FOOTBALL IS COMING HOME TO DIE-HARD TRANSLATORS
By Luciano Monteiro
Football has been part of my life since my early years. My father is a former player and coach who has devoted his life to the study of football. So, before I had even been to school, I used to read his annotations on formations, line-ups, fixtures and the history of football. Like most kids in Brazil, I played soccer during my childhood and adolescence and cheered for my favourite club. However, my skills on the pitch were not really outstanding, and my street soccer afternoons were soon replaced by an early career in Journalism.
Prior to starting pursuing my university degree, I had worked as a freelance futsal reporter for a local newspaper. Already an undergraduate student, I was hired in 1996 by Grupo Editorial Sinos, one of the largest communications groups in southern Brazil, and I worked in a daily newspaper for almost two years. During that period, I spent several months writing for the sports pages, which included daily coverage of Rio Grande do Sul’s two biggest football clubs – Grêmio FBPA, club world champions in 1983, and SC Internacional, which were eventually crowned FIFA Club World Cup champions in 2006.
In 1998, I travelled to England to improve my English and I ended up studying and living there for almost one year. At that time, I created the habit of reading the sports pages of major newspapers such as The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent. I soon realised how unique the language of football is. Both in Portuguese and in English – as in most other languages, I suppose – you cannot become a good football writer unless you are an avid reader of football pages.
Even more challenging it is to be able to translate a match report or other football-related articles from one language into the other. You need to be able to fit into the shoes of the original writer and yet be creative enough to write a completely new article into the target language. A mere replacement of words will reveal your lack of knowledge in a matter of seconds. Bilingual glossaries, in addition, are hardly to be resorted to. You must be able to paint the source text by using the colours of the target language.
After coming back to Brazil, I combined my journalism activities with work as a teacher of English as a foreign language until finally settling as a translator, when I was able to think over the same issues that confronted me when I used to compare newspaper articles written in English and Portuguese a few years before. It did not take long until I entered the football market, which is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars and in which translations have become paramount given how global the game has become – and especially involving Brazilian Portuguese, since Brazil is arguably the world’s greatest exporter of footballers nowadays.
My first professional endeavours in football translations occurred through a translation company based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Over the course of three years, I have helped them with varied tasks for different end customers. Most usually, I have received assignments concerning communications between clubs, players, player agents and FIFA agencies. An ever increasing amount of written material goes back and forth every day between FIFA and representatives of associations, clubs and players. They usually deal with contracts which have been signed but not fully enforced, and with the corresponding penalty fees. Such documents usually need to be translated as an urgent matter to and from English – in my case, from English into Portuguese and vice versa.
Other tasks have arrived in my hands, such as short booklets on the basics of football to be used by physical education instructors, and small articles and comments for betting/gaming websites featuring matches involving Brazilian clubs. I have also helped at least two major Brazilian football clubs localise their websites into English by providing consultancy. The same clubs have also used my services to translate presentations and even feature films.
In late 2005, there came my biggest football-related job. Eight months before a major football competition in the following year, I was approached by a global translation company, currently one of the world’s Top 3, to participate in a huge project which consisted in the Brazilian Portuguese version of the competition’s official website.
The initial test was a small article that seemed straightforward at first, but which really served to differentiate translators who had acquired football knowledge in both languages and could switch between them, from those others who would just try to literally translate the original words into a target language without asking themselves whether they would ever read such output in a Brazilian newspaper. In fact, small fragments can usually tell the reader whether the translator does usually read the football pages on a daily basis or not. If the translator does not, he should certainly be doing other kinds of translations – there is room for everyone, as long as everyone does what they know.
One month after being successfully approved, I started assembling glossaries and helping in the selection of further translators to the team. At the same time, I translated literally hundreds of thousands of words in the run-up for the competition, including profiles for almost all the more than 500 players and coaches to take part in the tournament.
The project became bigger and bigger, and at one point there were several dozen translators for Brazilian Portuguese alone, most of which I didn’t know. By analysing the output produced by most of them, I could see the types of mistakes that make readers run away from translated websites. A reader looking for football news knows exactly what he wants to find out. He will not be satisfied by reading something that appears to be written by somebody who is not well acquainted with the subject.
Likewise, there is one peculiarity about football that does not necessarily apply to all subject matters. In IT, for instance, most of the current knowledge has been developed in the United States, and has therefore been named in English. Thus, every so often does a translator have to adapt or even create new terms in their language to translate the original meaning. Football, on the other hand, linguistically speaking, has developed separately in Brazil and in England. Therefore, different terms have appeared both in Portuguese (as spoken in Brazil) and in English. More than that, different phrases and idiomatic expressions have appeared describing the same thing.
Positions are a good example. In English, in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, a team’s defence includes two full-backs and two centre-backs. You could say that both Cafu and Roberto Carlos were Brazil’s full-backs in 2006. And they were. However, in Brazil, we need to know a little more about them. A full-back is either a “lateral-esquerdo” or a “lateral-direito”. If you say that Flamengo have signed a new “lateral”, you’ve given incomplete information – your reader wants to know whether he plays in the left or in the right side of the pitch.
Conversely, the word “winger” can hardly find a corresponding term nowadays in Brazil. This has probably to do with the change of the winger’s role over the years. In a typical WM formation, the winger would be what is sometimes called “ponta” or “ponteiro” in Brazil. However, since the demise of WM formations, the winger has gone back to play wide in the midfield, such as England’s David Beckham in 2006. In such case, he might be called a “meia” in Brazil. But not all “meias” will be wingers. On the other hand, some wingers, such as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, are considered “atacantes” (strikers) in Brazil. Therefore, the level of detail required to specify a player’s position will differ from language to language, and from position to position. Bottom line, you need to know who the footballer is in order to classify him in your target language. Your glossary won’t help you.
Given the mistakes made by translators who were not really prepared to work in such a field, the result of the localisation effort was not as good as expected. I believe that, for some of them, football was a simple matter that required little effort and could even be fun. Too bad for the majority of Brazilian readers, who surely preferred to follow the competition news by visiting local, non-translated websites.
In late 2007, I started working for a Scottish-based translation company in charge of a newly-launched football portal comprising the official websites of some of Brazil’s best players. My task includes rewriting articles originally written in English into Brazilian Portuguese. I am also helping evaluate other translators and assessing the possibility of creating a style guide. In this project, I am working with people who are not only journalists and translators, but who are also football fans and understand the intricacies of translating such material. Therefore, I have total freedom to rewrite the articles without changing their content.
Rewriting is necessary in many cases. First and foremost, the English media love to use puns in headlines. Nothing could be farther from the truth in Brazil, as such plays on words are usually considered of bad taste. Club names and even player names may differ. This is more visible in nicknames that are adopted in one language but are virtually unknown in the other. Any English reader knows who the Spurs, the Gunners and the Red Devils are, but a Brazilian reader won’t necessarily know that these names refer to Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively. “Inter”, for the average Brazilian, is a club from Porto Alegre. For the average English reader, there is just one Inter – the club from Milan, Italy.
This shows that football translators need to have comprehensive knowledge of football, the type of knowledge you will not ever achieve unless football is your main topic of interest, unless you are a die-hard fan. But, as I have heard so often, being a die-hard fan is just the beginning. You need to have all the other characteristics that make up a good translator – among them, outstanding passive command of the source language and impeccable writing skills in the target language.
Only such an individual will know upfront that he simply cannot ignore club names when translating a tournament’s fixtures, for instance. Supposing Liverpool play Red Star Belgrade for the UEFA Cup. Do you think a Serbian club would name themselves Red Star Belgrade? Of course not, their name is “Crvena Zvezda” (which incidentally means Red Star in Serbian). The English have translated the club’s name to make it more palatable, and it has become idiomatic. Likewise, in Brazil the club have been referred to as “Estrela Vermelha” for many decades, including when they won the European Champions Cup in the early nineties. But you wouldn’t know that unless you actually read all football news, including those about Yugoslavian teams.
Last but not least, there is no such thing as a correct translation. I’m sure you can find two equally knowledgeable football specialists and they will differ on how to translate a given term or on which role a given footballer plays on the pitch. However, they should eventually come to a compromise, as the objective should always be to bring meaningful, exciting and accurate information to readers all over the world. Football has become a lucrative booming industry over the years, and translations in the field have to be up to the standard.