The podcast producer writing the playbook on multilingual storytelling
Starting with hit drama podcast Mija, which follows a Colombian immigrant family in New York, producer Lory Martinez is at the forefront of a new breed of audio storytelling. What sets Lory’s podcasts apart (aside from their masterful narratives and immersive audio design) is this: they exist in multiple languages.
Not just that, each new series of the show represents a new adaptation, in which the language is translated and the story is reimagined to help it resonate with a new audience. Currently on its third season and its fifth language, the show is now one of a number of podcasts produced by Lory’s Paris-based company Studio Ochenta. We got Lory’s take on the brave new world of multilingual podcasting, and found out about her drive to raise voices across languages and cultures.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be working in multilingual audio production?
I grew up bilingual Spanish-English, and I had a Bachelor’s in French. I wanted to use my French so I moved to France in 2015. Having worked as a radio reporter in the States, I started freelancing over here in the three languages that I speak. I was naturally working multilingually because that’s how I live my life.
Your work now spans close to twenty languages. How did you come to be tackling stories told in language you don’t speak yourself?
When I started Studio Ochenta in 2019, I thought it would only work in the three languages that I know.
“Our vision is worldly, just like the stories we tell”
Mija Season Two, the Mandarin version, was an experiment to see if we could work in languages that we don’t speak. And the answer is: yes, if you work with native speakers. It actually worked really well. And I think that was because of our philosophy, which is ‘I don’t know anything. Teach me.’ That philosophy made it so that we had a really good rapport with whoever we worked with. They could recommend things, point out nuances. And I’m not going to say ‘No, here’s my vision.’ Our vision is worldly, just like the stories we tell.
Can you tell us about the latest iteration of Mija Podcast?
We just launched Season Three of Mija in our fifth language. So it’s in Arabic for this season, in addition to English, Spanish, French and Mandarin. This version is an Egyptian Muslim daughter of immigrants. Her family is from Alexandria, and the story follows their journey to the UK and then to the US. It looks at how each member of the family continues to keep their culture alive, despite their physical and emotional distance from the Egyptian culture.
“We find that so many people feel seen in Mija, even if they aren’t of the exact culture that we’re representing”
Every season is fun, because we find that so many people feel seen in it, even if they aren’t of the exact culture that we’re representing. So if you’re from an Arabic-speaking community, you will see yourself in the Egyptian story in the same way that people from the Latinx community saw themselves in Mija Season One. There’s a plurality to the show.
What do you think gives the show that plurality?
I think one of the things that makes the show resonate is the anecdotes that somehow end up being universal for a lot of people who are immigrants in Anglophone countries. I’ll give the example of the cabbie. In Mija Season One the father is a cab driver. He’s a Colombian immigrant in New York City, but I can’t tell you how many people messaged us, people from completely different cultures, saying, ‘Oh, my dad’s a cabbie too!’ And they’re from the UK, Australia, South Africa – tonnes of places where these kinds of jobs belong to immigrants.
And then, I think the struggle of going to a new place is something that a lot of people can relate to. The feeling of being a fish out of water, learning the language of the host country, how you integrate or assimilate into that culture depending on the country.
It’s really interesting working on the show, discovering as we get into more and more new cultures, that there are these things that are so similar regardless of where you’re from.
And what about the differences? Are there any big changes that you needed to make to tailor new versions of the show to new audiences?
Going back to the assimilation versus integration thing, in the US, if you’re doing a story about a Latino family, people praise the fact that you’re highlighting a minority community. They aren’t thrown off if there aren’t any white characters. Whereas in France, it would be striking to not have a character who is Franco-French.
And so we had a really long discussion with the storyteller for the second series, who is a Franco-Chinese/Franco-Vietnamese daughter of immigrants. And for me, it was really interesting to have that discussion, to understand that different cultures see this question of representation differently. And so, that version of the show has an episode that doesn’t exist in the other series, exploring the very particular way a Franco-French stepdad understands his biracial children. And it’s a beautiful episode. I’m so glad that we explored that nuance for that audience.
The questions we ask and the conversations we have about Mija are so intentional. Like, ‘How can we make sure that someone listening on this side of the world will understand this nuance?’ It’s one of my favourite parts of the job, looking into those nuances and seeing how we can tell the story with them.
Do you find it challenging, nailing those cultural nuances?
It’s challenging, but in a good way. What’s really cool about Ochenta’s approach is that we come into it knowing that we are ignorant of what it is to be in a culture if we’re not in that culture. I started the company with my own story, because I knew that story backwards and forwards. But when I went into Season Two, I knew nothing about the Chinese identity we were looking to represent. And I don’t pretend to.
“Ignorance becomes knowledge, which we turn into celebration”
I can do as much research as possible – which I do – and still not quite get it. For every season of Mija our team does months and months of research into the areas we’re representing: into the politics, into the music, into everything.
And then we talk to somebody who’s actually from the culture, and they’ll be like, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ And that’s totally fine. That’s actually what we want. We want someone to tell us, ‘No, there’s this nuance’, or, ‘Oh, you’re missing this’, or ‘Here’s the detail that would make this more interesting and more authentic.’ And so, with their input, we create this really beautiful story that feels true, and has so much respect for the culture that we’re representing. So that ignorance becomes knowledge, which we turn into celebration.
It sounds like you work hard to ensure you’re capturing not just the broad strokes, but the finer texture, of each new setting and culture.
We pay attention to detail, for example, when we were writing Mija Season Two, the family is Chinese-Vietnamese, so we had to work out how the Vietnamese mother could have a Chinese husband. So we worked out there were Chinese soldiers sent to Vietnam in the Vietnam War, and we had to make sure that the year in which that bit of the story was taking place was correct. We had to make sure that it would make sense that the soldier would have an exchange with a Vietnamese where there was no hostility.
Then we had to research popular Vietnamese wartime music. But all that came up was American 70s music about the Vietnam War, which wasn’t what we were looking for. Eventually we found these really interesting Vietnamese bands from the time that were popular in this very specific region. And what we got from listeners were responses like, ‘Oh yeah! My mom was there at that time and everything’s totally true’, ‘That happened’, ‘Oh yeah! I remember that.’ That attention to detail is appreciated. And it’s the best history lesson, working on the show.
And logistically, how does it all work?
We work with copywriters and storytellers who help us build these worlds. Plus, all the people who work at Ochenta are multilingual. That wasn’t an active choice – it just ended up like that. And almost all of us have some kind of an immigration story. So we all live with a plurality in our daily lives, and we understand the issues we’re exploring in our stories. It’s a kind of expertise that many people don’t know that they have. Immigrants have superpowers: we’re multilingual. You ask your cab driver, he speaks seven languages – I’m blown away by those people. The goal is to have those people’s voices heard.
“Immigrants have superpowers: we’re multilingual”
Do you think there’s an extent to which those immigrant superpowers are sometimes perhaps deliberately hidden?
Of course. For example, there are fourth generation Mexican-Americans on the west coast of the United States whose families were taught not to speak Spanish, and who now are still considered ‘Latin’ on census forms, but who don’t speak Spanish, and are shamed by other Latinos for it. It’s not their fault. It’s because assimilation was imposed on them, which resulted in a loss of culture and a loss of language.
Even in my own experience, when I was first starting out as a producer, I never thought that Spanish was going to help me in my life; it was just something I had. Even in public radio, there are very few Latino shows and very few in Spanish. So if I wanted to work in radio, I was likely going to be working in English. And if I was going to use Spanish, it would only be in a very specific kind of story about immigration, which is not necessarily the only story that exists.
But, maybe because we’re having more conversations about identity these days, it seems like there’s a desire to celebrate the parts of ourselves that our parents would have been ashamed of. What I’m seeing in the States is a push towards saying ‘I am who I am, and I’m also American.’ That gives me hope that perhaps we will finally understand our superpowers and use them.
Another thing that gives me hope is when language or cultural things become viral on TikTok, because that means that Gen Z and Gen Alpha are in on it. It shows me that multilingualism is a thing, and multiculturalism is a thing, and they’re here to stay.
Can you tell us a bit more about another of your podcasts, Ochenta Stories, a series of standalone episodes from different storytellers?
Ochenta Stories started as an experiment in April 2020, right after the pandemic hit and Paris went into its first lockdown. A lot of the projects that we had ongoing were put on pause or just weren’t relevant anymore.
We put out an open call for stories in just the five languages spoken by the producers at Ochenta, but we got submissions in so many more. And I found myself saying ‘I can’t say no to this’. If I’ve got a story in Shona from Zimbabwe, am I going to say no to that?
“It’s a great way to travel during a pandemic”
It was really cool, because not only were we getting stories that producers maybe wouldn’t have had an outlet for otherwise, we also got stories from people who had never produced anything in their lives.
The creators get to be the owners of their stories, and do whatever they want with them. We produce them on our side, and see where they go. The show is now in 19 languages and counting. It’s a great way to travel during a pandemic.
We also got stories from people who are bilingual, which was a secret weapon in terms of making Ochenta Stories so linguistically diverse, because our producers don’t speak all those languages. And some of those people were willing to voice their stories in both languages too.
“There’s no formula for multilingual podcasting, so why not experiment?”
One creator that I really loved working with was a Korean-American who did a story about loss, grief, and the traditions of Korean mourning. It was a beautiful, beautiful story, and it was the first time she had ever voiced anything in Korean. It was about her family and she shared it with them. It was a beautiful moment for her to be able to express her emotions about her lost loved one in her native language.
It sounds like a really rewarding project to work on.
It’s super rewarding as a show. And it’s a great experiment.
A lot of companies are doing the multilingual thing now. Spotify, Wondery, I Heart Radio… And everyone’s doing experiments with it. There’s no formula so why not?
“It’s about the reward of having somebody be inspired and feel seen”
For me, it’s really rewarding that, because we work on productions with brands and institutions, we can make originals like Ochenta Stories and not worry about whether they’re successful or not. I guess for me, it’s more about the reward of having somebody be inspired and feel seen.
So what’s next for Studio Ochenta?
More shows about culture in even more languages, including a new release this month. Follow @ochentapodcasts for updates.
Ken Liu’s translated fiction collection Broken Stars
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
The Code Switch podcast
Rereading 100 years of Solitude
Going for long walks by the Seine
Cooking Colombian food