Interpretation, translation and localization changes are happening at a rapid pace in the world of sports. Athletes have international teammates and loyal fans from around the world. To keep up, sports organizations have taken action to make games accessible to fans worldwide, as well as helping multicultural, multilingual players from diverse communities communicate with the media and each other. Many professional sports have been providing language access to their communities for decades.
Soccer has long been an international sport, with a global audience that made translation and interpretation a necessity. The demand for interpretation at FIFA events has only increased with the global popularity of soccer (or football, depending on your location, or if you watch Ted Lasso). The 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar was broadcast in more than 200 nations, with 32 countries competing in the tournament. In July and August of this year, Australia and New Zealand will co-host the Women’s World Cup, featuring 32 teams and at least 18 different languages.
American football has also grown to become a global sensation. The Super Bowl is currently broadcast live in 30 languages and over 130 countries, uniting people around the world. Golf has also attracted an international following, with participants in the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) US Women’s Open tournament coming in from around the world.
An American Pastime Has Multilingual Roots
Modern baseball is an American invention that attracts a base of diverse, multilingual fans and players, and has adjusted its translation and interpretation strategy accordingly with the times.
In January 2016, Major League Baseball announced it would require each team in its league to recruit and hire professional Spanish to English interpreters to assist with the language needs of Spanish speaking players. This was due to a massive influx of native Spanish speakers joined the league in 2015.
For years, coaches and managers acted as ad-hoc interpreters for players. While team staff have good intentions, these individuals typically lack any professional training in interpretation, leaving room for error or inaccuracy.
To give a better idea of the multilingual demands of the league, consider the current make-up of the MLB. According to official Opening Day rosters from 2023, 269 of 945 baseball players were born outside of the United States, originating from 19 different countries.
For players from Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan, interpreters have been a part of contract negotiations already. The total number of Asian-born players on the 2023 roster made up merely 1.3% of the league, however.
Athletes born in Latin American countries, on the other hand, made up 25% of the league in 2023. The Dominican Republic had the biggest representation with 104 players, followed by Venezuela with 62, Cuba with 21 and Puerto Rico with 19.
According to Puerto Rico native and former New York Yankee, Carlos Beltran, the improved requirements for professional Spanish interpreters were long overdue. Beltran began advocating for full-time Spanish interpreters back in 2014 after noticing a Spanish speaking teammate struggling to explain himself. Beltran knew he needed to help bridge the language gap and brought the issues of nonexistent Spanish interpreters to the attention of MLBPA executive director, Tony Clark. His advocacy resulted in the 2016 rule change requiring bilingual assistance on and off the field.
MLB.com caught up with Beltran after the announcement of the new requirements, where he stated: “Every Latino that plays at the MLB level wants to learn English and get better, but it takes time to pick up the language, and it doesn’t happen overnight.” Beltran continued: “I do believe once Latinos get to a point where they feel they can do an interview in English, that some won’t need an interpreter anymore. But others will, and this is something that was needed and overdue.”
What makes a great sports interpreter?
Under the MLB provisions for interpreters, each team is given $65,000 to help offset the costs associated with hiring an interpreter. These funds originate from the penalties paid by teams for exceeding the international signing bonus.
Sports interpreters are dedicated professionals. Here are some examples of what the job requires. Interpreters are:
- Expected to attend all MLB events, from pregame and postgame interviews to Spring Training workouts and games.
- Able to assist players with questions regarding the logistics of their position as an MLB athlete, such as contract negotiation, penalties, and other business-related items to being a professional baseball player.
- Full of passion for the sport in question and the soft skills to make personal connections with their players.
- Capable of interpreting quickly in a loud and fast-paced environment.
- Doing double duty as serving training partners when other teammates aren’t available.
- Often going above and beyond to support players.
- Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara recalls bringing the player groceries when he was recovering from injuries in previous seasons.
- This aspect of the job isn’t just limited to baseball- at the United States Golf Association’s US Women’s Open tournament, interpreters for the players worked 10-to-12-hour days assisting players with sundry tasks.
Major League Baseball Interpreting Today
Since the MLB began requiring Spanish interpreters on every team, they’ve become a fixture on and off the field. Beyond supporting players as they field questions from the media, they also help teammates communicate with each other during games to ensure everyone understands the strategy and is on the same page, supporting comradery.
Sports event organizers are becoming increasingly aware of the business opportunities that become available to them when reaching a global audience – a welcome trend. Technology has made it possible for people around the world to unite around their shared love for a sport or a team. There are more ways than ever to digitally connect with players and teams (either on social media or streaming services), increasing the power and ability to engage with global audiences.