A Bigly Problem: Translating Donald Trump Creates Headaches for Interpreters

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It’s no secret that President Donald Trump has a distinctive style of speaking. From his sort-of made-up words (bigly), to his odd turns of phrase (fire like a dog?) to his grammar that is only hovering around the sixth grade level, Trump’s rhetoric can be hard to follow. And for one group of people–interpreters, it’s causing quite the headache.

According to some interpreters, it’s easy enough to translate Trump when he’s speaking from a prepared speech, like he did at his Inaugural ceremony. But those instances are few and far between. For the most part, Trump makes off-the-cuff statements, with lots of repetition and odd word choices. His lack of coherence, and manner of jumping around from topic to topic also makes it difficult to translate his speeches into other languages.

A recent Japan Times piece highlighted the struggles that some Japanese interpreters have conveying POTUS’s speeches in their language. One interpreter explained how Trump’s use of proper nouns without any context makes it difficult. For example, during his victory speech on November 9, 2016, he referenced Reince (Priebus) and Secretariat (the horse) suddenly. Miwako Hibi, who was tasked with translating Trump’s speech into Japanese, said:

When he suddenly said ‘Reince is a superstar,’ I was literally thrown off. Only after the camera zoomed in on the face of a ‘Reince’ did I realize who Trump was talking about, and I hastily added, for the sake of the audience, that it’s actually ‘Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman.

But, “Secretariat” was even harder to place. Hibi admitted: “I mistranslated that one. It didn’t even occur to me that he was talking about a race horse. … It’s really hard to follow his train of thought.”

One French interpreter, Bérengère Viennot, speaking to the Los Angeles Review of Books, also complained about Trump’s disjointed speech patterns. And she pointed out another issue with translating his speaking–if she adds context in an attempt to make his speeches comprehensible for her audience, she runs the risk of making him seem like a better speaker than he actually is.

And that actually pertains to another issue–how do interpreters deal with Trump’s crude language? Take, for example, his now infamous “grab them by the pussy” quote. Is it an interpreter’s job to translate the word “pussy,” which in many languages holds no direct translation, as accurately or as conservatively as possible?

And it’s easy enough to sympathize with the interpreters who are struggling to convey Trump’s words in another language. After all, those of us in the U.S. have an admittedly hard time gleaning what Trump is trying to say sometimes too.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at amahoney@LawStreetMedia.com.



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