Translating Trump: ‘It’s hell’
Trump knows words. Trump has the best words. At least, according to Trump. As for translators across the world, they have the difficult task of translating his words with the knowledge that this is a president unlike any other. For Arabic translators, that task is even more difficult owing to the peculiarities of the Arabic language.
Arabic is a language with two different forms. Ammiyah, or colloquial Arabic, which is spoken every day and has dozens of regional dialects, and fus’ha, or classical Arabic, which is the standardised written form of the language used in news reports. Trump speaks and tweets in a simple English colloquial vernacular but must be translated into a more complex literary form of Arabic.
“The challenge is to stick to the surface and not to fall into attempts of interpretation or projecting your own conclusion,” said Egyptian translator Rawan Gharib. “I believe the best way to accomplish the perfect translation of a politician’s speech is through a live translation so there is zero chance to get involved with the content.”
A Carnegie Mellon University Language Technologies Institute “readability analysis” of Trump’s campaign speeches found he had the lowest “lexical complexity” of all his Republican candidate rivals. Putting Trump’s speeches through the Flesh-Kincaid readability test — used throughout the US education system — found that Trump’s answers during the US Republican debates scored at the fourth-grade reading level (or the average for a 9- or 10-year-old).
The president has become infamous for his overuse of simple words — “huge,” “great” and “tremendous” — and is known for his penchant for repetition; he also tends to jump from topic to topic in a way that is not always easy to follow. This is not to mention the Trumpisms: The “swatches of land”, the “bad hombres” and “bad dudes”. The “unpresidented” acts. All of this makes translating Trump a particular challenge.
For Arabic translator Al-Mustafa Najjar, the Flesh-Kincaid readability test perhaps overestimates Trump’s lexicon. “Translating Donald Trump is like translating a 5-year-old. It’s easy and challenging at the same time. It is easy in the sense that the lexical and grammatical simplicity of his language means less work for me as a translator. However, the challenge lies in the ability to follow the thread of his random and disorderly style.”
Gharib, who works as a translation editor at Global Voices, said Trump provides a challenge for translators over and above other political leaders.
“The content must be comprehensible and the problem with Trump’s speeches is that he himself sometimes seems not to have any sense of awareness of where he’s going next or the point he’s trying to make,” Gharib said. “It’s usually hard to follow him (as a listener) because there isn’t any logical sequence of thoughts, so imagine how hard it would be as a translator. And that’s not to mention the limited, poor vocabulary and the vicious boring circles [of his speeches].”
Najjar, however, said he finds many parallels between Trump’s speeches and those of Arab politicians. “I don’t see why an Arabic translator should find translating Trump so difficult. Trump’s linguistic style has so many similarities to the style of Arab politicians,” he said.
“Like Trump, many Arab politicians tend to use linguistic devices aimed at winning people’s hearts rather than minds, such as the excessive use of superlatives, hyperbole, personal anecdotes and repetitions.”
Translators and editors also face the difficult question of whether and how to edit Trump. Does editing Trump’s statements to be more comprehensible in translation make him sound more coherent and logical than he really is?
“One part of me would surely go in for editing and that is the part that considers translating something unclear to be a failure as a translator. The other part would endlessly fight to stick to the speaker’s style and tone, accurately reflecting him as much as possible. It’s hell,” Gharib said.
This is a problem that goes beyond Arabic. French translator Bérengère Viennot spoke about the difficulty of translating Trump in a January report for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“His vocabulary is limited, his syntax is broken; he repeats the same phrases over and over, forcing the translator to follow suit,” she said.
“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 threat to link them,” Viennot wrote.
Japanese translators are facing the same problem. “He rarely speaks logically and he only emphasises one side of things as if it were the absolute truth,” interpreter Chikako Tsuruta told the Japan Times.
“He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” said Tsuruta, a Tokyo University professor of interpreting and translation studies.
Translating Trump, whether into Arabic or any other language, is a special challenge. “If it’s up to me, I would never go for translating Trump,” Gharib said.