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zz hands frame

Hola, Zinedine

Melissa McCarthy


uenas noches, ladies, gentlemen, distinguished club-mates, members of the press. Ready for your questions.

How do we move? We move over the pitch; through time; off the ball; within language.

Also between languages? Yes, via translation, the written habit of moving a set of words from one pattern, arrangement, line-up, to another. This can take time, to read, stop, look up, hone. Or, we move between languages by interpretation, which is a spoken and performed behaviour, more immediate, allowing for conversation and questioning to take place in a quick one-two. It’s live action.

What about movement between those two halves of the field, between the spoken and the written? That goes both ways. Transporting from the written word into the spoken is reading out loud (a brilliant invention). Converting the spoken word into recorded text is transcribing.

Is there a further activity which combines or complicates the two divisions, scoring both on translation between languages and on transposition between modes of utterance? . One can read the words in their original language as they appear on the page; that is, following the instruction that the written letters tell you to make with your mouth. H-o-m-e spells “home” and is said in a certain way, it makes this sound rather than another. Or, one can read words from the page and contemporaneously change them, speak these other different noises, though what you are conveying has the same sense. You can read the letters “volver a casa” and say out loud the sounds “come back home.”

And moving the thought onto the page? That’s just writing. No hay nada más, sabes.

¿Why am I presenting this in question and answer format? Because the occasion that got me considering these activities around translation is a press conference that took place on 11th March 2019, when the former player Zinedine Zidane was introduced, reintroduced in fact, as the manager of the Real Madrid men’s football team (I call it football; I speak English. This is, too, the language I write in). He fielded questions from the press, in French and Spanish; said, as the main thrust, that he was happy to be back.

What’s good about this presser, involving as it does a tight focus on my sporting and cultural hero, as, in tight jeans, he negotiates words, in Spanish? If you have to ask, you’ll never know, I’m tempted to say. But that is my task here, to convey, pinpoint, explain. So I’ll lace my boots, get cracking.

Pero ahora soy uno más, I’m just one of many

First, in practical terms. What’s the format of the 2019 presser, how do I encounter it? I watch it all on a Youtube clip provided by Real Madrid Football Club. There’s half an hour of audio-visual, from a couple of cameras and mics in the conference room. Over the top of this is simultaneous interpretation, spoken words, from a young fellow who sounds like he’s from Barnet, north London. And after quite a while I realised that the video had an option for an automatic closed caption or CC transcription of Zidane’s output—white type, Spanish words—on the screen.

In addition, Real Madrid put out an English-language press release about the conference, with the questions very much condensed and Zidane’s answers just lightly edited. This account of his words differs somewhat from the video. The gist, the direction of travel is the same, but the phrasing divisions and particular words chosen, these aren’t quite the same as in the Youtube. For example, the press release transcript has, “I'm fully aware of the club I'm joining. Nobody can take the excitement . . .” But the Barnet boy interpreting on the video speaks that as, “I know where I am. I know where I’ve come to. Life is full of ups and downs. I’m buzzing!” Which as a conveyance of enthusiasm is back of the net, meaning, good.

I also know what Zidane is saying because the (UK newspaper) the Guardian’s website on the evening offered a live-blog of this momentous (to the football world) event, with every few minutes a textual snippet of the latest pronunciamento, interspersed with links from other sources, pictures of Zidane’s outfit, jokes emailed in by readers. It’s collage-ist, in form. The Guardian also had a correspondent over in Madrid giving live summary, further think pieces.

I have a range of inputs, then, and each one offers a subtly different translation of his words. And I can add to these myself: I can look at his mouth in Spanish and write down the sounds, then take this transcript away and use various assistants (linesmen? VARS?) to translate it into English. I have my insiders, in the language, and other sources. Though they’re of varying reliability: when I ask Google Translate it offers me the idea that Zidane loves Real Madrid football club so much that he wants to feel it deep inside him, which, though pleasingly filthy, is probably not exactly the sentiment he’s trying to convey. Sometimes the interpreter speaks over him, the captions interject odd words as artifacts. They drown or muddle his voice. Or maybe he’s just not speaking textbookly correct Spanish. The more explanatory inputs there are, the harder it is to hear Zidane’s own voice (a lesson, perhaps, but one that I’m resolutely ignoring).

But I use my discretion, combine these various sources and tools, to derive my own interpretation. There’s the non-verbal too, of course: his demeanour, his gestures, his almost-giggle as he answers about just how many titles he’s won, how successful he’s been, in the past at Madrid. I love it when he laughs. There’s a point when he’s asked if the team lacked hunger, and he replies no, the only thing they needed was a change. He shrugs and chuckles, “No hay nada más, sabes”–there’s not much more to it, you know. Then he laughs again, almost blushes, when recounting what people say to him when they stop him in the street. “Cosas mal, eh, no todo las cosas buenas”–some nice things, some not so much. “Un poco de todo,” a bit of everything. His body as he hunches forwards round the podium and grips the side – you’re reminded that he’s a big man.

All these elements, figures: I weave through them, line them up together, zigzag through this web of language, the compound sources, to get to the end, the double end, the ZZ. So, multiple inputs, but one voice is the central thread, the reason for it all: Zidane’s claim that though he left this very role only nine months ago, he’s happy to be back. That’s the basic. But expanding, tangenting off from this centre circle, there are a few words and ideas that recur, that caught my notice; my studs snagged on them. Specifically, about time and repetition, language, and, returning to Madrid.

Tenemos tiempo para hablar, we have time to talk

The simultaneous interpreter does a sterling job. But he’s listening and responding, marking carefully wherever Zidane goes, not concurrently reading out a prepared, parallel language text. So sometimes his words clash with whatever it is that Zidane is saying next; they’re slightly out of register. There’s a time lag, and the voices bunch or clot slightly, as Zidane talks with a dynamism, with bursts of energy in his delivery; he pauses, thinks, listens to a question. The English interpreter, too, has to take time to listen, then he follows behind with his English-words-version of the same thing that Zidane said a few seconds earlier; Zidane’s already run past, over-paced him, taken the ball round. His word “ahora” comes from his lips and appears on the captions at the same time, but it’s not til a moment later that the interpreter tracks back and catches up with “now.”

There’s another thing about time. Over several repetitions Zidane mentions that he’s returned as manager because he got a phone call from the president of the club, one Florentino Pérez. The story is that Pérez rang, asked if he’d come back, Zidane was delighted to, all is harmony. The journalists seem a little sceptical about this, but we’ll let them play on. What I noticed is that the English interpreter with his not-cut-glass accent pronounces Pérez’s job title with a slight contraction of word, so that as he describes it, Zidane says that “the present” called me, “and I like the present.” We are pitched into, or reminded that we live in, the world of the immediate, the live. Live even as I toggle back and back, ceaselessly into the past, rewatching with admittedly obsessive interest this cultural occasion, revisiting from a distance of more than four years. I suppose it’s still a live event to the extent that I’m finding it, poring over it, studying and exegesis-ing it, all this while afterwards, still. And it says “LIVE” on the screen in big letters in the top right corner.

There’s repetition and extra time built in to everything that’s happening at the presser. A bit because he has already been the entrenador at Real Madrid for a couple of years, with lower roles prior to that. We’ve been here before, this is a replay. And a press conference in which a manager explains to the journos how he’s looking forward to this Saturday’s match and everything will be great? That’s happened so often it’s practically Noh drama, ritual, same old drill. But time also loops and swerves because watching now (in 2023) is to watch from the vantage point of knowing that there will be, it has already happened, a second time that he steps down, again (this actually in May 2021). So we’re watching him start in a role (in 2019) that we know has in our timescale already finished. Also, and even without the benefit of hindsight, everyone there at the presser knows that these things don’t last long, however much you profess lifelong allegiance to a club. Football is short (ars brevis, sabes) and no-one at this level of football, in these dynamics and scenarios, will probably be in place very long. That’s fine, we just run with it for now. But it won’t last.

Cosas… vamos a cambiar, everything’s going to change

The president (or present) called me. A journo asks Zidane, “What’s the first thing that went through your mind when the call came?” Hands-spread shrug, shake of the head, “De volver . . . y aquí estoy.” To come back, and here I am. That’s it: he’s dead-stopped the question with a phrase of excellent simplicity but existential pertience: aquí estoy. The exchange involves thought, returning, presence. He’s picking up the ball here from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. I think, return, and here I am. (Or possibly from Bugs Bunny.) I thought volver might refer to his balletic and beautiful way of twisting, vortexing, outrunning opponents on the pitch. But no, the word had wrong-footed me; it’s actually to return home, come back, drop back and mark. Not to spin, snick back, cut over a defender, not an individual motion and axis verb, but one which describes relative position vis-a-vis a larger whole; he mentions coming home, a casa, several times. Home, here, to Madrid. I live here.

Home, and change, el cambio. The players needed it, the club needed it. He needed a change, it had been time for him to go. I like this repetition of cambio, given that I’m considering the whole presser and the broader event in the context of changing between, going across between states, motion. He talks about change, then in one instant he effects change: he shifts both language and subject, as a question comes in from a French not a Spanish journo, asking about what’s changed over nine months. Zidane is asked about change, but what he replies is about language: “I’m glad you asked in French, so that I can explain again and make sure the Spanish understand one thing better.” “Je vais être clair,” I want to make it clear, he insists.

Tampoco me he ido muy lejos, I didn’t go far

So time, repetition, change, return, volver. But the main reason, the top scorer for why I thought about this event over the past four years, was this: as I had remembered it, Zidane’s address contained an interesting phrase. What have you been up to, these past nine months, asked someone. And Zidane replied, “I have been here in Madrid, doing my thing.”

I like this, its combination of the local and specific with the expansive, imprecise slang. What does he mean by it, what does it mean? Madrid? Yes, he lives there with his wife. Doing my thing? Pleasantly vague, indicating, “the sort of stuff I do.” The speaker has a field, behaviour, disposition towards something that he doesn’t want to explain in this sentence. Or doesn’t need to; obviously “my thing” for Zidane – one of the most famous players then managers in the world – is going to be footy. But he distinctly has not been doing this; since the end of May the previous year, when he resigned for the first time from this very position of Real Madrid manager, he has not been involved in the game.

Or could he mean the opposite? “Doing my thing” as a way of saying, private matters that are none of your business, not my public persona of football. That would imply, I’ve been not doing the thing that you all assume forms me; there’s been nothing of that going on. So when asked what he’s been doing, his answer might be taken as either nothing, nothing at all, or football (though they are very close). I’d read it as football, every time. Or is “my thing” just vague because the activities are vague? Pottering around. I had breakfast, went to the shops. Watered my flowers. Cultivated my garden, my green space. Ironed my jeans.

Anyway, I liked this phrase very much. It seemed to contain both mastery of an activity and an at-homeness in both the world and the neighbourhood, and in one’s chosen sphere. A sense of quiet contentment, the confidence that you know what you like, you’re good at it, you can just get on with it away from the cameras, stadium, microphones. A groundedness in a particular place, a facility with the activities that you use your own body to do. It locates him in a city, and he’s not just placed there, inert; he’s doing his things. He’s embodying presence through action. Which is completely what being a legendarily good footballer is about, to my mind: you think, you are here, you take up and understand space and you move over the pitch. The way you control your body within these geographical boundaries –inside the lines–is the skill. Oh there is the ball, too, but that’s menos importante; it’s more about space and action. Being here, doing this. I have been here in Madrid, doing my thing. I took it as my motto, or the state to which to aspire. I’d like, me too, to be able to explain myself thus.

Of course, though, he doesn’t actually say this. He’s speaking Spanish, anyway. The words that come out of Zidane’s mouth, or that seem to from the video, are, “A Madrid, vivo a Madrid, hacer mis cosas” – vivo, I live; mis cosas, my things; hacer, to do. I can see why that moves over to the English sentence as I received it. It’s a clean pass, the words in Spanish having their equivalents in English, and as I look at it I can see the sentence at its start point and at its end point, see it makes sense for the meaning to travel over to how it lands as a concept in my mind.

And he doesn’t speak in such a written, complete manner as I had remembered the English. He’s extemporising, off the cuff; sentences and thoughts over-run. This is not because he’s inarticulate, but this is how people speak in words, rather than when they’re using the control of the written language. It’s how people interpret, rather than translate, their own thoughts, internal monologue, into speech. Zidane’s a beautiful mover: not just over the grass, or pivoting so his volleying boot follows the perfect curve that will lead into the goal. He also has this lovely way for moving or distributing ideas, sending them out all over the pitch, the conference room, the internet, all the media; then further out, further. His thoughts move out as words, into transcript, interpreted speech, reported speech. Written material, literary sources. Words that can be passed, manoeuvred, released.

Me preguntas pero… , you can ask me but that’s not the question right now

This is a press conference about a manager returning to work with a sports team. Why, then, do I look at it in terms of language; what’s dragging me in and enticing me to look at it in this way? I’ve studied this, Zidane’s words, much more exhaustively than I watch his spin, turn, shoot, score on the grass of the pitch. And I watch those a lot. From body to voice, what prompts the move from interest in his physical excellence to this dissection of his speaking? Most football players I don’t care what they are chatting about; you’ve got to let the feet do the talking. But Zidane’s words? I can’t say. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does it’s nice, it’s cosas buenas. When they announce him onto the stage, the Spanish compere gives his name the Castilian Spanish pronunciation: Thinedine Thidane. Not a buzzing Z sound like I’d say, nor a hissing French TS. His name moves. His eyes flicker. He steps up.

There’s something slipping about all over the pitch, all through this presser, something to do with how we talk and convey what we want another to understand. About how different sounds and meanings move all over, through, alongside the person. I’m chasing hard but I can’t quite catch up with Zidane, with what he’s doing about words. Maybe it’s not even the particular words but his facility with and between them, the way he has control over switching around, cutting back, making the point, while he fields the questions about how he turns or moves, changes or remains.

Este gran club, que quiero mucho. This great club, that I love very much

I have been here in Madrid doing my thing, says Zidane, sort of. This is what I want: to be at home in the world, like he’s at home in Madrid, at home in my body in the space, in the same way that Zidane is. In a beautifully repetitive and imperfect way, knowing when to talk and when to shrug; when to change and when to leave it all lo mismo, just the same. To have the perfect timing to pick up the call from the present. Zidane makes things very simple. “La vida es asì, life’s like that. I know where I am, I know where I’ve come to.”

He steps up, adjusting his blazer buttons. He reaches down but there’s no button left to fasten so he hitches his belt buckle instead. He switches language. He moves it all around. He fiddles for ten seconds with the two little microphones on adjustable stalks, which wave there in front of him like flowers on stems. Bueno, he says. He smiles.

Gracias a Mark Wingrave y Juan Tabarés

MM fleeing plant

Melissa McCarthy