Opening New Doors on to New Worlds: Sport and Translation

By Georgia de Chamberet

Stories about feats of endurance and courage against the odds have been told since 776 BC when the ancient Olympic Games began. We all need myths and heroes: self-actualization lies at the core of their journey. Usain Bolt, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Carl Hester, Mo Farah . . . Thanks to the star athletes of the 2012 Summer Games, the Olympic flame will burn eternally for British sports fans.

Sport is an abundant source of entertainment and Tarantino-style tragedy. Its lead protagonists wield considerable commercial clout in many areas, including book publishing. Sir Alex Ferguson's My Autobiography has been selling 100,000 copies a week since its release a month ago. But it seems to be I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, translated by Ruth Urbom, that is winning hands down with heavyweight sports writers and punters alike. It sold approximately 700,000 copies in Sweden and stands head and shoulders above the rest for originality and quality. Ian Herbert writes in the Independent, "The book’s supreme beauty as an immigrant’s tale―the best of that kind since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth according to the author and journalist Simon Kuper―has been largely overlooked. The encapsulation of the immigrant experience is rarely heard beyond the realms of fiction, though this book’s early sections―the best of the work―provide a vivid sense of that dislocation: Ibrahimovic watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films with his father because 'Swedish TV didn’t exist for us. We lived in a very different world from the Swedes.'"

Which books travel and which do not is, to an extent, a reflection of which sports have the greatest global reach―soccer, cycling, tennis . . . Everyone likes a good rags-to-riches, or riches-to-rags, story. But it’s the brilliantly written, great stories that sprint off the shelves not the earn-a-buck hack-job. A key consideration for British commissioning editors when taking on the life of a foreign player is whether people like the person, and will they buy a piece of that celebrity? The story of the great life of a national treasure who inspires affection will easily transcend cultural and national borders. Pelé: The Autobiography, translated by Daniel Hahn, is a no-brainer. French three-time Balon D'or winner Michel Platini, said of him, “There's Pelé the man, and then Pelé the player. And to play like Pelé is to play like God.” Not only is Pelé the greatest soccer player ever, his later roles as Extraordinary Minister for Sport in Brazil, as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and UN ambassador for ecology and the environment, testify to his magnanimous spirit.

El Diego: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Footballer, translated by Marcela Mora y Araujo, is a fantastic read, according to Martin Amis. He writes in the Guardian, “This is an operatically emotional book, and also an exceptionally vivid one . . . With his tantrums, his self-injuries, and his unassuageable sweet tooth, Maradona has remained 'El Pibe d'Oro', the child of Gold; he is still Dieguito.”

Alan Samson, Orion's nonfiction publisher, tells me that Messi, written by bilingual sports journalist and broadcaster for SKY TV Guillem Balague, has shifted 25,000 copies since publication in December, and foreign-language rights have been sold to over 11 countries. Samson acquired John McEnroe’s second memoir last summer, and says, “I am thrilled to be publishing John McEnroe once again. Working with him on Serious in 2002 was both inspiring and highly enjoyable.”

Jim Drewett, editorial director at Vision Sports Publishing, is happy to consider more unusual books from foreign climes since “A good book always wins out.” He says, “It must be a very powerful story if the person is not known in the UK.” Riis, Stages of Light and Dark about Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour de France in 1996, was a bestseller in Denmark. Drewett managed to find a bilingual sports journalist, Ellis Bacon, to do the translation. “You need someone who knows the terminology and who writes well. They are not easy to find. It’s essential they do their research and background reading, and check their work. Although English is riddled with words and expressions from sport, sports idiom is localized and parochial, so a translator has to take this into account and find alternatives, reproducing the spirit and energy of what’s on the page.”

A disturbing story about life at the top and depression, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke, was translated by Shaun Whiteside, whose translations of Freud, Musil, Schnitzler, and Nietzsche are published by Penguin Classics. I ask him how he ended up doing soccer. He says, “I was rung up by Yellow Jersey and asked if I would translate Ronald Reng's Keeper of Dreams: One Man's Controversial Story of Life in the English Premiership. I thought it was a great story ― about the German goalie Lars Leese, who ended up playing for Barnsley FC―but I had to point out that although I spoke a number of languages, football wasn't one of them. Tristan Jones at Yellow Jersey said they had plenty of people there who did. So I had to learn the difference between a cross and a long ball, what a goal kick was, work out under which circumstances a penalty was allowed and precisely where on the pitch it was taken from, the difference between a coach and a manager . . . It was a steep learning curve. If I'd known more football banter I suspect it would have turned into pastiche. Yellow Jersey were fantastic, and so was Ronald Reng, whose English is pretty well perfect. Reng’s Robert Enke biography was a harrowing one to do, but by then I was more familiar with the background. Keeper of Dreams won British Sports Book Best Biography, and A Life Too Short won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2011.”

Whiteside’s concern about not speaking the language of soccer resonates: I had similar doubts when I was contacted in 2010 by Neil Blair about "a client who is a professional footballer and is writing a book in French." I went to Liverpool to meet Louis Saha who was playing for Premier League football club Everton. Saha made twenty appearances for France, scoring four goals. I ended up editing and translating his memoirs. Drewett, Saha's British publisher, said to me that he considered Thinking Inside the Box to be "a singular project and tricky to translate since Saha’s French is idiosyncratic," and that the way it was written directly with me as Saha's mentor "was unusual as it was a close collaboration." 

Saha says,  “I had no idea it’d be such hard work! It was a real adventure. I learned that writing is a really complicated skill, but I enjoyed it, even when it was tough, ‘cause I am proud of getting through those moments.  I saw up close what goes into writing a book and also the importance of detail, like in a film. If you get the smallest thing wrong, it puts people off and they stop looking. I’m in a Tottenham shirt on the cover of the English edition of my book, though I wanted to be photographed in a black shirt. I was told, ‘No, it’s fine.’ So we lost sales to supporters of Everton, Man U. and the other clubs I’d played for. Still, it was a great experience. I'd love to do it again, but I'd need to find the right story to tell. Though I’ve retired, I’m not going to try to catch up on what I missed at school! Playing football is what I do. And to me, life is school. I like reading true stories with a clear, genuine, deep message that you can apply to your own life―like Dan Brown and biographies of personalities like Mike Tyson and Sir Alex Ferguson . . . When asked, I advise kids to go find their history and future in books; to inform themselves and look for what speaks to them, and forget the rest.  It’s much more interesting to go down that road, even if it’s not so easy.”


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