Since the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1894, the event has grown from a mere 24 countries to over 200. As you might have guessed, the linguistic challenges involved are tremendous. Preparations are underway for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. To celebrate, here are seven fun facts and interesting stories about translation at the Olympics. Enjoy!
The 2018 Games Have 3 Official Languages: English, French and Korean
The Olympics always have two official languages: English and French. The others are assigned based on the languages spoken in the host country. This time around, that’s Korean.
Korean is the official language of both North and South Korea. It is spoken by 80 million people around the world, making it the 17th most common native language in the world. Korean is either a language isolate or a member of the small Koreanic language family. It all depends on whether you consider the Jeju language, a local language spoken on the Korean island of Jeju, to be a language of its own or a dialect of Korean.
Much of the 2018 Winter Olympics branding was inspired by the Korean alphabet.
Korean is written in the Hangul script, and the shapes of the Korean alphabet inspired many of the visual branding elements for the 2018 Winter Games.
For example, the emblem for the Games is a stylized version of the hangul letters ㅍ (p) and ㅊ (ch), for the initial sounds in “PyeonChang.”
Even better, the left symbol represents heaven, earth, and humanity and the right symbol represents ice. It’s a great example of the opportunities (and potential pitfalls) that come with translating into a non-Western script, where letters may carry additional meanings beyond just sound.
This Year, As Always, the French Are Watching
Pity the Francophiles! Unless the Olympic Games are being held in a French-speaking nation, the French language seems to get the short end of the stick when compared to English and the language of the host country. Every year, the International Organization of la Francophonie observes the games to make sure that French gets its due. They also appoint a language watchdog called le Grand Témoin, which translates to “the Great Witness.”
This year, le Grand Témoin is Fleur Pellerin, former French Minister of Culture and Communications. Pictured at left, she was born in South Korea but raised in France.
It’s PyeongChang, Not Pyongyang
South Korea would like to remind you that the 2018 Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, not Pyongyang. Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea. And yes, one person has already gotten the two cities confused. In October 2014, a Kenyan man attending a UN conference in Pyeongchang accidentally booked a ticket to Pyongyang instead.
According to NBC News, the indigenous people’s rights advocate was “held in North Korea for more than four hours, forced to pay about $500 for a plane ticket out of the country and ordered to sign a pledge saying he would never return to North Korea without a visa.”
Harsh! And given the current level of tension between North Korea and almost everywhere else, it would probably be for the best if this didn’t happen again.
To that end, Pyeongchang is changing its name to PyeongChang for the Winter Olympics.
South Korea Sought Out 2,100 Volunteers for Translation at the Olympics
Although the winter Olympics are smaller than the summer Olympics, translation remains a top concern. This year is no different. In preparation for the 2018 Olympic Games, South Korea sought out 2,100 volunteers with language skills to act as interpreters and translators for athletes, delegates, and the press. Read more