32 countries, countless languages: Linguistic considerations at the World Cup

Often referred to as the biggest sporting event in the entire world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that broadcasters and organizers of the FIFA World Cup also have to take into account certain linguistic considerations when airing the games on television. With teams from 32 different countries (and spectators from many more) it’s important that everybody involved is able to understand and be understood by others. 

Interpreters and translators play a critical role in making this happen. Through the FIFA Interpreting app, for example, journalists and other attendees can access simultaneous interpretations of each game’s commentary from the comfort of their smartphones.

As temperatures cool down (here in the northern hemisphere, at least) and the competition continues to heat up, it’s worthwhile to take a quick look at how things are shaping up — linguistically speaking — at this year’s World Cup.

A few months before players and spectators even arrived in Doha, the FIFA Council amended its statutes to include three new languages among its official languages: Russian, Portuguese, and Arabic.

“In this way, a great many more member associations and other football stakeholders will be able to access relevant information regarding FIFA’s operations, and to communicate with FIFA allowing for greater understanding and cooperation across the world,” the organization wrote in its announcement.

The three languages joined French, English, Spanish, and German. Under the amended statute, all official FIFA documents — from minutes to official announcements — will be translated into these seven languages.

Although FIFA works with several linguists to ensure everybody is understood, mistakes are inevitable. 

On Sunday, South Korea’s head coach Paulo Bento spoke to reporters about the status of two injured players, Kim Min-jae and Hwang Hee-chan. Korean-speaking spectators were disappointed to hear that both players would be sitting out at the next day’s match against Ghana, but it turns out the misunderstanding was the result of an erroneous interpretation.

Speaking in his native Portuguese, Bento said that he would make a game-day decision about whether or not Kim could play, and that Hwang would sit out the next day’s match. The Korean interpretation, however, led audience members to believe that neither player would be able to participate in the following game.

According to a report from The Korea Times, the Korean Football Association filed an official complaint with FIFA over the error the next day. FIFA claims to be taking steps toward ensuring that future incidents like this do not occur.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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