The Premier League Imposter, Face Matriculation and Confused Pizzas

Good translations shouldn't become the centre of attention

In the 1996-1997 Premier League season, a hotly-anticipated Senegalese player by the name of Ali Dia made his grand debut for Southampton. The manager Graeme Souness, forced into making a substitution after 32 minutes due to an injury to Matt Le Tissier, ordered Dia off the bench and onto the pitch. He burst into action with an eager sprint, ready to make his mark against Leeds United and show what a fantastic professional he was. Except that he wasn’t fantastic. Or a professional.

“He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice,” Le Tissier said when he was asked to recall the situation. Dia drifted into spaces he shouldn’t have been occupying, landed heavy touches on the ball that sent it directly into the path of opposition players and clumsily stabbed at the air with his legs when attempting tackles. And the thing is, once you’ve noticed something like that, as a spectator you can’t turn away. It becomes infinitely more fascinating than the game itself; a flying scissor kick scored from 40 yards out would not have succeeded in distracting attention away from the sore thumb that was Dia. He lasted 53 minutes before he was substituted off by an embarrassed Souness.

Southampton's St. Mary's Stadium. Ali Dia proudly wore the red and white stripes for 58 minutes before being sussed out. 

Southampton's St. Mary's Stadium. Ali Dia proudly wore the red and white stripes for 58 minutes before being sussed out. 

This, roughly, is the football equivalent of a bad translation. Bad translations are not necessarily incomprehensible. Just like Ali Dia, you can recognise the context of a translation (he’s in my team’s kit, he’s playing football), see the intended purpose (he’s in midfield, he looks like he understands the rules of the game), and almost arrive at a result (Dia did, in fact, have a shot on goal). But the thing is, you really notice it. You take another look. You nudge your friend and whisper that something's off here. Translators are told that their presence should be invisible, their work reading as if it flowed out from the mind of a native speaker straight onto the page, authentic and untainted. A bad translation is a stage actor fluffing their line, a bit of pork gristle dangling unnoticed from a chin, an imposter in a Southampton shirt pretending to be the new Le Tissier. It demands your attention in a way that was never, ever intended.

We’ve all seen examples of bad translation in the public domain. One that refuses to budge from my memory was an advertisement on the back of a bus for an English academy. “Matriculate by face!” It proudly barked. “Register in person,” it meant. Perhaps not the best calling card for a potential English student then. “Hold on,” the devil’s advocate whines. “The aim is to sell a product. It’s got your attention. All publicity is good publicity.” Well, no. Once you start ridiculing a product, which is essentially what happens when a bad translation becomes the subject of further scrutiny, that product is devalued. There are countless online lists of poorly-translated menus, designed to raise a smile. One such example of a menu listing promotes the restaurant's "various and confused" pizzas, supposedly wanting to describe them as "mixed" rather than being in state of disarray. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the food in that restaurant tastes awful, but it gives you the impression that it might do. And that, in itself, is enough. The conversation between friends two years later is: “Remember the restaurant with the various and confused pizzas?” and not: “Remember that incredible pizza?”

Ali Dia wasn’t actually a complete novice. He went on and signed for non-league Gateshead. But in that team, at that level, with that audience, he wasn’t professional enough. Make sure your translations are professional enough for the Premier League. Sign up a pro.