Tag Archives: language

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.

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