Trump in translation: president's mangled language stumps interpreters

Translators describe grappling with Trump’s mannerisms for an international audience: ‘We try to grasp the context, but it’s so incoherent’

When he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change agreement last week, Donald Trump did something unexpected: he embraced sentence structure and basic grammar. You could almost hear his speechwriters exhale when they realised he was – for the most part – sticking to their script.

There must have been a similar sense of relief among the world’s interpreters, who have grown accustomed to making sense of the president’s frequent mangling of the English language.

Interactions with world leaders have left interpreters scratching their heads about how to communicate what Trump is trying to say, when his speech baffles even native English speakers.

His idiosyncratic take on the English language is causing trouble for interpreters around the world. In Asia, where the middle classes pride themselves on their English ability, Trump’s fumbles are widely mocked. But translating Trump for almost two-thirds of the world’s population is causing chaos among translators.

When reports emerged of Trump’s justification for firing FBI director James Comey, interpreters in Japan were confronted with a tricky question: how to translate “nut job” in a way that would be suitable for broadcast.

They settled on henjin – a word more commonly used to describe an oddball or eccentric – having decided that the alternative, atama ga warui (stupid) was inappropriate for someone of Comey’s stature.

The outburst was the latest in a long line of comments, tweets and deviations from scripted speeches that interpreters in Tokyo concede have left them dumbfounded and struggling to retain their professional composure.

“It isn’t just his colloquialisms, but the demeaning way in which he talked about women, especially during the campaign, said Chikako Tsuruta, who regularly interprets broadcasts by US networks such as CNN, ABC and CBS.

The realisation that Trump would pose a problem for Japanese interpreters came last year after a leaked 2005 recording in which he made lewd remarks about women, describing how he grabs women “by the pussy”.

“We all had a huge problem with that,” said Tsuruta, who is also a professor of interpreting and translation studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “If we had used [the Japanese loan word] pushii then a lot of people would not have understood what we were talking about.”

In the end, she played safe with the regular Japanese words for female genitalia. “It still made us all feel very uncomfortable.”

Exchanging strategies for dealing with Trump-isms is a common topic of discussion among English-to-Japanese interpreters. “Our job now entails reading dictionaries of cultural expressions rather than conventional ones,” said Tsuruta.

And then there is the president’s dependence on certain words: great, big, and beautiful – the latter being particularly taxing for interpreters keen to avoid overusing the catchall Japanese word, yoi.

“In Japanese, the word ‘great’ can be interpreted in several ways, so we consider the context and use the appropriate word,” Tsuruta said.

But the biggest problem, she added, was the occasional absence of logic from Trump’s streams of consciousness. “I tell my students that with simultaneous interpretation, the trick is to anticipate the speaker’s intentions and tell a story, to be slightly ahead of the game.

“But when the logic is not clear or a sentence is just left hanging in the air, then we have a problem. We try to grasp the context and get at the core message, but in Trump’s case, it’s so incoherent. You’re interpreting, and then suddenly the sentence stops making sense, and we risk ending up sounding stupid.

“There’s no way we can explain what he really means on air, so we just try to do our best. Japanese viewers are probably getting used to his idiosyncrasies by now.”

In India, the world’s most populous democracy and a key strategic ally for Trump’s administration, most newspapers and broadcasts reduce his speeches to simple soundbites.

In Hindi, the country’s national language, Trump’s fumbles are barely noticed. English-speaking urbanites may laugh along with the rest of the world, but those who don’t speak English are left with a handful of quotations. Speeches are rarely translated in full, and even short quotes are chosen deliberately to leave out the confusion caused by Trump’s language.

“Donald Trump is difficult to make sense of, even in English,” said Anshuman Tiwari, editor of IndiaToday, a Hindi magazine. “His speech is unclear, and sometimes he contradicts himself or rambles or goes off on a tangent. Capturing all that confusion in writing, in Hindi, is not easy,” he added.

“To get around it, usually we avoid quoting Trump directly. We paraphrase what he has said because conveying those jumps in his speech, the way he talks, is very difficult. Instead, we summarise his ideas and convey his words in simple Hindi that will make sense to our readers.”

Rajesh Pandey, who translates articles about Trump for India’s biggest Hindi-language newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar – which syndicates much of its foreign news from American publications – said he tried to keep Trump’s tone unpolished in Hindi. “We don’t use ornamental language. We try to keep it rough and tough.”

Trump’s speech, Pandey added, is a world apart from that of his predecessor. “Obama is a gentleman politician. Trump doesn’t sound like a gentleman. Obama’s language has grace and style. In Trump’s language, there isn’t style.”

Indian politicians, especially on the political right, often deploy an elevated rhetoric of the kind also found in retellings of ancient Hindu epics. “We are used to that kind of grandiosity from politicians so when we translate Trump, we fall into the pattern of using those words,” he said.

And Trump sometimes benefits from the custom, Pandey said.

“It’s what our audience is used to, it’s what they expect. If you took out Trump’s name, the quote we used during Trump’s election could very well be from prime minister Narendra Modi. They both emphasise the greatness of the nation and national pride.

“In English, Trump may not sound very intelligent, but when you translate him with context in Hindi, it makes him sound much better than he is,” Tiwari added.


Vidhi Doshi in Mumbai and Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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