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August 6, 2021 | Uncategorized

Olympic Interpreting: The Role of Language Services in International Events

The 2020 (2021) edition of the Olympic Games was anything but “business as usual.” With no spectators and less enthusiasm from the public than ever before, the demand for language services was also lower than in previous editions. That doesn’t mean that translators and interpreters haven’t played a vital role in the success of this unusual edition of the Olympics, however. Olympic interpreting is the glue that keeps people united using technology and top language skills. 

Let’s take a closer look at how language services serve to smooth international events of this size and what’s been different from previous editions of the Olympic Games.  

Linguistic Challenges Are Always Enormous 

The modern Olympic Games bring together teams and representatives from over 200 countries. Athletes, their staff, members of national and international Olympic committees, and journalists come together and must communicate with each other regardless of their native languages. 

The event in Tokyo has brought over 79,000 overseas officials, journalists, and support staff together in one place. It’s a small number due to a series of travel restrictions, limited access to the public, and the overall context of a global pandemic. 

Beyond ensuring optimal conditions for the smooth running of the competition, organizers must make sure that every participant enjoys the housing experience in the Olympic Village and can benefit from all the services provided. 

So, how do you make sure everyone gets along and enjoys the experience as much as possible? You need to make it easy for people to communicate and get the information they need when they need it. It’s safe to say that interpreting during such an event should be seen as an Olympic sport, too! 

Many athletes are bilingual and speak English or French as a second language, but it’s not enough to ensure everyone knows what needs to be done and where to go. Translators and interpreters play a crucial role in facilitating communication before, during, and after each competition. 

Officials and athletes receive documentation in multiple languages before the event. Organizers ensure that every person who lives inside the Olympic Village receives a “playbook” and COVID-related safety guidelines to make the space a safe environment for athletes and their staff. And many of the participants rely on interpreters to communicate during their stay in Japan.

One Extra Challenge: Everything Happens Remotely 

The official team of linguists in Tokyo includes almost 100 interpreters who transmit official information in 10 languages besides Japanese. They deliver results, official announcements, and other details in: 

  • Arabic 
  • Chinese
  • English 
  • French
  • German
  • Italian 
  • Korean
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish

According to Japan Today, interpretation is all remote this year. As many as 20 translation booths are gathered together in one room, each carrying labels that let people know which languages are spoken inside. 

Moreover, almost a fifth of the interpreters delivering language services haven’t even traveled to Japan. Language experts work from home, covering late-night events in Japan and helping share the news with fans and supporters in Europe, the Americas, and beyond. 

It’s all due to Covid protocols that have made many events happen remotely—including press conferences. These rules often make interpreters’ jobs even more challenging. The lack of visual cues can reduce an interpreter’s ability to develop the right rhythm, making the process slower and leaving more room for minor errors. 

Last but not least, with a limited number of experts present, interpreters can’t cover all the cultural differences. One Spanish-speaker interpreter translates for multiple Spanish-speaking audiences in Europe and Latin America. Sure, language experts are aware of the challenge and put in the extra effort to deliver accurate interpretation services, but the effort is higher than in usual circumstances. 

Luckily, the Olympics has a dream interpreting team this year to save the day. Alexandre Ponomarev, the chief interpreter for the Tokyo Games, relies on language experts who have facilitated political events like the G20 and the World Economic Forum, and are used to working under pressure.  

Leveraging Technology to Facilitate Multilingual Communication  

Before the pandemic, Japan planned to go big and overcome all the linguistic and cultural barriers using technology. After all, Tokyo is one of the most technologically advanced cities worldwide, and the Olympics would have been the perfect event to showcase the power of smart devices and apps. 

The country had been preparing for this event for years and the Japanese government even invested in the deployment of multi-language machine translation systems in preparation for the games. The goal was to release a multilingual communication infrastructure to support the event and make communication flawless on all levels.

At the beginning of 2020, Japan was still hoping to put translation technology at the center of the Olympic Games. Athletes, staff, and tourists were supposed to get along using a wide range of devices, such as portable translation devices, robots as interpreters, and a new generation of translation apps—among other things. 

As the number of tourists and participants was reduced to a minimum, the organizers changed their strategy. With no tourists in need of guidance through Tokyo, the demand for translation technology dropped significantly, moving the attention from translation tech to other issues more COVID-related. 

Translation technology is still a pillar of the event, but on a smaller scale than initially planned. In terms of language services and communication, organizers decided to use an app to provide all participants with simultaneous translations. Every smartphone user has access to information in one of the supported languages with no need for handheld devices. 

This simple solution has made everyone’s lives easier while reducing the risk of COVID contamination and making Olympic interpreting services accessible with lower costs and less effort from the language experts. 

Final Thoughts on Olympic Interpreting 

Interpreters play a significant role during the Olympics and all other international events, whether political or social. They facilitate communication and overcome language barriers to bring together people worldwide around common dreams and goals. 

Technology plays a significant role in the process and works as an amplifier. At the same time, humans are essential to secure flawless communication and guarantee accurate translations and access to information for global audiences.