07 Jun, 2018

Strikers and top scorers: The work of conference interpreters during the World Cup

07 Jun, 2018

The 2018 World Cup will kick off on June 14 in Moscow with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. On that same day, a more discreet team of talented stars will also take the field—albeit a smaller one, formed by four soundproof walls, with no turf or goal posts. This team is composed of conference interpreters, the people who are responsible for translating the press conferences and other official meetings of the tournament.

The work of translators at the World Cup has more in common with football than one might think. In today’s highly globalized soccer, players have become familiar with the presence of interpreters. “The increasing media exposure of this sport has led to a growing number of press conferences involving players and coaches with limited proficiency in the language of the country where they play. As a result, there is a niche market for interpreters in professional football,” writes Annalisa Sandrelli, a professor of conference interpreting at the University of International Studies of Rome, in a scientific paper on the subject. During the World Cup, this niche reaches its peak: more translators than never will be speaking the language of football.

Next, we will explain a bit more about this fascinating ‘sport’ called interpreting and how it is used during the World Cup.

Practice and training: Just like the players of national teams, the interpreters responsible for the official simultaneous translation of the World Cup begin preparing long before the starting whistle. First, the professional interpreters who will work during the World Cup must be chosen (see “The National Team,” next). Once the squad is assembled, FIFA’s Language Service—the department that works out of the organization’s headquarters in Zurich—will distribute a series of texts, documents and glossaries to the interpreters: it’s the study phase. The translators read the material, master the terminology specific to football and the World Cup, watch videos from previous competitions and become familiar with the participating national teams. For the interpreters there are also, let’s say, ‘friendlies,’ used to prepare the team for the real event. “Events such as the Final Draw, the Team Workshop in Sochi in February 2018 and the Confederations Cup are stages for interpreters to rehearse. They were a good opportunity to gather experience on-site on how to collaborate with our Russian counterparts. The interpreters know what to expect,” explains Estelle Valensuela, manager of FIFA’s Interpreting Coordination Unit, in an exclusive interview for VOX’s blog Outras Palavras.

The National Team: Alisson. Ederson. Cássio. Danilo. Fagner. Marcelo. Filipe Luís. Miranda. Marquinhos. Thiago Silva. Geromel. Casemiro. Fernandinho. Paulinho. Renato Augusto. Fred. Philippe Coutinho. Willian. Neymar. Douglas Costa. Gabriel Jesus. Roberto Firmino. Taison.

The players named above, selected by Brazilian team coach Tite, have already become celebrities. This list was the object of great expectation—and speculation. Who would be left out so that Neymar could be included, after recovering from a broken bone in his foot and scoring a spectacular goal in the friendly against Croatia: Fernandinho or Willian? Selecting a team of interpreters for the World Cup is an important and complex task, and must take into account different criteria. “We look for professionals with a diploma in interpreting and significant booth experience. They should show interest in sport, football, and have a very good general knowledge,” Estelle explains. This is because, during a post-match interview, players and coaches may discuss off-sides, thigh injuries, a controversial penalty—or passages from the Bible that are traditionally read before matches, political events in their home countries, a film they saw at the cinema and thought inspiring… Translators have to be ready for anything: they have to be both specialists and generalists. “Flexibility, commitment, open-mindedness are also important assets for this kind of event,” concludes the FIFA linguist. Whether the interpreter is at the World Cup or anywhere else, we at VOX would add.

To assemble this winning team, the interpreters are hired months before the competition. Although there are many translators around, the field of potential candidates thins out when you consider all the requirements cited above—plus the need to find the combination of languages required for each occasion, depending on the countries involved (see below “Formation and Tactics”). “Good interpreters are generally very busy and in demand. That is why it is necessary to secure their services in advance, to ensure that they are available for the entire period of the World Cup,” Estelle adds.

Formation and Tactics: 4-4-2? 4-1-4-1? 4-2-3-1?

Well, the tactical formation of interpreters is not exactly like the distribution of players on the field. Above all, one must take into consideration their working languages. FIFA has four official languages: English, German, French and Spanish. In addition, the World Cup brings together national teams who speak Portuguese, Arabic, Danish, Korean, Polish, Japanese, and so on.

A practical example: in the group phase, Brazil will face Serbia (at 3 pm Brasília time on June 27 if you don’t want to miss it). After the game, as always, the two teams will participate in press conferences. These conversations are usually translated into FIFA’s four official languages—which, with Portuguese and Serbian, already total six languages. Add Russian, spoken in the host country, and there are seven languages in play. To harmonize this linguistic mix, the relay method is used: The Serbian player speaks in his mother tongue (language 1); an interpreter translates Serbian into English (language 2); in the adjacent booth, another interpreter listens to this English version (language 2) and translates it into Portuguese (language 3). It is a type of linguistic relay race—hence the name—in which the content is translated from one language to another, from the player to the interpreter and then to another interpreter, like a baton. It may seem confusing, but it works.

The Coaching Staff: The interpreters also find comparable figures in the coach Tite, fitness coach Ricardo Rosa and assistant coach Matheus Bacchi. Estelle Valensuela, for example, is a member of the team of coordinators. The main function of this small group of interpreters is not translation per se, but rather directing the team of linguists: determining the pairs that will work at each event and each combination of languages; distributing glossaries, texts, scheduling times and locations; ensuring that technical conditions meet the needs of interpreters (booth size, equipment used, sound quality, etc.). In Russia, this means conducting an orchestra of almost 50 linguists, working in 16 languages.

As was the case in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014), the simultaneous translation of the events in Russia will not be done in situ, but rather from a Remote Interpreting Center (RIC). For each of these World Cups the centers were located, respectively, in Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and now Moscow. The press conferences are transmitted via satellite to the RIC, where the interpreters work inside conventional soundproof booths, in front of TV monitors that show the people who are speaking and must be translated. “Those technical aspects are important for interpreters, as they have to see the people talking and their gestures. This will help translators do the best job they can,” says Estelle. The audio of the translation is then sent back to the city where the press conference is being held, so that the journalists present can follow along, and also for the TV channels that are broadcasting the interview.

This system of remote interpreting has advantages and disadvantages, as explains Andrey Moiseev, director of the Department of Languages of the Local Organizing Committee in Russia: “there can be a delay of some seconds in the audio of the translation, but this problem is offset by the practicality of having all the interpreters in the same place.” In other words: instead of having teams of translators traveling around a country of continental proportions like Russia (which would present logistical challenges), interpretation via satellite allows the same pair of interpreters to translate up to three press conferences in a single day.

Right: so now you can grab your vuvuzela, cross your fingers and root for your team, resting assured that everyone will understand each other, on and off the stadium.