You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule. Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it. Except that one newspaper followed that rule to the letter – and got into trouble for it from the interviewee himself.
In marked contrast to the usual accusations made by athletes against journalists, Carlos Gomez of the Houston Astros has complained to the Houston Chronicle, not that he was misquoted, but that he was quoted too accurately. JA Adande of sports website The Undefeated takes up the story:
If you think quoting people accurately can’t be controversial then you haven’t read about Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle relaying the English words of Dominican-born Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez verbatim:
Gomez: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”
Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?
You can understand Adande’s surprise. But in fact, the answer to his last question is actually contained in his previous paragraph: “Critics, including Gomez himself, accused Smith of ridicule”. This isn’t just officious peevers intervening over the head of the player being quoted: this is the player himself, feeling exposed in a foreign country over his inability to speak a foreign language. That’s when it’s at least worth thinking about what consequences “accuracy” has for the people we write about.
Adande is firmly of the opinion that forcing quotes into standard English is never the answer. He writes:
The Smith-Gomez flap brought up a debate about the old journalistic tradition of “cleaning up” quotes — that is, making slight fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with standard English.
This is a tradition that needs to go.
For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker.
He also cites the example of the Brazilian basketball player Leandro Barbosa of last year’s title-winning Golden State Warriors. At the end of an on-court interview after a win, Barbosa exclaimed, by way of conclusion, “We gonna be championship!”. The phrase, broken English or not, immediately took off on social media, became a rallying cry for the fans and the team, and is now firmly associated with the Warriors’ run to victory.
Adande’s interesting piece provoked another one, this time by Sports Illustrated columnist Richard Deitsch. Taking Adande’s bold thesis (“Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?”), he asked several fellow sports reporters how they dealt with the issues of culture, language and dialect when handling interviews.
Several of them share Adande’s uncompromising standpoint on accuracy: Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, who writes about ice hockey, says of the NHL’s many Russian stars:
They said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention. Just like I wouldn’t want someone changing some Jersey-fied malapropism in my quotes because it’s not correct, I wouldn’t want to do the same to Evgeni Malkin.
However, several others disagree and feel an obligation to protect their interviewees. Speaking of some of the Hispanic baseball players he covers, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says:
“They might say ‘that team have two good player.’ Isn’t it only right to make it plural?”
And Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, while conceding that some colourful or expressive quotes are better left untouched, makes this distinction:
“It’s different with a person who struggles to explain himself or herself, or for whom English is a second language.”
And that, I think, is a key point. Professional sportspeople, these days, are not simply allowed to perform on the field: they are expected to perform off the field as well by giving interviews to the media. In professional leagues, such public appearances are usually mandatory, at the expense of a fine for non-compliance. This means that everyone – confident anglophone and withdrawn Russian-speaker alike – has to try to answer questions whether they are articulate in English or not.
That’s why it’s hard to agree in every case with Wyshynski’s position that players “said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention”. Sometimes an interviewee may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.
Isola’s example, “player”/”players”, is also well-chosen. Many Spanish speakers of English have a tendency to devoice the final consonants of words, so rigidly transcribing what sounds like a singular in the name of “accuracy” can actually come across as an uncomfortable attempt to imitate someone’s accent.
So what to do? Well, one key distinction a reporter can make is to distinguish between those people who are speaking non-standard English deliberately and those who are speaking non-standard English by accident. Of course it would be crass, and sometimes racist, to completely rewrite a dialect-speaker’s quote into standard form. But you need to be able to distinguish between an extrovert centre-forward from Newcastle holding forth in his native Geordie, and a shy Montenegrin goalkeeper stumbling through a compulsory interview in a language he would rather not be speaking at all.
Adande is also bullish about the way non-standard quotes are being received in a world where “reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language”. But it’s not entirely clear that the picture is as rosy as that. Adande’s position is that Barbosa’s quote became a rallying cry despite not being in standard English: proof of how all English speakers can make themselves understood without the need for Strunk & White. But there’s also an uncomfortable sense that Barbosa’s quote became famous because he was not speaking in standard English: because native anglophones thought it was cute – ESL speakers say the funniest things! – and passed it around for the enjoyment of others more fluent in the language.
It can, admittedly, be difficult to tell which side of the line a case falls. Here’s a Vine of Barbosa’s famous quote: you can hear that he’s far from a defensive interviewee,* and is certainly confident enough with the media to offer an epigram at the end of a question. But equally, it’s not clear that he intended to cause the delighted amusement he apparently provokes.
It must be hard for players to know how to respond when something like this happens. Imagine you were a goalkeeper in the Bundesliga and mangled what you hoped would be an inspirational quote in your faltering German. Then imagine that this quote inspired such joy among the fans that it got painted on banners all over the stadium and chanted whenever you made a save. Would you feel proud that something you said, by accident, had caught on? Or would you feel embarrassed at how poor your language skills were? Certainly Barbosa has made the former choice: he embraced his quote and is now promising “We Gonna Be Championship Part II” for 2016 on Twitter. Gomez – who was hoping for some protection from the writer or copydesk and didn’t get it – not so much.
The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched. Barbosa’s quote went out live on TV and became a phenomenon straightaway, but print journalists have time to think before they make a player a star because of a picturesque malapropism.
So you have to make a judgment about the speaker’s intent. Are you riding roughshod over an athlete’s right to choose his register, or are you taking advantage of a man who is only speaking English because the league ordered him to? If a running back delivers a confident tirade in African-American English about race relations in the NFL, then of course you shouldn’t change a word of it. Run it verbatim. But if the kicker’s just forgotten the word for “stadium” in his third language, you might want to give him a break.
(hat-tip to @TheSlot for posting the links to both articles)
* You can see the full interview here.