North America

Translators are struggling to interpret Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House on 22 January 2017.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House on 22 January 2017. Source: EPA/Andrew Harrer / POOL

Run on sentences and disjointed syntax have created an ethical dilemma for interpreters.

Translators around the world reported that it’s a struggle to accurately interpret Donald Trump’s speeches, statements and interviews – a challenge which shows no signs of abating as the dominant newsmaker assumes the world’s most influential office.

“For translators, Trump is an unprecedented and desolating struggle,” wrote professional translator Bérengère Viennot in the French version of Slate last month.

In the widely circulated article, Ms Viennot lamented the president’s disjointed syntax, run-on sentences and limited vocabulary.

“When it comes to speaking of something other than his victory, he clings desperately to the words contained in the question put to him, without succeeding in completing his own thought,” she wrote.

“The poverty of the vocabulary is striking.”

Ms Viennot – who isn’t a fan of the newly inaugurated leader – says that as a translator Mr Trump’s speech puts her in an ethical dilemma.

If she translates him directly French listeners may struggle to understand, but if she translates him into smoother, intelligible speech she risks making him sound like “an ordinary politician who speaks properly.”

Soraya Caicedo, executive producer of the Spanish Language program for SBS radio said translating Mr Trump could be a challenge.

“He aims to speak not as a president would speak, he speaks as someone in the community would speak,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult in terms of the words, but for people from South America it can be difficult to interpret his meaning.”

Balancing clarity while retaining the style of speech can be a struggle, as can be relaying the president’s sarcasm and metaphors.

“When he says Mexicans are rapists, he’s talking about crime, but when he says China is raping America, he’s talking about economics,” Ms Caicedo said.

“We cannot translate it literally as ‘China is sexually abusing America’.”

Other phrases can gain new meaning when interpreted for foreign audiences.

Make America Great Again can sound like ‘Make America Powerful Again’ in the minds of many Spanish language listeners Ms Caicedo.

“When he says ‘Make America Great Again’, we are thinking of the kind of America that used to intervene in governments in Latin America,” she said, noting instances of US intervention in Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

Ms Caicedo said the leaked of a video of Trump bragging about being able to do whatever he wanted to women posed a particular challenge.

“There are some words I wouldn’t say in a media context, as a journalist or even – in my case – as a woman,” she said.

It was a balancing act between moderating the language, but still reporting accurately on what was said.

“It’s an added responsibility for us journalists who have to translate what he has to say,” she said.

Accurate translations can be vitally important in global politics, especially when it comes to powerful leaders.

In 2006 debate broke out over whether the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had threatened to “wipe Israel off the map,” or merely predicted that the government would “vanish from the pages of history”.

Reports that Vladimir Putin labeled Trump ‘intelligent’ or ‘a genius’ have been similarly contested (A more accurate translation would have been that Trump was ‘bright’ as in ‘colourful’).