While the COVID-19 pandemic upended the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it also provided a new volunteer opportunity for Middlebury Institute students and recent alumni: the Junior Interpreter Program.
In a normal Olympic year, professional and volunteer interpreters from all over the world—including many alumni and faculty from the Institute’s translation and interpretation programs—travel to the host city to facilitate communication between speakers of many different languages. But not only were the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games postponed until summer 2021, pandemic restrictions changed many procedures, including those around interpretation services.
Maureen Sweeney, a 1992 graduate of the University of Oregon and a 1994 graduate of the Middlebury Institute’s MPA program, served as the deputy chief of the interpreting staff for the 2020 Games and she is a partner at Tiller Language Services. Sweeney explained: “In Tokyo, the Language Service Department of the Olympic Organizing Committee was hoping to use a large number of foreign-based volunteers in the language services program. Once the pandemic hit, the committee cut the overall number of foreign volunteers allowed to come to Japan to almost zero, leaving Language Service in a bit of a bind.”
At the same time, while professional interpreters—including alumni of and professors at MIIS—have long worked at the Olympics covering press conferences for medal-level competitions, several of the International Sporting Federations wanted to expand the volunteer interpreting services provided to non-medal contests. Because her company, Salt Lake City–based Maureen Sweeney Consulting (MSC), was already providing professional interpreters, equipment, and language services consulting to the organizing committee, Sweeney was asked for help.
The beginnings of the Junior Interpreting Program
Sweeney approached the Institute’s Laura Burian, dean of the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education, with the idea of developing an internship program that would tap MIIS students and recent grads as remote volunteer interpreters. “The program I envisioned,” she said, “would allow the Tokyo Olympic Committee to get top-notch interpretation services at a reduced rate while giving recent MIIS grads the opportunity to get real work experience at a high-profile international event.”
With Burian’s support, Sweeney negotiated a contract between MSC and the organizing committee to provide remote interpretation into and from English for non-medal press conferences for football (soccer), field hockey, baseball, softball, handball, and basketball. She looked to the Institute for interpreters in Chinese, Japanese, French, German, and Spanish (and elsewhere for other languages).
Sweeney also had to work out the technical and logistical aspects of remotely covering some 230 Olympics press conferences in Tokyo.
For that, she turned to Christian Napier, a technology expert and founder of GPFour Inc., who had been working for the Olympics since 2002 in Salt Lake City, his hometown. While Napier himself did not have a background in interpreting, he had most recently worked for the International Olympic Committee in “knowledge management,” specifically in arranging interviews of the heads of function areas and executives to allow them to share their stories. In that work, he often used interpreters from Sweeney’s company.
The two met for lunch, and Sweeney told him about her plan for the Junior Interpreter Program. To move forward with the huge responsibility of implementing it, she would need someone on the ground in Tokyo. As Napier recalled, she half-jokingly suggested that he run it.
“Actually, that sounds like a fun thing to do!” he said.
So in July 2021, Napier found himself in Tokyo, rushing to set up for remote coverage of the conferences at multiple venues. “It was very, very challenging, because on the Tokyo 2020 side, they didn’t even install the PA systems in the press conference rooms until 24 hours before the first press conference. We literally had one day before the press conference to work with the venue press conference team to understand how this was all going to work.”
The format was dictated in part by Microsoft Teams, the platform the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee was using to stream press conferences. Teams does not support simultaneous interpretation, so consecutive interpretation was used instead.
“With simultaneous interpretation,” Napier said, “you’re interpreting while the person is speaking. With consecutive, you wait for the person to finish speaking and you start interpreting, so they’re not talking at the same time.” The interpretation was played over a loudspeaker in the room as well as recorded for later streaming, so journalists, whether on-site or remote, could hear the questions and answers in English. It meant that press conferences that might normally last 15 to 20 minutes lasted 30 to 40.
Juggling press conferences, which often were happening concurrently, and managing the expectations of the various teams and countries was a challenge, even with the help of an assistant, Napier said. “We were just in our kind of little mission control, with screens all around us and press conferences going on all the time.” His days lasted from 9:30 a.m. to midnight, every day. “It was really, really tiring, but it was really, really rewarding because the interpreters were great. Seeing them handle themselves under some really challenging conditions was quite inspiring, actually.”
Overcoming the challenges of remote interpretation
MIIS professor Bill Weber was chief interpreter at all but two Olympics from 1984 to 2016. This year, he interpreted for Tokyo, remotely, and two of his students acted as junior interpreters in German. He emphasized the difficulty of interpreting for this international event. Interpreters need to be familiar with the rules and terminology of different sports, a bit of historical Olympic knowledge, the players’ names, and key moments in each match. “Some people mistakenly believe, ‘Oh, it’s the Olympics, it’s sports, it’s easy.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
He praised the Junior Interpreter Program. “Professionally, I would say if you have the Olympics on your résumé and colleagues see that, that would boost up their confidence in you as a possible recruit, especially those who have done the Olympics and who know how difficult it can be.” For current MIIS students, he said, “that’s a big step into the profession before they even graduate.”
Jessie Liu and Rony Gao, both 2021 graduates of the Institute in the Master of Arts in Conference Interpretation, received an email from their department chair in May asking if they, along with about two dozen other MIIS students or recent graduates, would like to interpret for the Olympics—from home. They didn’t hesitate.
During the Games, while Napier coordinated the interpreters from Tokyo more than a dozen time zones away, Liu interpreted from Salt Lake City and Gao from Ontario, Canada. Though both were already professionals—Liu is a freelance court interpreter and Gao is a freelance conference interpreter—the Olympics were a new experience for them. Gao said, “They didn’t have remote interpreters at this scale before. So we knew this was going to be sort of trailblazing, and that’s what it turned out to be.”
As a team, Liu and Gao took turns interpreting pre- or post-match press conferences. Gao explained: “The primary interpreter for that day would be online, translating or interpreting questions asked in English into Chinese so that the Chinese players or coaches could understand and then translate their answers back. When there were questions asked in Chinese by media outlets from China, usually we’d have to translate everything into English as well, for the benefit of the Olympic community.”
“It was nerve-wracking,” Gao said. “But once you get through the first press conference, you get the rhythm of it, and then, other than the fact that we had to wake up at midnight to follow the games and then do the interpreting, I would say it went better than we had imagined.”
“We rolled with it,” said Liu, “not knowing what was going to happen.” She credited Napier for coordinating so many moving parts, calling him “an octopus.” “It was really fascinating to be able to see how this whole team worked.”
Liu emphasized the teamwork aspect of the experience, both between her and Gao as a pair interpreting Chinese as well as with all the interpreters together, though they were spread out across the globe. Although only one member of an interpreting pair was required to be online during any given press conference, Liu and Gao made a point of always being available to each other in case of any mishaps, even in the middle of the night.
Liu said, “Individually, we were supporting our partner, but globally, we were really supporting the team, the whole project. Nobody said anything, for that backup interpreter to be online, but we just took it upon ourselves to do it. And that gives me chills and goosebumps to see the level of professionalism that we all exhibited. Because, at that level or at that point, it’s not about getting compensated for our time, I think it’s just about our professionalism and the spirit of doing a good job. I think that is one thing that really makes me feel this is such a rewarding field, and to be able to work with such a brilliant-minded and professional group of people—it’s really a privilege.”
For the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, all interpretation will be handled within China, so there will be no Junior Interpreter Program this winter. But Sweeney has already met with representatives of the Paris 2024 Olympic Committee in a bid to bring the program back for the next Summer Games.
Napier said if he were asked to participate again, he’d “do it in a heartbeat,” and Gao and Liu concurred. “Our hope is that for Paris 2024, this will happen again,” said Gao. “And I will sign myself up immediately if the opportunity comes.”