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