Translation Troubles: Misquotes, manipulation and more

Having previously explored the curious image that people have of translation and the ways in which the translation act can bring about a lack of trust, I recently came across a perfect example of a fairly common form of manipulation that is used to give rise to these negative ideas about the profession.

As a huge football fan, a football writer and a sports translator, I love reading the masses of transfer rumours that crop up over the summer and one particular story offered an ideal illustration of the kind of issues that I’ve been looking at on my blog.

The story concerns Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal, a world-renowned player who has repeatedly been linked with a move to English giants Manchester United in recent months. As any move would be of great significance to the footballing world, journalists are constantly on the lookout for the slightest change in his situation and some are willing to go to extreme lengths to get the latest scoop.

On 24 July, popular football site published an article entitled “Vidal: I’m not going to Manchester”, quoting the player as almost categorically denying any chance of a move. However, when you take a closer look at the source of the supposed quotes, it all becomes a little less clear-cut.

Context is king

In the short video above (in Italian with English subtitles), the encounter between Vidal and an Italian reporter is filmed in its entirety and this opportunity to contextualise the situation sheds a whole new light on the reports that followed.

One key point to note is the fact that the meeting takes place as Vidal is passing through Turin airport. This has an important impact on the nature and brevity of the player’s answers as he repeatedly tries to cut the ‘interview’ short and, despite remaining jovial, only provides brief, throwaway quips.

At 0:12 when Vidal tries to deflect further questions by stating that he is still on holiday, he signals his next holiday destination by saying “Parto a Alassio” [I’m going to Alassio]* and this phrase has an important link to the journalist’s key question at 0:23 when he asks: “Non vai a Manchester, vero?” [You’re not going to Manchester are you?].

Indeed, given the overall context, when asking this question the reporter is linking back to Vidal’s earlier reference to his holiday destination and produces the present tense meaning of “Are you heading to Manchester right now?” When Vidal laughingly replies “No, no”, there is no implication of his future destination in football, simply the denial that he is heading to the city at that particular moment.

This analysis offers a hugely different conclusion to the one we are provided in the resulting articles which, in addition to leaving out important contextual information, further mould the player’s words into a new meaning by attributing them to an entire phrase. In using “I’m not going to Manchester” rather than the off-hand “No, no”, the articles present a definitive image that is simply not representative of the actual response given.

Tellingly, the story and the misquote were reported on a whole host of sites, including Eurosport, FourFourTwo and those of certain tabloid newspapers. This demonstrates the kind of ‘bending of the truth’ that goes on in even large, well-established media outlets when it comes to making a story more appealing – it is clear that the quotations are entirely misappropriated in order to grab the reader’s attention.

In the comments sections of the articles there are plenty of people (quite rightly, it seems) denying the validity of the source having pieced together the genuine context of the meeting but, for the majority of readers, no issues are immediately apparent.

While the ethics of institutions that knowingly decontextualise and recontextualise information for their own gain should be questioned, the fact that this kind of sensationalism goes on is nothing new. In this instance, however, the clear use of translation as a means of burying information should provide cause for concern.

Contained within this example lies an undeniable link to problems of identity in our profession as the move between languages provides a void within which information can be added (the quote is padded out to fit the purposes of the final article) and taken away (the context of the meeting and the questions is removed).

In this situation, those without the requisite linguistic skills to fully assess the story’s validity are left on the outside feeling powerless to really know what is being offered to them. Though there is a small degree of negative backlash in the comments sections, the sites ultimately get what they want as they continue to be read unquestioned by the vast majority.

As such, the only consistent loser is translation. When doubts of this nature are raised, translation becomes a key accomplice to the apparent deception, and fears that there is something sinister going on in the passage between languages – that something is ‘lost in translation’ – are only compounded…


*Interestingly, the quotes were misrepresented in a different way in some sections of the Italian press as Vidal was quoted as saying “I’m going to Lazio” (another big club in Italy) instead of “Alassio”, sparking all sorts of crazy rumours.

The Terminology of the Beautiful Game

Partially inspired by this great BBC article entitled ”In the six’ and football’s other strange Americanisms’ which looks at the interesting terminological differences which exist between soccer and football, and partially due to that fact that it is a great passion of mine, I thought I would dedicate this post to introducing footballing terminology, as well as looking at a few interesting terms and tracking down their roots.

Ok, I know, the football season is more or less over and perhaps I should leave the subject alone, dust off my cricket whites and wait for the rain to stop, but hopefully you’ll grant me just this one post before the summer hibernation.

First of all, it is of course worth mentioning that, due to the universal nature of the game, there are ready equivalents for the vast majority of terms in the game. It is often said that football is a universal language and it’s very easy to pick up a few things in the midst of a foreign crowd with the familiar chants, the same colourful language that is best left untranslated and ultimately, the same game unfolding before you.

However, beyond this initial level of terms used to describe basic physical phenomena, there is a rich terminology that enjoys its own personal history in each culture. How about the English term ‘nutmeg’, for intance, meaning to put the ball through a player’s legs? The origin of this term in English is hotly contested; some say it comes from cockney rhyming slang for leg while others claim it is an extension of ‘nuts’, referring to the testicles of the players through whose legs the ball has been passed. In French, meanwhile, it becomes ‘un petit pont’ (‘a little bridge’ – although French commentators will also use the English term), while in Italian it is ‘un tunnel’ (a tunnel). Lastly, one of my favourite terms in French football (albeit one that is fairly rarely used) has to be ‘un caviar’ meaning a great pass (we could maybe say ‘a gem’ or ‘a peach’ in English).

One interesting collection of terms which demontrates the relationship between European languages well is that used when describing goals scored. In English, two goals can be called ‘a brace’ (meaning a pair), while a set of three is a ‘hat-trick’, coming from the same term as used in cricket which was adopted after HH Stephenson took three consecutive wickets and was subsequently presented with a hat. The French uses a (non-)translation of this term (coup du chapeau’), and this is indicative of much footballing terminology in Europe which attests to the English roots of the game with many terms calqued to their new language (‘gol’ in Italian, for example, taken from the English ‘goal’).

Italian, on the other hand, deals with multiple goals in quite a different way: two goals becomes ‘una doppietta’ (a double), three is ‘una tripletta’ (triple) and while four and five can be called a ‘quaterna’ and a ‘cinquina’ respectively, there exist three much more interesting terms.

A set of four is often referred to as ‘un poker’, meaning ‘four of a kind’ and developing from the card game of the same name, while five goals can be simply called a ‘pokerissimo’ or a ‘manita’ (‘a little hand’ – referring to the five fingers).

This use of calques and various synonyms is indicative of the dual-layered vocabulary that exists in (perhaps all) European footballing terminology; in Italian, for example, we regularly find words borrowed or translated from the English alongside synonymous native terms (e.g. ‘un corner/un calcio d’angolo’ for the English ‘corner’).

This feature of the terminology finds a practical application in sports journalism where elegant variation (using synonyms or near-synonyms to avoid the use of repetition) is one of the most widely-used stylistic techniques. In a typical article you could find one player referred to by three or four different names as the journalist goes to extreme lengths to avoid repetition, while the amount of assumed contextual knowledge on the part of the reader is huge. For example, a player such as Mario Balotelli is often referred to as ‘Mario’, ‘Balotelli’, ‘SuperMario’, ‘il centravanti’ (the centre-forward), ‘l’attaccante italiano’ (the Italian attacker) among others…

This feature is also common in English and French journalism, and it is very interesting to see how the nature of the terminology available shapes our ability to communicate.

Of course, this post has only been able to scratch the surface of what footballing terminology has to offer and I haven’t been able to even comment on the vast array of idioms and expressions that exist. However, if you are interested in delving a bit deeper, this French football phrasebook has loads of phrases on offer alongside English translations, while this ‘Learn Italian’ article from The Guardian provides a good starting point for calcio fans.

Bienvenue Beckham: Spiceboy politics in the papers

Today’s blog isn’t as much about translation as an appropriation of translation but it does serve to further illustrate the power that translation can wield, as I have been trying to show, as well as demonstrating the uses it is often put to in the media.

The focus of my attention in this post is a story that has been all over the front and back pages of newspapers around the world for a few days now: that of David Beckham’s move to Paris Saint-Germain and his decision to donate his wages to a local children’s charity. Of course, this was fairly big news in the football world and everything that the Beckhams do is closely followed by the media, but more has come from this story than mere celebrity gossip and sporting headlines.


When the story broke, The Sun immediately placed heavy emphasis on the player’s decision to donate his salary in the article’s subtitle and the Daily Mail went one step further in making the actual deal secondary to the fact that his wages would be given to charity. On the following day this then led to widespread praise for Beckham’s decision among UK papers and the tabloids trying to out-do each other with headlines such as Golden Baules and Saint Becks.

Meanwhile, Le Figaro in France – a similarly right-wing paper – took a different stance in their reporting of the event, questioning the club’s decision to sign the player on a footballing level. From a linguistic point of view, this contrast between the two differents takes on the proceedings can be seen the way Beckham is named in different articles: a ‘spiceboy’ in Le Figaro, while always an ‘England legend’ or some similar variant in the British tabloids.

But then, jumping back to the UK, it was one particular comment from this article that the UK tabloids decided to pick up on and use to cause a minor uproar in right-wing presses. The phrase in question was Le Figaro’s description of Beckham as a ‘third-hand Rolls Royce’ which was subsequently angrily quoted in several articles while always neglecting to mention that the French article was actually quite well-balanced, taking footballing concerns into account, and refusing to acknowledge the (rather justified) claims that, by signing a 37 year old well past his best, PSG had made a fairly questionable decision. And it is this kind of selective quoting that perfectly demonstrates the desire to take any possible opportunity to undermine French opinion in these articles: for an English reader, the French article is ‘taking a pop’ at David Beckham without justification and in spite of his generosity.


However, this is not to say that Le Figaro are innocent by any means as they immediately followed this by ensuring to seize the chance to ridicule English media coverage of the event by mocking the labels such as Saint David, the ‘awkwardly entitled’ articles such as Gaul-denballs and the apparent lack of comment on the footballing side of the affair!

Interestingly, articles coming from more neutral sources such as the BBC and L’Equipe, while lauding the unquestionably admirable gesture of donating the wages to charity, have been more realistic in questioning the decision in footballing terms and this further underlines the political motivations behind the articles printed in the tabloids and Le Figaro.

Ultimately, as these articles show, one fascinating thing to come out of this story is the way it has been used by right-wing papers in both countries to further fuel that ancient rivalry between the British and the French nations and how, with their patriotic and slightly xenophobic tendencies, they have used selective translation to sensationalise each other’s reporting in an effort to undermine the other nation.

Long live petty squabbling!