingual format. It’s something that is slowly starting to happen.

So, how to carry out this challenge?

From the moment Kate Osborn started working on the project, she knew they’d need to make a version in Spanish, and to do that, they would need a dedicated and bilingual team that would work in tandem with VICE News. It would be important to coordinate the editing and workflow between the two teams and for the Spanish side to have enough editorial freedom to re-imagine the content for a Spanish-speaking audience.

This is when Adonde Media makes its entrance.

Same Story, Different Audiences

All translation work includes a certain level of adaptation, be it a book, the subtitles of a film or the dubbing of a series.

There are localisms or references that have to be clear in the new language. But this project went further. We not only set out to make an adaptation of the text, but also a conceptual adaptation.

Although the general structure remained the same, the point of view had to be radically different, because it’s not the same to talk about drug trafficking to a US citizen as to a Mexican citizen.

The audiences are completely different, so it was key to rethink the focus. And the main challenge was immediately apparent: it could not be a “dubbed into Spanish” version of the original podcast. For it to really work it had to be conceived of in Spanish. And that meant rethinking each episode while respecting the same themes as the original.

That’s why the first decision was that Miguel Ángel, the Mexican journalist who in the original version is a collaborator / co-host, had to be the main narrator of the Spanish version. That was not only to ensure it was narrated by someone whose native language was Spanish, but also to include an alternate point of view. His comments, his narration, is not the same as Keegan Hamilton’s is in the English version. Miguel Ángel speaks from his personal experience living in Mexico and how these issues are felt there.

This is very clear when we hear, for example, in the first episode of the Spanish version things like this:

What I have seen is that the DEA has been dedicated to pointing out a target. It goes after that target. As it goes after it, it magnifies it until finally it has it. Then it shows it off as a trophy.

That he says this about the DEA is not innocent or a coincidence. And that is not in the English version. It’s part of the experience of receiving the US agency in your own country.

Getting to that result was not casual. It required the development of a process that would allow it to successfully happen.

Our Process

Once we decided on Miguel Ángel being the main narrator, the next step was to design a work process that would help us achieve our goals. For this, each of the original episodes was analyzed and taken apart into different elements: main narration, on-location recordings and archival audio.

Main Narration

In the English scripts, the main narrative goes hand in hand with Keegan Hamilton, the journalist from VICE News who did the main reporting of the series. In order to maintain the same theme of each episode but with these particular approaches that were mentioned before, a kind of reverse engineering was done, where each script became a series of questions (in interview style) that we asked Miguel Ángel in a studio.

This way of working allowed us to have a general guide to the episode in-hand and, at the same time, allow improvisation on Miguel Ángel’s part in his answers, so that his personal comments and unique point of could be captured in the final narration.

Of course, this could only happen because Miguel Ángel is a great storyteller; otherwise, this would have been impossible.

With this improvised narration as our raw tape, we started to create new scripts using the best parts of these “interviews”. That provided the basic structure of each episode.

On-location Recordings

During their investigation in Mexico, the VICE News team recorded dozens of hours of interviews, ambient sound, conversations and commentary. Of all this material, a part was used in the original scripts with greater or lesser prominence, but always favoring what was recorded in English. The parts in Spanish served to give context or introduce different characters and when it came to interviews conducted in Spanish, the English version of the podcast uses short segments and cuts to Miguel Ángel to summarize in English what was said in each segment.

For the Spanish version, the objective was exactly the opposite: to give the original voices in Spanish a greater presence. This involved reviewing all of the material recorded to see what could be used.

Hearing a first-hand account spoken by the protagonist without being explained or translated already completely changes the listening experience. But the central idea was always to go further: to continue strengthening the different point of view of this version of the podcast.

In this way, new scenes that are not in the original version were incorporated. And of those that were used in the English version, most were expanded.

When thinking about different audiences, the relevance of the selected content changes completely.

Archival Audio

Given that this is a journalistic investigation, archival audios are key. News reports, documentaries, archive interviews, testimonies — everything that can serve to transport the listener to the moment of the facts are fundamental pieces of audio to include.

And in this case, considering that most of the historical events occurred in Mexico, it is even more important to have local material. This did not mean simply making a direct replacement of news clips that were used in the English version. It implied completely rethinking these moments and the type of testimonies to use, in addition to the entire process of confirming sources.

Much More than an Adaptation

To these three main elements are added many other edges, such as:

Redo in Spanish interviews originally in English.
Double with dubbing actors some sections that must necessarily be in English.
Do fact checking [confirm and check facts and data that are used] of absolutely everything.
Complete gaps in the story with new shots of Michelangelo (this time scripted).
Perform the mix and sound design (the Spanish version even sounds different than the English version).

To these three main elements, you can add other important work, such as:

  • Redoing interviews originally in English in Spanish.
  • Dubbing some sections that had to stay in English with voice actors.
  • Fact-checking absolutely everything.
  • Filling gaps in the story with new narration from Miguel Ángel (this time scripted).
  • Making the mix and sound design (the Spanish version even sounds different than the one in English).

With all these elements, the Spanish version is much more than an idiomatic adaptation. It is from another point of view and aimed at a different audience, a Latino audience. This can be confirmed by simply listening to the English and Spanish versions of the first episode: both work individually, but together (listening to both) they combine to offer a completely new experience.

Production team behind El Chapo:

Producers: Sarah Barrett, Mariano Pagella

Assistant Producer: Ana Lucia Murillo

Editorial Consultant: Ruxandra Guidi

Editorial Assistant: Laura Ubaté

Sound designer: Martín Cruz

Journalist and Host: Miguel Ángel Vega

Executive Producer: Martina Castro

We got a lot of support from the team that created Chapo in English and who did all the original reporting and scripting, in particular: Keegan Hamilton (journalist), Kate Osborn (lead producer), Annie Avilés (editor), and Ryan McCarthy (Editor in Chief of VICE News).

Mariano Pagella is a podcast producer made in Argentina. He leads a double life as a graphic designer and digital producer. Cofounder at Lunfa, Argentina Podcastera, and Podcaster@s. Addicted to audio fictions. @mmarianop // argentinapodcastera.com.ar

Martina Castro is a bilingual radio producer, sound designer and podcast consultant. She is CEO & Founder of Adonde Media, a new podcast production company and the Spanish-language podcast community, Podcaster@s. Over her career she has worked at NPR and KALW, including cofounding and producing NPR’s Radio Ambulante. @martinacastro // martinacastro.com