Interpreting a live sports event.

March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Today sports play an important role in our world as entertainment and business. We are all aware of the enormous amount of money that events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer (football outside the United States) generate from advertisers and broadcasting rights.

In a globalized economy, thanks to modern telecommunications, people can follow and root for teams and athletes from every continent. This presents corporations, governments, and sports federations with the challenge of making the games and matches available to everyone, regardless of the language they speak.

The days when the only sports-related events requiring interpreting services were the meetings of the International Olympic Committee, or the conferences attended by FIFA executives are behind us. In this new reality people are watching England’s Premier League, Pay-Per-View world championship boxing, and the Super Bowl from every country in the world. World-class college athletes train and compete in countries where they were not born, and professional hockey and basketball players become stars in foreign countries.  These days all Major League Baseball teams are contractually obligated to provide interpreting services to their foreign-born players who do not speak English fluently, and interpreters living in the United States are getting used to reading ads from professional baseball teams looking for Spanish or Japanese interpreters to be a part of their staff for the entire season.

This time I will skip the description of the professional interpreting services provided by sports conference interpreters during a league or federation meeting where they will interpret for executives, government officials, and athlete’s representatives. I will not discuss the job of sports escort interpreters who accompany professional and amateur athletes for an entire season, acting also as their cultural advisors in everything from training camp to the clubhouse; and from traveling to the away games to opening a bank account, or assisting them during an interview with the media. I have touched on these services before and I plan to do it again in the future.

On this occasion we will talk about the job of the sports media interpreter during a live event.

As a big sports fan, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to interpret during the broadcast of boxing matches and team sports’ games and tournaments. There are quite a few of us who do this worldwide, but the proliferation of media outlets and the ever-growing public appetite for more sporting events has turned this interpreting field into a more than viable option for many more colleagues in the immediate and long term future.  For this reason, I decided to write about the many services provided by a sports media interpreter during the broadcast of events such as a UFC fight or a soccer game.

Basically, a sports media interpreter can provide professional services in different environments: Live at ringside during a boxing match; live on the basketball court during halftime; live for a quick interview from inside the cage after a mixed martial arts fight; or live before and after a baseball game during a press conference.

One of the most compelling jobs that an interpreter will ever have to perform is that of a ringside or cage-side interpreter for a boxing or mixed martial arts combat. Interpreters sit ringside or cage-side just like the sportscasters; they get a microphone and a headset, and interpret live for the radio or television broadcast the conversation between the fighter and their corner, as well as the encouragement and instructions from the trainer. The task is difficult as the interpreter needs to know sports terminology, idiomatic expressions, and has to be up-to-date on the most current events in the world of that particular sport. A break generally lasts sixty seconds and the broadcast splits the minute between the two corners; therefore, the interpreter has about thirty seconds to render the conversation simultaneously on a clear pleasant voice, but conveying the emotions experienced by those in the red or blue corner.  This must be done in the middle of a noisy arena where music is playing at the highest decibel levels, at the same time that a producer is whispering instructions into the interpreter’s ear through the headphones.

Finally, because these corner conversations are intimate talks between fighters and seconds, there are times when those who are having the conversation code-switch from one language to another (in my case English into Spanish and vice-versa) or use foul words, and even racial slurs.  Interpreters’ concentration is paramount as they have to stay on the target language regardless of the code-switch, and they must decide, according to their contractual obligations with the broadcasting company, or their professional judgement in lieu of the former, whether or not they will interpret the bad words. This has a lot to do with cultural and legal considerations. Audiences in different countries react different to foul language. Sometimes, depending on the network, interpreters have less room to maneuver on the field of profanity. Over-the-air stations usually ban this vocabulary while cable TV is more tolerant. Some countries have a brief time-delay of a few seconds before broadcasting a live event.

Racial slurs are universally left out of the interpretation as they add nothing to the sport-watching experience. The most important rule is to keep it accurate but coherent, informative, and brief. The interpreter never can go beyond the time allotted to the corner conversation. Sometimes there is a second interpreter of another language pair waiting for you to finish so they can start their thirty seconds from the opponent’s corner and you cannot eat up part of their time.  Sometimes it is even more complicated as you have to interpret both corners dedicating thirty seconds to each fighter.

Sports media interpreters also provide their professional services for brief one-on-one interviews with a sports broadcaster. They usually happen at the end of a game or bout, during the halftime of a team sport’s game like football, soccer, or basketball, or in between periods in a hockey match. In boxing and mixed martial arts they take place in the cage or ring, and for the other sports the interview can be on the field, court, or right outside the locker room.

Unless you are working in the clubhouse, these interpreting assignments are performed in a very noisy environment and without a headset which makes it difficult to hear the interviewer’s questions and the athlete’s answers. Because they are extremely short, generally about ten to thirty seconds, the one or two questions by the sportscaster (with the second being a follow-up question many times) are interpreted simultaneously by whispering into the athlete’s ear, and the answers are interpreted consecutively speaking into the microphone held by the interviewer.

All rules above apply to this interpreting situation as the limitations are similar, but there is one unique situation that often arises during these interviews, especially the ones that take place after the game or fight: Regardless of the question they are asked, many athletes start by thanking or acknowledging a higher power, and they end the interview by greeting certain people in their staff, their hometown, or any other group they identify with. Because of time constraints, the interpreter should limit the rendition to the subject matter, leaving out these statements and greetings. Air time is very expensive and the audience has a short attention span.

There are times when TV networks do interviews that are slightly longer right after the fight or game. They do them at a TV set built under the seats of the arena or stadium. Usually, these short interviews take place before the athletes get to the locker room and they last about two to three minutes. For these interviews, the interpreter generally appears on camera between the sportscaster and the athlete and does an abbreviated consecutive rendition of both, question and answer. In this situations, interpreters are given the question ahead of time so they have a chance to figure out how to shorten it by going straight for the main topic at issue. Again, answers are kept to the essential, and the interpreter must look professional and sound pleasant. Interpreters speak into a microphone held by the sportscaster and usually go to the makeup chair before appearing on camera. As you see, to perform these unique tasks interpreters who do this type of work must have deep knowledge of the sport in question, have vast knowledge of the athlete’s career, and need to be up-to-date on everything that is going on in that particular sport. You must keep in mind that there are many in the TV and radio audience who know everything there is to know about the sport. I hope this explains why sometimes some interpreters who are not familiar with this type of work unjustly criticize sports media interpreters’ performance with remarks about everything that was “left out” of a question or an answer. Now you know the true story of the “he didn’t say that” or “that is not what they asked”.

Another common professional service in the world of sports media interpreting are press conferences. Like all similar events interpreted by conference interpreters, sometimes the question is interpreted simultaneously from a booth, and on occasion the rendition is consecutive. Answers are generally interpreted on the consecutive mode, and rarely rendered simultaneously.  When the interpreters are not in a booth, they sit away from the TV cameras at a table with microphones and headsets. Here the interpretation is just like at any other press conference.

In individual professional sports there is usually one press conference on the day before the event and a second one right after the match. For team sports there is usually one before and another one after the game. These team sports’ conferences are attended by the coach of the team and some of the most distinguished players during the game. Before the game the visiting team goes first, followed by the home coach and players. After the game the winning team goes last. Unlike the other interpreting services described above, press conferences are interpreted by teams of two or three interpreters, and unlike most other press conferences in the world, sports press conferences often take place in the wee hours of the night (often spilling over into the next day).

Every day we see more TV stations emerging all over the place; most of them are local in coverage, and because local sports coverage is relatively inexpensive compared to producing TV series or movies, and due to the popularity of sports, especially local teams and athletes, there will be more broadcasts of regional tournaments everywhere. This reality, paired with globalization, which brings to your hometown athletes from other latitudes who many times do not speak the local language, will continue to build up the demand for sports media interpreters all over. I immediately think of the hundreds of professional minor league farm teams in the United States for example.

I hope you will find this brief description of the profession useful when deciding whether or not to apply for one of these jobs. I now ask you to share your thoughts and experiences as sports media interpreters.

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§ One Response to Interpreting a live sports event.

  • Sasha Spencer says:

    A great article, as always. I wondered why questions often seemed cut very short in the interpreted version of the interview. Now I know.
    I think there is a lot to learn from the language programs sports team have in place.
    I was very impressed with the language program of the LA Dodgers. Last year they covered it in their Dodger Insider magazine. Not only do they have interpreters for their non-English-speaking players (Japanese, Korean, and Spanish), they also have English classes for non-English-speaking team members, and Spanish language classes for English speakers. The program offers much more than just a language: it includes cultural awareness and covers their teams in all leagues.

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