French translator Bérengère Viennot wrote an article in which she compares President Obama, with “his impeccable diction, his eloquence, his constructed and logical speeches…” to President Trump, and his “limited vocabulary and a chopped and disjointed syntax”.
Viennot says translating Donald Trump’s English is tough, even though the new President has the “vocabulary of a 5th grader”, and that “the poverty of the vocabulary is striking.” You’d think that this would make translation easier, but apparently not. First, the president rambles around a subject, which gives Viennot an ethical dilemma – If she translates his words directly into French listeners may struggle to understand, but if she translates them into more intelligible speech she would make him sound different – like “an ordinary politician who speaks properly.” A translator always has to balance conveying a person’s words correctly, with conveying the meaning – this is particularly challenging with Trump.
Secondly, other translators point to Trump’s vivid and undiplomatic language as a challenge. “When he says Mexicans are rapists, he’s talking about crime, but when he says China is raping America, he’s talking about economics,” says one. “We cannot translate it literally as ‘China is sexually abusing America’.”
Correctly translating some of Trump’s key slogans can make audiences in Latin America feel uncomfortable. The phrase “Make America great again” can come across as “Make America powerful again” to Spanish language speakers. “When he says ‘Make America great again’, we are thinking of the kind of America that used to intervene in governments in Latin America,” said a Spanish translator.
Other translation fails involving Trump include reports that Vladimir Putin in December 2015 labelled him “intelligent” or “a genius” – words which Trump himself was happy to accept, and quote on the campaign trail. In fact the translation was more accurately given in many news reports as “very flamboyant, very talented.” The BBC interpreted the comments as “very colourful, talented.”
Accurate translations can be vitally important in global politics, especially at the moment, when the one thing we can expect from the new President is unpredictability. It looks like Bérengère Viennot and her fellow political translators will have their work cut out!