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NYT Gets to First, the Freep Strikes Out

Last Sunday, two major papers (the NYT and the Detroit Free Press) published separate stories on foreign languages in baseball, the NYT about Japanese interpreters for major league Japanese players, the Freep about native English-speaking players picking up Spanish to talk to Cubans, Dominicans, and other Spanish-speaking players.

Of the two, from a journalist’s perspective, the Times piece was better; the only glimpse the Freep reporter gives of an Anglo speaking Spanish is when Craig Monroe shouts “tengo hambre!” to himself.

Monroe wasn’t speaking to anybody in particular. This is how he works at learning a second language, occasionally conversing with himself.

The Freep does talk about what teams potentially get out of the social cohesion that results from learning each other’s language, as well as how attitudes about language on teams have changed.

Latin American players’ early assimilation into America’s baseball culture was often marked with derisive characterizations of the players’ difficulties in grasping the English verbiage. So now the roles have changed with the English-speaking players having some difficulty in grasping Spanish.

But it lacked story and portrait and character. It was a softball. (OK, so maybe he drummed it out when he found out about the NYT piece, fair enough.)

By contrast, the Times gives you a quick image from the field, then broadens into context quickly, where baseball meets language meets business.

As the internationalization of Major League Baseball continues and more Japanese players come here to play, teams have increasingly been hiring interpreters to help ease their transition. Unlike Latin American players, who can usually find teammates, coaches and club officials who speak Spanish, Japanese players rarely have that option.

You get a sense of how various teams operate, and how much they’re willing to pay their translators. (The Yankees pay too damn little — $300,000 for an interpreter for two players who make a combined $17 million.) The piece is also sensitive to the fact that speakers of other languages (Chinese and Spanish) don’t get interpreters; are they sore? Who knows.

But I wanted more from the Times piece. I wanted to hear more from the interpreters about this as a form of work, and how the game, the team, and fans look from their perspective. How fast do you have to work? How do you build rapport with a player? What if you don’t? Do you have to know baseball? What if you don’t? I also wanted more about the baseball slang that’s hard to translate. And I wanted interpreting goof ups. (“Bunt! No, walk!”)

In the end, neither story was gritty enough. I think the best example of this kind of story is the This American Life piece about Yao Ming’s interpreter, done in 2003 or so. Until I get in the game, that is. Put me in the game, coach!