Olympic Translation Issues: How to Prepare for Big Events and Lessons Learned

With a record-breaking 2,925 athletes from 92 counties set to compete and millions of spectators flocking to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, it’s clear that this will be one of the biggest sporting events in history. Of course, with so many people from hundreds of different nations gathering in one place, there are bound to be some Olympic translation issues.

Olympic translation issues

Let’s take a close look at how the International Olympics Committee (IOC) prepares for such a huge event and the lessons we can learn from what they have done.

Translation Preparations Prior to the Olympic Games

 First, South Korea has been reminding everyone that the 2018 Winter Olympic Games are being held in Pyeongchang (not Pyongyang). Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea. You can imagine the travel headaches and Olympic translation issues such confusion couldcause. So, the official name of the city has been changed to PyeongChang to make it clearer.

Translation remains a top concern for the IOC. South Korea sought out thousands of volunteers with language skills to act as interpreters and translators for athletes, delegates, and the press. The exact number of translators is unknown, but as a comparison, for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, over 1,000 interpreters were deployed.

This year, an official translation app is available for local businesses, athletes, and sports officials. Making this available should minimize Olympic translation issues, at least somewhat. Developed by a local software company, “Genie Talk” works on Apple and Android and can translate Korean, Japanese, English, Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Arabic.

Looking for some quick Korean lessons to get ready for the games? Check out football great Park Ji Sung’s quick phrases on CNN.com.

The Official Languages of the Olympics 

The Olympic games always have two or three official languages depending on where the games are held. Traditionally, the first two are English and French. The third language is the official language of the host country. This year, the third official language is Korean.

The choice of official languages is all about whom the IOC expects to watch the games, not the most popular languages spoken everywhere. For example, although Korean is spoken in both South and North Korea and by an estimated 80 million people around the world, it’s only the 17th most common native language.

In addition, much of the branding for the 2018 Games was inspired by the Korean alphabet. The emblem of the games, for instance, is a stylized version of the hangul letters ㅍ (p) and ㅊ (ch), for the initial sounds in “PyeongChang.”

Olympics translation issues

Linguistic fun fact: Although classified as a language isolate, many theories have been proposed to explain the origin of Korean. The most prominent theory links Korean to the Altaic languages of central Asia, which includes Turkish, Mongolian, and the Tungusic languages of Siberia. Others argue for the inclusion of Korean with the Dravidian languages of southern India. Unsurprisingly, Korean shares linguistic features with Japanese and Chinese.

Dealing with Social Media

Since the Winter Olympics is such a huge event, organizers have to make sure spectators from around the world can access the competition on their preferred platform in their preferred language without any Olympic translation issues. Two years ago by the end of the Sochi Games, there were over 150 million Tweets and 116 million Facebook status updates about the Olympics in different languages.

Social media may not be the first thing you think of when you think about translation for a huge event like the Winter Olympics, but actually many fans around the globe have nowhere else to connect with their favorite Olympic teams and athletes besides social media. The Olympic Channel, which broadcasts news about the Olympic Games has social media accounts is English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean. Each account is tailored to the individual users based on their primary language.

So, social media is actually an important tool for making the Olympic Winter Games accessible to everyone. And avoiding Olympic translation issues in social media is an important focus for the IOC.

Learning from Past Olympic Translation Issues

 Translation mishaps during the 2012 Olympics in London were some of the most notable to date. The biggest problems were with Arabic. Many companies relied on machine translation and asked vendors to swap fonts at the last minute. This turned out to be a huge mistake because the unvetted fonts made many statements impossible to understand.

Another notable example included signs at the official shopping center—yes, the Olympic Games even have an official mall. The signs were meant to say “Welcome to London” in Arabic. There were only two small problems: the words were written backwards and spaces between the letters made the signs incomprehensible.

Of course, machine translation has seen dramatic improvement to the algorithms making translation software more accurate today than back in 2012. Still, these Olympic translation issues are a lesson in what to expect when companies try to take translation short cuts.

While you almost certainly aren’t hosting an international event as large the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, you never want to sacrifice quality for speed. At the least, we recommend using a language service provider to edit any machine translations. As a business, you are nothing without your reputation. And if you are building a reputation as an international business, translation mishaps will quickly destroy any momentum you have built.

Looking Forward to PyeongChang

At Alpha Omega Translations, we are looking forward to the Opening Ceremony and all of the Winter Olympic fun happening over the next couple of weeks. Of course, we’ll also be keeping an eye out for any language translation wins (or fails). We simply can’t help ourselves!

Like the IOC, you, need a winning strategy for building relationships with international customers and organizations around the world. We’ve been working with clients like you for over 20 years now. Over the years we’ve developed custom solutions to help our clients power past their competitors, just like our amazing Olympic athletes. For more information about our expertise, visit our media and marketing translation page. Or contact us to talk about specific needs.

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