Barmy Bielsa: The Tale of Two Interpreters
My interest in the current Leeds United boss was first aroused upon his arrival at the club, which coincided with my moving to Leeds for my MA in Translation Studies. Following 14 consecutive seasons in the football league, Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival instilled hope among Leeds supporters, who believed that he could well be the man to take the club back to the Premier League. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about this man before he came to English football, but I learnt everything I needed to know from watching his press conferences and his team’s high-intensity, attacking football.
As my beloved West Bromwich Albion had just been relegated to the Championship after eight consecutive seasons in the top flight, I kept a closer eye than usual on the second tier during that season, and, as a new resident of Leeds, the boys in white almost became my third team after the Baggies and my hometown club: Walsall. When I watched Leeds tear us apart in the away end at Elland Road that season, I knew that something special was about to happen in West Yorkshire.
As a professional linguist, though, I have been particularly interested in Bielsa’s press conferences and pre- and post-match interviews, which he still gives in his native language: Spanish. As Patrick Bamford – Leeds’ top scorer – pointed out during an interview with Astro Supersports’ Adam Carruthers, this is because Bielsa is so respectful that he’s scared of saying something incorrectly, despite understanding English reasonably well.
The Argentine has mainly worked with two different interpreters during his time at Leeds, and it is clear that his current interpreter is better than his predecessor. I will discuss my analysis of Bielsa’s press conferences and interviews with his two main interpreters – Salim Lamrani and Andrés Clavijo – later, but I want to tell you a bit more about the current Leeds United head coach first.
Who is Marcelo Bielsa?
Born in Rosario, Argentina, and nicknamed “El Loco” (“The Madman”), Marcelo Bielsa soon learnt that he had a predilection and talent for coaching. Following a five-year playing career in his homeland, he retired at the age of 25 to take up coaching. He started out as an academy coach at his boyhood club, Newell’s Old Boys, before managing the senior team, which he led to several league titles. He then managed a few more teams in South America, before joining Espanyol in 1998. However, he parted ways with the Barcelona-based club shortly after when the Argentinian Football Federation asked him to manage the national team — an offer he couldn’t refuse, as a passionate Argentine. Despite proudly leading his country to the Copa América Final and Olympic gold in 2004, he left his role shortly after achieving the latter, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he found his next project: the Chilean national team. Four years later, he joined the Spanish side Athletic Bilbao, leading them to the Europa League final, following several impressive victories, including a 5-3 aggregate victory over Manchester United in the last 16, as well as the Copa del Rey final, which they lost to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. He then took the reins at Marseille, Lille and Lazio, leaving the latter after just two days, following a disagreement with the Italian club’s owners. Nevertheless, his current project has arguably been his most successful to date, having taken Leeds United back to the Premier League within two seasons, following a 16-year absence.
Although he is often branded the “nearly man,” since many of his teams have fallen at the final hurdle, including Leeds after their defeat to Derby Country in the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final in 2019, and despite not being as highly decorated as some of the managers held in the same regard, he is often considered one of the greatest managers of all time.
He is lauded for his attention to detail and meticulousness in his pre-match preparation, paying close attention to sprint distance and putting his players through high-intensity training sessions, according to current Leeds striker Patrick Bamford. In fact, the clinical finisher told Adam Carruthers during the interview mentioned above that Bielsa will even go mad at his staff if a cone is placed just several centimetres out of position for a training drill. Perfection is key for the Argentine, who Spanish international Rodrigo dubbed a “scientist” during his interview with former Leeds defender Rio Ferdinand for BT Sport.
Following the “Spygate” scandal, when Bielsa sent a member of his coaching staff to Derby County’s training ground to spy on Frank Lampard’s side several days before their Championship encounter, Bielsa shed light on his analysis of his opponents, showing journalists how he divides games into five-minute segments based on various categories, including “situación” (“good chance,” that is, an opportunity from which he would expect his team to score) and aproximación (half-chance, that is, an instance of decent approach play without an end product, according to Bielsa). His perfectionism was also pointed out by current Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola, who told Sky Sports that Marcelo Bielsa is the best prepared manager he has ever met and that his teams’ work ethic is incomparable. Fellow Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino, also spoke to the British sports channel about his time at Newell’s Old Boys, when Bielsa asked his players to watch videos of other teams’ games after training and to report their findings the following day.
I could dedicate this entire post solely to Bielsa’s career as a manager, if I really wanted to, but let’s get down to my main focus: the quality of his interpreters during his time in West Yorkshire.
Bielsa’s First Interpreter at Leeds United: Salim Lamrani
Having worked with Bielsa since his time at Lille, Salim Lamrani had interpreted for the Argentine at two different clubs. However, he’s not a football man, he isn’t a native speaker of English or Spanish, and he’s not even a professional interpreter. He is in fact an academic. Yes, an academic!
A former French journalist and lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV University, Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University and University of La Réunion, specialising in the relationship between the USA and Cuba, Salim Lamrani has to be one of most over-qualified individuals to have ever worked in the game. He’s a fervent supporter of Fidel Castro, in particular, having paid tribute to him in his latest publication, Fidel Castro, héros des déshérités [Heroes of the underprivileged] (Estrella, 2016), and is renowned for the round table discussion that he held in 2005, entitled “Un demi-siècle de terrorisme états-unien contre Cuba” [Half a century of US terrorist attacks against Cuba].
So, how on earth did he end up interpreting for one of the world’s greatest ever football managers?
Bielsa met Lamrani during a family visit to South America, while the French academic was carrying out research for his latest publication. Lamrani had already dedicated several articles to the Argentinian coach, which have all been published on the website Palestine Solidarité (the links can be found at the end of this post), focusing primarily on his intellectual approach towards the beautiful game. One of these articles features quotes from 14 different players who played under El Loco, all of which sing his praises. After reading these tributes, Bielsa turned to Lamrani to interpret his press conferences and pre- and post-match interviews. According to Romian Laplanche, the author of Marcelo Bielsa’s autobiography, Le Mystère Bielsa, Solar, 2017, “It’s not surprising that he has called on him [Salim Lamrani]. Bielsa speaks in a very precise and controlled manner, he is cultured and he has an idiosyncratic rhetoric. I believe that he wants his rhetoric to be respected. When Bielsa is speaking to the press, he is speaking to the supporters [of Lille] via the media, so he wants everything to be clear. He doesn’t want his discourse to be misinterpreted.” [My translation from French.]
So, let’s find out how well the Cubaphile adapted to his new role as a football interpreter.
Lamrani’s faux pas
I imagine that the alarm bells have already started ringing for some of you, since he’s a non-native English speaker with no real football knowledge or prior professional experience in interpreting, but these bells will be making an absolute racket if you watch the unconventional approach he took towards Bielsa’s first post-match interview at Leeds United, following their 3-1 victory over Stoke City (link at the end). Despite all of this, I found in my analysis that he mostly did a very good job, especially considering he was interpreting between two foreign languages. Nevertheless, I have identified many mistakes in his work that you would not expect to be made by a professional interpreter or a native-English speaker, which are not entirely his fault, of course. Some of these errors are easily noticeable, mainly the incorrect choice of verbs and adjectives, due to literal translations of the Spanish discourse. As a Spanish speaker, I can just about understand what the interpreter means when he does this, but for English natives as a whole, whose overall knowledge of foreign languages is extremely poor, a perfect interpretation is required to avoid any potential misunderstandings. This is particularly important with regard to football, which continues to be a predominantly working-class sport, so even fans’ understanding of their native language needs to be taken into account.
Here are some examples of Lamrani's faux pas:
*The links to all the videos that I have analysed for this blog post can be found at the end.
1) Just after being asked about a handball during his side’s game against Nottingham Forest:
Bielsa: “Fue conmovedor el esfuerzo del equipo.”
Lamrani: “The effort that the team did was moving.”
“Put in” would sound more natural than “did” here, but the main issue is that Lamrani has translated the adjective “conmovedor” literally as “moving.” “Moving” is mainly used in English to refer to something that stirs emotions, but Bielsa is talking about how his team kept battling hard throughout the game, so the right word is “inspiring.”
The following examples have all been taken from Bielsa’s pre-match press conference on 29/11/2019 before Leeds’ Championship game against Sheffield United:
2) When asked about whether he felt Swedish centre-back Pontus Jansson was capable of playing at the highest level:
Bielsa: “Lo único que me hace dudar de mis conclusiones es que no esté jugando en el más alto nivel.”
Lamrani: “The only thing that makes me doubt by my conclusions is the fact that he’s not playing at the highest level.”
The preposition “by” is used incorrectly – in fact, needlessly – in this sentence, but the main issue here is the literal translation of “conclusiones” as “conclusions.” In this sense, “conclusiones” refers to what Bielsa thinks about what he’s seen from Jansson, rather than, say, his conclusions from a detailed report on the defender. In my opinion, “judgement” fits much better, emphasising the fact that what Bielsa really means is that, based on what he’s seen of Jansson playing in the Championship – the second division – he can’t say for certain whether he will cut the mustard in the Premier League — the first division.
3) When asked about the derby between Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario:
Bielsa: “Puedo decirle que el partido Newell’s – el clásico de Newell’s-Rosario – es irrepetible.”
Lamrani: “I can say that the derby in Rosario is something very special — you can’t compare it to anyone.”
This error could well be explained by a lapse in concentration, but saying “anyone” here is a serious mistake, since the derby is being compared to other fixtures, not a person. A native speaker would most likely have said something like “The Newell’s-Rosario derby is like no other (derby).”
4) When asked about Ezgjan Alioski’s attempt to win a penalty through simulation:
Bielsa: “Si bien no condeno eso, personalmente, no lo elogio.”
Lamrani: “Even if I don’t condemn it, from a personal point of view, I wouldn’t award someone.”
“Si bien” can indeed mean “even if,” but only when stating a condition that that will not alter the outcome of a particular occurrence, whether it materialises or not (e.g. “Even if I leave the house ten minutes earlier, I’ll still be late for work.”) Thus, in this case, “although,” “even though,” or “while” would have been a better translation of “si bien.” Likewise “elogio” does not mean “award,” in this case, since that would imply that Alioski would potentially receive something material in exchange for diving to win a penalty. What Bielsa really means is that he doesn’t “praise” players for diving. These are slight nuances, I know, but they could lead to Bielsa’s thoughts being slightly misrepresented.
5) Still referring to simulation:
Bielsa: “Porque en el proceso formativo espontáneo y natural, hay una condena intima personal de engaño.”
Lamrani: “Because in the formation process, when they go through the formation, there is no personal and intimate sanction of the cheating.”
This is not a criticism of the interpreter, but this sentence is extremely difficult to understand because of how unnatural it sounds in English. Firstly, just like many French and Spanish natives when speaking English, Salim has translated “formativo” literally as “formative/formation.” However, “el proceso formativo espontáneo y natural” refers here to the process through which players spontaneously and naturally develop, so “development/learning process” would be more suitable English alternatives. I would also reformulate the second sentence, opting instead for something along the lines of “players do not criticise/berate/punish themselves deep down for cheating.”
6) When asked about playing Kalvin Phillips at centre-back, instead of in his preferred holding-midfield position, and how well the England international had adapted to the roll:
Bielsa: “Pero es una cosa tomar decisiones cuando hay tres jugadores por detrás.”
Lamrani: “But one thing is to take a decision when you have three teammates behind you to cover.”
This is another common mistake made by French and Spanish natives when speaking in English. You “take” a decision in French (“prendre une decision”) and Spanish (“tomar una decisión”), but you “make a decision” in English. This is a minor detail, I know, but a (near-)native speaker would never make a mistake like this.
7) Talking about how performance levels and intensity change throughout a game:
Bielsa: “Esos juegos que tienen bajas y subidas en el parque de diversión.”
Lamrani: “You see in the attraction parks, these games where you go up and down.”
Even though Bielsa’s Spanish was all over the place, in this case, in terms of the sentence structure and word order, given the context (he even waves his fingers to represent a rollercoaster motion), he quite clearly meant that football games are like rollercoasters at a theme park, in the sense that there are many ups and downs during the game in performance levels and intensity. Therefore, the unnatural, literal translation lost this nuance, which would have been captured by a native-speaking interpreter with an in-depth knowledge of the game. English speakers would also struggle to understand “attraction” parks, since attraction is a general term used in English, with the context of tourism, to refer to museums, stadium tours, river cruises, etc. It was only because I knew that “parque de atracciones” is another Spanish word for theme park that I was able to work this out.
Andrés Clavijo: Bielsa’s New Interpreter
Although Lamrani was a good football interpreter, overall, I have noticed a marked improvement in the quality of the interpreting at Leeds United since the club has been back in the top flight. This is thanks to one man: Andrés Clavijo. I assumed that he was a native English speaker, given his perfect South-Eastern English accent and how natural his English sounds, in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar, but he’s actually Colombian. Upon making this discovery, I thought that I had lost my original argument, namely that native speakers can convey the interlocutor’s (speaker’s) message more effectively than non-natives. However, after a bit of thought, I realised that many interpreters interpret both into and out of their native languages, especially if they’re truly bilingual, so Andrés’ near native proficiency in English has enabled me to make an equally convincing argument.
So, who is he?
The Colombian has lived in the UK for 11 years, where he graduated in Sports and Exercise Science from St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He has since worked as a football analyst and coach, plying his trade at Queens Park Rangers and Leeds United, as well as at several specialist football companies such as Football Radar Ltd. He continues to serve as an analyst at Leeds United, but he also acts as Bielsa’s interpreter during interviews and press conferences. Thus, as well as his near-native proficiency in English, he also brings an in-depth understanding of the game to the table, unlike his predecessor, Salim Lamrani. So, despite not being a professional interpreter either, he is clearly more suited to the role than the Cubaphile.
Accurate Terminology, Phrasing and Word Choices:
I would like to reiterate once again that I am not openly criticising Salim Lamrani for his faux pas, which you would usually expect from a non-native speaker and non-professional. However, during my analysis, it was clear that, for the reasons mentioned above, Andrés Clavijo has not been making the same types of mistakes as Lamrani while interpreting Bielsa’s discourse. Here are some examples of Andrés high-quality interpreting work:
1) During Bielsa’s post-match interview following the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day of the Premier League season:
Bielsa: “Nosotros recibimos cuatro goles.”
Clavijo: “We conceded four goals.”
Somebody with little knowledge of the game could have easily translated “recibimos” literally as “received,” especially on the spur of the moment. However, Clavijo’s understanding of the game, coupled with his knowledge of English, meant that he correctly chose “conceded.”
2) During the pre-match press conference before the same game, when asked about whether he had activated his one-year contract extension:
Bielsa: “Es definitivo!”
Clavijo: “Everything’s been sorted!”
A literal translation in English (“It’s definitive!”) would have been comprehensible, but Clavijo’s interpretation is perfect. In fact, I can’t think of a more natural way in to convey the same idea in English.
3) When asked about Kalvin Phillips making his England debut during the same press conference:
Bielsa: “Estoy muy contento de que haya podido debutar de manera tan rápida en la selección inglesa.”
Clavijo: “I am very happy that he was able to make his debut so quickly for the English national team.”
This is excellent interpreting. Firstly, Clavijo has avoid translating “debutar” as “to debut,” instead opting for the commonly used English phrase “make his debut.” Secondly, he has avoided another common pitfall by translating “de manera tan rápida” as “so quickly,” since many Spanish natives would often render this as “in such a quick way,” due to being preoccupied by the word “manera.” Lastly, someone without knowledge of the game could easily have translated “la selección inglesa” as “the English selection/choice.” However, Clavijo knows for well that “la selección” means “national team,” within the context of football.
4) When asked about whether the signings of Robin Koch and Rodrigo would be enough to see Leeds compete in the Premier League, without further reinforcements, during the same press conference:
Bielsa: “Si se produjera alguna otra incorporación, lo comentaríamos.”
Clavijo: “If there’s going to be any new signings we will let you know in due course.”
Someone with very little knowledge of the game could easily have translated “incorporación” as “incorporation/integration,” for example. However, Clavijo’s knowledge led him to realise that “incorporación” was used a synonym for the word “fichaje” (signing).
5) When asked about what he feared most about Liverpool, during the same press conference:
Bielsa: “Es un campeón justo con un juego consistente y regular.”
Clavijo: “They deserved to be champions and they have a consistent style of play.”
“Juego” is most commonly translated as “game” in English, but that doesn’t fit the context here, especially because Spanish speakers use the word “partido” to refer to a football match. Bielsa is actually discussing Liverpool’s high-intensity pressing and attacking football in this part of the interview, so “style of play” renders this idea perfectly in English.
6) When asked about whether new signings Robin Koch and Rodrigo were fit enough to play, during the same press conference:
Bielsa: “Sí, están físicamente en muy buen nivel.”
Clavijo: “They’re in very good physical condition.”
Translating “nivel” as “level” would not have been incorrect, in this case, since, in relation to fitness, the word “level” is usually used when comparing players or talking about the team’s fitness as a whole. However, the phrase “physical condition” perfectly conveys the nuance in what Bielsa is saying, i.e., both players are up to match fitness and ready to play, rather than simply having a very good level of fitness.
7) When discussing the previous game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, when Leeds United’s approach play didn’t materialise into clear-cut chances or goals, during his pre-match press conference before Leeds’ home game against Southampton:
Bielsa: “Deberíamos creado dos o tres opciones más del producto del juego laboral.”
Clavijo: “What we needed in this game was to create a few more chances in this manner through some combination play in attack.”
This is an excellent example of subject knowledge facilitating an accurate interpretation. “Opciones” could easily have been translated as “options,” but, within the context of football, the term “options” usually refers to the different types of players available to a manager who play in a specific position, particularly attacking positions, and who can bring something different to the team, while “chances” refers to goalscoring opportunities, to which Bielsa is clearly alluding here. Moreover, “juego laboral” (literally “work/working game”) is tricky to translate, but thanks to Clavijo’s understanding of the game and how Leeds played at Molineux that evening, he realised that Bielsa was referring specifically to his forward players’ neat interplay, so “combination play” is an excellent choice of phrasing here to express this particular idea.
Conclusions: In-Depth Subject Knowledge + (Near-)Perfect Command of the Target Language = Excellent Interpretation/Translation:
Albeit few and far between, and despite having not been previously mentioned in this post, the types of mistakes made by Andrés Clavijo in his interpreting work, which are characteristic of non-native speakers of English, could lead people to argue that Leeds United would be better served by a native-English-speaking interpreter specialising in football. However, given that his English is excellent, overall, and that he has an in-depth knowledge of football, he is much better suited to the role that his predecessor, Salim Lamrani.
Even though the French academic did a fantastic job as a whole, especially considering that he is neither a football man nor a native English or Spanish speaker, we have seen that he makes the kinds of mistakes that Andrés Clavijo largely avoids. The Colombian football analyst combines his in-depth subject knowledge and near-perfect command of English to accurately convey the true meaning of Bielsa’s discourse, capturing all nuances in meaning. Thanks to this, it is now much easier to understand Bielsa’s thoughts during his press conferences and interviews than when Salim Lamrani was tasked with being his interpreter.
My analysis has therefore reiterated a point that I have repeatedly made in previous blog and social media posts. For translation or interpretation work to be carried out to the best possible standard, you need two things in particular: a native speaker of the target language (the language into which the text is being translated) and an interpreter/translator with expert knowledge of the subject matter and domain-specific terminology. While football may not be as technical as other fields, such as finance, mechanical engineering or aeronautics, for instance, football experts still need to be entrusted with football translation/interpretation tasks.
Without these two things, you’ll be languishing in the lower leagues of your respective fields.
Because I consulted so many resources, I decided to list them all at the end of this blog post.
Patrick Bamford’s Interview with Astro Supersports’ Adam Carruthers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmmhUBo2v_w
Rio Ferdinand’s visit to Leeds United’s training ground for BT Sport: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugx_fMXFJvc
How Marcelo Bielsa masterminded Leeds’ return to the Premier League | Bielsa: El Loco & Leeds (Sky Sports Football): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4idhEak09E
Marcelo Bielsa: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcelo_Bielsa
Castrisme et sites conspirationnistes, la trajectoire loin du football de l’interprète de Marcelo Bielsa: https://www.lemonde.fr/football/article/2017/11/17/castrisme-et-sites-conspirationnistes-la-trajectoire-loin-du-football-de-l-interprete-de-marcelo-bielsa_5216463_1616938.html
‘The most overqualified man in Ligue 1’ and the rest of Marcelo Bielsa’s trusted backroom staff profiled: https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/sport/leeds-united/leeds-united-coaching-staff-bielsa-14794064
Cuba and the Number of “Political Prisoners”: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cuba-and-the-number-of-po_b_689845
HAS MARCELO BIELSA FOUND NEW TRANSLATOR AT LEEDS?: https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2019/07/21/has-marcelo-bielsa-found-new-translator-at-leeds/
En défense de Marcelo Bielsa: https://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.salim_lamrani.101115.htm
L’inoubliable Marcelo Bielsa: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.salim_lamrani.290216.htm
Bielsa’s post-match interview following Leeds’ 3-1 win against Stoke City: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O05xxw6R-i8&t=50s
Marcelo Bielsa, sobre el gol con la mano de Leeds a Nottingham Forest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNp90rIg8hA
Bielsa’s Press conference before Leeds’ Championship game against Sheffield United: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzRVth4SeQQ
Andrés Clavijo (LinkedIn): https://www.linkedin.com/in/andres-clavijo-70165711b/
Bielsa’s reaction to the 1-1 draw to Manchester City at Elland Road: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJnDLtSv0Y
Bielsa’s reaction to Leeds’ 4-3 defeat to Liverpool: youtube.com/watch?v=0nC86S8LFbU
Bielsa’s press conference before the opening day of the Premier League season: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2knHzH51Ws
Bielsa’s post-match interview following Leeds’ goalless draw against Chelsea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-anDaD58R0
Bielsa’s press conference before Leeds’ home game against Southampton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOW4nsFPw4o