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Why Donald Trump Makes Life So Difficult For His Translators

Translators are the ultimate close readers — they consider every word, every comma, and every layer of nuance. For months, “translator Twitter” has included comments from translators around the world on the difficulty of doing “Trumpslation.”

One classic question translators asked each other: how to translate “Make America Great Again” into Spanish? The Spanish newspaper El País interviewed translators stuck with this problem, and came up with seven answers, including ¡Arriba América!

Now major media is getting more interested in these problems, and interviews with translators’ extensive commentary offer a window into what Trump is saying — or not saying, as well as a sense of how he is playing around the world.

Bérengère Viennot, charged with translating Trump into French, explained to both Le Monde and Slate that one issue is that Trump repeats himself endlessly. For example, in his interview with The New York Times at the newspaper’s headquarters, he used the word “great” 45 times. Here’s one: “I mentioned them at the Republican National Convention! And everybody said: “That was so great.”

Viennot went with “c’était trop bien.”

One of the most delicious aspects of the Le Monde article is this sentence: “Bérengère Viennot décrit un vocabulaire monopolisé par quelques adjectifs hyperboliques.” — Viennot describes a vocabulary monopolized by some hyperbolic adjectives.

In addition to “great,” she grapples with “strong,” “tough,” “tremendous” and “incredible,” all used numerous times.

Viennot points out that in addition to endless repetition, Trump also tends to not answer the question at hand, or not actually articulate a point. His appointees have a similar issue, as evidenced by the exchange between Betsy DeVos and Senator Tim Kaine, who asked her if she intended to not answer him during hearings this week. “Do you not want to answer my question?” Kaine said.

All these forms of evasion present a major issue for translators, who are attempting to convey meaning — not the obfuscation of meaning. While simple language may have been an asset during the campaign, Viennot understands Trump — vocabulary as a sign of something else.

“In Trump’s case, it’s not a strategy. It’s evident that his limited vocabulary translates into narrow thought,” she told Le Monde.

Viennot elaborated on the issue of translating Trump comments that lead nowhere — and explained how the translator can be blamed for text that makes no sense — in an interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books.

“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?”

Many people see parallels between Jean-Marie Le Pen, of France’s extreme-right Front National party, and Donald Trump. His daughter, Marie Le Pen, just moved into the lead spot in French election polls, released over the past 24 hours.

But from a language perspective, there is a key difference between Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is now 88 years old, and Trump.

“Just like Trump, he would say what he thought — but his language, and his thoughts, were more structured than Trump’s. He would freely utter racist and anti-Semitic thoughts that are outlawed in France,” Viennot told The Los Angeles Review of Books. “For example, in 1987 he famously said that the extermination camps’ cremation ovens where Jews were burned were “a detail in history.”

“He was condemned in a French court for denying the nature of the Shoah,” Viennot continued. “Tellingly, the court found that the phrase was uttered by “a politician skilled at political rhetoric and the nuances of the French language.”

Trump’s English is not nuanced, but perhaps the new definition of “skilled at political rhetoric” is the rather old one that George Orwell warned about — using unclear language to hide truth — or, as Betsy DeVos demonstrated, simply ignoring the question at hand.

Not far from Washington, The Baltimore Museum of Art has reinstalled a famous piece titled “Violins Violence Silence” by Bruce Nauman, and it is now once again lighting up its Eastern façade. The words “Silence-Violence-Violins” flash, one after the other, a burst of neon in the night sky. I used to walk past those flashing words in college, and think of the relationship between silence and violence, and the music that can distract us from both. Translators’ next task may be how to translate silence, and how to get silence the flashing attention it deserves.


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