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Trumpslation: why Donald Trump’s words give translators so much trouble

No, Donald, that’s French. EPA/Michael Ukas

Much has already been written on the difficulty that translators and interpreters have when translating Donald Trump’s speeches and messages into other languages. The president’s frequent mangling of the English language has left interpreters and translators scratching their heads the world over.

The most recent challenge for translators was how to translate the president’s inappropriate comments to the French first lady, Brigitte Macron, when he visited France to celebrate Bastille Day. French translators struggled to find the right words to express that Emmanuel Macron’s wife was “in such good physical shape!” as they worried about French audience reactions. In fact, when reporting the story, some Francophone journalists translated his compliment as “vous êtes en grande forme”, which could be easily understood by French readers as the more respectable “you are in great health”.

Translators are very much divided when it comes to whether Trump’s controversial rhetoric should be translated warts and all, or toned down and rendered respectable. Indeed, while some believe that his inflammatory language should be neutralised and the style smoothed out, others are convinced that translators should translate Trump exactly as he speaks. Trump might be interested to know that some Russian translators reportedly alter his language “so he sounds actually kind of more like Putin than he sounds like Trump”.

But beyond issues of lexis and grammar, there is another intriguing explanation as to why translators can find it so difficult to translate Trump’s discourse: they often do not agree with him.

Right and wrong

One of the more striking aspects about translators’ and interpreters’ discussions on this issue is their own reservations about translating Trump at all. For instance, Renato Geraldes, a professional interpreter in Brazil, wondered how far he would be willing to go in his own language to convey Trump’s derogatory comments on immigrants during his campaign. He was not sure he would be capable of repeating these comments if required.

In order to convey Trump accurately, it is important to step into his shoes, something which translators and interpreters can find difficult and feel reluctant to do. The best translators and interpreters are often said to be able to adopt a speaker or writer’s perspective. But at what cost?

Some things don’t need translating. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Retired Japanese interpreter Kumiko Torikai, who left the profession in the 1980s, explained that when a subject is making racist or misogynistic comments, the interpreter’s job becomes extremely problematic:

As an interpreter, your job is to translate the words of a speaker exactly as they are, no matter how heinous and what an outrageous liar you find the speaker to be … You set aside all your personal emotions and become the speaker yourself. It’s a really tough thing, not being allowed to demonstrate your own judgement about what is right and what is wrong. And that’s why I quit.

When tasked with translating someone whose words they find reprehensible, translators can feel inauthentic, disingenuous and duplicitous. Masking their inner feelings in order to take Trump’s perspective can put them under severe psychological strain as they grapple with their feelings about his claims, ethics and emotionally charged language – which in turn affects the translations they produce.

So what is it about Trump that aggravates some translators so much?

Beyond the pale

It is well known that the president’s infamous tweets are often teeming with assertions that translators know to be factually dubious. More than that, a non-provocative political discourse is vital to carry messages effectively to other cultures; Trump’s childish use of capital letters and exclamation marks (“SAD!”) fall well short of that standard.

As a result, some translators censor his remarks or turn them into something different. The way they translate him (or don’t) can betray a translator’s attitude towards him: elitist, pitying, or outright disapproving. Michele Berdy, an interpreter and translator working for the Moscow Times, has explained that because Trump’s peculiar Twitter style sounds childish Russian translators often transpose it into a more adult register.

Should translators be condemned for censoring Trump? Many would argue not. Translation scholar Peter Newmark explains that the translator has a duty to be faithful to the speaker or writer only in as far as their words do not conflict with material and moral facts as known – and they can express dissent if the text is likely to mislead the receiving audience. Trump’s often violent and incendiary language arguably does mislead audiences on a routine basis, and translating it will necessarily conflict with many translators’ personal ethics.

After all, if politics is an extension of ethics, then translation is both a political and a moral act. The legitimacy of “Trumpslation” is no simple matter – and the world’s translators have several confusing years of it to look forward to.

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