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Two birds and two words

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Getty Images/500px

Every time we respond to an audience comment, we go on a journey to see how NPR's journalism is made. Along the way, we usually make a few discoveries. In today's newsletter, we address critiques of two unrelated stories — one about a flamingo and one about the president of El Salvador.

A short narrative about a flamingo that escaped from a zoo 17 years ago caused one reader to worry that the NPR reporter had deliberately conflated the bird with another famous flamingo escapee from an earlier era. As my colleague Public Editor Reporter Amaris Castillo tracked down the backstory, including the wildlife officers who've documented several sightings, she unearthed the details we needed to determine that the reporter's work was solid.

A more serious story about concerns over El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's response to gang violence in the country raised a question about the English interpretation of a source's Spanish words. The source described the president's "imagen de omnipotente," which means "omnipotent image" in English. NPR interpreted those words as "strongman image," and one listener wrote to us saying it was wrong not to use the more direct meaning. But journalists can still capture the nuances of language without direct word-for-word interpretations. As we explored the different ways the Spanish word "omnipotente" could be interpreted in the context of this particular story, we discovered there's more than one right solution.

We learned so much this week:

  • Flamingos escape.
  • Words mean different things to different people.
  • Translation is the written word, interpretation is the spoken word.
  • Every piece of the puzzle makes the big picture look different.
  • As you read on, I hope you enjoy our discoveries about the journalism behind these two stories as much as we did.


    Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

    Which Pink Floyd?

    Caperton Mortin wrote on March 31: I just read the article by Joe Hernandez "Pink Floyd, a flamingo on the lam from a Kansas zoo since 2005, is seen again in Texas," and would have gone on about my day had I not clicked the highlighted link to the 2018 NY Times article about this same No. 492 flamingo - "A Flamingo? In Texas? A Zoo Fugitive Since 2005 Is Still Surviving in the Wild" by Daniel Victor....

    If you click on the link to the NYTimes article, ... you'll find this paragraph, which clearly states Pink Floyd being the name of another flamingo that escaped another zoo in 1988: "Flamingo escapes from zoos are rare, but not unprecedented. In 1988, a flamingo named Pink Floyd escaped from a zoo in Utah, and was occasionally spotted until it was believed to have died in 2005."

    So, how does NPR let this happen? ...

    We waded into whether NPR conflated different flamingos in this story and we found out that there are two distinct Pink Floyds.

    "The reader is right that there was a flamingo that escaped from a Utah aviary in 1988 named Pink Floyd, but the bird that was the subject of our story is a different flamingo that is also called Pink Floyd," Joe Hernandez, the NPR reporter who wrote the story, told me in an email. "The bird in our story was originally called No. 492 and escaped the Sedgwick County Zoo in 2005, according to The New York Times, which we reported."

    Hernandez said No. 492 has since been seen more than once in Texas, and has been nicknamed Pink Floyd for years now. He also cited reporting from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that stated the flamingo was referred to as Pink Floyd.

    "A number of media outlets have also used the name Pink Floyd to describe this specific bird, from CNN to The Washington Post to Newsweek," Hernandez said.

    In his NPR story, Hernandez linked to a video of the flamingo from the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Facebook page. In that video caption, the flamingo is called Pink Floyd. We reached out to the department.

    "Pink Floyd is No. 492. We nicknamed him Pink Floyd a few years ago after getting feedback from our Facebook audience," Julie Hagen, an information specialist with the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said via email. "I am unaware of any other flamingo from Utah named Pink Floyd."

    Hagen said the agency does not track or monitor No. 492, nor is Pink Floyd an official name in any capacity. It's a fun animal sighting story that she and her division look forward to every year.

    Hernandez said, "There apparently just aren't very many clever nicknames for a flamingo." — Amaris Castillo

    Lost in interpretation?

    Fred Halpern-Smith wrote on March 30: I'm listening to Morning Edition 90.9 FM near Boston. The piece is about the historic violence in El Salvador. I catch the untranslated word of the local interviewee, "omnipotente," which the reporter translated to, "strongman," which is very much not the same thing emotionally.

    Maybe, [NPR], I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, made a judgment that it doesn't matter, or that they had to modulate the translation, and choose a different word or phrase to land with equivalent weight.

    The reason I'm writing [is] it bugs me that NPR chose the dumber word to appease your audience instead of a direct translation of the person in El Salvador.

    But, thanks for the story. ...

    In this Morning Edition story about El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's response to gang violence, reported by International Correspondent Carrie Kahn, we hear a snippet of one of her sources speaking Spanish. The source, a Salvadoran security analyst and human rights advocate, references Bukele and his "imagen de omnipotente," which Kahn then interprets as "strongman image."

    (Former NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott previously gave this guidance: "An interpreter turns spoken words into another language. A translator works with written words." So we're going to use the word "interpretation" in place of "translation" when specifically referring to audio stories.)

    In English, "omnipotente" means "omnipotent" — to have unlimited authority or power. And "strongman" means "one who leads or controls by force of will and character or by military methods."

    Jenny Núñez, a translator and interpreter who owns INTRACOM, a company offering translation services in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, thought the word "almighty" would have been a better interpretation for this story.

    "Indeed, I believe 'strongman' does not have all the breadth that 'omnipotente' means in the context [the source] is speaking," Núñez said in an email.

    Daniel Alvarenga, an independent Salvadoran American journalist who has worked for AJ+ and Telemundo, said he thought Kahn's interpretation was appropriate in this particular story.

    "The word 'strongman' does fit because he's using everything to crush the detractors and to implement his policies," Alvarenga said. "He's literally used military to pressure Congress. So he does strong-arm his way into governance."

    Alvarenga felt the term "strongman" captured the intended emotion. "I think the story conveys the meaning; he is amassing power in a way that's concerning," he said.

    While we've centered on the Morning Edition version of this story that you wrote to us about, we found a previous report of it on All Things Considered. In that story, Kahn's interpretation of the source's words was "all-powerful image," which does seem more in line with what "omnipotente" means.

    Larry Kaplow, an editor on NPR's International Desk and the editor of this story, said Spanish-to-English translations and interpretations are something NPR works through carefully.

    "Our story accurately conveyed the interview Carrie [Kahn] did with the expert," Kaplow said in an email. "We played a few seconds of the expert's comments in Spanish and then those faded under audibly as Carrie paraphrased to encapsulate the interview overall."

    Kaplow noted Kahn's All Things Considered appearance, in which she spoke of the same expert and, in that context, went with "all-powerful" instead of "strongman." "Both ways were accurate for summing up the interview," he said. "It parallels a little [of] what we sometimes do in all-English stories, as well. We might play a tape cut and then paraphrase more of the commenter's points."

    Accurate interpretation requires both precision and context. "All-powerful" or "almighty," which Núñez mentioned, are precise interpretations of "omnipotente," and NPR could have also simply said "omnipotent," the direct English equivalent word. Although the term "strongman" does not mean exactly what "omnipotent" means, in this particular story it made sense. — Amaris Castillo


    The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

    The one named Sailor Moon

    I loved this All Things Considered story by NPR's Juana Summers about why the show Sailor Moon has meant so much to so many people. Summers discussed the show's lasting impact with Briana Lawrence, fandom editor at The Mary Sue. It's a pleasure to hear the show and its resonance explored decades after its debut. If you're a fan of Sailor Moon, hearing the theme song play at the start of the story will take you back in time. I definitely sang along. — Kayla Randall

    A delightful mystery

    Morning Edition this week aireda fascinating story about wax cylinders — an early way of listening to commercial music and for people to record themselves. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco brought listeners into the basement of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where we met Assistant Curator Jessica Wood, who has held onto a box filled with wax cylinders for nearly a decade with no idea of what recordings are on them. Sound expert Nicholas Bergh traveled to Manhattan from Burbank, Calif., with a machine he invented to help digitize the recordings. Vanasco's story is part-history lesson and part-suspense as we all wait to hear what was on one of the cylinders. I won't spoil it for you, but it's an engrossing 7-minute listen. — Amaris Castillo

    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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