The Tower of Ryan Babel: Football, Language, and Translation

The Tower of Babel.In the global bazaar of contemporary football, in which a top-flight team is apt to have a Paraguayan striker, twin Hungarian left-backs, and a goalkeeper who was downloaded directly from the Internet (“JENS LEHMANN: Avg user rating: 3.2 stars. Estimated time to download: ~3 min. Note: This program has not been tested for malware. Please exercise caution when running this executable.”) one of the most puzzling questions is how we manage to communicate at all.

When an average club contains players with seven or eight different native languages, has a manager who speaks a ninth, and is tracked by media from 65 countries and by fans from every corner of the globe, how do we avoid a complete breakdown of meaning? What’s keeping us from endlessly replicating all those old stories about Tokyo hotels with signs reading, “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid,” or Hong Kong dry cleaners that urged gentlemen to “drop your trousers here for best results”?

Players, obviously, have been transformed by necessity into highly sophisticated linguists, and have learned to communicate with one another in a complex and little-understood patois of English, Romance languages, and Playstation. In addition, many of their interactions now take place via text message, and “pwn,” unlike love, is the same in any language. Their dealings with the media are eased by the services of the same professional translators who never seem to be at hand when I order in a Thai restaurant, and also by the fact that 90% of the questions they’re asked are so stupefyingly dull and repetitive that to give them serious thought would be beneath the dignity of a parrot. (Witness: Steven Gerrard responding to Japanese reporters at the 2005 Club World Cup.) Unlike love, soul-destroying ennui is the same in any language.

It’s the translators, really, who have it tough—we rely on them in a thousand different ways, but never think about them until one of them makes a mistake. There was a great piece about this in the Guardian yesterday by Sid Lowe, who was Michael Owen’s translator at Real Madrid and who once inadvertently told the assembled Spanish press corps that Owen was gay.

Spring 2005. A packed pressroom at Real Madrid. Asked what he thought of Lampard, Owen expressed his admiration: his form was spectacular, he was playing superbly … he was, in short, brilliant. I scribbled at my pad and then began reeling off the answer, getting carried away. “Lampard,” I – the voice of Michael Owen – declared, “está buenísimo.”

In the momentary pause between uttering the words and the place falling about, I already knew what I had done. Journalists were rolling in the aisles. Michael shot me a look. “What have you said?”

“Well, you see, there are two forms of ‘to be’ in Spanish,” I squirmed, “and, erm, by using the wrong one, I’ve basically just said you’d like to sleep with Frank Lampard.” Michael started to giggle, wagged his finger and insisted: “No, no, Lampard no está buenísimo.”

But barring the occasional contretemps, the army of translators working on football matters seems to do extremely well, and the comment that leaves the mouth of the Cameroonian striker in Spain seems to reach the eye of the internet surfer in Iowa relatively unscathed, despite passing through a transformation into printed text, three separate languages, and seven different publications along the way.

Lost in translation

Still, there are mountains of words in football, literally millions of words being generated every day, and if you could see every place where football was being written about as a string of lights in space, large parts of the globe would appear to be always on fire. It’s an appealing thought that somewhere in all this flurry, all sorts of strange and incredible meanings are being added to football commentary, and intentions vanishing from it, so that what reaches us is always an eccentric reflection of the story as it really takes place.

And sometimes, as the mountains of words pile up, there’s a strange relief to be found in escaping them altogether. I can’t be the only fan who’s found an unexpected pleasure in watching matches in which I can’t understand the presenters. After a day of watching the Premier League, switching over to La Liga can feel like the sudden lifting of a burden; you don’t have to swim against the current of the announcers’ interpretations, you don’t have to contend with them as a dimension of the game, you can just watch and go with the flow. Sometimes the easiest way to understand football is not to understand at all.

Brian Phillips is speaking English very loudly and slowly at The Run of Play.

Photo credits: Jeff.; Neubie; wich

8 thoughts on “The Tower of Ryan Babel: Football, Language, and Translation

  1. Brian

    A good way to overcome the language barrier in a squad is to sign a player like Bolo Zenden, who speaks a plethora of dialects. I honestly think having players of a side like Liverpool taking either Spanish or English comprehension courses, depending on what their primary language is, would be beneficial in more than just communication issues. It would also keep the cogs from in their brains from getting rusty, so to speak.

  2. Alejandro Ruiz

    “After a day of watching the Premier League, switching over to La Liga can feel like the sudden lifting of a burden; you don’t have to swim against the current of the announcers’ interpretations, you don’t have to contend with them as a dimension of the game, you can just watch and go with the flow. Sometimes the easiest way to understand football is not to understand at all.”

    Unless…you speak spanish fluently.
    I have to turn to the Bundesliga for the same kick.

  3. Em

    Apparently Xabi Alonso listened to BBC English-language tapes when he first arrived in Liverpool to acclimate himself to the language. Then again, he’s sort of a literati type, isn’t he! Also plays chess with Carragher — another sort of “language,” I suppose. And of course, football itself is a language. To be able to communicate out loud with one another helps, but if the on-pitch understanding is there, what’s to say the players haven’t already succeeded?

    About the commentary — I agree completely, but it’s difficult, because I’ve watched enough La Liga to get the gist of most of what they’re saying, plus I’m fluent in Chinese, so unfortunately, there’s not much left for me, unless I were to develop a sudden interest in Serie A. Which will never happen. Le sigh!

  4. roswitha


    You elucidate in clear and confident terms exactly why I have taken to reading La Gazzetta dello Sport of a morning without the benefit of translation. The saying goes that anything said in Latin will sound profound; for me, the best way to keep up my admiration of Italian football and its practitioners is to admire how very well they acquit themselves in a language I don’t understand. To coin a phrase, tutto ciò che ha detto in italiano è profonda.

    [Perhaps I have really coined a phrase, since I ran that through the Googlish machine.]

  5. Brian

    Other Brian — I agree, and how weird/neat/funny is it that we’ve reached a point at which language skills are tradeable assets in football? “Can he dribble?” “No, but he speaks Walloon.” “Sign him.”

    Alejandro & Em — This is where I’m grateful for my inadequate education. Anything beyond standard English reduces me to childish incomprehension. Although sadly, Em, Jamie Carragher could probably take me apart in a game of chess.

    Roswitha — My reading knowledge of Googlish is just advanced enough for me to say that I know what you mean. When it comes to football journalism, I think the talking dog in Cervantes was onto something when he said that there are some who are no less fools for knowing Latin. But it certainly does sound profonda.

  6. SpanglyPrincess

    Roswitha… apart from the absent subject in your sentence, googlish has done just fine ;-)

    In Italian many football terms are directly pinched from English – il dribbling, for instance, which can also be turned into a verb and then conjugated normally – sta dribblando, ha dribblato.

  7. Linda

    I suppose this is one reason so many continental coaches are multi-lingual these days.

    And another thing – club squads seem to divide themselves socially along language lines, as well.

  8. Pacman

    I don’t think it is so much whether or not the players speak Spanish, Italian, Norwegian or Martian at the end of the day, football is a universal game and the language is universal also.
    I’ve played alongside players who could not communicate in English at all yet almost instantly we would be singing from the same songsheet and understand each others play perfectly when it came to footie.