Yes, Oui, Si, and Hai: Interpreters ready for Tokyo Olympics


Alexandre Ponomarev is the chief interpreter for next year’s Tokyo’s Olympics. He speaks more than a half dozen languages: Russian, English, Spanish, French, German, Danish and Ukrainian. And he can get by in a handful of others.

But at times, even he needs an interpreter — for instance, when he’s working in Japan.

“I can’t speak all languages, unfortunately,” he said, answering in English in an interview with The Associated Press. “I wish I could.”

Next year’s Olympics will be an interpreter’s delight: more than 10,000 athletes representing about 200 nations or territories, many of which also have minority languages that are spoken alongside the national language.

Stepping into the din are 100 interpreters — 40 from Japan and 60 from outside — handling 11 official languages for Tokyo: Japanese, English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese.

It’s a team accustomed to interpreting for presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs.

But the Olympics are different and require fluency in the nuances of judo, the ins-and-outs of archery or the vagaries of modern pentathlon. Then mix in the lingo from new Olympic sports like surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.

“They train. They prepare,” Ponomarev said. “We have glossaries, we have Olympic terminology and we study different sports.”

Even this is not always enough. Ponomarev said he was bamboozled when a snowboarder at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics responded in English about a performance.

″‘Oh, totally rad man. Just so bad,’” Ponomarev repeated.


It was a great run.

“The surfers, they have their own speak,” Ponomarev said. “The same goes for snowboarders at the Winter Olympics. That can be challenging. But we certainly found an equivalent.”

In Japanese, Arabic, German. Or whatever.

Ponomarev’s team includes at least one former Olympian, and most have done several Olympics. He also corrects anyone who confuses interpretation with translation. He reminds that translation refers to the written word.

Much of the interpretation service is for athletes after they’ve won medals. But interpreters also work briefings for the International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency WADA, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Here the focus can be disputes, doping, and other rule-breaking. One poor interpretation can cause confusion, even legal fallout.