Alexandre Ponomarev answers the question, “If you mean for me to understand, I have lost count.”
Count ’em. Ponomarev can speak Russian, Ukranian and English. Ponomarev can also speak Norwegian, Portuguese, Italian, and Swedish.
Ahh! But how about your Japanese?
Ponomarev replied, “Muzukashi” which in Japanese means “difficult”. This can also be translated to mean that he doesn’t speak much.
Okay, no one is perfect.
Ponomarev, the Tokyo Games’ chief interpreter, manages a team of nearly 100 interpreters, who translate Olympic joy into a cacophony in 11 languages: Japanese English, French and Spanish.
Ponomarev was the first to compete in the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and he took over as chief in Rio de Janeiro for 2016. His mother encouraged him to learn languages by smuggling films from America into the Soviet Union. The languages began to pile up one by one.
He explained that when someone walks into a room with interpreters and it’s not the same person speaking the languages, it can feel like the Tower of Babel. “You can hear people talking simultaneously in different languages and dialects, and even using odd words. Although it may seem absurd, we are not crazy.”
They are busy in Tokyo.
The Main Press Center is home to most of the staff. It has 20 translation booths lined the walls and is cable-strewn. Computer coders and wires connect their words to a network using screens and screens. These booths are decorated using Japanese art by famous masters such as Hokusai and have labels such JPN or ENG that indicate the languages being used.
All interpretations are done remotely, unlike previous Olympics. Remote venues can feed into the press-center hub. Two dozen interpreters are not even present in Japan, so they come from Europe or the Americas to help with late-night events in Japan.
All Olympic venues can access their simultaneous translations via an app. This means that interpreters won’t be stranded in traffic to reach a venue and there is no need to distribute handheld translator devices.
Andrea Hofmann Miller, a German interpreter, said, “We are here at the press centre all the time and we watch the TV events just like anyone else.” “In Rio, it took us four hours to travel by bus to reach the swimming venue. In my case, eight hours of bus travel was required to get to the venue for a German-speaking swimmer who didn’t win.
Ponomarev noted that language can be affected by cultural differences. Ponomarev may assign a speaker from Brazil Portuguese to a Brazilian speaker, or a peninsular Portuguese speaker, to someone from Portugal. The same goes for Spanish, which is different across 20 countries.
The other day, a visitor to his office discovered that Ponomarev spoke Spanish with a Spanish accent. He was chatting to an Argentine and a Venezuelan, as well as another Spaniard. They spoke their own dialects of Spanish and occasionally slipped into French.
Ponomarev explained that if there are four to five interpreters in a room and they all speak at least two or three languages each, the conversation will automatically switch between them.” “The conversation begins in one language, but quickly switches to the other because another language is more suitable for talking about a particular topic.”
A polyglot can toggle between multiple languages more easily than staying in one language, much like a musician who plays many instruments. He used the German word “schadenfreude” to illustrate his point. This is a feeling of joy that results from the misfortunes of others.
“This type of word is only available in German, and it would be very difficult to convey that concept in English. The same goes for concepts that only exist in Russia. We don’t understand them well in other languages. We switch to another language so that people can understand the concepts immediately.
He stated that his interpreters had studied the nuances and Modern Pentathlon before the Olympics. They can sometimes be confused, especially in new events such as surfing or skateboarding.
He said, “These are young people with their own talk.” “If someone says that the wave are bad, man,” it means that the waves were great.
Ponomarev, along with many of his staff, have been involved in high-profile political events such as the G20 and the World Economic Forum. These are much more difficult than the Olympics.
He said, “There is a wide range of people — presidents and royalty, politicians, interesting influences, you name it.”
The Olympics can sometimes get very delicate. Hofmann Miller almost wept when he spoke about the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, was killed in a training run just before the opening ceremony. He lost control of the sled and struck a steel pole near the track.
She said, “I was selected to do the interview with the press for that, which was a very,very sad event that I will never forget.” It was very emotional, and it was hard for us all to sit on the stage and answer the questions of the press.
Interpretation is more art than science. It requires skill, but also a lot of humanity. Ponomarev and Hofmann Miller, the German interpreter, both acknowledged cheering on the athletes or sympathizing in defeat.
Ponomarev stated that “we all get absolutely excited about these athletes.” Because when you interpret, it’s like being in another’s head. It’s not about understanding words; it’s about understanding meaning. When you get inside someone’s head, it’s easy to sympathize.