Translating Trump

Rob Zaretsky at the LA Review of Books talks to a French translator about what it’s like translating Trump. They start with Obama. Translating him was a joy. Trump is…different.

Well, as I said, you have to be able to get into someone’s mind in order to translate his speech and reformulate it into your own language. Trump is not easy to translate, first of all, because, most of the time, when he speaks he seems not to know quite where he’s going. In my essay, I took the example of the interview he gave to The New York Times. He seems to hang onto a word in the question, or to a word that pops into his mind, repeating it over and over again. He shapes his thought around it and, sometimes, succeeds in giving part of an answer — often the same answer: namely, that he won the election. Trump seems to go from point A (the question) to point B (himself, most of the time) with no real logic. It’s as if he had thematic clouds in his head that he would pick from with no need of a logical thread to link them.

Indeed. I too have been reading him closely, and yes that is what he does. Remember the answers from the Times – Bild interview? A question about his view of the UK – a reply about his golf course. A question about his heroes – a reply about how awesome he is. Random and narcissistic at once.

But here’s the other problem with Trump: even once you’ve understood his point (or lack thereof), you must still express it in your own language. You realize, at that moment, that you have written something very unpleasant to read. 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. The translator has to translate the content and the style. So that is what I do, and reading Trump in French, which is a very structured and logical language, reveals the poor quality of his language and, consequently, of his thought.

It’s very unpleasant to read in English too. It’s especially unpleasant in light of his new job. That brain-dead tweet about Martin Luther King for instance: nothing but “great” and “very very.” It’s horrifying that that is succeeding Obama.

Does this mean that Trump poses an ethical as well as linguistic challenge to the translator?

As a translator of political discourse, you also have the duty to write readable texts: so what am I to do? Translate Trump as he speaks, and let French readers struggle with whatever content there is? (Not to mention the fact that I will be judged on the vocabulary I choose — sometimes the translator is blamed for the poor quality of a piece.) Or keep the content, but smooth out the style, so that it is a little bit more intelligible, leading non-English speakers to believe that Trump is an ordinary politician who speaks properly — when this is obviously not the case?

No, not that second one. Absolutely not. He must never be translated into Less Stupid.

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