Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Memories

At 9 o'clock tonight local time, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games begins in London. Already at 10:30 this morning, Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, was addressing the world press. His speech will have been interpreted into several languages.

Forgive me if, on this historic occasion, I indulge in some personal memories.

The first Olympics I saw were the 1948 ones in London. In fact I was living and going to school within walking distance of their main venue, the old Empire Stadium in the London suburb of Wembley. They were especially exciting because they were the first after WW2. I didn't see much of them; we didn't have TV. But I was present to see the great Fanny Blankers-Koen win one of her four golds. Amazingly, it's on YouTube: click here. By that time I was already a conscious Native Translator from years of language courses at school and one year at university, but I had no idea that Expert Translation even existed as a profession, and there were as yet no schools of translation in the UK.

The second time was the 1976 Montreal Games. Very different. I was living further away from the venue, in Ottawa, but 200 km is almost next door by Canadian standards. By then I was a Professional Expert Conference Interpreter. I did a four-week stint at the Games, which included a week of preparation since it was 'money no object' for the Montreal organisers under legendary Mayor Jean Drapeau. My most vivid memory is of the evening at the Montreal Forum when little Nadia Comaneci scored her perfect 10, the first Olympics gymnast ever to do so. (It too is here on YouTube.) The reason I got in, and even had a front-row standing position, was that the organisers had forgotten to order proper identity tags for us interpreters. No doubt we were their least concern. So at the last minute they decided to issue us press tags, and those got us in everywhere.

I have other stories about those games, but they concern Professional Interpreters and so this blog isn’t the place. Instead, I want to draw attention to the army of other interpreters at the Games, the Native Liaison Interpreters. Unlike the conference interpreters huddled away in their booths, they wear smart uniforms and are to be seen walking around everywhere at all such international events. Some are temporarily professionals, some are volunteers. But they aren’t engaged as interpreters and they aren’t recognised as such. They’re called hostesses and hosts or guides, etc. Of course they have a lot of other duties besides interpreting, but many of them have to be bilingual, including the professional London Blue Badge Guides, and it’s not sufficiently appreciated that impromptu translating and interpreting are part of the job. It's taken for granted.

So with all those Liaison Interpreters around, why are Conference Interpreters needed? For one thing for the press conferences like Jacques Rogge's this morning and which follow each event. But few people realise how much conference work goes on behind the scenes before the Games even open. It’s an opportunity for the world governing bodies of each sport to get together. I had said to our chief that I knew about soccer, which in those days few Canadians played, so I was assigned to a week of meetings of FIFA, as well as to a tense meeting of the IOC over Taiwan‘s participation as “China“. I was on the relief team that was hastily formed and called in around 7 am to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel when the IOC meeting had gone on all night and worn out the regular team.

When somebody at Forli asked me what was the most interesting interpretation job I'd ever had, I didn't hestitate. I regard the Montreal Olympics as the high point of my professional interpreting career. I'm sure the London Olympics will be the high point for many younger interpreters, Expert and Native.

Fanny Blankers-Koen. Wikipedia. Click here.

The Guild of Registered Tourist Guides, London. Click here.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Taiwan controversy at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. CBC Digital Archives. Click here.


  1. Thank you SO much for sharing these memories! Big hugs!

  2. Thanks for sharing your Olympic memories. So the first Olympic was also in London, same venue of this year's Olympic. I didn't know that. Thanks for the information.

  3. Not exactly the first Olympics, which took place before I was born, but the first after the Second World War.

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