The World Cup 2022 is now in full swing, with what seems like every existing media outlet giving a blow-by-blow account of the tournament. As I read, listen to, and watch broadcasts of the event, I cannot help but think back on when I played a small role in the world of competitive soccer (or, as the rest of the world would say, football) working as an interpreter for the European Cup in 2016.
My name is Natalie Worden, and I am a French to English translator and copywriter, specialized in the literary, marketing, and academic fields. In 2016, I was just starting off as a freelance translator when, a few months into my activity, I was contacted by an agency in Paris. They were looking for linguists who could work as interpreters at the welcome sites in the cities hosting the European Cup games around France. As a native English speaker, it was my job to be the intermediary between the foreign fans and French-speaking agents who provided help navigating both the city of Toulouse and the various matches.
I was tasked with liaison interpreting—also known as dialogue interpreting—which is a subset of consecutive interpreting and requires rapid communication in both languages. It was my first time interpreting professionally, and I quickly understood how different it was from my usual work as a translator.
Here are some of the things I learned from this experience that have since been valuable to me throughout my career as a linguist and communications specialist.
I had just arrived at the welcome site and got settled in when two fans from Wales approached. “The pitch—where is it?” one of them asked.
My colleague turned to me, waiting for the transfer of the question into French.
I froze. The pitch, I thought. Okay. I know this word, but it does not make sense in the way that I know it.
“You know, where the match is?” the gentleman prodded, raising his eyebrows at me.
Oh. Of course. The pitch. I grew up playing soccer—I’m sorry, I mean football—in the United States and was used to going out onto the field (when I wasn’t warming the bench, let’s be honest). So, I was looking at the subject through the lens of my personal experience, not anyone else’s. Despite my years of language studies and research into dialects and regional variations in French, I had failed to do the same thing for my native tongue. I assumed I knew everything I needed to know about English, but I was wrong. This was a turning point for me and changed the way I look at language today.
I turned to my colleague, interpreted the question into French, and was able to provide the excited fans the correct directions to the stadium.
A wonderful colleague of mine often says, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” While the motto might be cliché, there is certainly truth to it. Language specialists, like athletes, must depend on their teammates to reach success. Imagine an entire soccer team made up of just one person. No matter how skilled they may be at the sport, there is no way that individual would be able to play forward, midfield, and defense while also protecting the goal. A team of one will never be able to win against any respectable rival.
During my time interpreting for the European Cup, I was faced with situations that would have been almost impossible to overcome without the support of my associates. Not only did this help come from my fellow linguists, but from everyone with whom I worked: welcome agents, transportation officials, organizers from the European Cup, and many others.
I don’t have the answers to everything, and I never will. Therefore, having an open, curious mind and passing the ball to outside industry experts for creative collaboration not only helps me achieve my goals, but it ensures a better outcome overall.
During my time interpreting for the European Cup, I met individuals from all over the world who had traveled near and far to watch the tournament. I spoke with hundreds of fans, and while supporting their team was certainly an important reason why many of them had come to the sporting event, it was not their main purpose.
Instead, it was clear that these people were coming together to share their love for soccer. No matter their background, their language, their nation, or their culture, the significance of experiencing the tournament in and of itself went beyond it all. It was incredible to see how the sport could unite such a diverse mosaic of individuals into a global community.
This made me realize that translation and sports are not so different, after all. They both have the power to break past barriers and connect worlds that may never have met otherwise.