The Headache of Translating Trump

The Headache of Translating Trump

Loud words, emotional and active use of gestures, provocative statements, and catchy slogans are what can grab the attention of the audience and stick in the memory. It does not, however, presuppose broaching important topics, speaking clearly and coherently, and deliver any sort of idea. This is exactly the strategy Donald Trump uses in his speeches, which often racks translators’ and interpreters’ brains.

When Trump has become a political figure, his speeches and remarks started being translated into many languages globally and even more since he became the 45th President of the United States of America. Many people find his way of speaking appealing and easy to follow since his language and rhetoric are very simple. While others feel that Trump’s speech lacks logic as he cruises from topic to topic unpredictably and often mentions some facts out of context making it very challenging for translators and interpreters to work with his speeches. What is extremely challenging is giving a sense of what Trump actually says and the exact way in which he does it in order to give the non-English-speaking audience the full experience of listening to him.

6th Grade Grammar

Trump’s grammar is often as simple as that of a 6th grader. While it helps him to be understandable for everyone, it makes it hard for interpreters and translators to make his language comprehensible in other languages. Grammar is not limited to the connection between words and sentences, it is a full range of text-forming devices, which can vary in different languages. In English, the most important parts of the sentence are subject and verb, while in Japanese it is more significant to stick to the topic to produce meaningful speech. So when Trump in his speech right after thanking some Republican leaders in Texas, says “So a friend of mine, a guy that a lot of people weren't so sure - we had this unbelievable relationship. In fact, when Ted Cruz held a rally in Washington, he said could you come to my rally? And everybody thought, these people thought, that was strange. They said to me, well, when is the fighting between these two because we really like each other?” interpreters would have to scratch their heads over and try to transform it in some coherent utterance.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

Trump often uses some generic references like “these people”, modal words “might”, “may” and phases that express uncertainty e.g. “I don’t know”, “probably” etc. that allow a speaker not to take any responsibility for saying something. This vocabulary usually accompanies Trump’s provocative statements helping him to mention things that may not be true while formally admitting that these are not facts. For an interpreter, however, it is hard to adjust a bunch of these uncertain language markers in a foreign language while keeping the original zero-responsibility meaning of Trump’s statements. So a more confident sentence made by an interpreter can potentially lead to a political scandal.

Logical Tangles

Interpreters and translators often have to guess the thread of thought in Trump’s speeches because he often jumps from one topic to another without any obvious logic. For example, in one of the speeches during his campaign, he said: “We are going to build the wall. And who is gonna pay for the wall? Mexico is going to pay for the wall. We have massive trade deficits with Mexico, with China, with Japan, with everybody. Those deficits will go away, we're gonna bring our jobs back, you're gonna be so happy but Mexico, in fact, will pay for the wall”. It is not clear where is the connection between trade deficits, happiness, and paying for the wall. But a translator cannot produce nonsense and will have to adjust this, to make it understandable.

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Language professionals pay attention to meaning and structure. Trump’s speeches, however, are more about the show and loud words, which is the reason why some like them, while others struggle.