The Language of Football

As published in the May 2008 issue of the ITI Bulletin

By Carrie Dunn

Football is a truly international sport, where a talented player can achieve worldwide fame and coaches are transferred across borders with little regard for language differences. So, how do specialist translators and interpreters tackle the beautiful game? Carrie Dunn finds out.

When Fabio Capello took the role as England coach in December, he could speak his native Italian and fluent Spanish. He had only a smattering of English, but was sure that his lack of language skills wouldn't hamper him in his new job.

'I am convinced that in one month I will be able to speak the language and it will not be a problem,' he said. 'I believe it is very important to be able to communicate with the players. I want to learn the language in time to meet the players in under one month and I will be disciplined and set myself goals in order to learn English quickly.'

Some months on, and though he is happy to run training sessions and communicate with his players, Capello is stii! reliant on an interpreter at press conferences. This is partly because of Capello's natural and understandable wariness of the media; recently, a reporter asked him a question in Italian and invited him to respond in English. He rejected the offer, replying, 'I will speak English with you when I can be sure that I know all the right words, because you are very good at twisting things and I am very careful. I can communicate with the players much more easily - I am happy with my English with them.'

The FA has increased its use of translation and language services since Capello's appointment, but the worldwide and continental governing authorities have been providing translation services for many years. The world football authority, Fifa, operates a small in-house translation team, located in Zurich. 'Fifa has four official languages: English, Spanish, French and German', says translator Gabriela Straube. 'We have 13 in-house translators who all translate into their mother tongue only. We translate all official documents such as the Fifa Statutes, legal regulations, tournament regulations, information to our members, legal disputes, the monthly magazine, the Fifa Finance Report, the Fifa Activity Report, a technical report about every tournament, agendas and minutes of our committee meetings, media releases, correspondence and more - our work is very varied!'

'By the 2004-05 season, almost half of the Premier League players were deemed "foreign".'

Over at Uefa, where the three official languages are English, French and German, Liverpool fan Sue Angel graduated from what is now Liverpool John Moores University with a degree in modern language studies. She moved to Switzerland in the hope of finding work, so when she spotted Uefa's advertisement for an English translator in 1995, she did not hesitate to apply.

'That was a few weeks before Uefa relocated its headquarters from Berne to Nyon, on the shores of Lake Geneva', she says. 'At that time, Uefa had a staff of about 70. Now we are nearer 250.'

The increase in staff numbers shows exactly how multilingual European football has become in the last 15 years. As an example, when the English Premier League began in 1992, only 11 players from the starting line-ups in the first weekend of the season were non-British or Irish, By the 2004-05 season, almost half of the Premier League players were deemed 'foreign'. However, Uefa has three official languages - English, French and German - as it has done since its inception in 1954, and employs translators accordingly.

'The French and German translators translate mostly from English, and a large part of the Engiish translators' work consists of revising English texts written by non-native speakers', explains Angel. 'I also draft the minutes of the annual Uefa Congress, and using MultiTerm, we have just compiled a trilingual pocket football dictionary, which Langenscheidt is publishing. This is quite a change from when I joined Uefa. Back then, there were no German translators as the staff were largely German-speaking and most texts were therefore produced in German and required translating into English and French.'

However, occasionally translation or interpretation into a non-official Uefa language is required. 'In that situation, we resort to freelance translators or agencies', says Angel. 'As most such translations are from or into English, I often use the ITI directory of translators, knowing that the translators on this list are all very well qualified.'

'Interpreters used are more like spokesmen who know how to handle the local media than interpreters per se.'

Angel thinks that the emphasis placed by Capello on being able to speak the same language as your players is paramount. 'I don't think that the widespread availability of translating and interpreting discourages coaches or players from learning a foreign language', she says. 'Some may rely on translators or interpreters to begin with, but I am sure they are encouraged to learn the language of the country where they are working. Otherwise, effective communication with their players or team-mates would be hindered, for example when giving instructions to players on the field of play, or in training. But I imagine that they have candidates - individuals and agencies - queuing up to work with them!'

Know your football

Fifa translator Edward Brown agrees that people in football have very specific media-related requirements that they need to consider when picking an interpreter. 'Purely based on observation, they often seem to choose people they trust rather than professional interpreters, if you consider the examples of Jose Mourinho translating for Bobby Robson at Barcelona and Gus Poyet now acting as Juande Ramos's translator/spokesman at Tottenham', he says. 'This tends to suggest that managers and players are very concerned about how they relate to the media, and would rather employ an insider who is capable of censoring any unwise comments rather than a professional interpreter, who will simply translate what they say verbatim. So the interpreters used are more like spokesmen who know how to handle the local media than interpreters per se.'

Luciano Monteiro began his career as a sports reporter, and moved into translation and interpreting, translating mostly into Brazilian Portuguese, and from English and Spanish, and specialising in working with sports people. He thinks expertise in a specialist area is vital, as is an ongoing commitment to developing that knowledge; simply being interested in the subject isn't enough.

'I was lucky to be born in Brazil, where it is hard to find anybody who's not passionate about the beautiful game', he says. 'However, being passionate is a far cry from really understanding the game. As with all other subject matters, you need to study, to do research and to keep up to date with current trends on and off the pitch - not only formations and new rules, but also how the game is now managed in business terms and how it has ceased to be mere entertainment and become a target for investors all over the world. Nowadays, clubs have changed their management practices to focus on gains for shareholders rather than winning trophies. Yet compared to, let's say, the business arena, I notice that football translations are not taken as seriously as they should be. After all, football is also business, and not small business, as you could see from the revenue earned by clubs such as Manchester United and Barcelona, or from endorsement and publicity contracts with giants such as Nike, Emirates, and Coca-Cola.'

Though Monteiro still dabbles in journalism, he feels that translation and interpreting are more challenging. 'You have to deal with the languages of two football-mad nations who read and understand the game in different ways. You cannot translate words or sentences, but real concepts that have developed on either side of the Atlantic and that sometimes find no equivalent in the other language.'

A game of two halves?

Monteiro recommends that any sportsperson seeking a translator or interpreter is thorough in their background checks to ensure that they have the requisite ability to understand the sport's vocabulary in two languages. 'There are cases of good translators who enjoy football but cannot provide the high level expected in the field because they lack the in-depth knowledge of the underlying concepts and how they relate between different languages', he says. 'If you are a sportsperson and need an interpreter, you need somebody who knows how different concepts are expressed in either of his or her working languages.'

Monteiro gives the match clock as an example of a transatlantic divide. 'In England, and in most other European countries too, the clock goes from 0 to 90 minutes, and injury time is included separately', he says. 'In Brazil, and in most other South American countries too, the clock goes from 0 to how long it takes for the first half to finish. Then it goes back to 0 and then to how long it takes for the second half to finish. In Brazilian Portuguese, therefore, it is advisable to mention the half, and if you don't mention it, you are referring to the first half. In England it is simply obvious. This can produce some tricky situations. For example, in a match score-line, 'Ronaldo (47)' in Brazilian Portuguese means that Ronaldo scored his goal in first-half injury time. However, the same thing in English means that Ronaldo scored his goal in the second minute of the second half. In order to express the same meaning in English, you would have to write 'Ronaldo (45+2)'.'

'Being passionate is a far cry from really understanding the game. You need to study, research and to keep up to date with trends on and off the pitch'

It gets even more complicated. 'Conversely, when translating from English to Portuguese, you should never say that Ronaldo scored his goal, for example, 'aos 60 minutos' or 'in the 60th minute', but rather 'aos 15 minutos do segundo tempo', which means 'in the 15th minute of the second half'. Brazilians see one game as two separate halves whereas the English see the two halves as one game.

Cultural quirks

The peculiar idioms of football will always be a challenge; the English game's cliches of 'sick as a parrot' and 'over the moon' will make little or no sense to football players, managers and fans in other languages, and other cultures have their own quirky phrases that sound odd when translated word for word into English. Additionally, football players and managers come up against the usual difficulties when speaking in a second or third language; Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, for example, sometimes confuses the English verbs 'to do' and 'to make', simply because there is one verb for both actions in his native Spanish.

English remains the supreme language of football. 'The terminology first appeared in English and then was translated into other languages', says Monteiro, explaining how each language developed its own idioms. 'You know how weird it sounds for Brits to hear Rafa Benitez 'translating' his football ideas into English. That's because he really can't think in English, and will probably never be able to, and that inevitably has a bearing on how Liverpool are playing.'

Luciano Monteiro believes that the complex task of football translation and interpreting should be taken more seriously

Monteiro believes that translators should work only into their native language. 'Especially regarding football articles for newspapers, magazines or websites, the final translation must sound as if it were original content. It is extremely frustrating, and sometimes angering, to find out that you are reading a translation', he says. 'So, bottom line, there are fields in which sounding "foreign" improves the whole thing. Think of phrases like haute cuisine, for instance, or film noir. In others, sounding fully native is fundamental as you are dealing with the national pride. It goes without saying that whatever they say in Portugal or in the USA is linguistically useless in England or Brazil. If you're working in the media, remember - the reader is king.'

Copyright© Institute of Translation & Interpreting, Bulletin, May 2008.