How To Trump*
Twitter really is where it's at these days. Last November, a fellow interpreter had the dubious pleasure of interpreting Donald Trump's victory speech live on German television. That interpreter later characterised the experience as the most unpleasant and surreal one of her career. So far, so unsurprising. But the next day, an online magazine for the translation and interpretation industry published an opinion piece that critisised the interpreter for voicing discontent on social media. After all, professional interpreters are expected to adhere to a strict code of ethics (like this one) that requires secrecy and confidentiality. (We do vent, but we do it among ourselves.) But just as Trump is no ordinary politician, this situation was not an ordinary one.
In fact, since Donald Trump has taken office, there has been a flurry of articles on "trumpslation" - the diffulty that his rather unusual style poses for translators and interpreters.
- WaPo: 'Make America big again'? The headache of translating Trump into foreign languages.
- L. A. Review of Books: Lost in Trumpslation: An Interview with Bérengère Viennot (includes a very interesting comparison of French and American political culture - based on Pour les traducteurs, Trump est un casse-tête inédit et désolant)
- Spiegel Online: "Bei Trump habe ich Schweißausbrüche"
- L. A. Times: How do you say 'lowlife' in another language? Trump's tweets lose much in translation
- Translating for a President Trump Would Be a Nightmare. Here's Why.
- Begün Dönmez: Interpreting the new US president
This list could go on, but most other articles were just regurgitations of the ones above. The key "complaints" of translators and interpreters tend to be the same or similar:
- You never know where Trump will go next when he speaks.
- Trump has a very limited vocabulary. (This is not an alternative fact. However, it is also interesting to see how many people check Trump-related words in online dictionaries.)
- Trump chooses words and topics deemed inapropriate for polite political discourse: "He talks in a way that is not the typical political speech. When there's a choice, he goes for whatever is the most colloquial." (Alessandro Duranti)
The job of an interpreter is to take what the speaker says and carry it into another language (and often another culture, too). But we do not simply translate words like dictionaries on legs. We take into account a lot of context, like the back story of the speaker or his gestures and facial expressions, just to name a few examples. On the other hand, we also have to serve our listeners, who depend on us to understand what's going on. An interpreter can provide a short explanation for things the listeners may not know (American pop culture references come to mind) or we may even decide to go down the slippery slope of analogies: There's no point in simply translating all the baseball references of an American engineer to a group of his German peers; concepts from football may be more appropriate to get the meaning across. Because that's what it's all about: getting the meaning across, and enabling meaningful communication. Trump is what happens when political discourse no longer serves to inform, convince or enthuse, but to incite the mob and provide outrageous sound bites for the media, be they social, mainstream or alt-right. At university, budding interpreters sometimes find it hard to get the register of their translation right. They sometimes struggle with the either well-crafted or lofty political speeches we know. Trump turns that completely upside down: experienced interpreters struggle to find the juicy equivalents needed to appropriately translate a Trump speech into the target language. Another tool in the interpreter's tool box is anticipation: using context, previous knowledge and experience to make an educated guess of what is likely to come next. Trump's erratic style makes that very difficult.
"Some translators give Trump’s words a dignity and clarity that they might not have in English, because they can’t quite wrap their minds around a president who speaks the way he does." (Ann M. Simmons)
Superficially, you may say Trump speaks without context, that he's rambling. But that's not true. There is almost too much context in his utterances for an interpreter to handle. Many of his talking points have been used by conservative talk-show hosts for years, and they often mean more than meets the eye (or ear). It is "dog whistle" language: Just as humans cannot hear the sound a dog whistle makes, many of those code words go unnoticed by the "mainstream", but are heard loud and clear by the intended audience. "Lügenpresse" - German for "lying press". "Rapefugees" - a terrible portmantNo coined to instill fear of young male refugees. "Global special interests" - referring to assumed international Jewish conspiracies. The list goes on.
Today, we as interpreters and translators have a threefold responsibility.
Firstly: We work with language every single day. We love language, we know how it works and how it can be used, misused and abused. We know that words matter and that words have a meaning. (Amateur translation in the media can be cringeworthy.) Let's be an example for using language carefully and deliberately. Let's shine a light on how the "alt-rights" and "politically incorrect" of this crazy world abuse language, invoking "freedom of speech" and the "tyranny of political correctness". But let's also decry situations in which the interaction with diverging or difficult opinions is simply shut down (although it may feel like the right thing to do), in which newspapers are banned from campuses (although the British tabloids really are vile) and in which the fist replaces the word (again with the pop culture...).
Secondly, however, we must interpret and translate exactly what it is that Trump says, the same way he says it (as also pointed out by Norbert Heikamp). He and his bunch are not the people whose statements we should embellish or "clean up" to make them more palatable or to make translating them less uncomfortable and unnerving. Speaking truth to power means laying bare the cold and cynical speech of Bannon, Conway and all the others. This can put interpreters in a very difficult position; listeners may think we're doing something wrong. "He cannot possibly say this, can he?" (Yes, he can.) But in my view, there is no other way. We all need to take him both literally AND seriously.
And thirdly, interpreters and translators have not only studied languages, but also cultures. They often spend long stretches of time abroad to learn a language and learn about the people, their history, traditions and perspectives. Let us think about how we can put that knowledge to work. How can we share the rich experiences we've had with those how have been less fortunate? How can we help people understand that cultural diversity is not necessarily identical with losing one's identity?
Let us think about it and act on it. But most importantly: DO. NOT. KEEP. QUIET.
"Only broad 'linguistic disobedience' can move beyond the liberal-conservative, left-right dualities that have proved so damaging to American politics. In a famous 1946 essay, George Orwell recommended 'starting at the verbal end' to change the course of events. This can be a silver lining of the Trump years. Because finding a language of resistance doesn’t take linguists or writers. It takes citizens who grasp, as Baldwin did, the importance of this foremost ‘political instrument, means, and proof of power'." (Michelle Moyd & Yuliya Komska, The Guardian)
- Video: Stephen Colbert coins "truthiness" | Stephen Colbert coins "trumpiness"
- The World in Words (podcast): How an ancient word about a bird became a slur used by white supremacists | Translating Trump — literally
- Foreign Affairs: Reading Trump. The Danger of Overanalyzing His Tweets
- Vice: Get to Know the Memes of the Alt-Right and Never Miss a Dog-Whistle Again
- Business Insider UK: Trump's redundant, 'post-literate' way of speaking is changing our language (make sure to follow some of the links in this excellent piece!)
- The psychological language tricks Trump used to convince Americans to vote for him
- New Yorker: How Jokes Won The Election
- Wikipedia: On Bullshit
- The Conversation: Scientists have a word for studying the post-truth world: agnotology
- Mark Liberman: The narrow end of the funnel
- Vanity Fair: Donald Trump’s Chilling Language, and the Fearsome Power of Words
- Boston Globe: Averse to Trump, America’s poets fight back with words
- Merriam-Webster has become the sassiest Twitter account of the Trump era. Meet its author.