Translating Football in its Spiritual Home


Five years prior to the 2014 World Cup, Luciano Monteiro was tasked with managing the translation of the FIFA website into Brazilian Portuguese. Here he charts the ups and downs of a monumental project.

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of the ITI Bulletin. Click the images above to read the print article.

On the last day of 2014, a long, arduous and rewarding five-year translation project came to an end. It was not until late 2009 that Fifa, football’s international governing body, decided that its official website needed a Brazilian Portuguese version, and it was also at that time that I was approached to linguistically manage the deployment of the website and its future updates, always with an eye on the 2014 World Cup to be played in Brazil. Two factors led me to say yes. Firstly, I was happy to see the value of specialisation recognised. I've always believed that translators should work in their specific fields of expertise, and I felt fully capable of taking the job since I had been working with and writing about football translation for many years. Secondly, I received carte blanche to build my team by selecting only the best writers, translators and reviewers.

It was not long before I got to grips with some actual work, as the new pages had to go live by year-end. As I began to appreciate the huge amount of static content to be translated from Fifa’s four official languages (English, Spanish, French and German) as well as from Arabic, it became clear that a large number of translators would be necessary to handle such high volumes in all these languages.

Scratch match

I knew from the beginning that the recruitment process would not be simple, because I had worked with other translators on football-related projects in the past, and had seen that many colleagues showed a lack of intimacy with the subject matter. Unfortunately, many translators throw themselves at the first opportunity and, to say the least, indulge in wishful thinking about their abilities. That said, I still thought that the spiritual home of football would offer no shortage of good professionals.

I was wrong. It wasn’t long before I realised that, while many translators simply lacked football knowledge, many others did not consider it a serious specialism. The fact that football as a subject is less 'heavy' than medicine, engineering or insurance does not make it easier to translate. Even after we tested dozens of candidates (many of them accomplished translators in other fields), all I saw were clumsy, artificial stories that reeked of translatorese and would not be accepted for publication by any sports media outlet.

We moved on to football journalists, experienced writers who know exactly what the reader wants. However, their lack of foreign language knowledge created a new obstacle. It surprises me to see that most people (many journalists included) have no clue whatsoever about the processes involved in trying to bridge two languages and two cultures. Again, either due to bad faith or lack of self-criticism, what we saw was the candidates' inability to effectively understand all the nuances of the English source text. To digress a little, I must say that, as far as foreign-language learners of English are concerned, this situation is getting worse due to an over-reliance on machine translation tools, which on the one hand may speed up the job, but on the other help circumvent the fundamental process by which you deconstruct the source in order to be able to reconstruct it in the target language. And I’m talking here about finding translators from English to Portuguese. When it came to the other source languages, it was nearly impossible to find a translator who ticked all the boxes.

After not a single test had fully met our expectations, I saw that we would need to pick the candidates with the greatest potential and invest in their training. And so we began with the Herculean task of correcting and resubmitting translations so that a desired level of quality might be met. During that process, and based on the most frequent errors found, I wrote a Brazilian Portuguese translation guide that was later adopted by Fifa. Finally, after about six months I had the joy of being able to 'promote' a colleague who, after working hard and accepting constructive criticism of her translations, began to write with the desired level of quality.

Absurdities and aberrations

Building a qualified team was a difficult albeit rewarding task. Equally positive was the need to take linguistic decisions to standardise to some extent the language used on the website. From the start, we made it a point to favour truly Brazilian terminology, that is, the football jargon that has been used by the press and the fans in Brazil for several decades. Although the game in its modern form was first organised in Britain, and its nomenclature was initially derived from English, football was soon adopted by Brazilians as their own. As the country began to write its victorious history on the pitch, the game quickly became ingrained in the nation’s culture as if it had been a South American creation from the outset. Brazilians believe they’re stating the obvious when calling their country O País do Futebol (The Country of Football), so it seems logical to them that the language of football should be Brazilian Portuguese.

Trying to avoid Anglicisms would not have been such a battle two decades ago. However, the fact that more and more Brazilians are on the internet, coupled with a notoriously poor education system that produces young people who can barely read and write in their own language (let alone in a foreign tongue), has gradually led to the younger generation replacing well-known Brazilian football lingo with untranslated English terms that also carry with them a different way to see the game. I'm happy to say that we were successful in our fight. By working as a team, we managed to eliminate aberrations that were becoming common in certain circles, and we soon realised that other media outlets were following suit.

This is not about trying to preserve a language at all costs, nor does it imply any kind of linguistic xenophobia. Language evolves, and foreign language ​​loans take place all the time. But it becomes a problem when the natural flow of influence is inverted. Just as it makes no sense for the English language to be influenced by other languages ​​in areas such as information technology or finance, it is unnatural that a country where football is such a part of everybody’s life should see its specific terminology influenced by a language whose majority of speakers in the world (with all due respect to most Britons) thinks of an egg-shaped ball when it comes to football. Since we were not swimming against the tide, it wasn’t difficult to achieve the desired results. In those five years, my team and I were fortunate to use a highly influential website to stop the advance of certain linguistic absurdities and aberrations.

Road to Brazil

Ever since I was chosen to be the chief translator and editor for the Fifa website in Portuguese, back in late 2009, I knew I was kick-starting a project whose climax would be reached five years later, during the World Cup on Brazilian soil. So, after the tournament came to an end (with a disastrous campaign by the hosts) and as I was enjoying some holiday time in Russia, I knew that I would probably not be working in the same capacity four years later in the world’s largest country.

Thus, it was with a mixture of melancholy and pride that I received the news that the Portuguese language website would be discontinued at the end of 2014. During the final months, we continued doing work of the same quality, but instead of looking ahead we could only look back in satisfaction. After all, many were the good moments in such a long journey. In addition to building the Brazilian Portuguese team, ranging between 10 and 20 translators and reviewers at any given time, it was great to interact with the translators and journalists from the other five languages, many of whom I already knew from previous projects.

Although the website did not reach its peak until the 2014 World Cup, perhaps the greatest moment for those of us who were working behind the scenes came four years earlier, during the tournament in South Africa. After all, we had worked almost non-stop in our separate offices throughout the nine months leading up to the event, translating a wealth of content about the participating teams and the host country. During the competition, however, editors and translators came together in southern France not only to work until the early hours, but also to celebrate the new friendships that had been forged.

There were many other international tournaments after that World Cup, as well as daily articles to be translated about world football, with interviews, reports and news stories. Nonetheless, our work had become easier, as we had a good team in place, the style guide had been completed and many stories were quite similar to previous ones. At the same time, increasing numbers of articles were written in Portuguese, which, for obvious reasons, reduced the workload for Brazilian translators. As a result, we were able to keep just the core of the team, comprising the most qualified professionals.

Personal and professional

Even after a few periods of little activity, we knew that the great moment would come, and an increase in volume soon indicated that the World Cup was arriving in Brazil. One month before the tournament, there was no more time for other jobs. During the competition, I'm sure I was not the only one to forget about any regular routine and spend almost all my available time tuned in to the game’s showpiece event. To tell you the truth, there came a time when I really didn’t know when the fun started and the work ended, or vice-versa. I saw every single game and tried my best to watch and read the analyses being issued from various countries in multiple languages.

In short, the culmination of a project that had engaged me personally and professionally was a source of great pleasure. It's a pity that it came to an end, but in all fairness that was always the likely outcome. I share the success of this journey with the coordinators, translators and reviewers who worked with me and can also be proud of having written part of the history of a game that is intertwined with the identity of the Brazilian people.