Translations of Trump must try to be faithful

In this July 21, 2016 file photo, then-Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Trump has demonstrated more than once that he can project a more disciplined and presidential style when he wants, only to quickly slip back to his old ways. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Translators worldwide have voiced a common opinion: translating Trump is difficult. From his syntax to his strictly American context, translators have listed a series of difficulties in translating the new president’s speeches. In the global world, many translators have to constantly make decisions, choosing meaning or style, or generally struggling with carrying a foreign language into their own. Trump’s language, his distinct manner of speech, proves a great challenge to many translators desiring to provide their readers with a good rendition. This presents a worldwide problem concerning international opinions and politics, with no clear solution.

French and Japanese translators voiced difficulties with carrying Trump’s broken English into their own languages which have more strict structures. Often times, it is not possible to translate Trump’s syntax into their own language and still make it suitable for a magazine or news media. This is just one of the technical problems presented in Trump’s language; another is his use of vulgarity.

When Trump said, “Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything,” languages across the world struggled with how to report that. Language expert David Moser argued that there is no obvious way to say that vulgar term in Chinese. One Chinese news outlet published a sanitized version of the quote substituting the vulgarity for “nether parts.” 

Another technical difficulty is his use of Americanized idioms and speech, tailored in an American context. For example, Trump’s response to the previously mentioned vulgarity was that it was “locker room talk” which left foreign cultures struggling with what that means. When translating, there are inevitably difficult decisions that must be made in structure and interpretation, and Trump’s stylistic choices make this task more difficult.

Translating Trump live presents another issue, due to his tendency to change topic without logic and his use of informal names. A Japanese broadcast interpreter Miwako Hibi explained her confusion when Trump referenced “secretariat.” She said that she mistranslated it because she never expected he would be talking about a horse. Another time she was thrown off was when he began talking about “Reince,” not utilizing his full name. Miwako Hibi translated this as “Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman,” adding clarity for her audience. This decision displays the difficulties with translating Trump, and some people choose to aid their audience’s understanding rather than to translate his words directly.

Carrying Trump’s speech into another language constantly requires stylistic and interpretive decisions, such as the one Miwako Hibi made. Translators must decide whether to clarify who, or what, Trump is talking about, or if they should make his broken English more fluent in their own language.

French translator Bérengère Viennot discussed her struggle between smoothing out Trump’s speech to make it easier for readers and keeping his content; she said the previous would lead “non-English speakers to believe that Trump is an ordinary politician who speaks properly.” Translators should always strive to represent their text with the style and content of the original version, but they have a responsibility to their audience as well. Depending on the situation, perhaps clarifying is useful, but other situations, such as live interpretation, require faster decisions with less forethought, which is up to the discretion of each translator.

Some translators worry about how they will be portrayed if they keep the style and the content of Trump’s speeches. Japanese interpreter Chikako Tsuruta jokes, “If we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid.” If this translator believes that he must change Trump’s words to sound more intelligent so that he can be considered a good translator, he is releasing inaccurate and therefore bad translations. Whether this translation involves a lot of repetition, broken language or choppy sentences, a person carrying a modern political text into a foreign language has a responsibility to represent the language as accurately as possible. It is not their job to make it pretty for their audience; rather it is to keep it in the style it is presented to them.

It is impossible to carry text from one language to another and keep it exactly the same, and Trump’s individual style evidently increases the difficulty of that endeavor. Despite most translators trying to represent the text accurately, the decisions they make are interpretive. Due to this, it is necessary to have multiple translations available, so readers can observe various interpretations and understand the speech in different ways.


Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.