Press Conference Challenges: Lost in Translation at the Olympics

Language is always in flux, which is why press conference challenges that include translation and interpreting issues can be so challenging.  Computer technology alone has added dozens of new words and expressions to every day life.  Toss in a few idioms, a smattering of slang and a plethora of sports terms and you have a lingual stew that Olympic reporters are trying to evaluate one mouthful at a time.  Sometimes they wind up with dribbles on their chins.


When organizers looked at language snafus at previous Games, they realized they didn’t want to make the same mistakes that plagued the London Olympics in 2012, which among other things included some insulting Arabic signs and a press conference with a Ukrainian gymnast who couldn’t answer questions because an interpreter wasn’t available.  To make things run a bit smoother in Sochi, the 2014 Organizing Committee created a Russian-English glossary of some 31 million sports terms used in all Winter Olympic and Paralympic events.


The glossary goes through each sport and lists common words like “bib” and “flamed out” for skiing and terms like “meltdown” and “mass start” for Biathalon and then gives the Russian equivalent.  Also included are common phrases and a more formal translation of what the phrase translates to in English.  For example, the phrase, “He came in and went for it,” becomes “He arrived at the competition and did his best to win.”  In bobsledding, the description of “delivering a vigorous push” becomes “strongly pushing a bob at the start.”  The meaning is there but some of the flair is gone.  But judging by the stuttering and silence at one press conference, organizers needed to do a better job at decoding snowboarding lingo.


Sage Kostenburg, US gold medalist in snowboarding slopestyle, didn’t know he’d have a roomful of interpreters scrambling for assistance when he unleashed his exuberant, and technical thoughts on finishing first.  Some likened the free stream of mind-bending words to witnessing a new language being invented.  Expressions like “landing a cab 270,” “a cab double cork 1260 holy grail,” and “a 1620 Japan” even had Americans scratching their heads.  Add to that a smattering of snowboarding descriptors like stoked, sick, and chill, and you have a recipe for confusion.


For many interpreters, “sick” often became “slick,” but literally, the Russian word sick (“bolnoy”) according to Andrey Lesokhin (who earlier had translated remarks by the IOC President, Thomas Bach, from English to Russian for President Vladimir Putin), the word carries a serious connotation.  “It’s bad,” said Lesokhin, “like you have a disease or something.”  Since the word was used quite frequently, one has to wonder if reporters were starting to feel sorry for the happy American?


Some words translate easily.  A “flip” is “salto” and a “spin” is “vraschenije.”  But “stoked”?  That one brought a smile to a lot of Russians.  Apparently, it literally translates to “under the influence of alcohol,” which wasn’t true but everyone liked the confusion it generated.  Then again, considering just how “stoked” Kotsenburg was with his win, the word may have taken on a double meaning later

Categories: Events, Language Translation & Interpretation, Olympics and Language, Language Interpretation, Language Translation

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