Word play: Translators help foreigners in
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 22, 2004 12:00 AM
Language, culture shock are eased by team
To young Americans, it's a common exchange:
What up? Just chillin'.
But for Phoenix Suns player Leandro Barbosa, whose first language is Portuguese,
slang is the one snag in learning a new language.
"Some things just don't translate," he said, shrugging.
That's where Michel Fernandes comes in.
Fernandes is Barbosa's interpreter, the guy who shadows the point guard at
practice and home games.
"Leandro knew from the beginning he was going to have to 'get' English pretty
quick," Fernandes said of his fellow Brazilian. "When he started playing a lot,
he got the language a lot faster."
As professional sports teams continue to draft players from around the globe,
interpreters are becoming indispensable. Looking beyond U.S. borders for players
is a now a matter of course for the National Basketball Association, whose team
rosters boast 67 international players. That's one out of every six in the NBA,
reflecting the upward tick in diversity in the American workplace.
Yet, there are no hard and fast rules for hiring interpreters, or standard job
descriptions. Some interpreters just show up for games and practice, while
others are with players 24/7.
Individual teams hire and pay for interpreters, said Kim Bohuny, vice president
of international basketball operations for the NBA.
"Every player is different, and different teams have different ideas," Bohuny
said. "When a draft choice comes in, I'll speak with the general manager and
we'll talk about whether there should be a full-time translator that would go on
the road. If a player speaks some English, it's often better for the player if
the translator doesn't travel with them."
The highest-profile NBA interpreter is Colin Pine, who left a desk job with the
U.S. government to live and travel with Houston Rockets forward Yao Ming. Pine
was selected from a pool of 400 people who applied to work with the Chinese
player. A spokesman for the Houston Rockets said Pine draws part of his paycheck
from the Rockets and part from the agency that represents Ming.
Fernandes, who moved to the Valley from Brazil when he was 15, got his job
interpreting for Barbosa through a family friend.
Fernandes makes about $700 every two weeks for 40 hours of work, and he doesn't
travel with the Suns.
"Leandro needs to be by himself to be exposed to English," Fernandes said. "If
I'm there with him, it'll take forever for him to learn it."
Barbosa said he hones his English by watching action movies with Jean-Claude Van
Damme and Bruce Lee, and listening to rap.
And Barbosa isn't the only Sun with an interpreter. Center Zarko Cabarkapa ,
uses one, as well.
Like Cabarkapa, Maja Malesevic is from Serbia and Montenegro. She was already
working for the Suns as a graphic designer when Cabarkapa was drafted.
Cabarkapa's English is very good, Malesevic said, but he likes to have an
interpreter when he's talking to the media.
"He's a perfectionist," she explained. "He doesn't like making mistakes."
Malesevic, who immigrated to the United States during the war in Bosnia, is paid
nothing to translate for Cabarkapa. She's at America West Arena anyway, she
said, so she just joins him when he is being interviewed. Outside work, she took
his parents shopping for bedding and kitchen appliances when his family members
were settling in their Valley home. Her parents and Cabarkapa's parents have
become close friends.
Both Fernandes, 21, and Malesevic, 23, went to Thunderbird High School in
Phoenix, but their paths never crossed. Neither ever really thought about
interpreting as a profession.
Malesevic, who went to Arizona State University and the Art Institute of
Phoenix, has been working for the Suns for two years.
Fernandes, who is majoring in international business at Western International
University, has a pilot's license and longs to be a commercial pilot. He juggles
school and interpreting with yet another job: managing a movie theater in Deer
But working with LB, as he sometimes calls Barbosa, is the highlight, for now.
The two have a lot in common. Both are 21. Both come from Sao Paolo. Both crave
And when Barbosa is on the road, his older brother, Marcelo, comes to Fernandes'
house to watch the game.
But Fernandes knows his days are numbered because Barbosa needs his help less
Will they be friends when Fernandes' services are no longer needed?
"Yes," Fernandes said with a slow nod and a slower grin. "I'm pretty sure."
Reach the reporter at
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