Languages at the FIFA World Cup

As I write this, the second week of the 2010 World Cup is in full swing in South Africa. The euphoria generated by the event can be felt throughout the entire world. Most significant are the numerous preparations and needs that arise in the host country, which include matters of language and communication, not only due to the large number of fans who come from all corners of the world, but also because the country itself has its own unique features. For example, South Africa has 11 official languages, to wit: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Of these, the most widely spoken are Afrikaans (derived from Dutch) and English, which is used for communication between different communities.

Indeed, in an attempt to reflect this diversity of languages, the name of the official mascot of the World Cup is Zakumi, a combination of “ZA”, the ISO code for South Africa and “kumi”, which means 10 in some of the languages, commemorating the year of the tournament. Likewise, the World Cup organizing committee’s spokesperson said that this name can also mean “come here” in several languages in the country, using this to include or, in some way, making as many people as possible identify with the name of this character by referencing their language, even slightly, and making the message reach the greatest number of people ppossible.

With this mixture of languages within the host country and the flood of visitors from all corners of the planet, it perhaps goes without saying that many interpreters of a large number of languages have been plying their trade in South Africa to ensure effective communication among the various figures, including the statements of the coaches and players in their various languages as well as the translation of documents that are used for a variety of purposes, not to mention the personal needs of those who travel there and don’t speak a language other than their mother tongue (only Serbian, for example).

The opportunist’s reaction arises from this: I read an interesting article of how a man from Cameroon, a barber by trade, moved to South Africa to offer services as a “spontaneous interpreter”, in which he spends time at airports and points of arrival and offers his “services” with a sign in his hand that size: English, Spanish, and French. For what can be seen, even though the service is not professional and the communication is often not fluid, he takes advantage of several who travel to the country unaware of the language that is spoken there.

Humorous examples aside, what is clear is that the work of language professionals, both translators and interpreters, is essential in today’s world and in countries where a diversity of languages is a reality.

Enjoy the World Cup and all of its cultures.

(Spanish version: