Tounakti Flicks a Switch.

Tariq Panja reports for the NY Times (archived) about a man with a difficult job:

There is perhaps no one in the world who has paid closer attention to the diction and pronunciation of the former England soccer captain John Terry over the past month than Lassaad Tounakti, a 52-year-old Tunisian with a gift for languages, a passion for cologne and an accidental television career.

For Tounakti, understanding the minute details of the way Terry speaks is no casual affair. His ability to understand Terry’s every utterance has been a vital part of one of the World Cup’s toughest, and least forgiving, man-to-man assignments: As the main interpreter for beIN Sports, Tounakti has since the start of the tournament served as the voice of Terry and other retired stars hired by BeIN as it has transmitted the tournament night after night to Arabic-speaking viewers across the Middle East and North Africa. […]

Interpreting their words — quickly, precisely and live on the air — requires an extraordinary fluency in not only languages but soccer. For Tounakti, it means translating every word of Arabic into English in the ears of the former soccer stars before flicking a switch — literally and in his mind — and immediately rendering their thoughts, delivered in English, back into Arabic.

Every voice is different. The English diction of Kaká, a World Cup-winning Brazilian, is different from that of the Dutch soccer great Ruud Gullit, and the nuances of their pronunciations are different from those of the former Germany captain Lothar Matthäus.

Because of the sheer volume of coverage it is providing, beIN is employing four staff interpreters and supplementing them with freelancers for the World Cup. Most interpreters work in a rotation, but there are some accents, some ways of speaking, that require just a little bit more expert handling. Terry’s thick East London accent is one of those. […]

Tounakti’s career as the Arabic voice of beIN’s imported experts was in many ways accidental. As a delegation from Qatar prepared to fly to Zurich in December 2010 to make its final pitch to host the 2022 World Cup, beIN realized it did not have an interpreter who spoke both French and English. Tounakti, a university professor with a doctorate in linguistics and experience interpreting for the country’s emir, was enlisted for the trip […]

Last week, in the street separating two buildings in beIN’s complex in Doha, Peter Schmeichel, a former Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeper who is one of the company’s longtime analysts, arrived for an evening shift in the studio accompanied by Jermaine Jones, a German-born former U.S. midfielder.

In a chance meeting, Schmeichel and Tounakti exchanged a bit of banter before discussing the ways a show with live translation compares with a broadcast in which the guests speak the same language. “You prefer not to have it translated because there’s always going to be a little delay and you feel it kind of upsets the rhythm a little bit,” said Schmeichel, a regular presence on British television and beIN’s English-language channels. “But it works.” […]

The discussion moved to idiomatic expressions and the challenges they posed: One in particular, a phrase long used as shorthand to gauge a player’s true quality in England — “Yes, but can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” — can cause mirth, and no small degree of confusion. “What do you exactly mean when you say this?” Tounakti said. Schmeichel laughed and suggested it might translate as “a hot Wednesday in Mecca.” He then departed for the studio. “I will do it with you next time, Peter. Inshallah,” Tounakti said as they parted. The rest of the night, he knew, would be all about John Terry. […]

Terry’s speech, Tounakti said, is full of glottal sounds, making it harder for some nonnative British speakers to immediately understand every word. To make his point, he started into a quick burst of what he believes Terry to sound like. “The other guys wouldn’t be able to interpret him,” Tounakti said, explaining that the difficulty is not because of the quality of Terry’s English but rather a combination of his speech patterns, language and pronunciation. It can make capturing the nuance of his insights and analysis difficult for interpreters with less experience. […]

BeIN’s broadcast began with the host speaking Arabic and Tounakti speaking English for his audience of one, Terry. The host spoke continuously for several minutes before turning to Terry and asking him a question. Tounakti interpreted it for Terry and then switched to Arabic as Terry explained how this year’s England squad appeared to be more united than the ones he played for a decade ago. The back-and-forth went on for several minutes, before the first commercial break offered a chance to check in with Terry. There was a small issue with the volume in Terry’s earpiece that was quickly resolved. And on they went.

There were 60 more minutes before the match began. By the end of the evening, after the 40-minute postgame show was over, Tounakti had been interpreting for more than two hours. He interpreted for Terry for most of it, but also for Matthäus at halftime and for various England and Senegal players and their coaches during so-called flash interviews after the game.

Thanks, Bonnie! (Longtime readers will know that I am a supporter of Argentina, so I will not be monitoring this blog for a few hours this afternoon as I try to will the albiceleste into defeating the dogged Croatians.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I am a supporter of Argentina

    Youbetcha. At this point I am my grandfather’s grandson … yr Ariannin am byth!

  2. We haven’t used our tagine much since the finicky kids were born, and this very weekend my wife tried to get rid of it. I told her not just yet. I root for underdogs and if Morocco makes the final, I’ll be using the tagine again Saturday night to get in the spirit.

    Recipe suggestions encouraged.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I can certainly think of worse reasons for supporting a national team than cuisine. What shall I do if the final tuns out to be Argentina-France? Do I go with my heart or my stomach?

  4. The long-standing meme “Yes, but can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” comes from Scottish pundit Andy Gray’s comment back in 2010 suggesting that Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who was dominating in Europe already with FC Barcelona, would struggle in England’s Premier League. Messi has proved himself repeatedly against English opposition since then, though he has never actually been tested in miserable weather at the Britannia Stadium on a Tuesday night.

    As I said, it’s a meme; I can’t recall seeing it repeated without at least a hint of irony. As memes go it has had a long shelf life, and I can see it outlasting Messi’s playing career.

  5. I think the meme of (not) going to an unglamorous place in bad weather was originally a barb aimed at fans* rather than players.

    *So Called Fans, who only supported the team in the good times at sold out home matches against famous opponents, as opposed to Real Fans, who had been there through the lean years when they were slogging in half-empty dumps in the lower divisions.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    a cold, rainy night in Stoke

    “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

  7. I can certainly think of worse reasons for supporting a national team than cuisine. What shall I do if the final tuns out to be Argentina-France? Do I go with my heart or my stomach?

    I myself have a fondness for France and the French, and have on more than one occasion have been heard to emit a cry of “Allez les bleus!” But it’s hard to root for a colonial master over their former colonial subjects, not to mention that they won last time around, so I’m rooting for Maroc tomorrow. And whoever wins that donnybrook will have to settle for second place come Sunday. Argentina hasn’t won it all since the Mano de Dios — it’s time!

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Morocco’s team does seem to have overperformed (compared to ex ante expectations) more than anyone else. How much of that is a story of heroic virtue and pluck versus a story of soccer games at this high level being essentially random coin-flips as to whether the objectively “better” team will actually score more goals on the particular occasion is unclear to me. I find it interesting that the “Morocco” team is primarily a children-of-the-diaspora team. Of the 11 players who started the game against Portugal (chosen as a convenient sample of the larger group), only 4 were born in Morocco, with the others born variously in Belgium, Canada, France (2), the Netherlands (2), and Spain. The Canada-born fellow returned to Morocco at age 3 and learned to play there. The others appear to all be examples of some uncertain mix of ancestral loyalties, European failure to integrate immigrants socially/culturally, and/or individual opportunism. The linguistic angle is to wonder what language(s) they speak to each other on the field and on the sideline. French?*

    NB that the Morocco-born-and-raised players having day jobs playing professional soccer in foreign countries where the pay is better than it is at home is a quite different phenomenon, assuming those fellows merely have work permits for the country where they are presently employed rather than passports.

    *The team’s coach is not one of those imported-foreigner coaches common for non-Western nations with soccer aspirations but is himself an echt Moroccan. Except he was born and raised in France.

  9. Not to mention Cheddira, who pulled off the unlikely feat of coming in as a sub in the 65th minute and still managing to be sent off for two cardable offences. He’s Italian born, raised and has played for 5 Italian clubs in his 24 years. Loyalty, nationalism and identity may not matter as much to many of these kids as you’d think. You’ll see countries try to cap some of these kids early, before they have time to decide to play for someone else. Here are some snippets from the wiki page of Tony Musah, the “American” midfielder.

    >Musah was born in New York City while his Ghanaian mother was on vacation in the United States. His father is also Ghanaian. He moved to Italy after his birth, living in Castelfranco Veneto and later starting his career at Giorgione Calcio 2000. In 2012, at age nine, he moved to London and joined Arsenal’s Academy

    >As a youth, Musah was eligible to play for the United States, Ghana, Italy, and England.

    > [He] made his international debut with England’s under-15s in 2016 and subsequently represented England up to the under-18 level. He was also called up to the under-19 squad in October 2020.

    >Musah accepted a call-up to the United States senior squad on November 2, 2020, to play in friendlies against Wales and Panama later that month

    As I understand it, the age-bracket call-ups don’t count, but once you’ve played for the full national team, even in a friendly, you can’t switch.

    I’ve played with two guys who’ve been capped, one for the US and one for Canada. But the game and the world were different then. (Among other things, as I watch McAlister play a pointless square pass from the top of the penalty box, there were guys who could hit shots from 25 yards in those days. Grrr.) In particular, I point to the idea that Musah “started his career” before he was 9 years old. That seems sadly accurate. The sister of one of my daughter’s teammates gets on a plane every 2nd week to play in other cities. She’s 14 now but started with this club two years ago.

    I’d guess that 99% of people capped in the 80s had spent most of their lives in the country they played for. I believe the Premier League, or rather the Football League, had a limit on the number of non-British players a club could have on the field back then.

  10. 3-0! Bring on the final, baby!

  11. David Marjanović says

    Do I go with my heart or my stomach?

    And what if the way to your heart is through your stomach?

  12. All this eligibility @#$**# is going to go away eventually, I predict. Nobody expects everyone who plays for the (rolls random numbers …) Chicago Cubs to be born and raised in Chicago, nor should they. Hopefully it will become a free-agency system rather than one of national horse trades.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    That let-the-best-set-of-mercenaries-win approach works fine when cities (or clubs, since many large European cities have more than one) are the relevant unit of competition: that’s, in soccer, the UEFA Champions League, whose most recent tournament featured (in the round of 16) four “English” teams, three “Spanish” ones, two “French” ones, two “Italian” ones, two “Portuguese” ones, one Dutch one, one “German” one, and one “Austrian” one, each I assume fielding many non-citizen players. Not sure if that model still works if nation-states are the theoretical unit of competition.

  14. Why Dutch team didn’t deserve the scare quotes? Anyway, in the context of the Champions League all those country labels are meaningful. They show in what national leagues the teams play. And an attempt to remove them from national championships was a huge flop.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’ve got a soft spot for Croatia for no reason at all – because I took a liking to their distinctive strip the first time they played as a country, I think.

    But my metaphorical money has been on France from the beginning, as far as pure prediction goes – and I’ve never quite forgiven Morocco for a certain match in 1998…

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    @D.O.: a pure editing glitch. The “Dutch” club was Ajax, whose as-currently-shown-on-wikipedia roster (possibly changed since that tournament) has 13 out of 24 players of Dutch nationality for FIFA purposes. That’s certainly more than chance! The remaining 11 are of 9 different (FIFA) nationalities, with only Argentina and Mexico having two representatives each and the rest being singletons.

  17. France has played consistently well throughout the whole tournament.

    Ordinarily I’d go for the underdog. But Morocco fans have shown an unsportsmanlike side by whistling and booing every time the opposing team touches the ball.

    Morocco has certainly punched above its weight in this World Cup. I wonder how much of this is due to ‘home ground’ advantage?

  18. Trond Engen says

    The choose-for-life rule is meant to prevent “national horse trades”, and i does a fairly good job at it. Players simply can’t move for any amount of money after they made their adult choice. The only exception I’m aware of is if national federations are split or become realigned (usually because their nations do).

    But that doesn’t mean there isn’t horse-trading going on on a personal level with players who have yet to play an international match. Second-tier Brazilians and exceptional talents from fourth-tier nations carry passports from aspiring nations all over the world. Should this be avoided? I think so. Or at least I think it should be made more difficult. I wish nationality was defined by childhood federation membership.

  19. But countries smaller than 1 million should be allowed to join forces. The new Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Jamaica team could be a power.

  20. That’s how it works in cricket — the West Indies includes players from across the Caribbean, and they have been a international powerhouse at times (I don’t follow cricket closely enough any more to know how good they are now).

  21. @Ryan: As I understand it, the age-bracket call-ups don’t count, but once you’ve played for the full national team, even in a friendly, you can’t switch.

    Appearances in friendly matches don’t count. Diego Costa famously played a couple of friendlies for Brazil before switching to Spain. Within the last couple of years, the rules have been further relaxed so that even appearances in up to three competitive matches before turning 21 wouldn’t count, provided that none of those were in World Cup finals or continental finals like the Euros or Copa America.

  22. An interesting tidbit from the NYT story “Joy and Anxiety Collide as Moroccans Look to World Cup Match With France“:

    Several of the players, including [Achraf] Hakimi, even insist on giving interviews in Moroccan Arabic, despite speaking English, French or Spanish.

    “He’s not ashamed of his background,” Rehima Korriz, 24, who runs a beauty salon in the neighborhood of Mr. Hakimi’s family, said with pride. (When asked about his Arabic, however, honesty compelled her to note that he still spoke with a strong accent.)

  23. David Marjanović says

    many large European cities have more than one

    Notably, The City has three: Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray.

  24. I’m pretty sure many of the Moroccan national team players, especially those from the diaspora, struggle with Arabic and will be more comfortable with Amazigh. And those who do speak Arabic will speak Darija or Moroccan Arabic, which is impenetrable to most of the Arab world, so many still need translators. Netherlands-born Hakim Ziyech is a Riffian speaker I think. There was a clip where he listened to a long question in Arabic before responding, “English please.”

    There are reports that players are communicating mostly in English due to the diverse language backgrounds.

  25. The Republic of Ireland began using diaspora players in the 1960s when FIFA introduced the “granny rule”, which was meant to cut down on oriundi from South America being poached by Italy and Spain but somehow made it easier for British-born players with Irish passports to qualify for the FAI team. The most notorious incident was in 1973, when Terry Mancini was lining up for his first cap and whispered a complaint about how long the Polish national anthem was dragging on, only to be told “that’s our anthem”. Plastic Paddies peaked under Jack Charlton (1986-96) but a few are still there. Jack Grealish and Declan Rice, who played for England at this World Cup, had played friendlies for Ireland when they were young and foolish.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    My nightmare scenario for the final has now come to pass.

  27. Many World cups ago (everyone can figure out how many, but true fans would just know) I watched a cup final Germany-Italy in a large company of strangers, and was asked for whom I was rooting. I don’t think there was a real preference, but I said “Germany”. One of the strangers asked “Why are you rooting for fascists?”, but another stranger rejoined “The others are fascists too”.

  28. Italy = primo fascists ; Germany = über-fascists

  29. Not sure if that model still works if nation-states are the theoretical unit of competition.

    Well, to compare the sublime with the ridiculous[*], consider the Miss World competition. The competitors represent nation-states, but the requirement is merely that of being a citizen of the country you represent. The age range for eligibility is 17–27, which means that it is in principle possible to compete for eleven different countries during your career as a would-be Miss World.

    (The other requirements are that one must be female, unmarried, and nulliparous (Ireland further requires that its candidate never have gone through a marriage ceremony that is not legally binding), and that one has no criminal record or is otherwise of bad repute. Transwomen are eligible if the country they represent makes them so. In many countries, including the U.S., the candidate is chosen by a modeling agency rather than a national competition.)

    [*] As a male American born and bred and of a certain age, I absolutely decline to state which I think is which.

  30. @D.O.: So this year one may choose between Vichyistes & Peronistas … (The Ustashites having been relegated to the 3d-place game …)

  31. I guess it will do, in a pinch. But neither Perón nor Pétain bothered much anyone outside their borders. I am sure my watching party would approve of whomever I might would have been (I am completely lost in the correct choice of “tense” for this hypothetical) supporting in this final.

  32. whomever I might would have been (I am completely lost in the correct choice of “tense” for this hypothetical) supporting in this final.

    whomever I might have been supporting in this final.

  33. “Terry explained how this year’s England squad appeared to be more united than the ones he played for a decade ago.” … largely due to Terry’s own malign influence. His character is every bit as bad as his speech.

  34. 2-0 ARG at the half — one goal by Messi, one by Di Maria, exactly how I would have wished it to go. France looking shapeless. Back in an hour or so…

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    ¡Argentina, Sí!

  36. Trond Engen says


  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Diolch yn fawr, as they say in Argentina.

  38. Thanks! That game nearly killed me — my long-suffering wife threatened to hide out in the bedroom after France tied it up, but fortunately she stuck around to share the agony and ultimate triumph. What a game!!

  39. Congratulations! That was a fantastic final!

  40. They’re calling it the best ever, and who am I to disagree?

  41. Lots of big dots and one little dot, moving around within a rectangle. I’ll never get team sports. But I’m glad for those who have had a good time.

  42. David Marjanović says

    Lots of big dots and one little dot, moving around within a rectangle.

    Das Runde muss in das Eckige – “the round thing has to go into the thing with the corners”.

  43. Messi is leaving me with a lot of language-related questions. Why do the Argentines find his qué miras, bobo that funny? And why did Messi say Vamos Argentina, la concha de su madre in the full stadium after the final? I mean, I understand the literal translation but how did it evolve to a phrase to cheer on a football team?

  44. Argentines love sweariness, especially in their sporting heroes — it’s a pibe thing. Fuck yeah! (as we norteamericanos say).

  45. David Marjanović says

    qué miras, bobo

    “Whatcha lookin’ at, Bubba”…?

  46. Stu Clayton says

    qué miras, bobo is a 16C Benedectine thing, sez here:

    # La frase que Leo Messi popularizó en pleno Mundial de Catar luce desde el siglo XVI en el monasterio de Samos. Un medallón de piedra muestra esa inscripción con letras rojas ordenadas de forma jeroglífica en el templo situado en la comarca de Sarria, al sur de la provincia de Lugo.

    En el monasterio habitado más antiguo de España, ocupado por monjes benedictinos, se encuentra la frase con la que Pedro Rodrigues [vease al enlace, ed.] quiso alertar a los visitantes para que disfrutasen de la visita sin distraerse con nimiedades. En el Mundial de Catar 2022, antes de coronarse al fin campeón, Messi empleó los mismos términos para silenciar al neerlandés Wout Weghorst tras un intensísimo partido que solo se resolvió en favor de Argentina en la tanda de penaltis.

    Word of my day: nimiedad

  47. L’Équipe:

    Argentine-France n’est pas seulement la plus belle finale de l’histoire : c’est aussi l’un des plus grands matches de l’histoire de la Coupe du monde, sinon le plus grand.

    Et ce sont les français qui disent ça!

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Of course. Even in defeat, France is glorious.
    (Just as well, really.)

  49. David Marjanović says

    Judging from street names in Paris, the French attitude to history is “history is good”, plain and simple.

    (…except for Vichy.)

  50. (…except for Vichy.)
    And Alesia.

  51. Alesia amnesia.

  52. qué miras, bobo

    “Whatcha lookin’ at, Bubba”…?

    More like, “Whatcha lookin’ at, dummy.”

    A “bobo” is someone who is dumb or slow. It also kind of implies that the person tends to stare which is why it’s the kind of word that parents use to scold children who watch too much television: “¡No seas bobo en frente de la televisión!”

    Men also tend to be “bobos” in front of a pretty woman.

    P.S. this message was from Pancho, not “Panchi”. Fat fingers + iPhone = Frequent misspellings.

  53. David Marjanović says

    That was then. Alesia has now joined the “history is good” program, complete with a street (and métro station) in Paris.

  54. qué miras, bobo

    Doesn’t Messi use his native Rioplatense voseo forms (along with debuccalization/loss of final s)?

    ¿ Qué mirás, bobo ?¿ Qué mirás, bobo ? ¡ Andá, andá pa’ allá, bobo ! ¡ Andá pa’ allá !

  55. Just a few days later, still trying to slow down my heart beat:

    @bertil and @Xerib, and others — One of the things that surprised me when I first heard “qué mirá bobo” was what appeared to be a complete elision of the final “s” “in mirás” — last time I was in Buenos Aires, many decades ago, the final “s”, even (particularly?) in front of a consonant, would leave a clearly distinguishable aspirated sound, if not actually a sibilant. I hear nothing, am I the only one? Is Messi’s pronunciation a new RioPlatense one, or is it influenced by Catalá? I’d love to know the answer. It can be repeated ad infinitum at
    Also, he doesn’t say “andá pa’llá”, he says “andá payá” with a very strong “y”, with an almost dental sound.
    As to “concha de tu madre” (that is, “conchetumadre”), I’m surprised no one has remarked that this is exactly the same insult as Hebrew “כוס אמאך”, obviously a calque from Arabic, just as the Spanish one is.
    Insults transcend cultures 🙂
    I’m still waiting for him to say “la rrrremil puta que te parió”, which was so common in my day (’60s) – has it fallen into desuetude?

  56. was what appeared to be a complete elision of the final “s” “in mirás” — last time I was in Buenos Aires, many decades ago, the final “s”, even (particularly?) in front of a consonant, would leave a clearly distinguishable aspirated sound, if not actually a sibilant

    Preconsonantal /s/ in Rioplatense can be realised as [s], [h] or ∅ depending on a bunch of factors. The null realisation is stigmatised in formal speech, but perfectly commonplace.

    Also, he doesn’t say “andá pa’llá”, he says “andá payá” with a very strong “y”, with an almost dental sound.

    Rioplatense, like most Spanish dialects, neutralised the /ʎ/ vs /ʝ/ distinction centuries ago. The result of the merger is typically pronounced [ʒ~ʃ], a phenomenon often called rehilamiento.

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