Why translators should be afraid of Donald Trump

February 1, 2017
Why translators should be afraid of Donald Trump

There are plenty of reasons to be afraid of Donald Trump. The new US President was certainly not shy about making sweeping statements about entire religions and races during his candidacy and, now that the inauguration is behind him, Trump is swiftly turning his rhetoric into law. 

Trump and translators

To be clear, President Trump has not (thus far) issued any direct threats against the translation profession. So far he seems happily preoccupied with taking forward his policies on Muslims and Mexicans. However, that doesn’t mean that Trump isn’t causing problems in professional translation circles. 

Professional French translator Bérengère Viennot explains:

“Most of the time, when he speaks he seems not to know quite where he’s going… It’s as if he had thematic clouds in his head that he would pick from with no need of a logical thread to link them.”

For translators of political speeches, this is a long way from the norm. The polished, practiced delivery of coherent speeches, carefully crafted in advance by experienced press teams, usually means that translating political oratory is smooth-running task. But Donald Trump has turned all that on its head. 

The problem with translating Trump 

A study by Carnegie Mellon University has found that the grammar of Trump’s speeches during the race for the presidency was below that expected of pupils in the sixth grade (those aged 12). This has certainly led to difficulties for translators and the global media when reporting the now-president’s words. 

The issue that translators are facing centres around whether or not to translate President’s Trump’s words literally, or whether to present their meaning. Tump’s comments about Ghazala Khan, wife of Khizr Khan (who gained international attention for his criticism of Trump at the Democratic National Convention), are the perfect example. Trump commented:

“His wife — if you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me, but plenty of people have written that.” 

As Bérengère Viennot explains, translators are left with a tough decision – do they translate literally, which would mean foreign language speakers would struggle with the content, or do they massage the language to make it, “a little bit more intelligible, leading non-English speakers to believe that Trump is an ordinary politician who speaks properly.”

Professional Japanese translator Agness Kaku also highlights that sentence as an example of the problems associated with translating Trump, commenting:

“There were quite a few things going on in the statement and a lot of that was lost [in translation]. You have to cut so much in order to deliver something that isn’t complete nonsense.”

Thus, in Japan, the comment was reduced to, “She likely wasn’t allowed to give a statement,” by public broadcaster NKH and to, “It could be she wasn’t allowed to speak,” by CNN Japan. 

Nor is it just Asian languages that are struggling with Trump. Spanish newspaper El País ran an article on the difficulty of translating the ‘Make America great again’ slogan. To most Spanish and Portuguese speakers, “América” refers to Central and South America as well as the United States, which is clearly not what President Trump intends with his slogan. 

El País found that translators struggled to agree on how to translate the motto, with, “Haz América grande otra vez,” producing various translations, including “Make America big again,” and “Do America great again.”

Final thoughts

Love him or loathe him, President Trump is certainly making waves around the world. His larger than life personality and anti-establishment approach are making many people edgy. It seems that everyone, including the translation community, will be dealing with the fallout for quite some time. 

How would you approach translating Donald’s Trump’s rambling style of speech? Would you opt for confusing literal translation or try and make his words more succinct? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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