Mon, Sep 02, 2019 - Page 10 News List

Interpreters ready for next year’s Tokyo Olympics


Alexandre Ponomarev is the chief interpreter for next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games. He speaks more than a half-dozen languages — Russian, English, Spanish, French, German, Danish and Ukrainian — and can get by in a handful of others.

However, at times, even he needs an interpreter — for instance, when he is working in Japan.

“I can’t speak all languages, unfortunately,” he said, answering in English in an interview. “I wish I could.”

Next year’s Olympics will be an interpreter’s delight: More than 10,000 athletes representing about 200 nations or territories, many of which also have minority languages that are spoken alongside the national language, will be competing.

Stepping into the din are 100 interpreters — 40 from Japan and 60 from outside — handling 11 official languages for Tokyo: Japanese, English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.

It is a team accustomed to interpreting for presidents, prime ministers and monarchs.

However, the Olympics require fluency in the nuances of judo, the ins-and-outs of archery or the vagaries of the modern pentathlon, as well as the lingo from new Olympic sports such as surfing.

“They train. They prepare,” Ponomarev said. “We have glossaries. We have Olympic terminology and we study different sports.”

Even this is not always enough.

Ponomarev said he was bamboozled when a snowboarder at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics responded in English about a performance.

“‘Oh, totally rad, man — just so bad,’” Ponomarev said, repeating what the snowboarder told him.

Interpretation? “It was a great run.”

Ponomarev’s team includes at least one former Olympian, and most have done several Olympics.

Ponomarev sees the power of artificial intelligence (AI) on the horizon, closing in on the professional interpreter’s space.

“AI is not nearly as evolved as one might think to replace humans,” he said. “I’m not trying to say that I’m not worried about it at all, because I certainly am to be absolutely honest. Maybe 10 years down the road something will change.”

He said that machines still cannot always catch humor — and they cannot see “a wink.”

Cultural differences can affect language — and vice versa, Ponomarev said, adding that he might assign a speaker of Brazilian Portuguese to a Brazilian and a peninsular Portuguese speaker to someone from Portugal.

The same goes for Spanish, which is spoken differently across 20 countries.

“Behind every language is a mentality,” he said. “I believe in acquiring a language you also acquire a certain mentality.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, unlike at previous Games, interpreters are to work out of the main press center, taking audio and video feeds from the scattered venues. This cuts out chauffeuring interpreters around the city.

A test of the system was nearly perfect, and could do five media events at once, Ponomarev said.

Ponomarev said he worked his first Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, and took over as chief in Rio.

He credits his mother with getting him started, smuggling US films into the former Soviet Union.

Under the Soviet system, he was assigned to study Danish, which is not widely spoken, but helped him with German and gave him a conversational understanding of Norwegian and Swedish.

“Once you acquire one language, it just stacks up,” he said.

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