"The nation-state prefers translation to linguistic
pluralism. Translation maintains the nation-state's principle
of superposing cultural and political frontiers, whereas linguistic
pluralism undoes that principle by affirming multiple cultural
loyalties." (1992: 101)
Colas is careful to diversify the argument. But the fact
remains that nation-states are interested enough to invest
money in translation, subsidizing translators and developing
national translation policies. National education systems
increasingly train professional translators and interpreters,
codifying a small fraction of the population as qualified
intermediaries so that the rest might remain relatively untroubled
by multiple loyalties. Translation is eminently useful for
a world divided into nations. By its very nature, it draws
lines between languages and maintains distances between cultures.
If I need to gain information about the other through a translation,
the first information I gain is that the other's language
and culture are not mine. They are foreign; they can be known
as foreign. If translation is always a good thing, linearly
separated languages and cultures might also always be good
things. I have doubts about this. There is room for debate.
The relations between translation and nationalism can be
studied on many levels. One might look at the way collections
of translations often identify and separate national literatures.
Traditional translation analysis, in comparing source and
target, could be seen as a way of maintaining the distinction
between two sides of a border. Theories of untranslatability
and culture-specific translation norms might be read as implicit
reinforcements of that border. More directly, however, one
can analyze the role played by translation policies within
national and inter-national institutions.
The most challenging cases for such policy analysis are those
where the interests of individual nation-states are most problematic.
The modern Olympic games are one such institution. Founded
at the end of the last century, their noble function is to
enable competition between athletes from all nations. Their
more pragmatic function is to make sure the world is divided
into nations, attaching powerful emotive values to the symbols
of this separation.
My concern here is with the role played by translation and
language policy at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, including
the four-year period - the olympiad - that preceded the actual
events. Most of my information comes from the official report
(COOB'92: 1992), spiced with a little of my own experience
as a freelance translator working for the games.
The Barcelona Olympics had to deal with nationalism on two
main levels. The first was the microcosm of Barcelona as a
bilingual city. Barcelona is the second city of Spain, but
it is also the capital of Catalonia, a stateless nation with
about six million people and an official language, Catalan.
The second level was then the macrocosm of the games as a
truly global event, with participants from almost all nations
and television viewers in almost all nations.
It would be wrong to say that translation connected these
two levels. Language policy was only important for the microcosm.
Television, iconic communication, created the macrocosm. I
shall thus consider the general relation between these two
levels and then analyze them separately. My hypothesis, however,
is that the problems presented by Catalan on the small-scale
lingual level were essentially the same as those ensuing from
the globalizing power of television. The microcosm and the
macrocosm both presented fundamental questions about the definition
and relative powers of nations.
On both these levels, and indeed in any policy analysis,
work must begin from the fundamental distinction between what
was supposed to happen in theory and what actually happened
So let us see how the microcosm and the macrocosm were supposed
to be stuck together.
A General Relation: the Global Village
McLuhan's notion of the global village projects the ability
of the media to make large-scale social structures seem very
small. Whatever its initial idealism, the concept finds a
very material correlative in the Olympic games.
The games themselves manipulate a symbolism of small-scale
social structures. Concepts like the "Olympic village"
and, at Barcelona, "the Olympic family" suggest
that competition occurs with Freudian intimacy. The events
are similarly small-scale. Even major spectacles like the
opening and closing ceremonies can only really be attended
by official guests, athletes' families, and a merely representative
"general public." At Barcelona these ceremonies
were held in the rather small Montjuïc stadium. The much
larger venue offered by the Barcelona football club was refused.
But size was virtually irrelevant. The Montjuïc stadium
was of extreme symbolic value. Originally built in the pre-Franco
era, it represented the Olympics that Barcelona would have
had if the Spanish Civil War hadn't got in the way, or so
the story goes. It thus symbolized contact with traditions
of the Catalan language and culture, which had been repressed
throughout the Franco regime. Symbols were more important
than size. After all, the stadium was little more than a rather
elaborate television studio.
The events and ceremonies found their target public through
television. According to the official report, some 3,500 million
people saw televised coverage of some part of the Barcelona
Olympics. This is about three quarters of the world population.
Through television, Olympic villages, families, and symbolic
stadiums did indeed create a global village, the symbols of
which were selected and witnessed in the intimacy of family
But what viewers saw was not necessarily what happened in
Barcelona. How many people knew - or cared - that these games
had four official languages?
The Microcosm: Translation
The official languages of the International Olympic Committee
are English and French. All official documents have to be
published in these two languages. According to the Olympic
Charter of 1987, the documents of each olympiad must also
be available in the language of the "host country."
But it is naïve to assume that each country has just
one language. Similarly naïve is any assumption of monolingualism
in individual cities, and the olympiads are in fact conceded
to host cities rather than countries. Strict application of
the Charter could have meant deciding whether Barcelona belonged
to Catalonia or Spain. It could have meant defining a "country"
as a people, a nationality, or a nation-state. In practice
the language problem was resolved by adopting both Catalan
and Castilian (Spanish) as official languages for the Barcelona
olympiad, in addition to the obligatory English and French.
Translation was used to ensure that all official documents
were available in all four languages.
An important political problem nevertheless remained on the
level of determining the host "country." If Catalan
could be an official language, why shouldn't there be an official
Catalan team, with its own national committee? The Catalan
term "nació," like most of its Romance-language
counterparts, does not necessarily imply a nation-state. A
stateless nation can still be a "nació,"
perhaps understandable as a "nationality" in English
(Pym 1991). In Catalonia, such wilful understanding supported
repeated calls for official recognition of the "Catalan
Olympic Committee." The calls were repeatedly denied
by the International Olympic Committee. So when the Charter
says "host country," it apparently means "nation,"
and more specifically "nation-state." Language policy
was one thing; the principle of a world divided into nation-states
was quite another. Catalonia could have official documents
translated into and from Catalan, but it could not have a
Catalan team. Or were its real representatives the team of
The Organizing Committee of the Barcelona olympiad created
its Department of Language Services in January 1988. In the
period to July 10th 1992 this department was responsible for
the translation of some 61.5 million words, to which must
be added the 2.5 million words translated during the games
themselves (through to August 10th 1992). It was not an inconsiderable
undertaking. But the work was not always as equitable as the
original policy might suggest. The role of Catalan varied
in the course of the olympiad.
The formation and function of the Olympic translation teams
can be analyzed in terms of four overlapping stages, perhaps
like a long relay race.
The first stage of preparatory work was marked by close collaboration
with the translation school (EUTI) at the Autonomous University
of Barcelona, where I happened to be teaching at the time.
Many of the documents for the original candidature and initial
planning were carried out by teachers of translation. Two
teachers also collaborated with the Catalan government's Department
of Language Services to draw up a multilingual terminology
bank of some 2,000 terms. By the beginning of the games this
work had become a series of 29 glossaries comprising a total
of 14,306 terms, each with their definition . . . in Catalan.
The political choice of Catalan as the defining language
should not be surprising. Entire registers had to be created
or standardized in this language. Not only had no sporting
event of similar dimensions ever been organized in Catalan,
but the language's written transmission had been interrupted
by the Franco dictatorship. The initial translation work was
thus not merely to transfer meanings into Catalan, but also
to form new areas of Catalan corresponding to concepts and
phenomena that the language had not previously been expressed
with precision. Translation can create official languages.
Institutional collaboration between the university translation
school and the Catalan government (henceforth the "Generalitat")
should be similarly unsurprising. The Autonomous University
of Barcelona is responsible to the Generalitat, making it
part of the Catalan "national" education system
(my paychecks were in Catalan). The translation school is
thus organized around two "A languages" (mother
tongues), Catalan and Castilian. It also offers special courses
in things like legal translation into Catalan, directly connected
with the language demands of the Catalan governmental structures.
We thus find an education system that is closely allied with
national purposes, albeit in the absence of a full-fledged
The Generalitat itself has a very elaborate and expensive
policy for the promotion and standardization of Catalan, surreptitiously
combatting the language's regional dialects and variants.
It subsidizes extranslations and intranslations in all media
and generously picks up the tab for Barcelona's two Catalan-speaking
television channels. The government's participation in the
Olympic terminology project was just one extension of its
general promotion of Catalan.
Although the terminology work continued throughout the olympiad,
the use of institutional translators soon gave way to an in-house
structure. In view of the rapid increase in the number of
texts to be translated, the Organizing Committee created its
own Department of Language Services. Immediately prior to
the games, the department comprised its Catalan director,
three full-time translators working into Catalan, three into
English, three into French, and only two into Castilian. Most
of these translators were recruited from Barcelona's extensive
intercultural communities, ensuring relative mother-tongue
competence in the target languages. The teams nevertheless
collaborated with about 100 external translators, some of
whom were very external indeed. Even when about three thousand
kilometers away in the Canary Islands, my wife and I were
receiving and sending translations by modem.
Most of the texts I worked from during this second stage
were in Castilian or a mixture of Castilian and Catalan. This
would explain why the in-house team had only two translators
working into Castilian: whatever the initial focus on Catalan,
the actual source-language was increasingly Castilian. The
practical reason for this limited use of Catalan is that,
thanks to the language's interrupted transmission, only a
restricted group of professionals can really write it in accordance
with the new standardization. Recourse to Castilian was often
There was thus a good deal of idealism involved in the initial
preparatory work in Catalan. In fact, the terminological problems
actually encountered by the translators were often not addressed
in the Catalan glossaries, and the in-house norms (use of
capitals, standardized names, etc.) were changed several times.
In a situation where new problems were constantly arising,
it was impossible to pretend that the terminologists had systematically
preceded the translators. The translators themselves were
often in the lead, forced to make terminological decisions
and then wait to see if the revisors would standardize or
reject their solutions.
For all these reasons, the priority given to Catalan in the
first stage was only partly followed through in the second
The third stage was then the translating carried out during
the games themselves. The standard source language was by
now Castilian. For the written side of the work, the in-house
Department of Language Services employed 27 professional translators
and revisors, plus 50 translation students recruited through
the ERASMUS program in conjunction with the university translation
school. The work was into English, French and Catalan, but
obviously not into Castilian.
The students translating at the Central Press Service worked
into English and French and had their work revised by professionals.
But no students were employed for written work into Catalan,
since only professionals can write correct Catalan. This asymmetry
in the translation teams was clearly contradicted by the rough
equality of the workload. Much of the translating was for
the computerized information service (AMIC, a Catalan acronym
meaning "friend"), for which all information had
to be in all four official languages. This meant that the
official work was about the same for the teams working into
English, French and Catalan. But the practical priorities
at the Central Press Service meant there were more professionals
working into English than into French, more into French than
into Catalan, and no students to help the Catalans, who were
always the last to go home.
Despite their official equality, the languages were by no
means equal with respect to demand. This is fairly easily
explained. English had priority because it served a huge number
of journalists from many countries; French was of less priority
because the many French journalists in Barcelona were able
to collect their own information; and Catalan had least priority
because Catalan journalists could read the Castilian texts
without waiting for the translations. The highly unequal nature
of the actual language demands thus revealed the very symbolic
nature of the initial language policy. All the official languages
were equal, but some had more translators and greater marked
The work during the games also included a significant amount
of simultaneous interpreting. A total of 176 professional
interpreters were employed for work at 338 meetings. Unlike
the written translators, the employment of interpreters had
relatively little to do with the local complications of language
policy: 95 of them came from outside Spain, 19 from other
parts of Spain, and only 62 from Catalonia. Whereas the written
translators were subject to the politics of symbolic needs
and terminological elaboration, the interpreters were supposed
to follow the standards already set. In practice, their work
was mostly left to professional criteria, with only occasional
interference from Catalan as a source language. Well paid
and necessarily short-term, interpreting comes and goes, leaving
few traces, creating few political problems.
As a fourth stage, some note should be made of the way the
Olympic games have influenced the translation market in Barcelona.
Many of the translators employed by the in-house Department
of Language Services have since set up a small network of
independent translation agencies. One works into English,
another into French, and a third into Catalan. In the case
of the team working into English, the agency was actually
established about a year before the games, taking most of
the Olympic work with it. These moves have enabled the translators
to structure reasonably long-term employment for themselves.
They thus maintain some of the work relationships developed
during the olympiad, including such standards as terminological
and syntactic conventions, a general preference for Apple
computers, and professional competence in translation to or
from Catalan. But the translators have formed explicitly separate
companies. The institutional collaboration between theoretical
equals has given way to commercial recognition that the demand
for translation is by no means the same for all languages.
The main point to be extracted from this four-stage model
is the progressive reduction in the role of Catalan. As the
initial institutional involvement gave way to the priorities
of increasing workloads and direct demands, the symbolic equality
of the four official languages was changed into a very asymmetric
distribution of translators. In keeping with this process,
the selection of the translators themselves appears to have
moved progressively away from the local institutional structure
of the Catalan government and education system, finally conforming
to explicitly market-based criteria.
There was no absolute contradiction between what was supposed
to happen and what actually happened. Few could doubt that
the Catalan language benefited from the Olympic games. But
the above process shows that the symbolic purposes served
by the initial translation policy slowly had to give way to
language-specific demands. A stateless nation could not really
compete with multinational languages.
The Macrocosm: Television
The principle of a world of symbolically equal nations of
course presented numerous political problems on the wider
level. The International Olympic Committee had to decide who
or what could be a national team. There was a united German
team, corresponding to a united state. Former Yugoslavia became
a series of national teams, regardless of the disputed principles
underlying their new states. But the lack of a state did not
stop the ex-Soviet Union from parading as a "united team."
And although a South African team was present, it was denied
the national symbols of anthems, colours and flags. A world
in transition challenged the nationalist principle underlying
the Olympics. The official use of Catalan was only one of
a series of compromises designed to save that principle and
play happy families.
Despite such compromises, the games nevertheless gave the
nation-state principle some of its most powerful iconic apotheoses.
The truly emotional moment in any Olympic event must be when
the winner receives their gold medal, stands on a podium,
watches their national flag being hoisted, listens to their
national anthem, and, if you're lucky, sheds a tear or two.
Years of individual effort culminate in a triumph firmly welded
to national icons. The athlete has won for their "country."
There is no language. This superb television moment works
with inexplicable force, even if the viewer is not from the
country concerned, even if one doesn't particularly like that
country. The global success of the televised Olympics says
much about the power of twentieth-century nationalism.
For both commercial and ideological reasons, the Olympic
games cannot remain indifferent to the power underlying its
most successful moments. The organizers must collaborate and
deal with television. As with the language policy, this involves
a certain conflict between official equality and market demands.
The Organizing Committee had its own radio and television
service, responsible for supplying live coverage to the various
national and European networks. This official coverage was
supposed to be objective and neutral, without any special
focus on particular events or athletes. In theory, it offered
the same equality of access as the language policy. The equality
might have seemed even more neutral, since iconic information
can pretend to avoid to the processes of selection, compartmentalization
and standardization needed for wholly linguistic information.
Where written language was necessary - for the on-screen display
of world and Olympic records -, it was reduced to its most
symbolic level, albeit in specifically Latin script. In the
relative absence of individual languages, one is supposed
to see the event as it is, without undue hindrance from a
minor international code.
This is of course an illusion. Television images are selected,
framed and strung together with a syntax that is by no means
objective. Yet a critical analysis of these official images
would be rather pointless. The actual television coverage
was dominated by the various national and European networks
that had numerous mobile units working at the games: NBC,
RTVE, CCRTV, BBC, RAI, FR3, ARD, ZDF, SVT and so on. The most
important of these was NBC. Since the American network was
essential for the financial success of the whole show - the
income of the Olympic games comes almost entirely from the
sale of television rights -, no one was going to tell it to
adopt a neutral international coverage. NBC alone refused
the on-screen script for world and Olympic records, producing
its own script for the United States. But the other networks
were no less nationalist in providing their own coverage and
then mixing it, where appropriate or unavoidable, with the
Selection was necessary, since events were occurring simultaneously.
The games were materially more than any one television signal
could depict. Of course, some networks could select more directly
than others. The richer the network, the more mobile units
it had and the more its own live images could be tailored
to the perceived interests of its national audience. Further
selection and mixing then occurred through specific focus
on events in which the various national teams were participating
or were likely to do well. And then even more selection determined
which images received prime-time retransmission or extensive
news commentary. No matter how neutral the original official
coverage, each country finished up seeing its own Olympics.
Witnessing much of the games on Spanish television, I thought
Spain had won just about everything. The commentators started
counting how many medals each country had won, giving the
total for gold, silver and bronze. But when Spain won almost
exclusively gold medals, the tally system recorded only gold,
to make sure Spain was higher in the tables. There was some
minor embarrassment when a young Spaniard living in the United
States won a backstroke event and, when interviewed, could
hardly speak Castilian. But this return of the language problem
- a trace of sport as a technology with its international
centers and international languages - did little to dampen
the jubilation. If you win, you're Spanish, no matter what
your language. As an Australian at the Olympics I looked in
vain for mention of my corresponding soccer team; it did remarkably
well, but only an Australian would know. Then, in the weeks
following the games, I talked with Israelis who could not
understand why I hadn't been impressed with how well they
had done in judo; the French were similarly proud for reasons
I still fail to grasp; Brazilians couldn't believe I didn't
know who had won the men's volleyball, and so on. We all saw
what television allowed us to see.
And the Catalans? Having gained official recognition of their
language but not of their team, they were not to be outdone.
Their two television channels repeated day after day the image
of their young athlete who, having won the walking event,
ran around the stadium carrying the Catalan flag. The image
was still there a year later when Barcelona celebrated the
first "anniversary" of the games. For Barcelona,
the walker carrying the flag has become a symbol of the entire
olympiad. We all thought our countries had won something of
importance. Even Catalonia, stateless but with the power of
national television, is sure it also won.
The richer the country, the more resources its television
network was able to invest in selecting and promoting its
own Olympics. Television was thus able to appropriate or avoid
officially neutral international coverage, using the games
for very nationalist purposes.
The Symbolic Olympics
The history of the Olympic games reads like a periodical
litmus test of twentieth-century nationalism. From initial
indifference to the politicization of sport at Hitler's Berlin
and through to the political boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles,
the games record the general divisions of the world. As an
eight-year-old boy with nothing better to do, I memorized
the flags of all the nations participating in the 1964 Tokyo
Olympics. As a much bigger boy I stared for a long time at
the flags of all the nations participating at Barcelona. Could
I have forgotten so many? No, my memory was good. The world
had changed. There were simply many more flags, more than
at any previous games.
The number of nations in the world has increased vertiginously
in recent years. By the end of the century we might expect
the United Nations to have about 200 member states. This prospect
presents serious communication and negotiation problems. Can
so many political entities really understand each other and
reach agreements? The inevitable solution is to restrict official
communication to one or several languages, thereby undemocratically
restricting the number of professionals who can enter into
negotiations. Television may then be left to create its politically
necessary illusions of a global village.
This is done at the United Nations, we were at least see
people sitting around what looks like a circle. It is also
done to a certain extent in the European Union, although the
next enlargement of the EU will require a more serious restriction
of official languages. Careful attention will have to be given
to Coulmas's argument that the EU "has been used by member
states to defend their languages' privileged position rather
than being given the chance to produce a language policy of
its own" (1990: 8). A properly European policy will have
to be formulated. The real question, though, is how many official
languages. For exactly what purposes? And for how long?
As a four-year race, the olympiad is a fixed-term project,
unlike the UN or the EU. It is well suited to translation
as a general policy. If the institutional time frame were
much wider, translation could work to the detriment of more
economical strategies like language-learning or the development
of a lingua franca. But even within its limited frame, the
Barcelona Olympics suggest that politically correct equality,
formulated for symbolic nationalist purposes, tends to give
way to the priorities of multinational languages. Translation
can service both symbolic and market demands. But its repeated
use in long-term institutions will require that a real price
be put on its symbolic uses. And the price may well be greater
than what individual nations, with or without states, are
able to pay.
Translation may not always be a good thing.
Colas, Dominique. 1992. "Les politiques d'aide."
Traduire l'Europe. Ed. Françoise Barret-Ducrocq. Paris:
COOB'92. 1992. Jeux de la XXVe Olympiade. Rapport Officiel.
3 vols. Vol. 3. L'Organisation. Barcelona: COOB'92.
Coulmas, Florian. 1990. "European integration and the
idea of a national language." A Language Policy for the
European Community. Prospects and Quandaries. Ed. Florian
Coulmas. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 1-37.
Pym, Anthony. 1991. "Translational Ethics and the Case
of Stateless Nations." Fremdsprachen (Leipzig) 4. 31-35.