Perfect Match

With its array of international stars, football is a hotbed of work for linguists. Eve Langford meets a hat-trick of professionals working in the sector

Eve Langford is a sports journalist who regularly writes for Mancunian Matters, the British Athletics Supporters Club and Sportsbeat. Follow her on Twitter, @eclsport, or email evelangford@live.co.uk.

Copyright© Institute of Translation & Interpreting, Bulletin, May 2016.
The article in its original format can be read here.


'I am the special one.' It was with these historic words that José Mourinho announced his arrival at Chelsea in 2004. And, despite the turbulence that accompanied his two periods at the London club, he went on to prove that he was nothing less. Any other foreign manager arriving at his first Premier League press conference might have made such an outlandish statement as a result of nerves or a wobbly grasp of English, but not Mourinho. The Portuguese superstar manager started his career in football in translating and interpreting. When he called himself the special one, he meant it.

Mourinho began his career in football humbly enough, playing in the second division in his native Portugal while studying sports science at the Technical University of Lisbon and attending coaching courses in the UK. Already fluent in French, Portuguese, English and Italian, he added Spanish and Catalan to his repertoire while working as Bobby Robson’s assistant and interpreter at Barcelona in the early 1990s.

Robson’s reliance on his interpreter became so absolute that Mourinho was soon acting as the prestigious club’s assistant coach. In fact, it was reported at the time that rather than translating Robson’s words, Mourinho would add his own opinions and have arguments with journalists. Robson was relying on the young interpreter to prepare reports on the club’s opponents, and Mourinho’s passion for the sport soon became more of an asset to the English manager than his linguistic skills.

Kirsty Heimerl-Moggan, a lecturer in interpreting at UCLAN and an active interpreter for Premier League football clubs in north-west England, believes that Mourinho went against the ethics of interpreting while at Barça. 'Mourinho was totally wrong [to add his own comments to Robson’s],' she says. 'By doing that, you are taking away the power of speech from the person you are interpreting for, who is actually trying to express themselves.'

She says the media interest in Premier League footballers makes it even more important for interpreters to be precise in their work. 'Footballers are a vulnerable group without good interpreters. I work for one Premier League footballer who has really good English, but he worries about the press taking any misspoken snippet they can get and turning it into what suits them. When he’s interviewed by the press, I interpret for him so it’s exactly true to his word and not confused.' Heimerl-Moggan arrived at football interpreting from an academic background in translating and interpreting. She lives right between the Manchester United and Manchester City grounds and just a short drive from Liverpool, meaning she is ideally positioned for Champions League matches. 'I don't think you have to be a big football fan to be a football interpreter,' she says. 'I’m not into football but I know the terminology because I have learnt it through research and educating myself.'

Exciting roles
There are many exciting roles available in translating and interpreting in the world of football. Luciano O. Monteiro is a professional translator working in Brazil, translating English and Spanish for Portuguese readers. His route into football translating was wholly different from that of Mourinho: he studied journalism at university and started working as a reporter before obtaining his degree. After a period of travel, Monteiro started teaching English and took on some small translation assignments.

'Eventually I figured out I liked translation much more than working as a teacher or as a journalist, and then I became a full-time translator in around 2002,' he says. 'I have always been an avid football fan, and I did work as a sports journalist for some time but it was not until about three years into my career as a full-time translator that I realised there was a growing market in football translation. I had the credentials, I had the expertise and I had the love of the game, but before that I had never worked towards becoming a football translator.'

As with music, theatre, fashion or other niches, football translators need to apply different processes to recreate the source text, bearing in the mind the cultural context in which the target will be interpreted. An interesting problem faced by Portuguese writers and translators in particular is the difference between Brazilian and native Portuguese. The language is officially the same in both countries but the Brazilians have developed their own vocabulary for words such as 'season', 'field' and even 'goal'. 'The more jargon-heavy the subject, the greater the differences,' says Monteiro. 'We understand almost everything Cristiano Ronaldo says but he would be the team’s laughing stock if he played for Brazil.'

For example, players from Portugal use the word camisola for 'jersey', whereas in Brazil the same word means 'nightgown'. The word balneário means 'locker room' in Portugal, but in Brazil it means a 'seaside resort', or 'spa'. Understandably, Brazilian fans love to hear a journalist from Portugal explain that the soccer players from his homeland are 'headed to the spa in their nightgowns' during half time.

Whole population
'Football is so massive here,' says Monteiro. 'It dwarfs any other sports - unlike in England, where cricket and rugby are also popular. And it encompasses every social segment, so it’s as popular with the rich and highly educated as it is with the lower social strata. That means you’re writing for a whole population, and this readership is a very demanding one. Even if you’re a Brazilian who hasn’t spent many years in school, you will spot a translator who’s not a football expert. The Brazilian reader of the soccer pages is extremely demanding. He spends hours each day arguing about football with a passion that he will never have for politics, economics or religion.'

Monteiro's football translating career began at the World Cup in 2006, and the quadrennial competition has continued to be a highlight in his working life so far. 'In 2010 I didn’t go to South Africa, but I spent most of the competition in the south of France with other FIFA translators and editors, and we developed some real camaraderie during that time,' he says. 'In 2014 the World Cup took place in my backyard, so to tell you the truth I did not work as much as I took a handful of days off to go to the stadiums as a common fan. But in the end, inevitably, work and fun became intertwined and I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.'

Daniel Lane, 25, graduated in 2014 with a master’s in translating and interpreting from the University of Bath. He now works as a freelance interpreter and translator after getting his break into the industry translating press conference transcripts from the 2014 World Cup. Only two years into his career, Lane is already interpreting for on-camera interviews with big-name stars - but he already has his sights set on bigger things.

'I’d love to progress to press conference interpreting,' he says. 'You have to serve your time doing the smaller jobs to earn the trust to be able to go on to those high-profile ones. There have been many occasions when unqualified or inexperienced interpreters have made a fool of themselves on the big stages of football, but I would love to do it and would jump at the chance to work at the big tournaments.'

Unusual challenges
Lane has already enjoyed some unusual challenges while on the job. 'There was one occasion when I was working for a sponsor. I'd just graduated and I was sent to accompany two footballers making fajitas with homeless kids. So there I was, somehow in a situation where I was cooking fajitas with two Premier League footballers, trying to relay instructions about how they wanted the onions and peppers chopped, which was pretty surreal.'

Lane believes his love of football has been a great asset in his career so far. 'My knowledge of the game as a fan absolutely helps my work,' he says. 'Football was the perfect fit for me. When you see an interpreter who doesn’t love the game, the translation just doesn’t come across naturally, especially if you are relaying a footballer’s words. It helps to be familiar with that vocabulary and to be able to put their words into terms that would be familiar for an English football fan. You see so many translations where you can tell straight away that they are translations. Localisation is key - it’s not just what someone has said, but embedding it in the target culture.'

In spite of the reputation some footballers have, Lane insists that they are just normal people. 'I was expecting lots of diva moments from the players but the vast majority have struck me as completely normal human beings. You soon get used to the fact that these are people that you see on TV, that you admire - it’s just a regular job once you get over the celebrity aspect of it.' However, even if most players are surprisingly down to earth, football will always have its eccentric characters - and there is always room for a special one.
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