By: Allan Wolper
Joba Chamberlain is a good ole boy from Lincoln, Neb. So it was a blast to see the New York Yankees pitcher on television a couple of months ago laughing it up in the team’s dugout with Hiroki Kuroda, his Japanese teammate. Especially since Chamberlain was talking to Kuroda in English, without a translator.
It was one of those silent television camera pans, but it made an impression. Kuroda, like many other foreign players who use translators at news conferences, speaks and understands English. It is a situation that compromises truth telling in sportswriting.
Baseball fans who watch these exchanges on their television set at home are smarter than they are given credit. They can read and write. They use their team to try to forget the real world of bills, work, and crying children.
All they want is for their favorite player to get a hit once in a while with the bases loaded, or dive in the stands to catch a ball. They wear the overpriced jersey of the player on their back, often paid for with a credit card. They deserve to have the players who speak English appear unfiltered at news conferences without a translator interpreting what those players say.
The networks that broadcast the games should force Major League Baseball to stop the charade. The writers who cover the teams should stop complaining only to each other and their editors about the English-speaking players who play dumb and use translators. Because the translators admit their job is not to quote the players directly but to interpret what the players mean. The Associated Press has made that point in several of its stories.
This continues a trend in journalism in which readers are mistreated by the people they count on to hold public figures accountable, whether they hit a baseball or win a political debate. It is not unlike reporters who let presidential candidates decide which quotes can be used in their stories. During the election, The New York Times told its writers to stop permitting the Obama and Romney campaigns to play that kind of ball.
Gerry Spratt, former deputy sports editor for the now online-only Seattle Press Intelligencer, said beat writers covering the Seattle Mariners were always grumbling about Japanese player and future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki’s use of a translator.
“He spoke perfect English,” said Spratt, now deputy sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He would never speak on the record in English, and that drove some writers crazy. He would also speak to some writers off the record in English and then use a translator afterward at a news conference.”
Readers of The Seattle Times would periodically complain about Suzuki’s refusal to speak in English, but he never bent. When he was traded last July to the Yankees after more than 11 years in Seattle, he still used a translator to say goodbye to his fans.
One letter writer to the Times expressed the frustration of Seattle fans: “How do you hold a press conference but don’t speak any English to the fans after living here for 11 years. I find that disrespectful … Ichiro speaks English but chooses not to so he can hide behind a phony language barrier.”
Susan Slusser, president of the Baseball Writers Association of America and a beat writer for the Oakland Tribune, said in a brief interview that she hasn’t heard any complaints from her members about the use of translation at press conferences. Well, it’s about time that members start calling her.
The argument for giving foreign players who speak poor English the right to use interpreters or translators is that it makes certain that players are quoted as saying what they mean and aren’t misquoted. In this day of smartphones, that is beyond ridiculous.
Ozzie Guillen, when he was manager of the Chicago White Sox three years ago, said that teams were hiring translators for Asian players but were not doing the same for Hispanic players. As a result, Spanish-speaking players usually rely on teammates or coaches to translate or interpret for them.
But Spanish players who say, “I don’t speak English” are much more likely to face a follow-up question from a reporter who speaks the language.
It is a given that major league players are trained from their earliest days in competitive sports — see the movie “Bull Durham” — to answer questions in sports-speak, doing this or that for their school, their team, their town, their city, or their country.
Our multiplatform society is encouraging public figures to become wary of inquiring minds, whether they blog online or bleat on the airwaves, no matter if inquiries are made in English, Spanish, or any other language.
The realm of digital sports news is controlled by companies who want to keep their employees under verbal wraps and don’t want their thoughts vetted or questioned by unfriendly sources.
People believe what they see. Television broadcasts that show players who purportedly can’t speak English conversing in the dugout and on the field with English-speaking teammates are delivering a flawed, phony product.
Sportswriters have long had to battle the impression that their section of the newsroom is a toy department, but that impression has changed in recent years with the hiring of some outstanding investigative reporters.
The San Francisco Chronicle won a George Polk Award for exposing the use of steroids in baseball, a situation that had been ignored by sportswriters for at least a decade.
The sportswriters who cover teams have a special obligation to keep the trust of their readers. Those readers are manic multitaskers, sitting in their living room with a television remote in one hand and an online gizmo in the other.
They expect to see and hear the truth. When they watch a player speaking English on television, then see a televised news conference featuring a translator, followed by a newspaper article quoting the translator, they know they’re being had.
And they have to wonder how many other stories in the paper are using a translator.
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.