Amplifying Voices: Why Live Translation Is Essential in Journalism

For nearly 40 years, journalist José Díaz-Balart has served both English- and Spanish-language communities through his reporting. His expertise in bilingual journalism and live translation have made him a household name as an anchor for MSNBC, NBC Nightly News Saturday and Noticias Telemundo.  

“It’s the best of three worlds,” he said. 

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As a Cuban American, Díaz-Balart said he valued from an early age the efforts, trials and tribulations – tears of joy and of sadness – that his parents and grandparents experienced to enable him to have the life he now lives. To honor them, he learned their language and culture.

José Díaz-Balart with his father, Rafael (left), and mother, Hilda (right).

“I think in two languages, I dream in two languages, I live my life in two languages,” Díaz-Balart said. “They’re always separate, but always, always a part of me.”  

Díaz-Balart believes bilingual journalists should also be bicultural, to “understand and be a part of two oftentimes different worlds in our country.” The ability to communicate in real time and do live translation on television “is really of benefit to our viewers,” he said. 

In the video above, and the following text, edited for clarity and length, Díaz-Balart shares more of his interviewing and translation tips.

Convey perspectives, not just sentences

While live translation needs to be grammatically correct, Díaz-Balart also wants journalists to be “as close to what a person says in concept and in words.”  

“That’s why I think the cultural aspect becomes important,” he said. “It’s not just the robotic translation of words.” However, Díaz-Balart emphasizes the importance of accuracy in breaking news scenarios, such as when he had to interview, then translate, conversations with former President Barack Obama and former Sen. Hillary Clinton. “Every single word must be translated,” he said. “In those moments, there is no ‘give a context or concept of what they’re saying.’”

Practice using both languages

Learning a new language can be challenging. However, Díaz-Balart said the toughest challenges were already overcome by his ancestors who looked for a better future. Inspired by his roots, he believes “there should be no barriers. Never accept a barrier.” 

He advises bilingual journalists not to limit themselves over insecurities he often hears, like, “I don’t speak Spanish well enough, or I have an accent, or my Spanish is great for my abuelita [grandmother] but not for anyone else.” He said it’s never too late to “take that gift and amplify it,” to best serve others.  

Amplify people’s stories

Díaz-Balart believes journalists are public servants to the community. He takes the responsibility of telling people’s stories very seriously. “Our role as a journalist is to shine a light in places and on people who often live in the darkness, and to give the microphone to those who are silent or silenced,” he said. 

This role, he said, has allowed him to travel to numerous countries to meet people in their most vulnerable moments. For him, the ability to “speak, think, dream, hope” in their language can make all the difference.  

“If you can identify with those trials, tribulations, dreams and aspirations that their parents and their grandparents had, and that we in turn have through the blood that runs through our veins… If we can understand it — it’s the best way to shine a light,” he said.

Push for more inclusion and representation

Representing the Latino community in English-language television has been a rewarding experience for Díaz-Balart. But he said more needs to be done to foster an inclusive environment on and off television. He said working with diverse colleagues in the newsroom is essential to represent the audience they serve. It has been an “extraordinarily beautiful thing seeing tildes and accents on English-language [television] and being able to work with people who have names with accents and two dots over the o,” since they are coming together from all parts of the world to tell stories.  

Be of service: love, passion, compassion

After decades of reporting, Díaz-Balart said what stands out is the resilience of the communities he has had the privilege of talking to. He recalls meeting people in moments of tragedies, grief and joy. Languages may differ, but their stories are universal in many ways. 

“By translating it into English, that reality maybe was relevant to someone somewhere else,” he said. “I’ve met thousands, literally thousands of people around the world whose stories mattered, and other people heard them.”  

Díaz-Balart said inspiration comes from the young generation of Latino journalists who understand the need to serve the community. For him, success is measured by whether he has been of service to others.  

“Love, passion and compassion,” he said. “That is the Latino community.” 

Gallery: Scenes From José Díaz-Balart’s Career

Clarisa Melendez

Clarisa is a bilingual associate producer based in New York City with NBCU Academy’s content team. She also co-edits The Weekly Rundown newsletter. Previously, she produced for NBC Telemundo Network in Miami.