Translating the Untranslatable Trump: Can it be done?

Translators always need to make sure that there are no inconsistencies, ambiguities or errors in their translations. So translating a politician who uses inconsistent, ambiguous and error-ridden language on a daily basis can be difficult.

Translators and interpreters worldwide have suffered bigly thanks to the President of the United States. According to French translation expert, Bérengère Viennot,

The professional challenges they face when it comes to translating Trump go far beyond his sometimes offensive rhetoric. Why is it so easy for Trump’s word to be lost in translation, and how do translators tackle this?

Why is Donald Trump so problematic for translators?

Trump’s words have baffled and confused both English language speakers and foreign language speakers for two completely different reasons. He’s often confused foreign language speakers who can’t understand the content of what he says and confused English language speakers because they can.

Trump’s use of words is particularly challenging for French translators, whose language is known for its structure. High quality French translation depends on an understanding of “vital cultural nuances”, according to London Translations. The French language is very structured and logical, and Donald Trump’s unique speaking style is quite the opposite.

Bérengère Viennot discussed what she termed ‘Trumpslation’ in an essay. She stated that “Trump’s vocabulary is limited, his syntax is broken; he repeats the same phrases over and over, forcing the translator to follow suit. If she does not, she betrays the spirit of the original piece.”

However, it’s not just French language translators that struggle with Trump; this is a global language issue for which there’s not just one cause. There are in fact numerous reasons why Trump has proved so baffling to translators. With that in mind, here’s a list of reasons.

1: Trump doesn’t finish his sent-

Trump’s sentences drift, and the point changes and the message becomes convoluted. This is partly a characteristic of his speaking style, and partly because he knows his audience (when speaking at rallies) can finish his sentences for him. Unfortunately, for translators who do not translate word for word but look for the sentiment and meaning of the overall message, this can be incredibly complicated.

Slate magazine published the video and transcript of just one sentence/stream of consciousness uttered by Trump in 2015 in which he tried desperately to discuss something about nuclear energy. He quickly switched the topic to his uncle, his own intelligence, his education, the media bias towards liberal Democrats, a conversation with his uncle that occurred 35 years ago. He then talks about four prisoners, “now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger.” He concludes this onslaught of gibberish by surmising that Persians are great negotiators, as are the Iranians, and “they just killed us, they just killed us.”

Almost 300 words later and nobody’s the wiser as to what just happened. Imagine having to translate that.

2: Trump uses baffling and distasteful metaphors

During his infamous and ultimately successful campaign, Trump courted controversy by calling Mexicans rapists. However, he also claimed that China was raping America. He was referring to trade and economics, but this causes issues for translators.

Soraya Caicedo, executive producer of the Spanish Language program, discussed this issue: “We cannot translate it literally as ‘China is sexually abusing America’.” So again, the translation service risks making no sense, or making sense and doing a disservice to the senseless rhetoric of Trump.

4: Trump really, really exaggerates. He has the greatest exaggerations. Nobody exaggerates better.

His use of the word great is often mocked by impersonators, but for translators his constant use of exaggeration is such a big problem you wouldn’t even believe it.

Deals are huge and tremendous, and problems are enormous. All of these words translate into the same word in Chinese: da. However, this word simply means big, which does a disservice to Trump’s brash personality.

5: Trump uses malapropisms (and sometimes just makes words up)

Despite the President’s claims that he has ‘the best words’, he has been often guilty of malapropisms. These are words that sound similar to another word but mean something completely different. For example, he famously misused the term swatches of land, instead of swathes of land in a 2016 presidential debate.

Of course, sometimes he has made words up completely. What exactly is the French word for bigly, or the English word for that matter?

6: Trump uses colloquialisms

President Trump loves a colloquialism. After all, (he insists) he never used the term bigly but instead said ‘big league’. But dealing with colloquialisms and local slang presents another challenge to translators.

Usually, translators can choose from two methods of translating: literal translation and oblique translation. You can translate colloquialisms word for word—so ‘big league’ would become grande ligue— and risk confusing your audience, or you can try and portray the true meaning of what is said, which depends on finding a similar phrase idiom or colloquialism in the target language. This can often prove challenging however, because colloquialisms and slang are often by their very nature unique to the language in which they were spoken.

So what do translators do when translating Trump?

Although the problems caused by Trump’s speeches are numerous, the essential dilemma is this: Do you correct and decipher the gist of what he says, or stay close to the original and hope people aren’t too confused.

There’s no simple answer. Professional translators may try and find the equivalent of Trump’s informal colloquialisms, but when it comes to correcting his linguistic errors or his often crude language, translators risk giving an impression of the President as a more erudite and precise speaker than he is.

Fortunately most of Trump’s most important statements are kept to within 140 characters and can be translated without too much effort.

Pic Attribution By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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