Translating Trump

Working for a translation company, we’re used the occasional out-of-the-box request, but we were especially intrigued when the phone rang one afternoon and The Daily Show was on the line. A producer from the program was looking for interpreters to interview for a segment on the challenges of translating Trump. We knew from the start this was a project we wanted to be a part of, and immediately delved into the specifications: the language and country requirements, the shoot schedule, and the process for screening the interpreters prior to filming.

Sentence fragments, sexism, and gibberish

The challenges of interpreting Trump’s manner of speaking have been widely discussed over the course of his rise in the political spotlight. The list of grievances is long: his super-short sentences, repetition of phrases, broken syntax, limited vocabulary, throwaway words, sentence fragments, and sarcasm. To make an interpreter’s job even worse, he jumps from topic to topic and often starts sentences with no clear indication of where they’re going.

Then there’s Trump’s special vocabulary — terms which don’t always exist in other languages. This includes the nonsense words and malapropisms, “bigly,” “braggadocious,” and “unpresidented.” And of course, how does one properly express the infamous “bad hombres” or “nasty woman” to people in other cultures?

Trump’s speeches are tailored to specific segments of the American audience, so out of context, they lose much of their intended impact. Compounding this is his use of “Americanisms,” words or expressions that are unique to the U.S. For example, he described former FBI Director James Comey by saying, “He’s a showboat,” “He’s a grandstander.”

And, of course, there’s the “locker room talk.” Many interpreters have expressed their discomfort with Trump’s lewd, sexist language and struggle with the task of communicating demeaning remarks about women. In some cases, they have opted to downplay the statements. While this is less likely to offend listeners, it doesn’t present the full story.

Finally, there’s the confusing logic. Trump does not always speak in a logical manner, and instead relies on parataxis. For the language nerds, parataxis refers to the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions. It basically takes two often unrelated fragments and juxtaposes them in order to make a clear connection — a technique that builds emotional logic. A classic example is Julius Caesar’s famous “Veni vidi vici,” (I came, I saw, I conquered). This less-than-straightforward manner of speaking makes it difficult for an interpreter to accurately communicate the meaning of Trump’s words.

The ethical dilemma

Interpreters have a professional obligation to render the subject’s message into the target language with no additions or omissions while maintaining the register, style, purpose, and the speaker’s intent. They are also expected to maintain impartiality (neutrality), regardless of their personal beliefs on a topic. Which makes all of the above such a challenge.

Interpreters have expressed concern that by truly interpreting Trump’s words in an unbiased fashion it will make them look bad. When Trump doesn’t make sense, neither does the interpreter. Should an interpreter relay Trump’s words accurately, even at the risk of confusing the listeners? Or, should an interpreter render Trump’s broken English in an intelligible manner that people will understand, but makes Trump sound like an ordinary politician who speaks in a proper presidential manner? Is it appropriate to tone down something that might be construed as offensive? These are just a few of the questions being raised as interpreters debate the extent to which they can ethically moderate Trump’s language, if at all.

Casting for The Daily Show

Our superstar Account Manager Courtney worked hard to fill the spots for The Daily Show assignment. This was not a job for just any interpreters. They could not be camera shy. They needed to be able to openly answer any of the questions The Daily Show would ask, and be willing to express their feeling on a divisive topic in a very public format.

Courtney ran into some roadblocks. It was hard finding interpreters who were willing to speak publically on the subject. Most interpreters are freelancers who work for multiple clients or juggle freelance assignments with other work. And a number of our interpreters did not want to risk offending clients by expressing viewpoints that might be polarizing.

Other interpreters were just unwilling to put their political opinions in the public sphere for personal reasons. The Daily Show had some flexibility with their filming schedule, but also had a specific vision for the segment. After the first round of interviews, there was more work to be done. The Chinese interpreter we provided was reluctant to associate herself directly with mainland China, and our first candidate for the Spanish language was uncomfortable expressing her opinions on camera to the extent needed for the segment. Through the diligent work of our interpreting manager, we made it through round two of the interviews and ultimately found fabulous Arabic, Russian, and Spanish interpreters for the segment.

How would you translate “Bing, bing, bong, bong?”

On July 13, The Daily Show aired their piece on the challenges of interpreting the language of Trump. They began by addressing the interpreters’ pivotal role in communicating the president’s messages around the world. While people in the U.S. understand the words Trump speaks (usually), people around the world don’t hear Trump in their native tongue, and must therefore rely entirely on the interpreter’s rendering.

In the segment, Daily Show correspondent Desi Lydic spoke with the interpreters about their perspectives on the challenges of translating Trump’s special vocabulary. Lydic even offered a bit of coaching to help the interpreters fully embody Trump — his tone, mannerisms, and sexism — so they could communicate the full package.

Watch the clip here.