WP7.3 Was Something Lost in Translation? 

Part II

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

Foreword to Part II

In Part I we looked at the wording of WP 7.3 in the two official FINA languages, namely: English and French. We saw that the two versions differ greatly in the degree of obligativity implicit in the rule: the English version starts with the imperative verb shall which suggests a mandatory action, but it also contains a conditional clause which nullifies the imperative, while the French version uses ought to in an explicit optative construct, which leaves the decision whether or not to whistle a foul entirely up to the referee. We will now look at the wording of WP 7.3 in other languages.

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German is closely related to English, and just like English it has specific verbs to describe the degree of obligativity implicit in a sentence. However, unlike English which lacks an explicit optative mood, German has one similar to French. This leaves little room for interpretation, and little doubt as to what the rule makers had intended:

Die Schiedsrichter müssen die Anzeige eines Regelverstoßes unterlassen, wenn nach ihrer Ansicht hierdurch ein Vorteil für die Mannschaft des schuldigen Spielers entstehen würde. Die Schiedsrichter dürfen nicht auf einfachen Fehler erkennen, solange es noch eine Möglichkeit gibt, den Ball zu spielen.

The referees must refrain from the indication of a rule violation, when in their view an advantage would thereby arise for the team of the offending player. The referees should not acknowledge simple faults, as long as there is still a possibility to play the ball.

(Beachte: Die Schiedsrichter müssen diesen Grundsatz voll ausnutzen. Sie sollen z B. nicht einen Fehler zu Gunsten eines Spielers anzeigen, der den Ball besitzt und auf das gegnerische Tor zu schwimmt; denn dies würde einen Vorteil für die Mannschaft des schuldigen Spielers bedeuten.)

(Note: The referees must take full advantage of this principle. They shall not for example indicate a fault in favor of a player who has the ball and swims towards the opponent's goal; for this would denote an advantage for the offending player's team.)

The first sentence contains a “proper” causal clause “wenn … hierdurch ein Vorteil…” (when … an advantage would thereby…), which defines the applicability of the action prescribed in the main clause. Since this is an explicit conditional, sollen (shall) cannot be used. The modal “nach ihrer Ansicht” (in their view) serves exactly the same role as in the English and French versions. The second sentence contains a temporal indefinite along with the verb “dürfen nicht (should not). If “dürfen nicht had been used alone in the sentence, it would have taken on the meaning of may not,  which has a lessed degree of obligativity than the “shall not” used in the English text.

Interestingly, the note does not say “shall apply this principle like the English and French versions; rather it tells referees to “take full advantage of this principle”. This suggests the instructions in the first paragraph are not meant to be taken as rules, but rather as guidance.

Let’s now examine a few Eastern European versions. Romanian is the language of my birth country and we shall look at that first. Romanian belongs to the Romance language group and it is similar to Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese, but differs from them in that it possesses both an explicit and a contextual conditional-optative mood. This is unique to only a handful of the older Indo-European languages, such as: Albanian, Armenian, ancient Greek and Sanskrit. The Romanian version of the conditional-optative mood is also strong-typed, meaning that both clauses have to appear together for either to apply:

Arbitrii se vor abţine să acorde fault dacă, în opinia lor, această sancţiune ar fi în avantajul echipei jucătorului care a comis greşeala. Arbitrii nu vor acorda fault simplu când mai există încă posibilitatea de a juca mingea.

The referees will abstain from awarding a fault if, in their opinion, this sanction would be to the advantage of the team of the player who committed the fault. The referees will not award a simple fault when the possibility to play the ball still exists.

NOTĂ: Arbitrii vor aplica acest principiu fără nici o excepţie. De exemplu, ei nu vor acorda fault simplu unui jucător care se află in posesia mingii şi se îndreaptă cu ea spre poarta adversă, pentru ca acest lucru este considerat un avantaj pentru echipa jucătorului care comite greşeala.

Note: The referees will apply this principle without any exception. For example, they will not award a simple fault to a player who is in possesion of the ball and is moving with it towards the adversary goal, because this is considered an advantage for the team of the player who commits the fault.

The first sentence contains the explicit conditional-optative “această sancţiune ar fi în avantajul” (this sanction would be to the advantage of) along with the modal “in opinia lor” (in their opinion). There is no misunderstanding as to the writers’ intent: abstain from whistling a foul if it advantages the offender. The apodosis is a proper future tense “se vor abţine” (will abstain) which indicates an action that will definitely occur at some time in the future. (Note: I have also looked at the Spanish version; it is similar to Romanian and therefore not included here.)

Next we shall look at the “true” language of water polo, namely Hungarian. Water polo is Hungary’s national sport, and they take it very seriously. No other nation has won more international championships than Hungary, even though their national water polo program is about the same size as the high school program of Orange County, CA. Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric group which stand apart from the “mainstream” European languages, and shares common characteristics with smaller  Baltic languages and Korean. A notable difference between Hungarian and the “mainstream” European languages is that Hungarian lacks prepositions; it has postpositions which are attached to the end of the word they modify. As a result, translations from Hungarian are almost always approximate:

A játékvezetőknek el kell tekinteniük a szabálytalanság megítélésétől, ha véleményük szerint annak megítélése, a szabálytalanságot elkövető játékos csapatának jelentene előnyt. A játékvezetők nem ítélhetnek egyszerű szabálytalanságot, amikor még megvan a lehetőség a labda megjátszására.

The referees should consider the award (orig. judgement) of a foul, if they believe (that) to award (it) constitutes an advantge for offending player's team. The referees may not award (orig. assess) a simple foul when there is the opportunity to play the ball.

Megjegyzés: A játékvezetőknek ezt az elvet a legszélesebb értelmezésben kell alkalmazniuk. Így például nem kell szabálytalanságot jelezniük a labdát birtokló játékos javára abban az esetben, ha az ellenfél kapuja felé halad, mivel a szabálytalanság megítélése a szabálytalanságot elkövető csapat számára jelentene előnyt.

Note: The referees shall apply this principle in the broadest sense. For example, (there) should not be an ordinary foul awarded (orig. judged) in favor of the player in possession of the ball while moving towards the opponent's goal, as the violation is considered to constitute an advantage for the offending team.

Note that the first sentence does not direct the referees to a specified course of action; instead, it urges them to consider the consequences of awarding a foul.

Moving further East we arrive at the Russian version. Russian is a Slavic language unrelated to the previous languages we examined. Although it has preserved many of its original Proto-Indo-European characteristics, it also is very sophisticated and complex, with six declensions, three strict genders that apply to both nouns and verbs, and a unique class of verbs of motion. Not to mention it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately for our purposes, it also has an explicit conditional clause:

Судьи игры должны воздерживаться от объявления нарушения, если, по их мнению, такое решение будет в пользу команды, игрок которой нарушил правила. Судьи игры не должны фиксировать простую ошибку, когда еще остается возможность играть в мяч.

Refereees (orig. judges of the game) must refrain from declaring a violation if, in their opinion, such a decision will be in favor of the team that violated (orig. broke) the rules. Referees should not correct (orig. fix) a simple fault (orig. error) when there is the possibility to play the ball.

ПРИМЕЧАНИЕ. Судьи игры должны придерживаться этого принципа в полной мере. Они не олжны, например, фиксировать простую ошибку в пользу игрока, владеющего мячом и продви-гающегося по направлению к воротам соперника, т.к. ясно, что в этом случае выгодуполучит нарушившая правила команда.

NOTE. The referees shall adhere to this principle in full. They must not, for example, correct a simple fault in favor of a player with the ball and advancing toward the opponent’s goal, clearly in this case the offending team will receive the advantage.

As it is apparent in the above, the verb “должны” is used throughout the Russian version of WP 7.3. This is not surprising because, like the French “doivent”, “должны” can take on a number of different contextual meanings ranging  from shall to should to must. In the first sentence it appears together with the the conditional clause “если … такое решение будет” (if … such a decision will be). This confers “должны” the literary meaning of a “moral imperative”, that is: something people should do because it is the right thing to do under the circumstances. While this is not a grammatical mood but a literary device, it is common usage in Slavic texts due to the strong influence of “Church Slavonic”. The same is true for the second and fourth sentences. In the third sentence however, “должны” appears alone and takes on the strict contextual meaning of shall. (Note: The Serbian and Polish versions are similar to Russian and therefore not included here.)

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In the preceding we examined the current wording of WP 7.3 in a few of the many languages of water polo(1). Although the present analysis is lacking a historical perspective, one can already see the fundamental issue which prompted it: if WP 7.3 is indeed the cornerstone of all the water polo rules, why then are the wordings so different? It certainly cannot be just a simple matter of poor translation. From “shall” to “must”, to “should”, to “ought to”, to “will” (in some indeterminate future), all the versions attempt to ascribe a degree of obligativity to the action expected from the referees. While the English version attempts to make WP 7.3 an inviolable command (and nullifies that command in the very same sentence), the French goes completely to the opposite side, making it entirely optional. The other versions range over just about every gradation in-between. It is impossible to tell for sure which came first: the English or the French version, although historical circumstance and water polo lore point to the latter, but either way, it appears that all the other versions simply are more or less accurate translations from either English or French. All, that is, except for one:

L’Arbitro ha il diritto di non fischiare un‘infrazione, qualora ritenga che la segnalazione possa costituire un vantaggio nei riguardi della squadra che l’ha commessa. Inoltre gli Arbitri non fischieranno un fallo semplice quando ancora vi è la possibilità di giocare la palla.

The Referee has the right not to whistle an infraction, if he believes that doing so (orig. signaling it) may constitute an advantage from the perspective of the team who has committed it. Furthermore, the referees will not whistle an ordinary fault when there is still a possibility to play the ball.

Nota: E’ importante che gli Arbitri applichino tale principio in tutta la sua estensione: assegnare un fallo semplice in favore di un giocatore attaccante che sta avanzando verso l’area di porta avversaria, costituisce un vantaggio per la squadra che ha commesso il fallo: pertanto non va fischiato.

Note: It is important that the Referees apply this principle to its full extent: awarding an ordinary fault in favor of an attacking player who is advancing toward the opponent’s goal area constitutes an advantage for the team that committed the fault; therefore it should not be whistled.

The Italian version above stands alone. It doesn’t command, it empowers. Referees have the right to apply the rules in such a way as not to favor the offending player. It is important that referees apply this principle to its full extent, so that the other rules may be consistently applied. It is important that referees do not award ordinary fouls in favor of a player in possession of the ball who is working for position, because doing so turns a shooter into a passer and takes advantage away from the offense. And coaches, players and fans: keep in mind that referees will not whistle an ordinary foul when the ball is still playable. Why? Because WP 7.3 says so. Well, it only says all that in Italian, but that which we call a rose…


Having reached the end of this analysis, an obvious question comes to mind: which wording of WP 7.3 is “correct”: the “shall”, the “should”, the “ought to” or the “has the right”? If (as water polo lore has it) French is the original version of WP 7.3, could we assume it also is closest to the rule maker’s original intent? If so, then how does one explain the Italian version? Is it just a poor translation with too much poetic license, perhaps with some of Mr. Lonzi’s(2) personal views mixed in, or is it a fundamentally different and revolutionary perspective? We may never really know the answers to these questions, but in the end WP 7.3 isn’t really about language or grammar, and it really isn’t a rule at all, it is “a guiding principle by which all the other rules are to be applied”(3). While applying WP 7.3 correctly does require that referees understand its true intent, most of all it requires patience and practice, practice, practice.


This article was inspired by Loren Bertocci and his WPA Advantage class. It was accomplished with contributions and comments from Loren Bertocci (who reviewed an earlier version), Alex Stankevitch (who always takes the time to explain and answer questions), Al Frowiss (who provided comments and clarification on the history of the USAWP version), my mother Dafina (who explained the subtleties of the French version), my father Teofil (likewise for Russian, Serbian and Polish) and my wife Gail, who proofread it and puts up with me every day.

(1) I had intended to include at least one Asian language, but I was not able to obtain an original Chinese or Japanese text, nor a literal translation.
(2) Gianni Lonzi is the Chairman of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee (TWPC). He is Italian and has been in that office since 1996, the longest of any serving TWPC chairs.
(3) Niculae Firoiu, FINA TWPC member.