Come again? Why professional football interpreters should be asked to help new foreign managers
Have you ever watched an interview or press conference with a foreign manager after they’ve just started working in a new country and struggled to understand some of the things they’ve said? Thankfully, as I speak four languages, I can generally work out what they’re trying to say based on my linguistic knowledge when they accidentally get things slightly wrong in English, but for the largely monolingual audience to which the interview or press conference is broadcast, some of the manager’s discourse will be misunderstood.
Although I highly commend new managers who are confident enough to give a press conference or interview in the official language of the new host country, the complexity of football lexis, coupled with the evident difficulty of speaking a foreign language anyway, makes it extremely difficult for them to get their point across accurately and succinctly. Being able to express yourself fluently in a foreign language not only means having a decent understanding of the language, but also living and breathing the language within the context of its surrounding culture. So, within the context of football, a manager’s understanding of the language of the host country is developed by immersing themselves in its use on the training ground and on the side-lines, as well as in any media channels that discuss football in that particular language, such as newspaper articles, programmes, matches, etc.
In this blog post, I will therefore argue that new foreign managers should consider using professional football interpreters for at least the first few months after moving to a new host country, giving them ample time to adjust to the new language and how it is used in real life, and more specifically, within the context of football.
To help illustrate my points, I will draw on the more recent examples of Valérien Ismaël at Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion, and Xisco Muñoz at Watford, before going back a bit further in time to analyse press conferences and interviews given in English by Manuel Pellegrini during his time at Manchester City.
This blog post will not focus on grammatical errors, because they are expected (even native speakers make them), but rather on awkward turns of phrase or incorrect choices at the word level resulting from limited knowledge of football lexis in English and very little exposure to the English language in general for the abovementioned managers. I must therefore make it absolutely clear that my analysis is by no means intended as a form of criticism; I am only using such examples to help explain why the support of a professional football interpreter would massively benefit foreign managers while they get used to life working in the host country.
The current West Brom head coach, Valérien Ismaël, first started working as a manager in England in late 2020, when he took over at Barnsley. The Frenchman also enjoyed a short stint in the country during his playing career, registering 13 appearances for Crystal Palace in 1998. However, having spent the large majority of his playing and managerial career in Germany, he has had very little time to work on his English throughout his time in football. Although his English is excellent considering, there are times when he leaves much of the West Brom faithful confused during his press conferences or interviews, and based on my research, I’m sure Barnsley fans used to feel exactly the same.
In the earliest interview I could find online during his time at Barnsley – the one he gave following his side’s visit to Wycombe Wanderers in the Championship – the Albion boss said: “For me, it was never a red card, and that’s why we will appeal the red card. For me, it was injuste.” After hearing this sentence, I could picture many Yorkshiremen looking rather bemused in my head, because even though the word “unjust” exists in English, the most common and obvious choice would have been “unfair,” so the connection between “injuste” and the English direct equivalent “unjust” was not immediately apparent. As a result, despite the possibility of being able to work out what this French word meant in context, this would have left many English football fans confused and scratching their heads.
His thoughts also caused initial confusion at the end of the post-match interview he gave following West Brom’s 1-1 draw at home to Millwall last year. When asked about what his team would do going forward to deal with teams who go to the Hawthorns and play for a point, the Frenchman said: “We need to learn and make sure we are ruthless, especially in the back line.” Having been at the game myself that day, I remember us having many chances that we failed to convert, so the use of the term “back line” was very misleading at the time. In the world of football, “the back line” refers to a team’s defence, while “ruthless” is an adjective commonly used to describe a team or player who takes their chances and scores goals as a result. Therefore, like myself, many fans would have been confused at first, because they would have been expecting a phrase such as “ruthless up front,” “ruthless up top,” “ruthless in the final third,” or “ruthless in front of goal.”
Francisco Javier Muñoz Llompart, if we are to call him by his full name, spent almost the entirety of his playing career in his native Spain, leading the line for a number of first and second division sides, including Real Betis Balompié and C. D. Tenerife. He also had a three-year stint in Georgia with F. C. Dinamo Tbilisi, where he also enjoyed two short spells as manager before taking the reins at the then Championship side Watford. Considering he had not worked in England before in his entire footballing or managerial career, he deserves immense credit for his English, but there are many examples in the post-match interviews and press conferences he gave as Watford boss where a football interpreter would have massively helped everyone involved.
When asked about whether he could feel the pressure, given the club’s and the fans’ hopes of a swift return to the Premier League, during the pre-match press conference before his side’s encounter with Bristol City, Xisco replied: “I know what is Watford, I know what is Championship […] I know what is the push about me […].” Although he didn’t turn to what appears to be a fellow member of his coaching staff in the background for clarification of meaning, like he did to understand many questions during his press conferences as manager of the Hornets, the final part of his answer here is incomprehensible. I presume “push” is supposed to be a synonym of “pressure,” since the Spanish verb “empujar” (to push) can be used figuratively to mean “to pressure someone to do something,” but a native English speaker with no knowledge of Spanish would have been unable to work that out.
Later in the same press-conference when he was asked what his team would do to try to improve their results and to stay in touch with the automatic promotion places, Muñoz said: “We will try to play more in the other half pitch.” Even though this phrase is most likely understandable to any football fan with a decent knowledge of the game, knowing that the large majority of teams would prefer to play the game in their opponent’s half, a football interpreter would have rendered this perfectly as “in our opponent’s half,” or maybe even have opted for “in the final third” or “in the attacking third,” thereby avoiding any potential confusion.
Muñoz’s thoughts on Andre Gray’s form in the same press conference also left me somewhat puzzled at first: “He score no goals, no give […] He needs one step in front, is important he give more for the team. And I think not only Gray. Now is the moment for everyone to give one more step in front.” Since Gray has always been seen as a player who should have scored more goals in his career given his pace and trickery, and coming back to the fact that Muñoz’s side had aspirations of promotion and were considerably off the pace at the time, “one step in front” appears to be a literal translation in Xisco’s head of the Spanish phrase “un paso por/más hacia delante,” which conveys the idea of making progress and taking things to the next level. However, his attempt in English fails to capture this message. A professional football interpreter would most likely have opted for “he needs to take his game to the next level,” “he needs to up his game,” “he needs to do more” or “we expect more from him,” for example. These potential renderings would have also worked for the latter use of this phrase in relation to the whole team.
Meanwhile, in the post-match interview he gave following his side’s last-gasp winner at Cardiff City, the Valencia C. F. academy graduate spoke about the improvement his side had recently shown, claiming that they were “growing up.” As a football fan, I initially assumed he meant that he had a young squad with players who were maturing and coming of age. However, after analysing the Watford squad he inherited, I realised that most of his players were either in their late 20s or early 30s, in other words, either in their prime or nearing the end of their careers. I therefore believe that he was simply trying to say that the team was “getting better” and “showing more character,” which they clearly did to come from behind against a well-drilled and resolute Mick McCarthy side and get the winning goal in the dying moments. Therefore, this error most likely resulted from a literal translation of the Spanish verb madurar (to mature/develop/learn), and thus, failed to express the idea of an improving team.
Moreover, if we analyse his post-match press conference following his side’s 3-1 victory at Norwich in the Premier League, there are more cases where his limited knowledge of using English within the context of football are apparent. While discussing the fact that his side had great control in the game and had created many chances after being pegged back, the Spaniard said: “[Ismaïla] Sarr had many one-ins with the goalkeeper.” Even though the large majority of football fans may have realised at the time that Xisco meant to say “one-on-ones,” like myself, you still need to think carefully about what he’s trying to try to work that out. In fact, in this instance, if he hadn’t have said “with the goalkeeper,” I probably wouldn’t have been able to determine exactly what he was trying to say. Obviously, if a football interpreter had been asked to directly interpret what the Spaniard said from Spanish into English, the correct terminology would have been chosen, and, in turn, any possible confusion would have been totally avoided.
Manuel Luis Pellegrini Ripamonti had spent the entirety of his playing and managerial career in the Spanish-speaking world until he joined Manchester City as manager in 2013, having coached teams such as River Plate and Villarreal and made 315 appearances at centre-half for Universidad de Chile. He therefore had no experience of using English in a professional footballing setting before taking the reins at The Etihad, which is clear for all to see in many of the press-conferences and interviews he gave during his early days in charge of the Cityzens.
The first example of his struggles to clearly express himself upon his arrival in English football can be heard in his very first press conference on the blue side of Manchester: “We have a very good squad, we have very good players who can try to reach important touches.” Within the context of football, this turn of phrase is very misleading. Having mentioned earlier in the interview that the aim was for Manchester City to win the Premier League again, and since the word “touches,” in footballing terms, refers to how many times a player touches the ball, as the word might suggest, the intended meaning of his discourse was lost. Given the wider context, a more likely meaning, even though I cannot be certain, would be “who are capable of achieving great things” or “who can win silverware/trophies.” So, to avoid any possible confusion, it would have been better for Pellegrini to respond in Spanish and leave the English rendering of his thoughts to a professional football interpreter.
Another example of where his words caused confusion was during the press conference he gave before his side’s FA Cup tie against Wigan Athletic in 2014, when asked about the futures of the English players in his team, most notably Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott: “In every game I try to make the 11 start that I think is better, for that game, the same as the whole year, and in this case, maybe it was a casuality.” For native speaker English speakers with no knowledge of any foreign languages, so the large majority of the audience, the word “casuality” means absolutely nothing, especially because it doesn’t exist in English. In this case, what Pellegrini was trying to say was that it was just a “coincidence” (his attempt at a literal translation of the Spanish word “casualidad”) that Richards and Lescott had been left out. In other words, they had not been left out of the team for any fault of their own, but rather to be rested and because Pellegrini thought that other players might have been better suited to the opposition. This nuance in meaning would have been detected and relayed correctly by a native English-speaking professional interpreter, avoiding any form of confusion or misunderstanding.
Furthermore, before his side’s trip to Arsenal in September 2014, the Chilean’s thoughts on Vincent Kompany’s fitness after playing a full 90 minutes for Belgium several days before were not immediately understandable: “He works with normality during the week here with us.” Although this attempt to express his thoughts in English may appear pretty transparent at first glance, I had to really think about what he meant. After players return from international duty, they usually have several days to work with the rest of team, doing exactly the same drills and work on the training ground, in the gym, etc. to ensure they’re prepared for their return to league action. Therefore, to make this absolutely clear, a more natural and clear-cut formulation such as “he’s been training as normal” or “he’s trained as well as usual,” which a professional football interpreter would most likely have chosen, would have avoided any potential misunderstanding or confusion.
Likewise, before his team’s trip to Spurs, when he was asked about whether he felt his City team were as good as the Real Madrid team that he almost led to the La Liga title the previous season, the former Universidad de Chile replied: “I said the other week that this team is growing, that in this moment maybe this team is not so big as, as most important big, but I believe we are in the current way to try to do it.” As many of you may notice as first glance, this phrase could possibly be interpreted in many different ways. Given Real Madrid’s illustrious past and the fact that City had only recently joined the European elite following their huge takeover, Pellegrini could possibly been alluding to the fact that the two clubs can’t be compared in terms of size, but I doubt the City fans and the club’s board would have taken too well to such a comment. Other possible interpretations could be that he felt his squad wasn’t as strong as Real Madrid’s or that City aren’t as much of a force in English football, given the amount of top teams in the Premier League, as Madrid are in Spain. Although I believe he was comparing the quality of the two teams’ squads, I cannot say for certain that this was the intended meaning, so this is yet another example of where a professional football interpreter would have come in handy. If Pellegrini had been able to say exactly what he meant in his native language, an interpreter could have chosen an unambiguous rendering of his discourse in English that everyone watching and involved in the press conference would have been able to clearly understand.
Conclusion: Managers should use football interpreters until they are ready and confident enough to give interviews and press conferences on their own in the language of the host country, thereby minimising, or even, fully eliminating the risk of errors that could impede understanding.
If you think carefully about this concluding statement and have watched the Premier League over the past 15 years or so, two managers instantly come to mind: Mauricio Pochettino during his time at Southampton, and Marcelo Bielsa, whose interpreters featured in another of my blog posts. Pochettino did not feel confident enough to give press conferences or interviews in English until he had been living in England for several years and had mastered the English language and how it is used in the context of football. I also heard several months ago that he gives all his teamtalks in English and Spanish at Paris Saint-Germain due to his lack of confidence in his French, on which he is currently working extremely hard. Similarly, although Bielsa is now in his fourth season at Leeds, he still uses an interpreter for fear of making a mistake in English, according to Patrick Bamford.
This proves just how difficult it is for managers to adapt to the host country, particularly the new language and the specificities of football vocabulary in that new language, as we have seen in the cases of Valérien Ismaël, Xisco Muñoz and Manuel Pellegrini. Many of the errors I have pointed out during my analysis of their press conferences and interviews have resulted from a limited knowledge of football vocabulary and phraseology in English, as well as a limited knowledge of the English language itself, having had very little, if any, professional experience working or playing in England before taking on a managerial job at a Championship or Premier League club. In other words, the type of errors detected are exactly what you would expect from someone who has been thrown in at the deep end and has been forced to use a language with which they are extremely unfamiliar.
As I have shown, these kinds of errors would not be made by a professional football interpreter, who would be able to listen to what these managers have to say in their native languages, that is, those in which they are able to best express themselves, and then relay their message accurately for the benefit of the target audience, i.e. those who watch or listen to the interviews or press conferences. Avoiding any errors that could potentially impede understanding is vital, but in a country such as the UK in particular, where the large majority of the population is monolingual and does not possess even the slightest bit of knowledge of foreign languages that would help them work out what these errors could potentially mean in context, a fully accurate rendering of football managers’ discourse is absolutely essential.
Therefore, there is no doubt in my mind that professional footballer interpreters should be asked to help new foreign managers for at least the few months of their stint in a new country to facilitate the work of everyone involved, helping managers express themselves correctly and making it much easier for others to understand what they are trying to say. Even if they feel confident enough to give press conferences or interviews in the language of the host country, there is always a strong possibility of them confusing viewers through no fault of their own, which is where the help of a professional would come in very handy indeed.
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