Olympic Interpretation: For Some, It’s a Golden Opportunity

The 2016 Olympics in Rio just came to a close with 8,000 volunteer interpreters acting as the “voice of the games.”  They worked in nearly 30 languages for approximately 200 countries during this year’s Olympics, and many will remain for the upcoming Paralympics.  Meanwhile organizers for the 2018 Games in South Korea and 2020 Games in Tokyo have already launched their language service efforts.  Olympic interpretation is not easy.  In many ways, those striving for Olympic interpretation must match the same dedication to their craft as the athletes do to their sports.

Interpreters who are selected as volunteers at the Olympics must have a high-competency in their language skills, and be prepared to work throughout the games and sometimes the Paralympics Games that follow. In addition, volunteers are not paid and are required to provide their own travel and accommodation expenses.

Yet, for many it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For some, it can be a way to check-off a bucket-list item.  Meanwhile, for others, it can serve as a way to advance or culminate their careers.  Sometimes, it can accomplish both.

2018 Winter Olympic Interpreters

The next Winter Olympics are being held in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, from February 9 – 25, 2018.   Organizers for these winter games are recruiting 22,000 volunteers with approximately 2,100 of them in the protocol and languages area.  The volunteer interpreters will provide protocol support for dignitaries, interpretation for Olympic and Paralympic committee members and athletes, and interpretation for game operations.

Applications for individual volunteers for the PyeongChang Olympics are being accepted online until the end of September, while the deadline for group volunteer applications is the end of February 2017.

Compared to the summer games, the winter Olympics feature less sports and fewer participating countries. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on language services for the summer games.

A Barrier Free Tokyo 2020

Even before the Rio Games were completed, Japan was already in full stride in efforts to provide language services for the millions of visitors that will be heading to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Games. According to the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, more than 80,000 volunteers will be needed at the next summer games with 35,000 of those volunteers dedicated to provide language assistance.

Olympic organizers for the Tokyo games have already launched tech-savvy interpretation modes, and pledged $10 million in 2015 to create a multi-lingual call center for Tokyo.  The call center would enable Japanese tourism businesses to provide interpretation in English, Chinese and Korean to help prepare for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Olympic organizers are not yet accepting applications for volunteers for the 2020 Olympics. In the meantime, Japan is accelerating other efforts at creating a language barrier free Olympics with translation technology.

Going High-Tech

While a significant amount of volunteers in language services will still be recruited, Tokyo Olympic organizers are focusing on creating apps that provide high-quality, real-time machine translations. The plan is to have visitors install applications on their devices that would allow them to speak into the device and have the app provide it translated or spoken in a target language.

Planners are looking to increase the annual number of travelers to Tokyo from 13 million in 2014 to 20 million by 2020. They recently tested apps at the Tokyo marathon.

The question is, will an app be ready for the Olympic games? And will any get a podium position with Olympic guests?

In the meantime, organizers are not relying on machine translation, and anticipate starting to accept applications about two years prior to the start of the Games. So if you are an interpreter who wants to volunteer at the Olympics, start preparing and sharpen your skills to be Gold medal worthy.