Lost in Translation: Communication at the Rugby World Cup 2019

October 23, 2019
Lost in Translation: Communication at the Rugby World Cup 2019

Have you been following the thrilling action of the 2019 Rugby World Cup? If so, perhaps you’ve been wondering just what it takes to pull such an event together. Time, money and meticulous planning all feature strongly in the answer to that, along with a whole load of translation and interpretation services!

Rugby World Cup Groups and Teams

The Rugby World Cup 2019 is taking place in Japan. Matches began on 20 September and will continue up until the final on 2 November, when the new rugby world champions will hold aloft the much-coveted Web Ellis Cup (the trophy is named after William Web Ellis, whom many credit as the inventor of rugby). 

The Rugby World Cup 2019 fixtures have already delivered some thrilling matches during the group stages. Elliot Daly's try for England, during the team’s 39-10 win over Argentina, was a particular highlight. Fiji’s Semi Radradra and Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima have also stood out as a result of their outstanding performances. 

20 teams initially qualified for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. 16 of them have now been knocked out, so just four remain: Wales, South Africa, New Zealand and England. 

Hopes were high for Japan and the team did their fans proud, reaching the quarter finals for the first time ever this tournament. Sadly, that was as far as they went – South Africa put a decisive end to the host nation’s dreams for this particular world cup. 

Who do you think will go on to win? 

Using Interpretation Services to Overcome Rugby World Cup Communication Challenges

Any international sporting event of this nature brings with it a series of communication challenges and the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup is no exception. There are 128 million native Japanese speakers in the world and almost all of them live in Japan. 

According to Wikipedia, New Zealand is home to just 20,148 Japanese speakers, who account for 0.51% of its total population. In South Africa, Japanese is spoken in small pockets of Johannesburg and Cape Town, where there are a few Japanese expat communities. In England, Japanese speakers are mainly found in London, while in Wales they are concentrated predominantly in Cardiff and Swansea. 

If none of the visiting players speak Japanese, could English suffice as the Rugby World Cup lingua franca? 

English is certainly more widely spoken than Japanese. It is spoken by 98% of the population of the UK, 96% of New Zealanders and 9.6% of South Africans. However, research from 2013 shows that 41.6% of Japanese people (aged 20-49) cannot speak any English at all, while a further 30.4% can ‘only string together some words.’ 

So what good is it if the teams speak English but their host nation doesn’t? 

Clearly, the Rugby World Cup 2019 will pose some communication challenges for those involved. It’s an issue for which England coach Eddie Jones – who conveniently coached Japan before he took up the position with England in 2015 – has been preparing for some time. 

A year before the World Cup began, Jones sent his staff to language school to start learning Japanese. He speaks some Japanese himself, has a Japanese wife and a half-Japanese mother. When coaching Japan, he conducted all of the team’s training sessions and around 60% of the team meetings in Japanese. (None of which stops Jones’ wife from judging his Japanese to be so bad that she forbids him to speak it even to the family dog!)

Now that the England team are in Japan, the staff’s efforts to learn the language will be helping to reduce the players’ stress levels by making the cultural assimilation easier for them. The provision of interpretation services whenever needed will also help, enabling the Rugby World Cup players to focus fully on their game, while those around them cater to their linguistic needs. 
Interpretation services are used both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras – for press conferences and other activities. Skilled linguists have provided language pair organic keywords for participating countries throughout the tournament. 

Major Sporting Events and the Translation and Interpretation Industry

The translation and interpretation industry is always busy around the time of major international sporting contests. From world cups to the Olympic Games, participants need to understand what is going on around then, as well as to make themselves understood. In many instances, having a translator or an interpreter on hand can make a huge difference to participants’ experience of the event. 

The Rugby World Cup is no exception. With so few points of linguistic commonality between the host country and the semi-finalists, Japan will need a team of language professionals in order to deliver the ultimate sporting experience. Teams will also have their own linguists with them, in order to translate and interpret between players’ native languages and Japanese. 

A Quick Word on Maori Translation

Of course, no international rugby event would be complete without the intimidating sight and sound of the haka. It’s fair to say that no other team lives up to the pre-game challenge delivered by New Zealand’s All Blacks. But then, few other teams live up to their standard of rugby, either. 

Even those who don’t follow rugby are likely to have seen a haka at some point, drawn by its ceremonial feel and outright ferocity. Haka are energy-packed ancient Maori war dances. They show strength, unity and pride – the ideal way to intimidate and challenge an opposing team. Tongue protrusions, violent stamping of the feet, rhythmic body slapping and chanting in Maori are all part of the tradition, which New Zealand rugby teams have been performing since 1888. 

The words to the original haka performed by the All Blacks – Ka mate, Ka mate – were said to have been penned in the early 1800s by Maori warrior chief Te Rauparaha. The same words were used from 1888 to 2006, when they were replaced with Kapa O Pango, penned by haka composer Derek Llardelli:

Kapa O Pango kia whakawhenua au I ahau!
Hi aue ii!
Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
Au, au aue ha!
Ko Kapa O Pango e ngunguru nei!
Au, au, aue ha!
I ahaha!
Ka tu te ihiihi
Ka tu te wanawana
Ki runga ki te rangi e tu iho nei, tu iho nei ihi!
Ponga ra!
Kapa O Pango, aue hi!
Ponga ra!

The Maori to English translation of which is:

All Blacks, let me become one with the land
This is our land that rumbles
It’s my time! It’s my moment!
This defines us as the All Blacks
It’s my time! It’s my moment!
Our dominance
Our supremacy will triumph
And will be properly revered, placed on high
Silver fern!
All Blacks!
Silver fern!
All Blacks!

While few of those facing New Zealand on the pitch speak Maori, the actions and gestures of the dance are certainly sufficient to get the message across. 

Rugby World Cup Marketing Translation Challenges

It’s not just the players and their supporting staff who have to think about interpretation and translation services as part of the Rugby World Cup. The event’s sponsors pour huge amounts of money into the contest as part of their global marketing efforts. As such, they need to use marketing translation to ensure that their campaigns are effective both locally in Japan and with viewers around the world. 

Communicating the same meaning, ideals and messages in different languages requires professional translation and localization expertise. The translated adverts and infomercials need to deliver the sponsors’ intended brand benefits across a very diverse range of viewers. That means engaging highly skilled marketing professionals who understand the nuances of each culture that the ads will be targeting, as well as the linguistic differences. 

Japanese Translation for Rugby Fans

Then there’s the question of fans. Have you ever travelled abroad to watch a sporting fixture? For an event of this size, the organisers need to convey information to the visiting fans in their own language. 

From social policies to directions to the venues in which the games are played, the need for Japanese translation in advance of the Rugby World Cup will have been huge. Fans have travelled from (at least) 19 different countries in order to support their home nations in the Japanese world cup, none of which list Japanese among their official languages. That means that Japan has had to engage with a sudden influx of visitors in a wide range of languages. Thank goodness for professional translation and interpretation services! 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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