The challenge of interpreting at the Olympic Games

In the framework of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee will select over 8,000 volunteers to work as interpreters.

In exactly a year, the Rio 2016 Olympic Games will take place. An event of this type involves considerable linguistic challenges given the attendance of delegations from over 200 countries and the fact that it is broadcast around the world. Let us take a look at the the problems of language at the Olympic Games.

English and French are the official languages of the Olympic Games

Currently, the Olympic Movement has two official languages: English and French. Although the choice of English points to common sense, choosing French as the second language seems a little anachronistic. After all, French is only in tenth position in the ranking of the most spoken languages in the world, well behind Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic, for example. Actually, this is a nod in the direction of the event’s origins, a long-standing tradition that has lasted to this day because the founder of the the modern Olympic Games in 1896 was Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, at a time in the late 19th century when French was the language of international diplomacy.

French as an Olympic language is now under threat

However, times have changed and some feel that the overriding presence of French in the Olympic Games is out-of-date, hence the request to review its status as an official language. One of the most pragmatic arguments is based on fact that using two official languages (English and French) generates additional costs. It would be better, say those in favor of the linguistic evolution of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s protocols and regulations, to use English as the main universal language, and the language of whichever country happens to be the host nation.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games and its linguistic challenges

The Rio Olympic Games have already started looking for 8,000 volunteers whose mission is to be “the voice of the Olympic Games”, and who will be assigned to the section of “protocol and languages.” These volunteers will provide several language services, one of which is the interpretation of everything that happens during the games into over 30 languages, such as Amharic, for example, which is the official language of Ethiopia, or Swahili in Kenya and Urdu in Pakistan. Another service will be to accompany delegations from over two hundred countries.

The 2020 Olympics Games in Japan are turning to machine interpreting

To meet the challenges of interpreting at the Olympics, the Japanese 2020 Olympic Committee is betting on automatic interpretation. Researchers at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology have been working in recent years on several software programs to improve the quality, accuracy and speed of interpretation from Japanese into English. Their objective is to develop software able to conduct conference interpretation (as opposed to consecutive interpretation which is easier, but slower). The Japanese language does not pose great difficulties, as it places the verb at the end of the sentence. Researchers say that they are on the verge of creating a machine able to anticipate the meaning of a sentence before it finishes… Within five years, we will meet again in Japan to see the results …

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