From helping deliver babies, to explaining EastEnders to a group of bemused foreign journalists, football interpreters can lead an interesting life.
Most often seen using their sharp language skills to explain an unusual metaphor to a packed news conference, they sometimes become part of the story themselves.
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa’s recent interviews have been entertaining, thanks largely to the help of interpreter Salim Lamrani, while Thierry Henry’s first news conference back at Monaco was memorable for his facial reaction to forgetting he had an interpreter.
But what is it like to work with your “idols”? How does it feel to voice critical comments of your team’s manager? And how about helping deliver babies?
Well that story comes courtesy of English-German interpreter Peter Clark, whose company provided an interpreter for Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura during his time at Celtic.
“His wife was pregnant and the day they had to go to the hospital, the interpreter had to go too as they did not understand a word of English,” said Clark.
“He went into the room while she gave birth, to translate what the nurses said.”
‘I had to effectively fight with my manager’
Regular West Ham interpreter Marc Joss found himself in the unusual – and unwelcome – position of having to effectively criticise the club’s manager after a Europa League qualifier in July 2015.
Speaking after his side had lost 3-0 to the Hammers, Lusitanos boss Xavi Roura said Bilic “lacked respect” for watching the game from the stand instead of the dugout.
Joss had to translate his comments into English – in the first person.
“I was initially rather taken aback by his fierce digs in Spanish, especially as I’m not a confrontational guy in any way, but I had to put myself in the Lusitanos manager’s shoes and effectively have a fight with Bilic on his behalf,” he said.
“It’s fair to say the journalists in attendance lapped it up – it may well have been the most explosive presser in Europa League first-round qualifying history, and Bilic did end up deciding to take his seat in the dugout for the second leg.”
Explaining EastEnders – and leaving nothing out
One question interpreters are often asked is whether they censor their clients.
“You cannot leave anything out,” says Stefano Mazzoletti, who can speak Italian, German, Spanish and English. “You do not ask questions, you just translate it and give the answer the same way the coach says it.
“I try to translate everything, even if the coach makes a joke or says something funny or mysterious. My job is not to censor. Jose Mourinho is always funny and joking and making fun of the press.”
Manchester United manager Mourinho, of course, worked as an interpreter for former England boss Sir Bobby Robson during his time at Barcelona.
Clark, meanwhile, recalls a Jermain Defoe news conference when Tottenham were playing Swiss team Young Boys in 2010.
He said: “They asked what he liked to do in his free time. He said: ‘Watching Eastenders.’ There was a room full of Swiss journalists shaking their heads, asking: ‘What is Eastenders?’ I had to explain what it was.”
And how would you start to interpret Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino’s ‘cow’ analogy before their Champions League match against Inter Milan in September?
“If I do not get it, I still try and make something out of it and try and find an example in another language or describe it” said German-Italian interpreter Stefano Mazzoletti.
How ‘great’ it is to work with your idols…
Sometimes being a football interpreter can be the dream job.
Former AEK Athens full-back Giorgio Alafogiannis is used by Greek and Italian teams, and during five years at Serie A club Udinese he taught Italian to players such as Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and Watford’s Roberto Pereyra.
“My first job was a match between AEK Athens and AC Milan,” he said. “I went to Milan and sat between my idols Carlo Ancelotti and Paolo Maldini. I was a Milan fan and an Athens player and got to be with my heroes.
“I was also there when Milan beat Liverpool in the 2006 Champions League final in Athens.”
Mazzoletti, who was born in Italy and grew up in Germany, has been an interpreter since 2006 and spent a year and a half as Ancelotti’s personal interpreter when the Italian was at Bayern Munich.
“He let me call him ‘Carlo’ which was a great honour,” he said. “I would have walked to China for Carlo, that job meant a lot to me.”
…though sometimes it can cost you your job
Ancelotti was sacked by Bayern in September 2017, after a 3-0 defeat by Paris St-Germain in the Champions League.
“It came all of a sudden,” said Mazzoletti. “The team was having problems, but it blew up in Paris. I had not travelled to that game, as PSG provided an interpreter. The next day the president of Bayern decided to sack him, for me it was also a big blow.”
Mazzoletti is still used by Bayern – albeit on a freelance basis – but has not seen Ancelotti, now manager of Napoli, since.
Don’t forget Pep and Jose are watching
Do a good job and it gets noticed by the men in charge.
“They check you out, make sure you know what you are talking about,” says Clark, who was Steve McLaren’s personal interpreter at Wolfsburg and taught English to both Ancelotti and Fabio Capello.
Mourinho, then at Chelsea, was so impressed by the linguistic skills of Andreas Wagner at a news conference before a Champions League game with Steaua Bucharest that he gave the interpreter his club top.
“Mourinho spoke at length without giving our interpreter a chance to translate,” says Clark. “When Andreas had his break to translate, he had about a seven-minute monologue to translate.”
Mazzoletti recalls one of the many times he translated for Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, against Basel in the Champions League last season.
“Pep knows German and English and after the press conference he turned around to be, gave me his hand and said: ‘Verdadero espectaculo – you are a real spectacle.’ I did not know what to answer. He had been very pleased with my performance.
“I have done many press conference for Pep. He is known to criticise interpreters and correct them if they misunderstand him.”
‘Everyone will hear your mistakes’
Clark – a director of Clark Football Languages, which provides specialised interpreters to clubs, nations and competitions across the world – says he can spot an inexperienced interpreter “straight away”.
Alafogiannis, meanwhile, says it is “not a simple job”, adding: “Not any interpreter could do this. You need to know the words and terminology of football, the background to a game, the players, line-ups, the club’s past players, the players’ nicknames etc.
“You have to speak carefully in front of all the cameras, the media and journalists. Everyone will hear your mistakes and if you make one mistake, not speak the way the coach wanted you to, say something different, then you will find out next day in the newspapers.”
‘He held my writing hand’
While a good memory is essential, so are a pen and notepad.
But Clark’s were rendered useless when he interpreted for Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni when his Red Bull Salzburg side played Blackburn in 2006.
“He held my writing hand for the whole press conference,” said Clark. “I couldn’t write. I had to translate it all from memory and into three languages.”
Going on stage at an end-of-season awards party
Joss would translate at media days for Dimitri Payet when the Frenchman was at West Ham, and had to help him when he was named ‘Hammer of the Year’ in 2016.
“It wasn’t part of the plan, but everyone wanted him to speak and he was happy to oblige, but only in French via an interpreter, which meant I ended up on stage,” said Joss.
“I’d like to consider myself a half-decent five-a-side player, but appearing to be named Player of the Season at a Premier League club’s end-of-season awards was highly flattering.
“The fact Payet whispered each sentence into my ear when we were on stage at a posh London hotel in front of more than 1,000 people certainly made for unusual interpreting conditions.”
And finally, carry on regardless….
Mazzoletti was interpreting for Zinedine Zidane and Marcelo after Real Madrid lost to Wolfsburg in 2016.
“The press conference took a very long time,” he said.
“At some point while Zidane was talking, all the lights went off, he continued to give the answers and let me translate for him in the dark. When I was done, the lights came on.”