Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Simple words, punchy phrases, highly emotional connotations… Does this sound familiar? Yes, it’s been much talked about recently, all to do with the language style of Donald Trump, the recently elected US President.
Translators and interpreters flocked to the Internet to express their frustration about the difficulty of rendering his messages and speeches, but how rare is having to translate a political leader whose manner of speaking is somewhat outside the widely-expected standards? History shows that it’s not unusual at all and, in fact, we have had many examples of what you can hardly call a phenomenon with Soviet and Russian statesmen if I were to take just the language I work with.
But first - Trump, what is so extraordinary about his manner of speaking that makes translators wince? He uses very simple words, such as “nice”, yet strong phrases, aiming for an effective impact. In his discourse he may also shift from subject to subject if the first one isn’t going to lead him to ending it on an emotive note. In his utterances he often appears to dilute logic. The same technique is true for his tweets, they can end on a one-word sentence: “Sad”.
Siavash Ardalan, a journalist and a translator from BBC Persian, believes that to understand Trump you need to become Trump and it helps if you mimic his gestures to strike the right chord. Trump uses sarcasm and jokes and there is never a guarantee that he is 100% serious. If we take his “bad dudes out there”, it’s important to find the right level of colloquialism. It’s a challenge faced by the interpreter/translator to read his tone/context, get the meaning and translate it so that the message stays true to the original intention.
Trump’s familiarity and register are quite different from those of most Western leaders. “We did have a lot of fun fighting Hillary”, he commented after his election victory; “fun fighting” isn’t quite an oxymoron, yet an interesting figure of speech. “America will start winning again bigly” is another illustration: lots of people, including me, who heard Trump say “bigly” for the first time, assumed it was a neologism. Yet, we were wrong, it's a word, according to Fiona McPherson, a senior editor with the Oxford English Dictionary. “Bigly” can mean “with great force”, and Thomas Hardy uses it in Far From the Madding Crowd to mean “proudly, haughtily, pompously”, McPherson said to BBC Magazine.
Trump is not shy of using mildly vulgar slang either, take “we had people running our country who didn’t know what the hell they were doing, didn’t know what they were doing”.
To compensate for his vivid mimics and tone of voice in his spoken utterances, in his written social media messages Trump uses block capitals and conspicuous punctuation, such as double dashes, dots, exclamation marks. A good example is one of his Facebook posts: “GREAT meeting with Manufacturing CEOs at the White House this past week. The three most powerful words in every market, in every corner of the globe -- will be back again in no time... MADE IN USA!” He sounds confident, tough and resolute. Yet he is prone to repetition and exaggeration. One of the things interpreters appreciate is when speakers use a well-structured syntax. He can give us a headache by breaking his sentences off.
Donald Trump’s unpolished speech is not dissimilar to that of a few other charismatic leaders though, and USSR and Russia are prime examples of that. In 2002 during a news conference Russian President Vladimir Putin took a hard line on Chechen separatists by saying: “If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow. Our nation is multi-confessional, we have experts in the area. I would recommend that whoever does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back afterwards.” (In Russian: “Если же вы готовы стать самым радикальным исламистом и готовы сделать себе обрезание, приглашаю вас в Москву. У нас многоконфессиональная страна, у нас есть специалисты и по этому вопросу. И я порекомендую сделать операцию таким образом, чтобы у вас уже ничего не выросло.”) I watched the video clip of the conference published by various sources and heard one interpreter struggling to render it live during the TV coverage. Linguistically, the passage wasn’t particularly complicated, however, the theme clearly took the interpreter by surprise and he couldn’t complete the president’s remark.
Back in 1960 at the UN General Assembly Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave way to several angry outbursts, pounding the table with both fists, saying “Мы вам покажем кузькину мать.” This is a Russian idiomatic expression which means “We’ll show you what is what.” However, apparently during the live interpreting session it was conveyed word-for-word as “We’ll show you Kuzma’s mother”, which wouldn’t have made much sense to the uninitiated.
Another Soviet leader’s speaking style is remembered for being very slow and monotonous, to such an extent that there were jokes going around about it. Leonid Brezhnev was presiding over the USSR during the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. One of the jokes goes that Brezhnev started his address to the Olympians with O! O! O! O! O! only to be corrected by the assistant whispering that the Olympic rings didn’t need to be read out. Considering his usual manner of speaking, no one might have noticed the blunder, even if the joke had been based on a true story.
Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin was notorious for his linguistic gems too. His language was simple, he spoke slowly and he favoured comparisons and figurative language. He once referred to Japan’s Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto: “Не стесняйтесь, так сказать, свой интеллект пополнить здесь японским интеллектом. Я вот сколько контактируюсь вот лично с Рю, так и то чувствую, что становлюсь умнее,” which translates as “Don’t be shy, so to speak, about enriching your intellect here with Japanese intellect. I have been in personal contact with Ryu a number of times and even I feel I am getting cleverer.” Sounds clumsy? Mikhail Gorbachev, widely respected in the West, once said: “Я вам отвечу по-горбачевски. Вы знаете, что это будет сложнее, чем простой ответ,” meaning “I’ll respond to you the Gorbachev way, it will be more complicated than a simple answer.”
Suddenly the challenge of translating Trump doesn’t seem so unprecedented. No matter who we take, the worry is the perception the audience will get if the target message sounds awkward linguistically, funny or illogical. Another concern we may have as linguists is whether the listeners and readers will be doubtful if you translated everything correctly. Orators who are less predictable than most can throw first the translator, then the readership.
During the first months of Trump’s term as President, foreign leaders and policy makers will be paying attention literally to his every word, and the pressure on translators and interpreters to get it right is immense. For perfectionists, there is a risk of an urge to clean up and polish the speech which sounds disjointed or too colloquial. And some colleagues will argue this neutralisation will prevent them from sounding stupid.
I analysed the Russian translation of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech and found it to be very accurate: it had the same register, the same repetitions with no deviations, no flowering of the language, and this is how he would come across to a Russian reader/listener.
As a matter of fact, quite a few political observers believe that one of the things which brought Trump to power is his simplicity and approachability, regardless of the voter’s education or background. This reinforces the need on our part as translators to reflect his original style to the best of our ability. Trump’s uncensored and off-the-cuff rhetoric has been attractive to his support base, and to draw another parallel with Russia, according to a recent survey, a growing number of Russians want Putin to have a personal Twitter account, too. Although the Russian president has an official Twitter feed, the public is keen to know the president's opinion on all public matters, similar to how Trump communicates with the wider world.
It’s obvious that during the next 4 years of Trump as US President, linguistic issues will come up every now and then. As professional translators and interpreters, we may need to work on developing the skill of dismissing the fear of sounding too colloquial. Richard Newman, a speech and body language expert, believes to render Trump you almost need someone who is an actor because unless you physically embody the gestures as you say the words, the meaning is going to get lost in translation. Newman explains that when Trump thinks his strong message is flowing well as he speaks, he starts doing a “thread-the-needle” gesture (placing your index finger and thumb together as if holding a thin thread) and bashing the air. When he becomes dismissive and goes into a palms-up gesture, Trump’s body language again helps the interpreter realise the tone in the target language needs to be changed too as the conversation has taken a different turn.
With time the world, including linguists, will get used to Trump’s verbal idiosyncrasies. It’s certainly not something we haven’t seen or heard before on the political stage.
A version of this article made a cover story in the Bulletin – the magazine published by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting – in the May-June 2017 issue, Pages 6-7. It can be read here: Translating Trump: Lexicon of a Leader.
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