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

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