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 www.supralingua.com. 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

www.olympic.org Official site of the Olympic Movement (English, French)

www.torino2006.org Official site of the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy (English, French, Italian)

http://en.beijing-2008.org Official site of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, China (English, French, Mandarin)

www.aiic.net International Association of Conference Interpreters, Geneva, Switzerland (English, French and selected content in additional languages)

www.miis.edu Monterey Institute of International Studies, California

www.lsiusa.net Language Services International, Inc., Hawaii

www.agnew.com Agnew Tech-II, Westlake Village, California

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