RIO DE JANEIRO – Say you're one of the 600,000 foreigners expected to attend the World Cup in Brazil, where hardly anyone speaks a language besides Portuguese, and you find yourself in the hospital and unable to communicate with the doctor. What do you do?
A Korean nonprofit company has a solution: A phone number where foreigners can get real time language assistance in seven languages.
Called the Before Babel Brigade, the service was developed during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan as a way of helping foreigners find their bearings in a country where foreign language expertise is limited — much like Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
It works like this: Foreigners in need of language help dial a Rio de Janeiro number and select one of seven languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Korean. A server automatically connects them to a volunteer translator who can speak directly to the local doctor, waiter, bank teller or taxi driver, passing along whatever the needed message. The service, known here as Rio Amigo, will be available 24 hour a day during the World Cup, which begins Thursday and runs through July 25.
"The Korean people like to help foreign people but we don't have the language tools," Mee-hei Choie, executive secretary of BBB Korea, said at an event in Rio. "Brazilians are the same."
Begun 12 years ago with some 2,000 volunteers translating seven languages, BBB Korea has mushroomed and now has 4,500 volunteers in 19 languages who respond to some 700 calls a day.
The service for Brazil's World Cup is free to the user, except for the price of the Rio telephone call. The service now even has an app — in response to the growing popularity of translation apps and online services.
Rio-based interpreter Marilia Rebello heard about the initiative from a journalist friend who covered the 2002 tournament.
"I heard about it, and next thing I knew I was on a plane to Korea," said Rebello, who interprets in Portuguese, English, Spanish and French. "I thought, we have got to bring this to Rio, where we have the same issue — a population with a big heart but not the language skills to be able to help."
Rebello has helped put together a team of 100 volunteers to field calls on their cellphones to the Rio number 24 hours a day.
"I usually don't turn off my cellphone, but depending on how it goes, I might end up muting it at night during the World Cup," said Alice Moreira, a 29-year-old volunteer who's a French-Brazilian dual national. "I'm really looking forward to my first call."
Though the interpreters are all working pro-bono, the Rio project costs around $89,000 — the price of the printed materials and other overhead. Korea-based electronics company Samsung is covering the tab.
The Rio number to reach an interpreter is: +55-21-3554-0304.
Jenny Barchfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JennyBarchfield