NYC Marathon winner brings sports interpreting into the spotlight

When Evans Chebet won the New York City (NYC) Marathon this month, he became the first man in more than a decade to win both the NYC Marathon and the Boston Marathon in a single year.

Chebet, a long-distance runner who hails from Kenya, received a lot of attention not just for his impressive finish time (he completed the race in just 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 41 seconds), but also because he spoke to the media in Kiswahili with the aid of a volunteer interpreter and his coach, rather than using English. Chebet’s comments to the press have garnered kudos from Kiswahili speakers who applauded him for using his country’s national language (one Youtube commenter first commended him for using Kiswahili before even mentioning his win).

“This is so amazing, we should be proud of our language [rather] than to struggle with English. I’m so proud of you Evans Chebet,” one commenter wrote on a Youtube video from his performance at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. “The rest of [Kenya’s] athletes should emulate him. He [is] a good example.”

However, the impromptu nature of the interpretation services Chebet received have led some to wonder why a professional interpreter was not present to help him communicate with the media. This question also shines the spotlight on a relatively understudied niche in the field of language services: sports translation and interpreting.

Although many applauded Chebet’s use of Kiswahili over English, several commenters noted that they were unimpressed with the interpreters themselves — when a volunteer interpreter uttered the nonsense word “mashindo” instead of “mashindano,” several folks on social media made fun of her. Likewise, when Chebet’s coach gave impromptu interpretations for the media, one commenter wrote: “Why are they getting translators who themselves speak poor Kiswahili?” 

While the concept of sports translation and interpretation is certainly not especially new, Gözde Begüm Uyanik, a researcher at Marmara University in Turkey, wrote in 2017 that it’s a fairly under-studied niche within the field of translation studies. “Sports can be regarded as a technical field with its own terminology, and the field of sports could cover a variety of fields thanks to its interdisciplinary nature as well,” reads her paper on the topic, in which she also suggests strategies interpreters can use in the sports context.

Given that sports are often cited as a pastime that brings people together from all cultural and national backgrounds, it’s no surprise that there’s a need for quality language services in this context. Moreover, many of the most successful athletes (like Chebet, for instance) in Anglophone countries speak languages other than English natively — it’s important to make sure that they’re able to communicate effectively with their fans, and professional interpreters can, of course, help them do that.

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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