Translating and Interpreting at the Olympics

By Michael Schubert

With the Olympic Winter Games returning to the world stage this month in Turin, Italy, we take a look at what’s behind the decidedly Olympian efforts of our translating and interpreting colleagues—including NCTA members!

Survey the mainstream media for information on how translation and interpretation services for the Olympic Games are handled and you’ll find yourself tripping again and again over such tired phrases as “lost in translation” and “Babel,” interspersed with predictable anecdotes about mix-ups in the mixed zone and confusion at the conferences. Frustration with the pace of consecutive and relay interpreting at media events is another common theme. This scenario seems credible enough, given that the most recent games (2004 in Athens) drew some 10,500 athletes from 202 countries and territories.

Speak with professional translators and interpreters who have actually been in the thick of this prestigious, global, athletic megaevent, however, and a very different picture emerges. Four NCTA members with Olympic experience were of one mind that not only was the quality of the professional linguist teams top-notch but that the honor and excitement of being part of such an important undertaking eclipsed any negative aspects.

The MIIS Connection

Who recruits and coordinates these elite teams? Wilhelm (Bill) Weber and Daniel Glon are part of a common thread in the organization of translation and interpreting services for past Olympic games, as is the local institution—and NCTA corporate member—with which they share a long association, the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Not surprisingly, Mr. Weber and Mr. Glon have résumés that sparkle with not only linguistic distinction but athletic prowess.

A native of Geneva and an accomplished equestrian, Bill Weber was Dean of the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation of MIIS from 1978 to 1992. His involvement with the Olympics goes all the way back to the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, and the International Olympic Committee remains an important client of Language Services International, his formerly California-based and now Hawaii-based company. When the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984, Mr. Weber directed International Olympic Committee officials to the incredible talent pool among MIIS students, alumni, and staff, and from these circles a total of 30 interpreters and 15 translators were hired to work in Los Angeles that year. Mr. Weber subsequently served as Chief Interpreter for the games in Calgary (1988), Atlanta (1996), and Salt Lake City (2002), and describes the Olympics as akin to a mini United Nations.

Past MIIS professor and native Frenchman Daniel Glon is a cycling buff and former racer and played rugby at a national level. Mr. Glon began translating for the Olympics at the Munich games in 1972. Most recently, Mr. Glon served as Chief Translator for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Mr. Glon is founder and president of AILOS (Association internationale des Linguistes Olympiques et Sportifs), a non-profit working to bring together translators and interpreters with sports expertise to meet the needs of sports organizations and events organizers worldwide. He also created the French-English site In an interview available there, Mr. Glon describes the work of Olympic translators as involving a lot of legal and medical documents as well as the official daily newspaper, the Olympic Record. He speaks of the huge glossaries that he and Mr. Weber and their teams manage—technical lingo for bobsled racing or figure skating, for example, plus terminology for newly added disciplines.

Scale and Scope

Every written document associated with the games must, according to Olympic guidelines, exist in the two official Olympic languages, French and English. This means a bounty of work for French translators like NCTA member Christiane Abel of West Point, California. Christiane holds a Master of Arts degree in Translation and Interpretation from MIIS. Her association with MIIS and Bill Weber led to her recruitment for the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. For one full month before and two weeks during the games, Christiane worked as part of team of 15 French translators in two shifts translating everything from menus, Olympic Village signage, Atlanta mass transit information and, of course, the Olympic Record. The modern office space featured workstations equipped with IBM Translation Manager software. Despite the tight deadlines, horrendous traffic and housing reminiscent of college days, Christiane savored being part of what she described as an excellent team, and formed good working relationships with colleagues that have lasted to this day.

Another aspect of Olympic translating is the big-screen information at the Olympic stadium and other venues, seen around the world by millions. Agnew Tech-II of Westlake Village, California, founded in 1986 by President and CEO Irene Agnew, collaborated with Big Screen Network Productions to translate its video board programming from English to Greek for every venue and sport at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Olympic interpreters work assisting the media in interviewing athletes when- and wherever they can, at the post-medal ceremony press conferences and at meetings of the International Olympic Committee and its commissions. Interpreters must prepare by familiarizing themselves with the rules and regulations of the various Olympic sports, the names of previous medal winners and current favorites, athletes’ biographies, and more. But the most challenging interpreting work may be in the so-called “mixed zone,” the area through which athletes pass between their performance venue and the locker room. Media hounds hungry for a word from the star performers jostle for a front-row spot here; shouting is common and even fistfights have broken out. The chaos of this scene naturally exacerbates the job of the interpreter.

Depending on the infrastructure and budgeting/organizational priorities set by the local committee, interpreting at the post-medal ceremony conferences will be simultaneous, consecutive, or even relayed. Where no budget or obligation for professional interpreters exists, volunteers pick up slack. Some sports are so competitive and culturally significant—basketball and soccer, for example—that the national team will hold a press conference regardless of whether it won a medal.

NCTA Olympians

In addition to Christiane Abel, several other NCTA members have Olympic T&I experience on their resumés. Andrea Hofmann-Miller is a German translator and interpreter, and an alumnus of MIIS as well, where she earned the degree Master of Arts in Translation and Interpretation. While there, she met Bill Weber, who recruited her for the games in Atlanta (1996) and Salt Lake City (2002). Before and during the games, Andrea provided both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting services, mainly into her native German. She remembers with fondness the ebullient atmosphere before the opening ceremony and at the pre-Games interviews, when no one had yet been branded a “winner” or “loser.” The presence of many international luminaries and their social and environmental involvement were another highlight.

NCTA member and newly elected ATA board member Jacki Noh, a professional Korean interpreter, was contracted by Bill Weber for the games in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Salt Lake City (2002). She describes the highlight of her Olympic work as simply “being there,” and she enjoyed cheering on the Korean teams. Jacki interpreted for both the North and South Korean contingents. Compensation for professional Olympic interpreters is according to terms of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), and Jacki describes the pay as competitive, though less so for her Sydney stint because of the exchange rate of the Australian dollar. Despite the stress and travel, however, Jacki regards her involvement with three Olympiads to be a highlight of her career.

Yet another graduate of MIIS, NCTA member Shan Young Tsen, was also recruited by Bill Weber, and worked as a simultaneous interpreter in her native Mandarin in Atlanta (1996) and as a consecutive interpreter in Salt Lake City (2002). The experience was an enjoyable one that she would definitely do again and recommend to others. Shan recalls her self-study crash course in ice hockey terminology and her delight in watching her first-ever ice hockey event as the Chinese women’s team competed.

Shan has no insider information on the 2008 Beijing Games but presumes they will wish to draw first on local translators and interpreters. The press conference hall for Beijing 2008 has already been equipped with a wireless simultaneous translation system. Though the Chinese translation market has grown in leaps and bounds recently to keep pace with China’s growing importance as a global business power, reports indicate that the country still faces an alarming shortage of high-quality professional translators.

Related sites Official site of the Olympic Movement (English, French) Official site of the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy (English, French, Italian) Official site of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, China (English, French, Mandarin) International Association of Conference Interpreters, Geneva, Switzerland (English, French and selected content in additional languages) Monterey Institute of International Studies, California Language Services International, Inc., Hawaii Agnew Tech-II, Westlake Village, California

Interpreting Sports

By Carolina Arrigoni-Shea

How do you say “Strike three!” in Portuguese? Or explain the concept of football’s (that is, American football’s) “first down,” to the Lithuanian mother of an NFL rookie watching her son play his first game? How do you help a Chinese basketball star navigate the DMV in order to get his U.S. driver’s license? This is where personal interpreters for professional athletes enter the game.

In these highly interconnected times, the need for building bridges across linguistic (and cultural) boundaries continues to expand at a rapid speed, opening new and interesting doors for translators and interpreters. One such door is that into the world of sports, where the work is a far cry from sitting in an interpreter’s booth in a courtroom, or delving deep into technical dossiers to translate an important document. In fact, one might say it’s even fun!

The Calling

What if you could call the home of the Oakland Athletics your office? Baseball fans would probably not mind that. Nor does Yohei Fukuda, 22, the interpreter for the A’s Japanese reliever Keiichi Yabu. Last July, Mr. Fukuda – a former Cal Berkeley soccer player with a bachelor’s degree in Economics – was selected by the pitcher himself, out of a small pool of candidates put together by the A’s manager. The position was offered “through internal networking, rather than a public job opening process,” explained Mr. Fukuda.

You may wonder what made Yohei Fukuda the ideal match for the job. In his view, there were two major forces in play: heritage and sports. American-born to Japanese parents, Mr. Fukuda has been in close contact with his parents’ native culture since early childhood, speaking Japanese with his parents all the time at home, as well as visiting friends and relatives in Japan about once a year. And as for formal training, he attended Japanese school every Saturday growing up, and later took advanced Japanese classes at UC Berkeley during college.

Additionally, Mr. Fukuda believes that his passion for sports was another decisive point. “One crucial factor that made me suitable for this job was the fact that I had been involved in sports all my life. I can relate the A’s team sport atmosphere to the times when I was playing college soccer at Berkeley,” said the interpreter. Granted that soccer and baseball are very different sports, nonetheless “the idea of team achievement and being involved with staff, coaches, and players is nearly identical,”he added.

Colin Pine’s job as personal interpreter for the towering 7’5” Chinese basketball star Yao Ming was launched differently, as the search to fill the position was a very formal affair. In 2002, the Houston Chronicle reported that about 390 people (including Mr. Pine) applied for the opening of fulltime fulltime interpreter for the then newly-arrived-to-the-U.S. Yao. Said Erick Zhang, the athlete’s advisor and cousin, “I was looking for personality, technical skill, and firsthand knowledge of China; someone who wouldn’t melt under public scrutiny, or go to a bar every night, and someone whose age gap with Yao wasn’t too great.” The required due diligence and a set of interviews with a select group of applicants followed, culminating in the selection of Mr. Pine, an English major in his late twenties who lived and worked in Taipei for three years, and then joined U.S. State Department as a translator. With his selection as Yao’s interpreter, Mr. Pine instantly rose from anonymity to the high-profile environment of the National Basketball Association.

Jane Yin, a Chinese-American public relations consultant in the field of sports, also served as an interpreter for Chinese athletes in the U.S. In 2003, she joined the marketing office of BDA Sports Management, an agency serving professional basketball players, including Yao. While at BDA, her bicultural upbringing allowed her to seize a very interesting opportunity: interpreting for several members of China’s national basketball team who would be traveling to the United States to undergo various medical treatments.

Ms. Yin’s first assignment was providing assistance to the men’s team forward, Gong SongLin. “He didn’t have anyone that could help interpret for him – help him get settled, and understand what the surgery meant,” said Ms. Yin. “And, what would happen after.” Being the only person in the agency who spoke Mandarin Chinese, Ms. Yin took on the challenge. Later, Ye Li, the center for the women’s national team (and Yao Ming’s girlfriend) came to the States for knee surgery, and Ms. Yin was again called to the rescue. “It was very unique,”she explained. In fact, she was sent on these assignments by the sports agency as a favor to its client Yao Ming, who was concerned for his teammates’ well-being during their stay in America.

On the Job

So, once you land an interpreting job in professional sports, what is it like? During the Oakland A’s busy season schedule, Yohei Fukuda and pitcher Keiichi Yabu spend days (and weeks) in a row together. Mr. Fukuda does the same amount of traveling as all the players. “Some trips are three days at one city, whereas others are more than 10 days – and include going to three cities,” he commented. The same is true for Yao Ming’s interpreter. Colin Pine sits behind the Houston Rockets’ bench during games, attends every practice, and follows Yao all over the map, both around the United States with the Rockets, and in China when the player returns to his homeland during the off-season.

And yet, the job description is not limited to providing language assistance during trips with the team, media appearances, or strategy sessions with the coaches. Player and interpreter become “inseparable,” in the full sense of the word. Outside of sports, professional athletes rely on their interpreters for everyday activities such as going to the bank, getting a dentist appointment, and calling the phone company to request a repair. During the two-month period of Ye Li’s surgery and rehabilitation, for example, Ye Li and her interpreter were roommates. “I taught her how to drive, ” said Ms. Yin. “Toward the end we had two objectives in mind: to rehab her knee, and then to get her driver’s license.”

With such close and constant contact, good rapport between interpreter and player is key. And in fact, a bond is created between them that goes beyond a strict business relationship. Yohei Fukuda says he enjoys talking to Yabu about what’s going on with his life and about news that the player finds interesting, so that they can build their relationship not solely as co-workers, but also as friends. “We play cards before games, go shopping together, and eat out when we’re on the road all the time,” shared Mr. Fukuda. In a way, the interpreter becomes one of the player’s biggest fans:“You grow very close to these people … and because they are athletes, you want to see them win,” admitted Ms. Yin.

Unofficial Interpreting

While interpreter assistance to the non-English speaking athlete in the United States is invaluable, not all players born outside our national borders, obviously, enjoy the privilege of being assigned a personal interpreter. Many of them – as is common in the case of Latin American players – have to brave the linguistic and cultural challenge with the help of bilingual teammates, or other bona fide bilingual participants of the corporate machine that is professional sports.

One of these “informal linguists” is Luis Alberto Torres, a veteran sports journalist and Spanish media coordinator for the San Francisco Giants since 1993. Although interpreting is not part of his duties, Mr. Torres often assists Spanish-speaking players when they are interviewed by local reporters. Keeping a very low profile, the Colombian-born media coordinator makes sure athletes fully understand the questions posed to them, and helps with their replies as needed.

“You live your life through their life.”

Working 24/7

Being the personal interpreter for a major name in sports requires being on call 24/7, in the sense that the interpreter needs to be available whenever the player needs him or her. As Ms. Yin put it, “You live your life through their life.” Although this may seem an undue sacrifice to some, for the professionals interviewed for this piece the benefits far outweighed the costs.

These interpreters are also aware that their current positions have a limited duration; as they help their athletes become stronger in their English skills, they will eventually be able to go about their lives in the United States by themselves. In the end, though, these interpreters feel most fortunate about what they experience on the job. Apart from their salaries – which our interpreters agreed tend to vary with the circumstances – they learn tremendously from their players’ culture, they visit new places, and get to know people who might otherwise be inaccessible.

And, perhaps one of the biggest perks: they watch live sports almost every day!

Did you know?

The varieties of Spanish spoken by Major League Baseball’s Latin American players call for a strong knowledge of regional “baseball lingo.” Over the years, Luis A. Torres has compiled a thorough glossary of Spanish regional terms. Examples: an “outfielder” is known as jardinero (gardener) in Venezuela, guardabosques (forest ranger) in Puerto Rico, and a patrullero (patrolman) in Mexico.

Although Yohei Fukuda (22) and Keiichi Yabu (37) are 15 years apart, age difference is not an issue in their relationship. “Yabu jokes around all the time. He’s young in his mind,”says Mr. Fukuda.

Of the 829 players on Major League Baseball’s 30 teams in 2005, 242, or about 30%, were born outside the United States. This is up from 23.6 percent in 2000.

Foreign athletes are also a growing force in the NBA, featuring players from 34 countries – hailing from such distant regions as China, Lithuania, and Argentina.

The author wishes to thank Luis Alberto Torres, Jane Yin, Yohei Fukuda, and Kristy Fick for their generous cooperation in contributing to this story