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Getting lost in translation – an occupational hazard in the travelling tennis world?

Alexandra Willis

In today’s multimedia arena of smartphones, iPads, twitter, Facebook, and so on, the concept of not being understood is rather a rare one.

We are blessed, that, apart from throughout most of China, the Queen’s speech is an all-pervading influence. First of all, much of the internet is in English. And secondly, if you do have to leave the comfort of your computer and actually travel, wherever we go, someone is bound to speak English.

And so, when the person you are talking to has absolutely no idea what you are babbling on about, it is a rather stark realization. You are lost in lack-of-translation. But instead of doing something sensible like carrying a foreign phrasebook, there’s always the very British option of speeeeaaakkkiinnnggg veeerrrry slllooowwwwllllyyy with accompanying hand gestures, which of course, makes absolutely no difference, but somehow we think it does.

In tennis, one of the most global sports there is, English is very much the expected language of choice. The three main governing bodies, the ATP, the WTA, and the ITF operate in English.  Three of the four Grand Slams are in English-speaking nations. The press conferences always begin with English questions. And the majority of the players, with the exception of Kei Nishikori and Zheng Jie, speak better English than many residents of our fair Isles.

Which is why, watching Kazakhstan take on the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup, in Ostrava, I shocked to say that I was totally taken aback to hear the umpires announcing the scores in Czech. Firstly, respect to them (a Moroccan and an Australian) – in the nicest possible way, Czech is a language that sounds a lot like gobbledeegook to the untrained ear, let alone trying to speak it.

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Czech fans at the Davis Cup in Ostrava

The penny thundering down on the top of my head like Newton’s apple, of course it makes absolutely perfect sense to announce the scores in Czech. After all, and forgive me for stating the extremely obvious, bar a pocket of extremely exuberant Kazakhs, the majority of the crowd was Czech.

Press conferences were also conducted in Czech, with Russian translation for the Kazakh media and players. There were even two translators at one point, because one didn’t quite understand tennis terminology. But no English. Fair enough.

Was it the same in the tie between Austria and France? Did they operate just in German and French? Or Belgium v Spain? Or Croatia v Germany? I guess it depends on how many English press were there. And it makes you realize how much we ask of players. To always put the English first.

Which raises another little thorn in the rose bush of language. Pronunciation. How to pronounce various players’ names is one of those discussions that take longer than a cup of tea, one where broadcasters, pundits, and public always like to think they say a name correctly, and stand by their version, even if they actually pronounce it wrong. But, as a very wise umpire pointed out, surely, pronunciations should depend on the language you are speaking. For example, if you were speaking English, and talking about Milan, would you say ‘Milano’?

No, you wouldn’t. Unless you wanted to sound a bit stupid. Or are my dad.

By the same token, if you were discussing Caroline Wozniacki in Polish, her name would be pronounced as its Polish origins suggest – ‘Vozniazki.’ But in Anglo-Yank, and incidentally, in Danish too, she is known and pronounced as ‘Wozniacki.’ It is the way it is written. And she is apparently fine with that. Having said that, some players are very picky about the way their names are pronounced. Which is also fine. It is their name after all. So I suppose the rule is, always ask.

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The Nadal 'what are you talking about' expression

There’s another thought from my bolt-from-the-blue examination of linguistics. As good as their English is, how difficult it must be for most players, Americans included, to understand some of the quirks, turns of phrase, and quite frankly often ridonkulous vocabulary that goes hand in hand with the English language.

I watched in silent hysterics as a fellow Englander tried to explain to her French colleague what ‘disgruntled’ meant. Quite rightly, in search of rational explanation, he applied the opposites rule, and so asked what ‘gruntled’ meant. ‘Well it doesn’t mean anything, it isn’t a word,’ she said. He looked  non-plussed. ‘Discombobulated’ was no better. More non-plussed. ‘Faffing around’ had him looking up at the ceiling in despair. And as for prized English idioms such as ‘feeling less than crisp,’  or ‘brown as a berry,’ or ‘get your skates on,’ he was about ready to crawl into a corner.

So. Notes to self. 1. Must learn more languages. 2. Always ask how names should be pronounced. 3. Keep English idiosyncratic phrases under wraps when talking to foreigners. If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of a Rafa Nadal ‘Whhhat?’ you will know why it’s a peril best avoided. Especially when he raises that eyebrow as well. Terrifying.

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