Bridging the communication gap

Media: A lot can get lost in the translation trying to cover athletes from all over the world.

Athens 2004

August 27, 2004|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SCHINIAS, Greece - Moments after the final of a women's rowing event, English-speaking reporters vainly tried to get their questions across to the Romanian gold medalists.

Unfortunately for U.S. reporters, the translator reacted to every question in English with a puzzled look. Her English appeared limited to politely asking the journalists to repeat their questions.

The charade ended when a Romanian reporter who spoke more fluent English than the interpreter finally interjected. From her seat among the international media, the reporter from Romania relayed the questions to the rowers from her country.

As simple as it may seem, trying to get a post-game comment from an Olympic athlete can be a jarring and confusing experience, even for those jaded scribes who call each edition of their newspaper "The Daily Miracle."

"The athletes give answers in their own language for more than a minute and the translation last 10 seconds," said St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Vahe Gregorian. "There is no way to understand what they really mean."

There are three methods reporters employ to get the quotes from athletes that end up in newspaper game reports.

The first test in this journalistic triathlon is called "the mixed zone" in Olympic parlance. At every venue, organizers set aside a mixed zone, where reporters lean across a waist-high barrier to conduct interviews with Olympians as they head for the locker room.

The mixed zone inevitably becomes a mosh pit where reporters frantically fire questions at sweaty, breathless athletes in a babel of languages. There frequently are so many reporters that only a few can get near enough to the Olympians to hear their comments. After the customary elbowing and jostling, reporters sometimes confer and share notes.

Some athletes walk right through the mixed zone without stopping.

After the women's marathon ended Sunday, U.S. reporters reached into the mixed zone, shouting to American bronze medalist Deena Kastor. Kastor eagerly obliged them until anti-doping officials swooped in and pulled her out of the mixed zone for a drug test.

Hours later, at nearly 1 a.m. Athens time, U.S. Olympic Committee officials arranged for Kastor to address American reporters by calling a scratchy speakerphone at the Main Press Center from her cell phone.

Post-competition news conferences appear more civilized than mixed-zone interviews. In practice, language barriers sometimes render those sessions equally frustrating.

Translators sit next to the athletes at a table in the front of the news conference room. Many scribble on a notepad as they listen to athletes and look at their moving lips to better understand them. An Olympic volunteer takes a microphone to reporters who raise their hands.

The questions and answers usually are translated into English. Another translator does the honors in the language of the host nation. Depending on interest in the event, translators who speak other languages are provided also.

"There is no flow to the interviews," Gregorian said, because it takes too long to translate comments into so many tongues.

Nuance is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency at times.

The Greek-to-English translator at the weightlifting venue did not dare try to decipher the metaphors that Greek weightlifting star Pyrros Dimas sprinkled throughout his remarks.

Asked about doping scandals in his sport, Dimas replied in Greek: "When you are high up in the tree, it blows hard, so you have to hold on tightly." The translation to English rendered the remark into a dull observation that the most successful athletes should expect the closest scrutiny.

At a men's soccer game involving the Iraqi team this week, U.S. reporters struggled to understand the English translation of the coach's comments in Arabic. The English-to-Greek translator had the same problem and asked the Arabic-to-English translator to repeat himself several times.

"Please," the English-to-Greek translator implored. "I think [what the coach said in Arabic] is something important."

Reporters who cannot make it to a stadium can feast on "flash quotes" posted by organizers on a computer system. But the translated comments sound so stilted that some reporters question their usefulness.

"You hope [the quotes] accurately portray what the person just said," said Mark Woods, Olympic reporter for The Florida Times-Union. "The meaning can easily get lost in the translation."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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