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President Trump, In Translation

T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month. But not for professional translators and interpreters who specialize in news and politics. In 2016, the cruelest month was probably November, when they (along with the rest of the world) came to the horrifying realization that they would be stuck with Donald Trump for at least the next four years.

We’ve written about some of the reasons Donald Trump is hard to translate: the word salad, the vulgarity, the words that don’t quite make sense. But now that he’s actually, officially the president of the United States,  the stakes are higher. And if you thought that becoming President meant Trump would put down Twitter and be more mindful of his speech, you would be incorrect.

So, here’s a quick recap of how translators and interpreters are coping with Trump’s first week as president:

Interpreters to Trump: Finish Your Sentences, Man!donald_trump_swearing_in_ceremony

Unless he’s reciting a pre-written speech, Trump’s speaking style could charitably be described as “stream of consciousness.” It’s like he starts talking about a topic and then takes a detour all the way from the Shire to Mt. Doom, often leaving the original thought unfinished.

As Christiane Abel, a French professor and interpreter for the US State Department, told the LA Times:

“There are several things that make an interpreter’s life easy. When people finish their sentences …  the syntax is well-structured … when the speaker starts speaking and you kind of understand where the person is going, you can kind of decode the underlying thought.”

That’s not Trump. And while the lamentations of French translators have attracted the most media attention, French is far from the only language in which it is difficult to translate new President. For example,  as  Japanese translator Agness Kaku explained to the Washington Post:

English is a subject-prominent language — understanding a sentence in English involves pinning down who or what the subject is. Japanese, on the other hand, requires tracking the topic of a conversation.

In Trump’s remarks, Kaku said, the subject is very easy to keep track of — “it’s about him, it’s about the enemy.” But the actual topic or point of his sentences is often difficult to grasp, complicating Japanese translations. “It just drifts,” she said. “You end up having to guess as a translator, which isn’t very good. You shouldn’t have to guess.”

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