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The Role of Translation in Running Event Organizing (Part 1)

Thoughts and Musings

The Role of Translation in Running Event Organizing (Part 1)


I love running.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I was not active. I remember joining little league tee-ball in kindergarten, and continuing my sports journey through university. After trying what felt like every team sport possible, running is where I landed. It’s a solitary sport where your only competition is yourself. All of the stress and anxiety I felt during team sports fell away when I started running for fun.

If there is one word I could use to describe running as a sport, it would be “accessible”. This is because most people can run. Some might run slowly, or for very brief periods of time, some might hate every moment of it, but it is a natural part of being human. For someone like me, perpetually unable to sit still, it is the simplest way to keep myself moving.

It’s taken a long time for me to appreciate all of the training; the meditative practice of the long slow run, and the grit-inducing pain of speed days. I’m not the fastest in the world, and I don’t have to be. It’s the process that is important. I’ve come to this realization as I’ve worked on my master’s. It makes perfect sense. What is a thesis, if not an academic marathon of sorts?

Racing is almost as simple as your everyday training run. Even running competitions, especially for road running, are ridiculously accessible. You show up, you put on a bib, run faster than usual, and have some snacks after. Most races, no matter where they are held, appear more or less the same. The equipment, the clocks, the distances, the finish line - most things remain constant. Because of this, race organizers probably think it’s not so difficult to be inclusive for people who don’t speak the local language. Just follow the universally recognizable language of the road race, and you’ll be fine, right?

On race day, this is a great plan. For everything else related to organizing a race, it is probably the least inclusive attitude to have.

I’m going to focus on Korea, because that is where I live and what I know. Korea has the unfortunate situation of being a tiny country where most people are functionally monolingual, but home to a giant metropolis that is very attractive to outsiders. Another unfortunate truth is that English is the world’s common tongue. Most total outsiders, as in those who are new to the country, will not be able to read any Korean words on a race website. As running is an international sport, it’s natural that race organizers would prefer to include everyone. Yet, even while realizing this, those in charge continually sabotage their own efforts toward inclusion. I wish this were only true in the running community, but this paradox extends to nearly every aspect of living as an “other” in Korea.

I am not here just to pile criticism on Korean races alone, however I feel more qualified to do so given my placement within the Korean running community. I recently participated in a few road races in the US where there was no foreign language support on the websites at all, as far as I know. This is an interesting solution to the linguistic diversity issue - mainly, leaving it to Google. I am curious, though, how intimidated are non-English speakers with signing up for road races? Does it discourage diversity in the sport of running? Are there language-inclusive running clubs like there are in Korea to help aid race registration? These are questions for another day.

This rant is about those large, “international” marathons sponsored by huge corporations. Despite these often being official courses, and despite being explicitly advertised as “international”, their websites are riddled with errors, omissions, and clear disregard for non-Korean proficient users. I’m ignoring the dozens of races that use the word “international” but are very obviously smaller local races. I’ll focus on the large international marathons (races) that are held in Korea annually. These are usually official certified distance courses and boast tens of thousands of participants. Naturally, visitors and foreign residents alike flock to these races for official times and swag.

Despite explicitly marketing the races as “international”, the foreign-language websites are more often than not incomplete, and the text on the registration page confusing because the translation is inadequate. While I understand the limitations of translating an entire website, I do not understand why it is so difficult to translate a few words on the race registration form. I could translate an entire registration form from start to finish completed in one sitting, and that registration form could be used for years on end. I also don’t understand the careless approach to the foreign language pages. If you are going to do it, then do it. If you are not, then let people use their Google extension and dictionary. This is a reflection of what many new to Korean organizational culture (work, school, etc.) find perplexing. In a culture where perfection is prized, it can be surprising to see races backed by large international corporations putting out such terrible work.

It is almost as if the appearance of having a translation were a participation trophy, used for appearing inclusive and helpful, while in reality preserving the sanctity of the special Korean-only club. In short, it is an extension of xenophobic, nationalist attitudes. (This attitude rings true in some other places as well, especially in the US.) In short, it goes against the core of what makes running culture amazing.

I guess I am salty on this issue because I know how important translation is in its role as intermediary between linguistic in-groups. I will forgive the smaller race organizers. In fact, I am annoyed they attempt to have English at all, since it perpetuates a toxic culture of anti-Korean language learning by entitled English speakers. (This is an entirely different rant.) Well, maybe just let me do it for you. I volunteer as the translator tribute.

An unfortunate (or convenient?) reality is that English is the common language of the frequent flyers of the world. I do think it is the responsibility of those who aim to be inclusive to live up to their own standards. I do think it is to the advantage of Korean running culture to be more open to outsiders, because the running world is large and beautiful. Of course, the wider running world would also benefit from learning more Korean, but this is simply much less likely.

There are two steps we need to take to bridge the linguistic in-group gap. First, I want everyone to stop complaining about how “the race organizers don’t know English”. They shouldn’t have to! Second, I want to see organizers hiring competent translators and managing projects through till the end. Don’t try telling me a race sponsored by a major international sports company doesn’t have the budget.

Sport has the power to bring us together. The boundaries that a multilingual world raises can be brought down, but only if race organizers consider this task as important as the “international” label they hold so dear.

Stay tuned to Part 2, where I analyze the responses from members of Seoul Flyers, a “Running Club Without Borders” on accessibility in running and how the club lives up to its inclusive and diverse founding principle.