Word play: Translators help foreigners in NBA
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 22, 2004 12:00 AM
Maggie Galehouse

Language, culture shock are eased by team aides

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."

Career change

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."

Unplanned job

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 Valley.

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 Brazilian barbecue.

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 and 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 maggie.galehouse@arizonarepublic.com or (602)  444-6919.