Last year, Ozzie Guillen — who’s of Venezuelan extraction and was then the manager of baseball’s Chicago White Sox — ignited a controversy when he asked why many, if not all, Asian ballplayers in America are provided translators, while Spanish-speaking players must fend for themselves as they learn a new culture and language.
“Latin players are told, ‘You choose to come to this country, and you better speak English.’” he said.
The brash Chicago manager soon backed off his inflammatory comments, after others pointed out a couple of things:
• Dozens of major-league coaches and older players who speak Spanish are around to help Latin newcomers, the United States has more Spanish-speakers than any other nation on earth (save for Mexico), and most if not all teams provide their Spanish-speaking players extensive English lessons in the minor leagues.
• English is a wholly new tongue to many other foreign-born players, with nary another countryman around to help with their assimilation in many cases. You don’t bump into Russian speakers very often in, say, Phoenix, Arizona, or Miami, Florida. Learning to comprehend a new language is one thing. Being comfortable speaking that language, with nuances, especially in front of microphones and cameras, is quite another.
Reporters and fans are always pushing athletes to learn English and speak for themselves, of course, since they know interpreters aren’t giving them word-for-word renditions of what the player actually said. They are quite literally “missing something in the translation.”
One of the more interesting language-adjustment examples has been unfolding here in Washington, where our National Hockey League team, the Washington Capitals, has brought in a number of Russian and former Soviet-bloc players over the years. Most notable among them, as every hockey fan knows, is Alex Ovechkin, one of the top hockey players in the world.
The gregarious Ovechkin, who’s now the Capitals’ captain, has understood English and spoken the language — quite playfully at times — from the moment he joined the team in 2005. And he and other Russian-born players have served as the go-between for another gifted scorer, Alexander Semin.
Whereas Ovechkin adores interaction with fans and the media, Semin, by all accounts, is reclusive and shy. His understanding of English has increased each season, yet “Sasha” has rarely spoken to fans in any language and addressed the media only through Russian-speaking teammates.
Those around the team suspected that Semin knew more English than he let on. As far back as 2007, the Washington Post’s hockey beat writer, Tarik El-Bashir, described an encounter with the talented forward, who was walking past alongside a Canadian-born teammate:
My eyes nearly bugged out of my head as Semin turned to [the teammate] and asked, with a heavy Russian accent, “What time is practice?”
Suddenly, I was having one of those did-I-just-hear-what-I-thought-I -heard moments.
So I said to Semin, “Alexander! Now I know you speak English! Ha!”
But he just winked at me, turned and walked — very quickly — down the hallway and through an area that’s off limits to media.
So I guess [the Caps’ coach at the time] was right. Being able to speak English, and wanting to, are apparently two different things.
Semin’s cat-and-mouse game continued until just a few weeks ago, when he showed up for this season’s training camp. It was clear that Semin now understood almost everything spoken to him in English, but remained self-conscious about replying for fear of misspeaking and looking foolish.
But at the urging of the team’s general manager, George McPhee, and others, Semin agreed to speak to reporters and fans in English.
“We felt that Semin is at the point where he’s progressed enough that he could handle it,” McPhee said, “and people would like to hear from him. He’s a good kid with a good sense of humor, and we’d like to get people to know who he is.” This, after most of eight years with the team.
One question has never been answered to my satisfaction in reports about foreign athletes playing sports in America:
Since you can’t post a translator next to you on the field, and teammates who might speak your language have their own assignments to think about on every play, how does a non-English speaker understand, say, a football quarterback’s call, barked quickly: “red, 24 right, 686 pump F, hut”?
I can’t make heads or tails out of this, and I’ve spoken English since I first said “Mama.”
I don’t think English-speaking Americans, many of whom make minimal effort to learn other languages, are in any place to judge the struggles of young, often modestly educated, newcomers. Ask the lifelong Americans who accept contracts to play baseball in Japan how exposed and inadequate you feel when everyone around you is speaking an unfamiliar language.
Several current National Basketball Association players have accepted, or are considering, contracts to play abroad, in places such as Slovenia and Turkey and China, while play is suspended in their league during a labor dispute.
You don’t think translators are made available to them?
This and That
A few other things that have come over the transom:
(Do you remember transoms? In old-timey offices, they were the crosspieces between doors and the hinged windows that could be opened — even when the doors were shut — to help circulate the air in the days before air conditioning.)
• Back in those pre-email times, when what we now call “snail mail” would arrive at the office, we’d often joke that “a letter poured in.” Meaning that we didn’t get much mail.
If we only knew. Just last week, the U.S. Postal Service reported that the typical American household receives a personal letter — not an advertisement or a bill but a real, person-to-person letter — once every . . . seven weeks!
“Once every seven weeks,” I reiterated to a colleague.
“That often?” she replied.
It made me miss not only letters from friends and family, but also those wonderful old picture postcards from, say, the Atlantic City boardwalk or the hills of San Francisco.
In these days of i-Phone snapshots and emailed photographs, I wonder how long the Postal Service would say is the average time since we got one of those.
Not weeks or months, I’ll bet. Years.
• The other day, I came across a Web site with a simple, self-explanatory name: Who’s Alive and Who’s Dead? It was up to date, too. The death of Apple pioneer Steve Jobs last week was right on its front page.
Haven’t you found yourself asking from time to time, “Is he still alive?” or offering, “Isn’t she dead?”
I thought you might like to take a stab at guessing “dead or alive?” about 10 pretty famous Americans. I picked these particular folks because, in recent conversations, I wasn’t sure which of them are still among us. Here goes:
Bert Bacharach, composer of “The Look of Love,” the “Theme from Alfie,” and other sappy hits.
Blake Edwards, director of the “Pink Panther” movies and husband of singer Julie Andrews.
Lee Iacocca, the innovative, telegenic president of the Ford Motor Company and then the Chrysler Corporation.
Country singer, film hunk, and hippie hero Kris Kristofferson.
Singer Brenda Lee, whose hits included “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Boxer Floyd Patterson, who once was the world’s youngest heavyweight champion at age 21.
Rockefeller family patriarch David Rockefeller, CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, who conceived of the World Trade Center and pushed through the approvals of the Twin Towers’ construction.
Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, Independent or Third Party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996.
Wally Schirra, one of the U.S. space program’s original astronauts. He later commanded the first successful Apollo mission.
And General Norman Schwarzkopf, the leader of “Operation Desert Storm,” as the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was called.
Answers at the bottom of this post.
• The length — an apt word, as you’ll see — to which people will go to try to make the Guinness Book of World Records never ceases to amaze me. Why do they do these weird things? So their heirs can inscribe on their tombstones: “Set the world record for slurping the longest strand of spaghetti”?
I could give you 20 recent, absurd examples from all over the world — somebody sporting the world’s longest tongue, for instance, or the German guy who rode a unicycle over a record number of beer bottles. But one American in particular caught my attention:
Chris Walton, a rock singer from Las Vegas, made the book, but not because of her voice. She hasn’t cut her fingernails in 18 years, and she set a new record for the world’s longest nails at . . . 3 meters, 10 cm [10 feet, 2 inches] on her left hand and 2 meters, 92 cm [9 feet, 7 inches] on right hand.
All curled up, of course, not sticking straight out from the ends of her fingers. Check out the photo [left].
“I do my own nails,” Walton attested. Imagine what THAT must entail.
“One day I stopped cutting my nails; I liked the way they looked,” Walton told the Huffington Post. “And they just kept growing.”
She says she drives quite easily, shops just fine, but has a little trouble digging for change in her pockets. Ya think?
• Answers to the Alive or Dead quiz:
Bacharach: Alive, age 82.
Edwards: Died last year at 88.
Iacocca: Alive, 88.
Kristofferson: Alive, 75
Lee: Alive, 66
Patterson: Died in 2006 at 71
Rockefeller: Alive, 96.
Perot: Alive, 81
Schirra: Died in 2007 at 84
Schwarzkopf: Alive, 77
My suspicion is that you killed off two or three of the folks who are still with us.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Gregarious. Outgoing, sociable, talkative.
Reclusive. Solitary, preferring isolation from others.
Reiterate. To repeat a statement, sometimes more than once.