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Lost in Translation

Rugby, a rainy evening in southwest France, some twenty-five years ago.

I am the referee. The game, a Top 14 local derby, is only a few minutes old. The Agen centre shapes to receive a pass but the greasy ball eludes him.

I blow my whistle and then make my first mistake. Trying to be helpful, attempting to build a relationship with the players.

“En avant, bleu,” I announce. “Melee, blanc.” Knock on blue, scrum white.

A Pau player gives me a friendly tap on the shoulder as he goes by. At last, his quick glance suggests, an official who speaks our language.

Error number two follows immediately, as the ensuing scrum collapses in an unsightly heap.

“Punition. Blanc, numero trois. Il etombe l’epaule,” I venture. Penalty. White number 3 drops his shoulder.

3 is a mountain of a man. He gets to his feet, towers above me, stares me down. He is clearly unimpressed with the decision. Even worse, however, is the eerie feeling that the players now expect every call and instruction to be in French.

Alas, my language skills can’t cope. Crumble completely as the game temperature rises. I soon abandon my very limited French, revert completely to English. My lack of accurate communication en francais, the product no doubt of misunderstanding and a limited vocabulary, results in a distinct lack of player confidence. Trust is lost, frustration mounts, tensions flare, and the game bubbles over. I struggle mightily to keep a lid on proceedings. It makes for a long and uncomfortable 80 minutes.

The situation is unfair. International officials, on assignment away from home, are not required to converse in the home country’s mother tongue. On the flip side, the players pretty much need to understand English. They seek and deserve clear, concise information from the referee, in order to make key, split second decisions.

Yet, too often, problems arise because directives and explanations between referee and players are, not surprisingly, lost in translation.

A trip to Tokyo a year earlier sees much of the same. 8,000 fans at the Prince Chichibu Stadium. It is my full test debut, Japan vs Hong Kong. For the visitors, then a team made up completely by ex-pats, there is no language barrier.

Yet, for the hosts, the communication piece with the referee promises to be tricky, my Japanese limited to a handful of words.

Hai and Arigato. Yes and thank you. Ofusaido. Offside.

Sumimasen and wakarimasen. Sorry, I don't understand.

Followed by plenty of smiles, bows and nods.

A strong favourite, the Brave Blossoms win the game, but only by 34-27. Without question, my inability to consistently connect with the captain and other senior players is an issue. I attempt a phrase or two, but cannot speak Japanese. Virtually all of them do not comprehend English. Penalty awards, even general instructions, are met with looks equal parts bewilderment, uncertainty, and exasperation.

I return from the post-match function to my hotel. I ponder possible solutions, given that my frantic signals and gibberish have been of little assistance to the Japanese players. By way of contrast, I must concede that Japan, as a country, at least looks to help me and other visitors. Certainly, signs and information on the freeway, in restaurants, in shop windows, in brochures, all provide various explanations in English.

Nonetheless, I wonder if the mistranslations provided, while well intentioned, do little more than mirror my own shortcomings.

Indeed, on arrival to the country days earlier, construction delays my taxi from Narita airport into the city centre. Traffic slows to a crawl, inches forward, the motorway a giant car park. Up ahead, in the distance, a detour is in place. Getting closer to the bottleneck, I note the Japanese signage. If there is any confusion I think I understand why. Underneath the hieroglyphics, three English words stand out.

“Stop. Drive Sideways.”

Hours later, I ready for bed. Kill some time leafing through the hotel’s guest services book on the side table. Consider the impressive array of amenities displayed. One catches my eye, the neat print next to a photo of cleaning staff in uniform. Unfortunately, the English summary invites guests "to take advantage of the chambermaids.” Another promotes the first-floor bar, which advertises “special cocktails for ladies with nuts.”

And so, I have company. As with my refereeing, the potential pitfalls of forcing a foreign language when not properly qualified to do so are clearly accentuated.

Days later, the match complete, I head for home. Happy to be tucked in a business class seat, my suitcase safely in the hold, as the JAL 747 rumbles down the runway. I smile and chuckle as I recall other overseas stops and various accompanying language faux pas. The Paris shop which advertises "dresses made for street walking". Not to be outdone, a Copenhagen airline, underneath a resplendent headline in Danish, in English pledges “to take your bags and send them in all directions.”

And, finally, a placard in an old style Finnish guest house. In the men’s washroom, where the solution to faulty plumbing is simple. The small print suggests that “to stop the drip” patrons need only “turn cock to the right.”

Enough said.


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