“Being a professional interpreter at the Olympics is a dream-come-true experience for me,” says Weihao Zhang MACI ’14, who is part of the team of professional interpreters at the Rio Summer Olympics that includes several other alumni and five faculty members. They are joined by a large group of student volunteer interpreters. The Institute’s involvement with the Olympic Games dates back to the Los Angeles Games in 1984, when former dean Bill Weber arranged for an academic internship for 30 volunteer translators and 12 interpreters. The Institute has been well-represented among the ranks of interpreters and translators at every Olympic Games since.
Middlebury Institute graduates and professors have been part of the teams of professional interpreters at 15 Olympic Games, most of the time under the leadership of Chief Interpreter Weber. This year Weber oversaw the hiring of the team before handing over the reins to Rio Games Chief Interpreter and alumnus Alexandre Ponomarev MATI ’97. The professional interpreters service all press conferences with medal winners in the competition venues, as well as the Main Press Center, meetings of the International Olympic Committee, the Chefs de Mission of each country’s delegations and the Court of Arbitration.
Watching the London Games in 2012 before moving to Monterey to pursue a master’s degree in Conference Interpretation at the Institute, Zhang recalls making a wish that someday he would be an Olympic interpreter. “Four years later, the dream came true.” Zhang is the son of a tennis coach and a professor of English at a Chinese University. He was a nationally certified sprinter and badminton player in China and learned English at a very early age. “I remembered watching the Olympics on a black and white TV for the first time in 1992 when I was five years old, where a young Chinese diver won gold. My neighborhood went crazy. The atmosphere was amazing and I have been an Olympics sports fanatic ever since.”
Zhang adds that being a language service provider at the biggest sporting events is the perfect combination of both his skills and life passion. “I am extremely thankful for the solid training I received at the Institute and its connection to the Olympics. Being here, being part of the history in the making, sitting next to the medal winners and delivering their message to the global media, is simply unbelievable.” One of the highlights of the Rio Games for Zhang was undoubtedly the opportunity to meet two-time Olympic champion in men’s badminton Lin Dan. “He is considered the best badminton player of all time by the sport. As a badminton player myself, having this chance to meet him is also something very special.”
The Institute has its own Olympic medal of sorts—the title of “Official Supplier of Volunteer Translators and Interpreters”—and has earned the right to use the Olympic Rings on its stationery. Kathy Ou MATI ’17 is one of the many current students volunteering as interpreters in Rio under the steady guidance of faculty and alumni. She says the experience definitely offers important insights: “Teamwork plays such an important role in such a big, complex event. As a translation and interpretation student, this definitely tested my skills and gave me more confidence in pursuing my dream career as an interpreter.”
The Institute team speaks highly of the Brazilian hosts and their overall experience in Rio. “Everybody involved has gone out of their way to make us welcome and to help us,” shares faculty member Andrea Hoffman-Miller, a native German speaker. “The only problem has been transportation from our hotel to the Main Press Center. We did not expect German punctuality, but on average the buses have been 30-40 minutes late, if they arrive at all. We have learned to dismiss any schedule. The buzz word for keeping calm is ‘Beleza,’ which means ‘beauty,’ but also ‘right on’ or ‘perfect.’ We use it a lot!” Adds Ou: “Rio is safer and cleaner than I expected. People are very nice and friendly and always would like to help even if they don't really speak English.”
“The Olympic tradition of MIIS will continue under the able leadership of Alezandre Ponomarev in the future,” says Weber, who is retiring after 32 years of service to the Olympic Movement. We look forward to many more years of Institute students, faculty and alumni basking in the glow of the Olympic flame.