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An Interview with Milutinovic's Interpreter
After the Chinese National Men’s Soccer Team suffered another blow in 1997 in its long-standing struggle to enter the World Cup, 62-year-old Bora Milutinovic came to China in 2000 as head coach. The Yugoslav came to work with a team that was no stranger to both expectations and disappointments.

Almost from the very moment that Milutinovic first set foot on Chinese soil, interpreter Yu Huixian has been at his side. Yu, a graduate of Guangzhou Foreign Language Institute, came from Harbour Construction Company in China to take up this position with the Chinese Football Association (CFA).

Yu served the “bridge” between the head coach and the Chinese Football Association, the national soccer team and the soccer fans. He was present to witness at first hand Milutinovic’s joys and sorrows at dozens of matches in China over the past two years.

On the eve of Milutinovic’s departure, Beijing TV and www.sohu.com jointly interviewed Yu on his experiences as Milutinovic’s interpreter with the national team.

Question: Did you accept the offer to interpret for Milutinovic because of a love of soccer or did you think of it as just another job?

Yu: I have been a soccer fan since childhood. Honestly, it had been my dream to be a professional soccer player. However, all I ever managed was to be fourth substitute goalie in my departmental team for four years during my college days.

On learning from the sporting press that the Chinese Football Association was looking for an interpreter for Milutinovic, I immediately submitted my resume. So my long-held soccer dream did come true in a way on the day when the association phoned me with an invitation to attend an interview and I then became a member of the national soccer team.

Question: It’s been suggested that as his interpreter, you only translated the good things for Milutinovic rather than everything. Is this true?

Yu: This involves a technical issue in translation. It is my view that translation concerns both the speaker and the listener who are set in juxtaposition to each other as if engaging in a negotiation. A good interpreter should play a proactive role in helping both sides finally reach a position of unanimity in their views on an issue. Milutinovic trusts his own judgment and likes to make his views known. Naturally conflict is sometimes inevitable. As his interpreter, I must pay special attention to both my tone and translating technique and avoid aggravating any already contradictory positions.

Question: Was Milutinovic aware of this “translating technique?”

Yu: We had an excellent mutual understanding in this and Milutinovic would joke, “You are smoothing things over again.” Sometimes events did not quite match up to Milutinovic’s expectations in his dealings with the football association, the media, the fans and so on. He has been grateful for my help in this respect. When sensitive questions have been raised by reporters, I’ve basically tried to keep my translation as truthful as possible. However if there was an unfortunate undertone in a question I might make some modifications as any professional interpreter would.

Once at a press conference, Milutinovic didn’t recognize an old reporter who had interviewed him many times before and said “You’re here for the first time then?” When translating what he said so as to avoid possible embarrassment from both sides, I added, “You must have had a face-lift as Milutinovic doesn’t seem to recognize you?”

As for any hostile material published on the Internet, as a rule I would only offer an outline translation leaving out the details. Milutinovic has on occasion been displeased with this approach but I did feel that it was unnecessary for him to hear everything, especially malicious remarks.

Question: Did you do this because of a request from the football association?

Yu: No, this was something I decided to do by myself. I felt it was my responsibility to help Milutinovic have a light heart. I wanted Milutinovic to be in a good frame of mind to cope easily not only with routine matters but also with the big decisions.

Question: Could it be the case that if we had been able to understand him perfectly without the language barrier, Milutinovic would not have left us with such an amiable impression or he might have fallen out with the football association long ago.

Yu: In my opinion over the past couple of years, the level of cooperation between Milutinovic and the Chinese Football Association has generally been very satisfactory. Milutinovic led the national soccer team to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in their history. In this respect he has done a good job. I’m sure that on his departure he will be sad to leave China. In his own words the coaching experience in China has occupied a rather important position in his life.

Question: What’s your impression of Milutinovic?

Yu: I would say that as a professional coach he is a man of high caliber. In his daily life he is quite brilliant. Despite his advancing years, he has particularly quick mental responses and can always find the best way to handle a tough situation. For instance when confronted by the media, he is really skilful at either avoiding or replying to thorny questions in a tactful way. By our standards here Milutinovic comes across as quite a smooth character. In the eyes of Spanish-speaking people he is considered unusually brilliant.

Question: Milutinovic is actually multilingual, isn’t he?

Yu: As a Yugoslav, Serb is Milutinovic’s native language. Milutinovic went to Mexico to play soccer at an early age. He then got married and stayed to become a coach over there. So now Spanish is his day to day language and also his language of business. In addition, since he travels so widely Milutinovic speaks fluent English.

Question: You must have seen Milutinovic in low spirits many times. When this occurred, how did you handle him?

Yu: Honestly, when he was in a bad mood, I sometimes thought I was like his punch bag. Let me give you an example. When China played against Cambodian in Guangzhou, the fans on the spot shouted, “Sack Milutinovic!” To ensure that he was not distracted from the match, I didn’t let him know what the fans were shouting about until the game was over.

He could not stand the fans’ attacks and yelled at me in the lounge for a quarter of an hour. After having vented his anger on me, he went on to say calmly and properly at the press conference, “I don’t want to make any unnecessary comments on this matter. My task is to lead the Chinese soccer team to qualify for the World Cup, not to educate the fans.”

Question: As you and Milutinovic have been so close together in the team, have you ever been approached by the media to sell them stories about either Milutinovic or the national team?

Yu: Yes, I had lots of calls from the media just before and again just after the World Cup. They would try to pry something interesting or even sensational out of me. I have refused all such requests. As a professional interpreter engaged by the football association, I understand clearly that my duty is to interpret for Milutinovic, to play the role of a bridge between Milutinovic and the players and to convey Milutinovic’s tactical thinking and game plan to the players accurately.

In terms of dealing with the media, I believe many people in the team including some assistant coaches and players have found themselves in the same position as myself. Everybody is responsible for his or her own standards of conduct. I am convinced that trying to root out the inside story or just poking one’s nose into other peoples’ private affairs is no good at all for the future of soccer in China. We should all just concentrate on our own work and stick to the things we do well ourselves.

Somebody once suggested that I should write a book about Milutinovic claiming that it would surely be a best seller. Viewed from a purely commercial angle, the publication of such a book would likely satisfy people’s curiosity by revealing the so-called inside story but it would be of no help at all to either the national team or to Milutinovic.

Question: There have been many negative comments on Milutinovic’s frequent appearances in advertising films following the World Cup preliminaries. What is your opinion on this issue?

Yu: As a matter of fact Milutinovic and I have no secrets from each other. We have talked about this question many times. Both of us agree that due to the national team’s splendid showing during the preliminaries, Milutinovic as head coach received a tremendous boost to his prestige. This is a normal social phenomenon.

It is natural for movie stars or sports personalities to engage in commercial activities. As the national team did not play so well in the World Cup finals, Milutinovic’s celebrity has been damaged to some degree, and even his coaching abilities have been questioned. This is also normal. Nonetheless, Milutinovic’s achievements in China are there for all to see. He led the national team into the World Cup for the first time. It is not an overstatement to say that Milutinovic has made history for soccer in China.

Question: Would you care to discuss Milutinovic’s philosophy of “happy soccer?”

Yu: First I have to clarify that as far as I know, Milutinovic has never gone out of his way to promote a notion of “happy soccer.” Since he came to China two years ago, Milutinovic has heard so many pessimistic statements associated with Chinese soccer, including 44 years of fruitless efforts trying to reach the World Cup finals, a history of heartbreak and so on. He just wants to bring pleasure to the Chinese soccer fans. However sometimes I have joked with him, “Look if we fail to qualify for the finals you will become the target of hatred.” He always asked me, “Do you feel we can get into the World Cup?” He chose the well-protected diplomatic compound to live due to his misgivings that failure might lead the fans to come and smash up his home.

As a matter of fact, there is no place for “happy soccer” in the Milutinovic dictionary. What he has often said is that no matter what kind of occupation one is engaged in, everybody should try to enjoy doing it. This is the only way to turn the job from a heavy burden into a pleasant enterprise.

Question: Do you think Milutinovic will be feeling bad now that it is time for him to bow out from the soccer team?

Yu: I would say, so far so good. As you know, Milutinovic has trained five national soccer teams successively. As a professional coach, he is experienced enough to cope with China’s poor showing in the World Cup finals. Just as he commented after the team lost all three matches in Group C, “Despite the disappointments, this has been a tremendous learning experience for the team and for China’s soccer as a whole.”

Question: After the World Cup, did Milutinovic have anything to say that make a deep impression on you?

Yu: What impressed me most was his regret that the team did not score a single goal in its three matches failing to live up to the expectations of the fans.

Question: Was Milutinovic satisfied with the national team’s performance in the World Cup finals?

Yu: Yes and no. Of course he hoped the team would bring the fans more pleasure by playing really well. But disappointingly the team lost all three of its matches in Group C without scoring a single goal.

Milutinovic has never before failed to make the second round in the World Cup finals. He guided Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the United States in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998.

In private conversation, he once told me that compared with the teams he had coached previously, the Chinese team was relatively weak. Thus any high expectation for the team in the World Cup, for example the “Three Wishes” of “one win, one draw and at least one goal” or qualifying into the knockout rounds would have been unrealistic.

Question: This is the last question, actually it’s your little son’s question. I gave him a call before the interview and he wants to know when he grows up and asks you about the days you interpreted for Milutinovic, what will your answer be?

Yu:Well I have pleasant memories and it will surely have made a lasting impression on me. I would say that to have become a member of the national team and to have worked so closely with Milutinovic, I feel highly honored and extremely pleased.

(china.org.cn, edited and translated by Shao Da, August 16, 2002)

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