Translating Le Tour: an interview with Pascale Schyns
After each stage of the Tour de France the stage winner and the yellow jersey wearer are brought into a mobile press room to answer a handful of questions from the media. The riders’ responses are used by journalists around the world in their stories and for many media outlets these responses require translation.
Pascale Schyns is the official Tour de France translator, a woman who, for the most part, hides in plain sight. She’s there at the press conferences every day, sitting in front of the journalists, translating for them, but rarely is she acknowledged or spoken to in those conferences. I spoke with Pascale after stage 7 to learn more about her role, her relationship with the Tour de France and her relationship with cycling more generally.
After stage 7 of this year’s Tour Daryl Impey was in the yellow jersey and he was asked a handful of questions, in English, at the post-race press conference. Impey responded in English and Pascale translated the South African’s responses into French for the journalists present.
Shortly afterwards Peter Sagan filed into the room to answer some questions about his stage win. Most of the questions were asked in English and translated into Italian for Peter, by Pascale. Sagan replied in Italian and Pascale translated those responses into French and English for the journalists present.
It might sound easy but it’s a job that requires much practice and an efficient way of remembering what a rider has said … particularly if that rider likes the sound of their own voice.
As the rider is talking Pascale writes down single words on a sheet of paper, always in the language spoken by the rider. When it comes time to translate she expands the written words into full sentences from memory, translating those sentences into the desired language on the fly. It’s an imperfect science — often she simply has to convey the gist of what’s being said — but much of the time she’s able to translate word for word.
Pascale has been coming to the Tour de France for 18 years, some of those as a journalist, four as the press officer for the former Caisse d’Epargne team (now Movistar), but most of them as a translator. She first got the Tour de France translation gig back in 1996, the first year the race had an official translator.
Pascale had been the personal assistant of Claude Sudres, former Tour de France chief press officer, during the 1994 and 1995 World Championships. Claude introduced Pascale to his son Philippe, the present-day and then-Tour de France media chief, and Pascale was offered the job as translator. She’s been in the role ever since.
Pascale speaks six languages — Dutch, German, French, Italian, English and Spanish — and in her time at the Tour de France she has done translation work with hundreds of riders. There have been many memorable and funny moments along the way and she spoke particularly fondly to me of one of her first press conferences with Robbie McEwen.
“When McEwen starts speaking, he never stops. I remember one time he started speaking and he went on for so long and after a while he stopped and looked at me and said ‘Is that ok? I’m sorry!'”
“After that it was like a joke. He’d told me ‘OK, I’ll stop’ but then he’d say ‘Oh no, you can keep up, I’ll go on’. It was fun. We would often be laughing before starting.”
I asked if there were riders that ever made her lose track of what she had to translate.
“The first years with Mark Cavendish I lost track. But I think that’s because he also lost track! He had something he wanted to say so he wouldn’t answer the question – he just went on about something completely different.”
But Cavendish has apparently improved over the years and Pascale has learned to understand the Manxman’s way of thinking.
“He starts talking about something and after that he’s thinking about something else and he goes with that and you have to follow his way of thinking. Now I’m used to him and how he does that. But I remember the first times, the first year, I was very surprised because I was not sure. ‘Did he really just say that because that wasn’t the question? And why that and then that?!'”
Nowadays Pascale balances her Tour de France translation duties with a number of other commitments. Her days begin many hours before the stage start, catching up on other translation work she has going on and making progress on a book she’s writing. She’s also directing a project in a Spanish publishing house.
After her daily Tour de France translation duties — which include any help tour director Christian Prudhomme might need and the post-race conferences mentioned above — Pascale also takes care of Alejandro Valverde’s media and press commitments. It’s a full schedule but one that Pascale enjoys keeping.
“They’re very long days but I’m used to it because it’s like that all year round. I sleep very little but I’m happy.”
And while translating riders’ often-formulaic responses (“My team did a great job today”) from one language to another might seem bland, Pascale relishes the opportunity to be so close to the riders.
“It’s nice to be there and to share their emotion. Normally you only have happy riders — it’s the winner or the yellow jersey so they’re always happy. So it’s nice to be there at that moment.”
Pascale was a cyclist herself. She used to race back in her home country of Belgium “a long time ago”, a time before there were professional female cyclists. She told me that she missed the racing in the years after stopping, but not so much now. Perhaps she doesn’t have time to miss it. And besides, she’s always found a way to stay connected with the sport.
As well as being a journalist, author and translator, Pascale was a UCI commissaire for 15 years. She also ran commissaire teaching classes for the UCI around the world, largely in Central and South America. Despite being proud of what she achieved in the role, she decided a few years ago that she needed to leave cycling’s governing body.
“I resigned from the UCI at the end of 2011 because I was in total disagreement with Pat McQuaid’s politics, lack of transparency and his way of using cycling to make personal money. I like cycling too much to accept that. I dedicated so many hours of my life to cycling just for the love of our sport that things are not acceptable to me.”
Pascale told me that she believes cycling has a real opportunity to change.
“The elections in September for a new president are very important and I firmly believe Brian Cookson is the ideal candidate to become the new president. He really likes cycling and the six points he defends in his manifesto are the ones cycling needs, not only to survive but also to keep growing … all over the world.”
Pascale has seen cycling change and grow a lot in her time at the Tour de France, and so too has she seen the technology being used to cover cycling change. Back in 1996 when Pascale first worked as a translator at the Tour the internet, as we know it, was barely in its infancy. Nowadays Pascale uses Twitter to follow many of the riders in the pro peloton to stay up to date with what’s happening in riders’ lives.
“One year Mark Cavendish’s dog died. After a stage there were all the interviews and everything and it was finished and people got up to leave and Mark took the mic and said ‘Oh, I want to say something else’. He was very sad, you know?”
“‘I want to dedicate my victory to somebody very special; to my dog who died this morning.’ Most people thought he’d said ‘my dad’ not ‘my dog’. I knew what he’d said “my dog” because I saw it on Twitter.”
There’s far more to the Tour de France than a 21-day bike race, including thousands of people working behind the scenes to all make it run smoothly … or as smoothly as an event this size can. Pascale is one of those thousands, doing a job that few people outside the cycling media will see, but a job that many cycling fans benefit from.
Thanks very much to Pascale for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak to me.