The Cunning Mind of an Artful Linguist – Episode 1: Miss Universe 2008 – A Polyglot’s Paradise

Over the past 3 months, I think I’ve been at home in Bangkok for a total of about 6days. The rest of the time I’ve been travelling to some of the most fascinating places on the planet plying my

trade – i.e. packaging language, linguistics, facilitation, entertainment and culture into a product that smoothes

out wrinkles (and makes money) for transnational organizations working in the region. This is the first in a series

of blog-entries that I will be posting here to show how language can form the base to a business that’s not only

rewarding, but also downright FUN!

Stuart Jay Raj, Marija Grgurevic and Hande Buyuklinimani in frontof the giant LED backdrop
The calm before the storm… the sashes in waiting for their ownersbefore they go in for the first interview session
The hottest gig to date this year would have to be Miss Universe 2008 in Nha Trang

Vietnam. With language as my guise, I was once again treated to the privilege of chilling out around the clock for

almost 2 weeks with some of the most gorgeous women on the planet in a place that comes pretty close to

paradise.

Arrival in Nha Trang –
With Nothing Better to do, Miss Universe Herself Swung by to Pick us Up

The crystal clear waters of Vin Pear Island – Nha Trang Vietnam(just watch out for the jellyfish!)
I flew into Ho-Chi Minh on an Air France flight. Despite some of what I would call the worst excuse for

food that I’ve ever seen served on a plane, the flight landed safely and I met up with fellow Chiangmai based

polyglot Adam Dedman (interpreter for Miss Japan – Harvard graduate and fluent in English, Thai, Japanese and

Spanish) for our Vietnam Airlines domestic flight to Nha Trang.

Pointing over to a prop-jet with a flat tyre being dragged across the tarmac in the distance of an airport that I

imagine hadn’t changed much since the war, Adam commented “Well I’m glad we’re not travelling on that thing!”.

Adam was sadly mistaken. We boarded the plane and bumped through the air for another 50 minutes until we

landed again safely in Nha Trang.

Stuart Jay Raj and Riyo Mori (Miss Universe 2007-8 at Vin Pearlrehearsing Riyo’s final speech)
It was around 9pm. After a short flight from Bangkok and a very long transit in Ho Chi Minh,de

-hydrated from lack of water and one too many Pepsi-Max’s I was ready to crash. That all changed though when

we arrived at the baggage carousel to be greeted by Miss Universe 2007-08 herself Riyo Mori. Dressed in a

humble beach dress and flip-flops, Riyo took us in her limo back to our resort – ‘Vin Pearl’ with her bodyguard.

Having been there for a week or so already, she was pretty pressed for interesting things to do. Luckily, she and

Adam were already like brother and sister from the previous year and meeting us at the airport probably made

for some of the best comic relief she’d had in days J

That set the scene for the rest of the trip. Gorgeous women, amazing beaches, celebrities, security zealots and

the largest pool you’ve ever seen in your life – 10,000sqm!!!

Riyo Mori (Miss Universe) and Adam Dedman (Japanese Interpreter). I don’t think Riyo is on stilts in this shot.

The First Interview – Your Interpreter is Your Best Friend

One thing that I’ve learned from working with Miss Universe since 2005 is that the relationship between thegirls and their interpreter can sometimes make or break their chances in the competition. The level of experience

for each of the contestants varies. Some of them had never been exposed to anything like this before, and

others from countries like Venezuela, Colombia, USA, Japan and Korea have been in almost military-like training

under the elegant whip of the likes of Ines Ligron for months before the event. Some of the girls

overestimate their ability in English and opt to answer the questions during their first interview in English, thinking

that they will come across as more ‘international’. For a few, this works, but for many others it can signal certain

death.

The first group of contestants waiting for their first interview. In thisshot we have in green – Taliana Vargas (Colombia), Rebecca Parchment (Caymen Islands), Laura Dundovic

(Australia), Jenyfeer Mercelina (Curaçao), Wei Ziya (China) and many more.

Simran Kaur Mundi (India), Elisa Nájera (Mexico) and Stuart JayRaj
As interpreters, we spend more time with the girls than most other people there. We’re with them from earlyin the morning each day, through all the breaks, rehearsals into the night and then on the phone when need be in

the remaining hours. I’ve learned from veteran interpreters like Gregory Rayner and April Cedillo that the better

the interpreters get to know the girls, the better their answers can be ‘interpreted’ / rendered faithfully before the

judges.

How an Interpretation can Make or Break a Contestant’s Chance at the Miss Universe

Crown – It’s all in the Semantics!

Stuart Jay Raj and Putri Raemawasti (Indonesia): Putri caused alittle controversy this year back home. At first she had agreed to wear a one-piece, but on arriving and seeing

the competition, thought “If you’re in a war and everyone’s carrying machine guns, how could you hope to win

carrying a pocket-knife?”, so without telling anyone, switched to a 2-piece bikini. The result was outrage back

home leaving her having to apologise to many people including the President himself. I guess it’s never easy for

pioneers – just like Artika Sari Dewi from 2005 – first Miss Indonesia that caused controversy with her one-piece

swimsuit. It hurts to be a pioneer!

The girls that I was taking care of were Miss Thailand (Gavintra Photijak – Nickname: Kaem (means

‘cheek’)) and Miss Indonesia (Putri Raemawasti). The first real assignment for the interpreters and the girls to

work together is during their first panel interview.

Anya Ayoung-Chee – Miss Trinidad and Tobago and Stuart Jay Raj. Anya was in my opinion one of the most amazing people I met that week. She lives in NYC – fashion designer / model. She was another person that was always ready to be seen – on-stage or in the downtime. Anya’s directors were also pretty cool people – must be something there in the water in Trinidad!

What the Miss Universe judges are looking for

Taliana Vargas (Colombia) and Stuart Jay Raj. Taliana was tippedby many to take the crown. The great thing about Taliana is that she’s a polyglot / linguist herself – very well

educated and very well travelled. I got the impression that she could hold her own on almost any topic of

conversation, academic or otherwise.

I’m not a miss universe judge, so I don’t own the right to say I know exactly what the judges are looking for –

though from being in the bowels of the pageant, being part of numerous interviews and participating in

discussions with people at all different levels involved in the pageant, I can say that the judges are looking for

someone that can carry the MU brand well, someone who is ‘interesting’, someone with a little bit more to them

than just their face and body, a degree of spunk / sex appeal and someone with a decent level of humility /

human relations skills.

This pic taken at the coronation ball after the main event. Starting from me, you have Sanae Takeda – MU Japan, Tina Lutter – MU Japan (Australian), Ines Ligron, Hiroko Mima (Miss Japan), Adam Dedman (Japanese Interpreter), Ho Young (Korean TV), Gary Kam (Korean Movie / TV Producer)
One common theme that came up during the interviews were questions to see whether they

really WERE the person they were portrayed to be in their bio’s – did they really have the hobbies that they said

they had? The passions etc. In the past some people have been caught out. On that note – if you say you are

passionate about museums, make sure you know what museums exist in your home city!

Another theme that came out was trying to find out how ‘vindictive’ or competitive they might be. Questions

like ‘who would you most like see to lose out of all the girls?’ or ‘who would you most like to step into the ring with

in a Thai Boxing match?’

Stuart Jay Raj and Riyo Mori – this time a little less casual

Anatomy of the Interview Session

Stuart Jay Raj on stage with Jerry Springer, Mel B (Scary Spicefrom the Spice Girls) and Nong Kaem (Miss Thailand)
There is a total of around 80 contestants. They are broken down into three groups. Each group is

brought into the ballroom of the hotel (Diamond Bay Resort) where they are seated together at one end of the

room. There are partitions up at the other end with two panels of around 5-6 judges seated – one group on the left

and one group on the right. The girls are then broken into smaller groups in alphabetical order of country and

taken up to the entry of the partitioned section and seated until it’s their turn. Two girls go in at a time. They have

3 minutes to be questioned by each of the two panels of judges.

The Difference an Interpretation Can Make

An example of how the interpreter can make or break the chances of one of the contestants is

highlighted by Nong Kaem’s (Miss Thailand) question and answer.

The question was:

“How do you feel about girls how have had plastic surgery done to make

their faces look more beautiful?”

Kaem’s response was something like:

Stuart Jay Raj and Miss Thailand – Gavintra Photijak (Kaem)
“ถ้าเสริมหน้าเสร็จแล้ว และดูดีขึ้น ก็คงไม่มีปัญหา แต่ว่าถ้าเสริมหน้าเสร็จแล้ว แล้วก็ดูแย่กว่าเดิม หนู

คิดว่าเป็นเรื่องที่น่าเป็นห่วง แต่ถ้าพูดถึงหนูเองนะ หนูก็โชคดีที่เกิดมาได้หน้าตาแบบนี้ หนูก็มีความพอใจกับสิ่งที่ธรรมชาติ

ให้มา”

Direct Translation:

“If you’ve had your face operated on and it looks better than it originally looked, I don’t have any

problem with that. On the other hand, if you’ve had plastic surgery and look uglier than you did before the

operation, it’s a bit scary. As for me, I’m lucky to have been born with a face like this. I’m happy with what I was

given by nature”.

Idiomatic Translation

“If you’ve had a face-job and it’s made you look better than before, great! On the other hand, you’d

have to be a little bit worried if you went through an operation like that only to come out on the other side worse

for wear. As for me, I’m happy with the cards that God has dealt me.”

Are the two answers different?

In the second answer, I interpreted the facial expressions, idioms used, pauses in conversation etc. to try

and evoke the same sort of mood that her Thai response would have evoked in a native speaker of Thai.

The Verdict

Kaem’s response seemed to have gone down well with the judges.

Stuart Jay Raj, April Cedillo and Andrea Pate-Cazal

The Interpreter’s 6’th Sense

Vicente De la Vega – CEO of Precision translation

based in Miami Florida has been the official interpreting company for the Miss Universe pageants for around 24

years now. Each year he puts a team of some of the most talented linguists / polyglots that you’d ever want to

meet. Some of them have done the pageants for many many years – and in doing that, and being so close to

both the management and the girls, they get a pretty good idea of how things run – what the judges are thinking

and who’s likely to take the prize. Each day in our group, we’d have lists drawn up of who we thought would get

into the top 15, top 10, top 5 and the ultimate winner. Depending on how we saw the girls perform each day, our

lists would chop and change. The scary thing is, that from the many lists that we had going round, many of them

were very accurate when compared to the final results.

The Precision Translation Interpreter group under Vicente De La Vega. Interpreters are in no particular order: Marija Grgurevic – Croatian, Mo de la Vega – Precision Translation, April Cedillo – Spanish, Younghee Kim – Korean, Wendy Manav – Portuguese / French, Maria Karounos-Shaun – Greek, Gregory Raynor – Russian, German, Polish and many others, Andrea Pate-Cazal – Czech / Italian, Adam Dedman – Japanese, Hande Buyuklimanli – Turkish, Shirley Chen – Chinese, Mark Pisoni – Italian, Vicente de la Vega – Spanish.

A Message to All Miss Universe Contestants – You’re on Stage 24hrs a day!

Jennifer Chiong – Guatemala Centre Stage during the SwimsuitShow to Lady Gaga’s song ‘Let’s Dance’
‘Lady Gaga’ – said to be named after the 80’s song ‘Radio Gaga’,gave her retro, high energy performance of ‘Let’s Dance’ for the swimsuit show. Had a funny experience where

after hearing her song all day in the rehearsals, I was singing it to myself walking down the hallway to my room in

the hotel. As I got to the chorus in my head, all of a sudden backup vocals came in right at the correct point! …

No, I was not going crazy – Lady Gaga was rehearsing in the room just 2 doors down preparing for the show the

next day 🙂 What are the odds of that happening??

One of the points that needs to be hammered home to all the Miss Universe contestants is that from the

time you’re selected in your home country until the time that the final pageant ends, you are on stage 24 hours a

day no matter whether you’re actually on the stage, taking a break, eating your meal, waking up in the morning,

going to the bathroom, speaking on your mobile phone, meeting with friends / visitors – NO MATTER

WHAT YOU’RE DOING, YOU’RE BEING JUDGED / SEEN BY SOMEONE. In light of that, when they

say that you CAN dress casually, they want to see how you will interpret that? Are you still going to look elegant

during grueling rehearsals, or will you look like something the cat dragged in? A bit harsh, but true. Some people

like Miss Japan, Korea, Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico etc looked amazing around the clock, others looked like

they were taking little Johnny to a Saturday football match.

Sun Lee (Korea), Korean Interpreter Younghee Kim and HirokoMima (Japan) – 2 of Ines’ products for this year.

An Enigma – Ines Ligron

Ines Ligron is the Director for MU Japan and has trained and honed winners such as Riyo Mori, HirokoMima and others that have become house-hold names in both Japan and around the world. Some people love

her and some hate her. You can’t deny how powerful her opinions can be though – when she clicks ‘send’ on a

posting to her blog (http://www.inesligron.com/), she will have hundreds of thousands of hits within a

few hours. The directors of MU read her blog and I suspect this trickles down to the judges too. In Vietnam, there

was even one girl and her entourage (that I think might have been one sandwich short of a full picnic basket)

following her, Hiroko and Riyo in almost stalker fashion with a flag / blanket that they had toured around Japan

with to get over 10,000 signatures). Very Japanese, very weird, but is testament to Ines’ fame of late. Two of her

girls this year – Japan and Korea were noticeably polished compared to many others there, and from what I

hear, many other countries are knocking on her door to have her take their girls under her wing in 2009.

The business opportunities that this movement presents are amazing, and I believe are ripe for the

picking for any linguistically / culturally in-tune mind with good human relations and facilitation skills. Watch this

space!

Ines Ligron reunites with Riyo Mori (Miss Universe) after manymonths apart while Riyo was in New York City

Opportunity after Opportunity

Stuart Jay Raj and Jerry Springer. Jerry helped break themonotony a lot during the rehearsals with his jokes, songs and dances. I think some of the production crew

were a bit over it, but hey – what’cha gonna do!? Jerry was blamed by some for Miss USA’s fall this year, as he

called her name twice – she was startled and tripped… or so the story goes. For full footage of it, you can check

it out on Youtube here http://nz.youtube.com/watch?v=_vJURP0XuQ0

Every day brought with it new fascinating people and new networking opportunities. From Jerry Springer

to Mel B (Scary Spice from the Spice Girls), to TV producers, film makers, media moguls, blue-chip company

CEO’s, government leaders, fashion designers, photographers and people from every other back-ground

imaginable – and of course one of the ladies that I think is the backbone to a lot of the event is Annette Cammer

from the MU Organization. It was a networker’s paradise.

As I mentioned in the beginning, my feet haven’t touched the ground since leaving Vietnam. No sooner

was I off the plane after having spent a couple of weeks with some of the most gorgeous women on the planet,

than I found myself making my way to a fabrication plant to work with over 2,000 grease covered workers

assembling an off-shore LPG gas installation.

Stuart Jay Raj and Nong Kaem (Thailand): Just after the maindress rehearsal, reminding Kaem to SMILE
From bikini-clad babes to grease-covered riggers, being a linguist and a polyglot has brought with it

some of the most amazing experiences, an education money can’t buy, and when combined with hard-skills

from other sectors, has developed a product that is extremely rare and making / saving a lot of $$$ for

companies around the globe.

I really hope that this story and future stories will inspire other people with a passion for people and

languages, to ply it into a business that can be packaged, marketed and sold to the world.

I love this shot – taken by April Cedillo of two of the coreographerspreparing before the dress rehearsal in sillhouette

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.
  • French Class

    Great Post Stu. I really enjoyed your thoughts and seeing your personal journey through MU.

  • Ryan

    This is very true. Nobody will give you money just because you know languages well. They will, however, hire you for saving them money and/or saving them huge headaches. One of the problems with that is that lots of monolingual companies/people don’t realize that they need the help in the first place or where to go for it. You’ve got to know how to sell your skills to do well.

  • Luke

    Hey Stu!

    You’ve got a great site here! You are an inspiration to linguists around the globe! I’m wondering about something; you say that you helped with an off-shore LPG gas installation. Where do you learn the vocabulary to do something like that?! How do you prepare for such a job?

    Take care!

  • The Language Guy

    Hey Luke,
    You’re exploits are pretty inspirational in themselves.

    As for the LPG gas project – that will be coming up in following episodes, but in short – i started working with one company a couple of years back, first in language / cultural work between Thai and the west, then got into helping them interpret their behavioural safety training. This turned into helping them facilitate it – then the owner of the course in the UK sought me out and the rest is history. It’s been an amazing learning experience with a whole new set of hard skills in Safety and the Oil and Gas business to put under my belt.

  • Learn That Language Now

    Hi, great language blog you have here! Would you be interested in doing a link exchange? Just send me an e-mail (learnthatlanguagenow (at) gmail.com) with your URL and I’ll add your link to my blog. You can add my link as “Learn That Language Now” for http://www.learnthatlanguagenow.com/articles/ . I look forward to reading more blog entries from you. Thanks!

    -Robbie

  • Lance Michael Foster

    I came to your site and was really impressed by the focus on getting to the heart of a culture through the sound of the language. All I know is, I am really happy for you, that you found a way to make a living off what you do well and enjoy doing 🙂

    Do you have any advice on how to go about choosing a language to learn?

  • The Language Guy

    Hey Lance – about choosing a language to learn… go out and find someone that you’d like to know more and then learn their language!

    Seriously – there’s been no method to the madness in selecting the languages that I have. Most have happened very organically – often by chance.