Ensuring nothing gets lost in translation


INTERVIEW MANUELA SPINELLI: MARY HANNIGANhears about a journey from Besana in Brianza, northern Italy, to becoming a interpreter for Giovanni Trapattoni

SHE BURIES her face in her hands and winces at the memory of her debut alongside Giovanni Trapattoni when he was unveiled as Republic of Ireland manager at the RDS in May 2008. While he might have been accustomed to the bright lights of press conferences, it was a whole new ball game for Manuela Spinelli, the Italian woman who has been Trapattoni’s interpreter since his appointment to the post.

Until then, her work largely had her sitting in a booth at the back of a room, headphones on, simultaneously translating for a client during a meeting.

“And nobody sees you there, then all of a sudden I was in front of worldwide cameras – for me, it was horrendous,” she laughs. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect what I found. It was massive.

“The world and his mother was there. I was wearing glasses because I thought at least I can hide my face behind them.”

She’d only met Trapattoni for the first time the day before, so there was work to be done on the mechanics of their professional relationship.

“The boss came in to the RDS and at first he sat down, so I sat down beside him. Then all of a sudden he stands up, and I’m thinking ‘do I stand up too?’ All the while I’m listening and trying to work out what he’s saying. So, I stand up. And he sits down. So I sit down. It was up and down, up and down.”

Three-and-a-half years on and there are few more recognisable double acts in the country, Trapattoni and Spinelli would probably even out-poll Jedward. Those mechanics are considerably smoother too. “I’m now even doing the same hand signs as he does when I translate,” she laughs.

The experience has, she says, been a wonderful adventure, and she’s still amused by the fact that she works for the Republic of Ireland manager whose home town is less than 30 kilometres south of her own in northern Italy.

The 38-year-old hails from Besana in Brianza, in the province of Monza and Brianza. “It’s where our beloved former prime minister lives,” she smiles.

Have you ever translated for Silvio Berlusconi?


While Trapattoni made the short trip from Cusano Milanino as a teenager to start his playing career with AC Milan, Spinelli, at the same age, was heading to Ireland, in 1993, to study languages at UCD.

“I don’t know why, but I always loved languages since the days I would listen to English songs on the radio and wonder what the words meant.”

She had already spent two summers in Dublin as a schoolgirl, working on her English, so the choice of destination was, she says, an easy one. “I fell in love with the country. It felt safe. I come from a small village and 20 years ago nobody went away, so, for me, the idea of going somewhere like London was a little bit too intimidating. I felt I knew Dublin, it was an easy decision.”

She completed her degree in UCD, also spending a year studying in Germany, before switching to Trinity to do a masters. And Dublin has been her home for most of the time since, almost half her life. “Despite my accent,” she smiles.

“I was full-time here until two years ago. When I got the job with the FAI I could focus on just interpreting, so then life became a little bit more flexible in terms of staying here and going home. Now I divide myself between here and Italy. When I say I’m going home, my friends and family ask ‘where is home?’ It’s here – and it’s there. I have been in Ireland so long I have strong roots, friends I know for almost 20 years.”

Her first job as an interpreter was in rugby, working for the European Rugby Cup in Dublin, the organising body of the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup.

“I still work with them because I’m a freelancer,” she says. “The head office of the ERC is here, so I do board meetings, committee meetings, that kind of thing. There is always a representative or two from Italy so they always require an interpreter.”

Neither football nor rugby, though, was her sporting passion growing up, judo dominated her life. “I started when I was a kid, did it for about 11 years, until I came to Ireland. I would train every day, three to four hours, and would go to competitions at the weekends. I always got really good results and competed in seven Italian national championships.

“My brother did judo and because I was always a bit of a tomboy I had to do, of course, what he did. My dad was involved too, he was president of our judo association, so I got in to it – to my mother’s great pleasure! Every week I was injured, I broke absolutely every bone in my body. Mum didn’t even come to my competitions, she wasn’t happy at all.”

Apart from judo, her family’s chief sporting love has always been motor sports.

“It’s because we’re from Monza – so, Formula One, Moto GP, all that. Nobody in my family watches football.”

So, they’d never heard of Trapattoni?

“Ah, yes they had,” she laughs. “I don’t know that people here appreciate what a legend this guy is in Italy. For us, whether you like football or not, everybody knows Trapattoni – it’s the Pope and Trap in Italy!

“Everybody loves him, he’s just a big, big character. And the reason why he is so popular in Italy is because he’s such a down to earth person. He’s real, he’s genuine, he’s humble, he never ever forgets where he came from and how he got to where he is. He talks about that a lot, and I respect that so much.”

Their first meeting?

“I was like ‘oh boy, I can’t believe I’m about to do this’. I met him out in Abbotstown. In Italian it’s the same as French, we have the vous and tu, the formal and the familiar. So, of course I went for vous because, well, he’s a legend. He just looked at me and said ‘you’re from the same area as me – call me Gianni!’

“We just immediately liked each other, I think. He makes you feel so comfortable, right away, you’re never starstruck with him.

“But those early press conferences were terrifying for me. I was extremely nervous. And when we did the Late Late Show? I literally couldn’t eat.

“Those days? I was ‘my God, my God, my God, what if I don’t get it? What if I don’t understand? What if I don’t hear? What if I misunderstand?’ A million thoughts go through your head, but the boss put me completely at ease, big time. He was always making jokes, he just makes you really comfortable.”

How did she get the job? “I read that there was a possibility Gianni was coming to Ireland, so I thought he was bound to need an interpreter. In Italy he’s famous for speaking lots of languages – and none! I did some research and noticed he always used an interpreter when he did press conferences and interviews when he was in Germany, Austria and Portugal.

“I didn’t know if he would bring his own interpreter, but I decided to send a CV to the FAI. When he was appointed they called me for an interview, along with some other people.

“I think, maybe, I got the job because of my background in sport. At first I was just hired for two days, and it went from there.”

Trapattoni’s efforts to speak English have, at times, left his audiences engaging in a touch of head-scratching, something a smiling Spinelli concedes.

“But his attempt to speak it is purely out of respect for the people he is working with and for. Of course it would be easier for him to just speak Italian and have me translate everything, but to him it’s a matter of respect.

“We can’t say he’s fluent yet, but he has improved. The difficulty for him is understanding – he doesn’t live here, and there are so many different accents. When he doesn’t understand he asks if you are a foreigner,” she says, laughing. “The way it works is that he speaks English, but he understands if it’s not clear because he’s faced with people looking at him blankly.

“So then he turns to me and says it in Italian. I know what he’s trying to say by the words he uses in English, I know where he’s coming from in Italian.

“If he says ‘I will’ I know he means ‘I wish’. If he says ‘he likes me’, I know he means ‘I like him’. I know where he’s going, so I correct him. And the journalists now are more familiar with Trap’s lingo, so certain things I don’t correct any more.

“We all know now if he says ‘he like me’, he means ‘I like him’. I think we’ve all got used to his way of talking, it transcends every language – it’s a universal language,” she says.

“The thing is, he does the same in Italian. He has this very colourful way of talking, little phrases. But he might change a word in the phrase, and I am like ‘what?’ And he turns around to me and says ‘how do you not know that? It’s common in our area!’ And I’m like, ‘how can I put this in English?’

“There was the chicken and the egg and the hot bum in Belgium when we played Italy. The Italian journalists were literally under the table. I was like, where does that come from? To me, he made it up, but one Italian reporter said he thought it came from Verona. So, on the spot, you have to come up with something. I know that you can’t translate a saying word by word, but the journalists want to know what he said, so I end up talking about cats, wolves, chickens and eggs.”

DOES HE DOit for divilment?

“You know, I think it’s totally his way of talking, he doesn’t even think about it.”

The cat in the sack?

“Well, it was an expression he originally used in 1991 when he was the manager at Inter. It should be non dire quattro se non ce l’hai nel sacco, which means “don’t say four unless you’ve got it in the sack” – apparently, it’s about farmers collecting grain, or something like that.

“But he changed quattro [four] to gatto [cat] – and it became so famous in Italy. But to this day, if you ask him, he will say ‘it is a Milanese expression, how can you not know it?’

“We all use it now, it has become part of our popular culture. There was a hashtag on the Italian twitter that said ‘cat in the sack’ – but it had nothing to do with football, it was all about Berlusconi resigning.

“So, I started tweeting ‘quote of the day’ when we were in camp, maybe something he had said in that day’s press conference. You know, I am just laughing most of the time, we have a lot of fun.”

There were tears, though, in Paris after that World Cup play-off against France. It was, she says, the worst of days.

“I don’t think any of us will ever forget it. He was extremely emotional, if not outside, then inside. We were all upset. When I watch it back I see it was the most difficult interview that we ever did – certainly for me, I can’t speak for him.

“To have to go on TV after that match was horrendous. I was crying, I couldn’t even look at him. I was really emotional and extremely sad. The whole team had worked so hard. You don’t mind losing if you lose properly, but not like that. I know it sounds silly, but we feel part of the team as well, even though I’m Italian.

“But that’s what he’s good at, building that spirit, we’re all together. That’s why qualifying for the Euro 2012 is just so special for all of us.

“And, of course, we’re in Italy’s group,” she laughs.

“And it was a Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, who did the draw. It was like a head-butt.”

Divided loyalties?

“No. You don’t even think twice, you’re with Ireland and we’re a team – when you’re at war, you’re at war! Of course it will be much more emotional than it would be in a normal situation, especially when you hear your own national anthem. But, no, I’m with Ireland. I don’t know about Trap, but my prediction is that Spain will go out – but I will be realistic: Italy first, Ireland second,” she laughs.

“You know, they were saying on Italian television that it should be okay, Italy are technically much better, bla bla bla – but they will make a mistake if they underestimate Ireland. A big, big mistake.”

Spinelli hopes to be on interpreting duty again for Trapattoni at Euro 2012, but her agreement with the FAI is of a freelance nature, so it’s day to day.

“Of course I would love to continue, for any Italian working with Gianni is a privilege. I have learned so much from him, especially on a human level, he is a good man. It’s just been an amazing experience for me.”