DOHA, Qatar — 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.
It can seem, at times, like a Sisyphean task. BeIN Sports, the broadcaster based in Qatar, has devoted six channels to the World Cup, including two that are Arabic only. Each one is broadcasting tournament content for up to 18 hours a day. There are pregame shows, halftime chats and postgame panel discussions, but also sideline interviews, on-the-street cutaways and fan-zone appearances. Much of that programming is beamed out live to the world, and much of it involves a delicate live dance involving Arab hosts and guests and former soccer stars who do not speak a common language.
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.
“For the time being,” Tounakti said, “John Terry is mine.”
Speaking to the World
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, which ended with his voice relaying the shocking news that Qatar had won the rights to bring the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time. “They say I am the guy that made 350 million people cry,” he said.
In the decade since the vote, beIN, which is owned by the Qatari state, grew into one of the world’s biggest broadcasters, spending billions of dollars on sports rights every year and expanding into dozens of countries. Most of that expansion has been preparation for this moment: a month of televising the World Cup from Qatar.
While the 64 games have been a centerpiece of the coverage, a significant part of the network’s content has revolved around the high-profile guest commentators the company has hired at great expense to bring credibility, celebrity and commentary to its coverage.
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.
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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.”
Tounakti suggested an impromptu demonstration, and Schmeichel gamely agreed. The goalkeeper then spent five minutes ruminating on his native Denmark’s early exit from the World Cup while Tounakti interpreted his every word. His translation, like his work on the broadcasts, was in fusha, a version of classical Arabic that is understood across the Arab world but not spoken in any particular country.
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.
A Special Relationship
That night’s match — England’s round-of-16 meeting with Senegal — would require Tounakti to summon all of his energy. He would, he said, be speaking for 90 minutes on the pregame show, interpreting for Terry in the studio and Matthäus, a World Cup winner who will work the game from next to the field.
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.
On a previous show, Terry had complained about the translations being slow on three occasions. After that, Tounakti said he spoke with management. “I had to explain to my bosses the jargon of football is different,” he said. (Terry declined to be interviewed for this article.)
A mistake in an elimination match is not an option, Tounakti said. He began his preparations for the evening on the 45-minute journey to the stadium. He took two painkillers to prevent headache symptoms during the show. Next came a lozenge to help his throat, which he said was showing signs of strain after weeks of daily broadcasts.
More rituals would come later. But as the small bus wended its way toward Al Bayt, Tounakti’s mind was already on Terry.
“It’s a special show,” he said. “You have to be listening very carefully, watching the sound productions, for every P-uh and B-uh. I am watching his lips because you cannot miss it.”
Arriving at the stadium, he checked the spartan booth where he would be working and made the now routine call to his wife. “Hey, Rachida,” he said, leaving a voice message. “Don’t call me. I will be live for one hour and a half; send me a message in case of emergency, watch out, bye-bye, ciao.” Tounakti said his family knows not to disturb him in the hours leading up to a show. “When you give me the headset I am uprooted from this world,” he said. “I am uprooted completely. I only hear my guest and I only pay attention to what is going on.”
There was one more ritual before a sound test. Tounakti pulled out a bottle of Sauvage, a fragrance by Christian Dior, and liberally sprayed it on himself and those around him. The bottle stays on his desk; he would spritz himself several more times as the evening progressed. “You must smell good in case you meet a V.I.P.,” he said. But as the evening went on, and as the tension and workload took their toll, the true purpose of the cologne became evident: It helped relieve his stress.
A few minutes later, Terry, dressed in a dark suit and a slim tie, appeared on a screen just before the show went live. “Hello, John. How are you, brother?” Tounakti said. “Are you good? Is it loud and clear? Crystal clear?”
Terry said all was well.
“He said, ‘Hi, mate,’” Tounakti said with pride. “Words matter. He could just say, ‘Hi,’ but by saying, ‘Hi, mate,’ he shows we are friends.”
Live on the Air
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.
Amid all that, Tounakti broke his rule about not smoking within three hours of going on the air many times. And there were at least 15 more spritzes of cologne.
Finally, his job done, Tounakti rose from his seat, thanked his friend John Terry and closed the door behind him as he left.
“You see, it’s tiresome, it’s tiresome,” Tounakti said. “The on-site coverage has its own flavor, but it kills you — you reach your home at 2 a.m. and have to wake up at 9. This is when you feel tired. Now. It’s been really tough today.”
He would do it all again the next day.