Can we really translate the language of football?

We are often asked here at all kinds of questions about the language of football: the meaning, the origin of certain words and phrases and why is it that some players and managers use clichés all the time? This article looks at recent improvements in translation software and wonders if it’s possible for the language of football to be translated? You will find explanations of key vocabulary (in bold) at the foot of the post.

Football Phrases | Football Clichés

When we were recently asked by CNN what we thought about the proposal from Japan’s 2022 World Cup bid to offer travelling supporters a device that would translate ‘football language’, we were intrigued. The idea of electronic translators does sounds appealing but as two teachers who have to deal with students using translation software on a regular basis we have to say we are still to be convinced of their accuracy. Furthermore, the fact that we feature a weekly football phrase on our podcast in order to help language learners who love the game perhaps demonstrates that the translation device would have to be fairly sophisticated in order to capture the subtleties of this kind of language. To translate a specific discourse such as football, we wonder if indeed it would be possible to capture the nuances and the sub-texts of the ‘beautiful game’.

When I lived in football-crazy Spain many years ago, the former Irish international (and current Canal+ co-commentator) Michael Robinson literally translated the phrase ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ into ‘seis de uno y media docena del otro‘ which caused instant bemusement among my friends there as, of course, it meant absolutely nothing to them. Since then, however, it has become part and parcel of the Spanish game, one that means a decision could go either one way or the other. Continuing with the Spanish-related examples, the Inter Milan coach Rafa Benitez, who speaks very good English after his stint as Liverpool coach, recently came out with a literal translation of a Spanish expression involving a mountain of sugar and a priest, again cue much head-scratching among football fans, this time here in the UK, where we think he means that something is extremely obvious – but we are not 110% sure. Staying with Benitez, the Italian press recently ran a report on the Inter coach’s future with a headline asking whether he would get a chance to eat his ‘panettone’ (a traditional Italian festive cake) meaning will he still be with the club at Christmas or will he have been fired? Means everything to an Italian football fan and nothing to one elsewhere.

Sometimes, however, literally translating a phrase from one language to another can work. Similar to Michael Robinson’s creation of a new football phrase on Spanish TV is the expression ‘to park the bus‘ which was first used by Jose Mourinho when he felt that Tottenham had been overly-defensive against his side, Chelsea. The opposing team had not wished to attack but instead defended with all of its players, they parked a bus in front of the goal, meaning it was nigh-on impossible to score. The media loved the phrase and this has now entered into the football lexicon.

Highlighting the fact that it is all about context and shared knowledge, some of my north American colleagues have difficulty with certain football phrases such as ‘early doors‘; ‘gatecrash the top 4‘ and of course why is it that parrots are the sickest of all creatures? Then again, throw a couple of baseball or football clichés at me and no doubt I would struggle to comprehend as well.

In addition to all this is the fact that, as far as I remember, when watching Japanese football coverage on TV there were few football phrases or cliches involved during the commentary but instead lots of technical terms borrowed from English (corner is ‘corner’ for instance), as well as lots of statistics and background information about teams and players – perhaps to address the perceived lack of football knowledge among the general populace? With this lack of footballing tradition, coupled with the difficulties of producing advanced forms of translation software and the context-specific nature of football language, we are wondering, therefore, how an electronic translator might fare in the world of football?

  • We would be interested in your opinions on this matter – do you think the language of football can be translated?
  • What kind of football language or cliches do you have in your language or in your favourite sport?

Let us know by posting a comment below.


a device: A machine; a piece of equipment

we were intrigued: We were very interested in it

sophisticated: Well developed; high quality

subtleties: The nuances, the details of something, things people from a shared background can understand better

the nuances: The details, the subtleties

cue: Here the word is used as if it were a stage direction, i.e. now do this. So, when fans in the UK read this comments they scratched their heads as they did not understand he meaning

head-scratching: Bemusement; when people are puzzled or confused they scratch their heads

110%: Another sporting cliche, this time referring to the fact that players will try that little bit harder than 100% (Why not 200% then?)

football lexicon: The language of football; a lexicon is a collection of words and phrases

part and parcel : Another cliche, meaning that something has become ‘ordinary’, has been accepted as something normal

parked a bus: They defended deeply, they had no intention of attacking

nigh-on impossible: Almost impossible

perceived: Thought; refers to something that may be accepted as common knowledge though not necessarily the case

fare: to do, how it might perform

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