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Lost in Translation
by Paul Gardner, April 17th, 2008 7AM
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TAGS:  european championship, international


A multilingual dictionary of soccer terms sounds like a pretty good idea. Indeed, it is a good idea -- provided it includes the terms and the languages that really matter.

Which makes the version that UEFA is about to publish pitifully inadequate. Sure it will cover 2,000 terms -- but it will feature only three languages. And just look at the languages: English, German and French.

There may just possibly be excuses for this extraordinary narrow-mindedness. They don't add up to much, but, for what they're worth, here they are: the publishers are German, and the dictionary is timed to coincide with the European Championship, in which the host countries are Austria and Switzerland. So the German language makes sense for that reason. English I suppose you can justify because it is the world's No. 1 language, and FIFA pushes its use as a lingua franca for referees. French? Oh I don't know, with France being, along with Germany, one of the two major powers of the European Union, probably it needs to be there for political reasons.

You will have noticed that none of the above excuses has anything to do with soccer. Anyone sitting down to present a glossary of international soccer terms that really matter could not possibly leave out Spanish, or Portuguese.

Spanish must be there because it is the most widely spoken language among important soccer-playing countries; Portuguese must be included because it is the language of Brazil, and because Brazil is far and away the most important soccer country in the world. And one can certainly make a soccer case for Italian that is at least as strong as that to be made for either French or German.

Here's something to ponder: the World Cup has been won by nations speaking English, French or German just five times. It has been won by nations speaking Spanish, Italian or Portuguese 13 times.

But this is not simply a question of statistics. We are told that this new dictionary will include "some of the sport's more colorful terms." I very much doubt that, but even assuming they mean colorful in the sense of picturesque or inventive or humorous, a lot of color will be missing, because they've got the wrong languages.

In a 1996 European Championship game against Scotland, the English player Paul Gascoigne astonished the English media by lifting the ball softly over the head of defender Colin Hendry, running round him, and volleying the ball into the net. A superb piece of skill -- that the journalists had to describe exactly as I have done, move by move. Because, in English, there is no single word to describe that play, one that is rarely seen in English soccer. But the Portuguese have a word for it, chapeu, the Spanish too, sombrero. Such ball skills are not alien to their game.

In my experience, Brazilian Portuguese is the most colorful and the most inventive of the soccer languages -- to be expected, because it needs to describe the world's most inventive and colorful version of the sport.

English? Just one example of the banality of English terminology will do. When the English manage (as they sometimes do) to string a few passes together, they talk about "knocking the ball around."

Knocking -- a mechanical, harsh sounding word, but quite appropriate for how the English tend to play. As it happens, even the English realize that the word is not right when speaking of Brazilian soccer; then, the phrase becomes "stroking the ball." Much nicer -- but not much used.

The flat no-frills English terminology is simply not up to reflecting the joys of soccer. (This is a problem in this country, which tends to adopt English terms willy-nilly -- a short time spent listening to the pathetically Brit-groveling announcers on Fox Soccer Channel will confirm that.)

As a soccer publication, UEFA's trilingual dictionary is not to be taken seriously. There is the possibility that it is meant to be a joke. It will, claims a UEFA spokesman help "women who want to really impress their husbands during Euro 2008." Yes, it may. And maybe it's best to leave it at that.


  1. John Foust
    commented on: April 17, 2008 at 3:41 p.m.
    HAH! Spot on ... ooops, sorry for the Brit term ...
  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: April 17, 2008 at 6:59 p.m.
    Paul, you either missed a rather large point or you willfully ignored it for the sake of finding something to rip on: the dictionary is being put out by UEFA. Union of EUROPEAN Football Associations. EUROPEAN. EUROPEAN. EUROPEAN. I had to put that 4 times so it stuck in your head. This isn't being put out by FIFA in which case I would be inclined to agree with you on the bad omission of Spanish. As it is being put out by EUROPE's federation, your 'well 'x' nations only won 'y' number of world cups and 'q' has won 90' argument suddenly changes to: English, French & German speaking nations have won: 5 World Cups. Portuguese, Spanish & Italian speaking have won: 4. Kinda changes things a bit, no? Also, English is in there as you said because it is probably the widest spoken language on earth (plus the English kinda invented the game so I guess it would be nice if their language was in the book about the game). French is in there because France has protectionist policies towards the French language (i.e. if something new in English comes out, they MUST try to think of a French name for it not mere adoption like 90% of the rest of the world does) this even extend to official EU law where ANYTHING that is distributed amongst the entire EU MUST include French translations despite the fact that there are even fewer French than English! Politics do matter no matter what. German is included because it goes without saying that the plurality of people in the EU speak German. There are well over 100 million German speakers in an area that has just under 500 million residents (more if you include other nations in UEFA, but since the EU controls publishing that what we need to look at). Also, you REALLY don't think Germany is a soccer power worthy of respect? Really? REALLY? Some of the greatest players EVER have come from Germany and there is NO COUNTRY ON EARTH that has made the final of the World Cup more than Germany and NO NATION ON EARTH has ever made the semi-finals of the World Cup than Germany. Oh and they just happened to win the thing 3 times along with 3 European crowns (finishing second twice). So before you dismiss them so easily you may want to reconsider. (yes, I am half German and was born on a military base there so I am a bit touchy about such things. ;) )
  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: April 17, 2008 at 7:01 p.m.
    "NO NATION ON EARTH has ever made the semi-finals of the World Cup than Germany" should read: "NO NATION ON EARTH has ever made the semi-finals of the World Cup MORE than Germany"

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