Trump translators, stop moaning and get on with your work!

Recently, a number of articles and interviews have popped up online in which translators and interpreters – most prominently French translator Bérangère Viennot and German interpreter Norbert Heikamp – complained about the difficulties Donald Trump’s simplistic and unpredictable use of language poses to them. While the French translator seems to fear for her own reputation when rendering simplistic language simplistically, the German interpreter highlights the unpredictability of Trump’s speeches, comparing the new American president’s discourse to dadaism. Silently triumphant, much of the English-speaking press takes the two linguists’ comments as evidence that Donald Trump’s use of language is sub-standard, rubbish and unforgivably bad.

When reading the articles, I couldn’t help thinking that they were – at least in parts – politically motivated. The linguists’ complaints are, in a slightly underhand way, used to prove the point that Donald Trump is so incredibly dumb that he can’t even speak English properly, leaving language experts unable to make sense of his erratic ramblings. The strategy of undermining a political figure’s authority by mocking their use of language, of course, is not new: in the Bush era, Bushisms were famously collected and shared online; and Slate, whose French version was the magazine publishing Bérangère Viennot’s article, had embarked on a campaign to mock Trump’s linguistic skills (or lack thereof) as early as in 2015. But it is new that professional translators take the floor to add their meta-linguistic comments on people they work with to join in the linguistic bashing of political figures.

While I do agree that the American president’s discourse is not exactly the pinnacle of linguistic prowess, I believe that his linguistic ineptitude is being overstated and that translators and interpreters are wrong to moan about it. Illogical sentence structures reflecting half-baked thoughts, inelegant repetitions showing a poor range of vocabulary, the wrong register, unwanted ambiguities and lacking cohesion are all very common in most people’s utterances. After all, defective texts are among the reasons why machines haven’t put human translators out of work yet: we humans have a great ability to make sense of defective texts, using context and world knowledge and putting ourselves into the mental frameworks of others, thereby finding meaning beyond the actual words. Translators and interpreters should therefore see the new American president and his defective speeches as a professional challenge and take up the gauntlet.

Having said that, I can, in many ways, sympathise with the German interpreter when he claims that Donald Trump gives him outbreaks of sweat: any conference interpreter who has ever lent their voice to an inconsistent speaker will know the feeling of utter horror when that speaker, all of a sudden, starts to contradict himself, leaving the interpreter with the haunting thought that they might just have said the exact opposite of what the speaker expressed in his speech! In Trump’s case, such outbreaks of sweat and horror must arise with great frequency: when an interpreter lends their voice to the American president, there is a lot at stake, but with Trump, the interpreter is also faced with a complete breakup of the conventional concept of  what a political speech at a presidential level should sound like! While amongst the mental health patients for whom I often interpret, inconsistencies and hallucination-induced, dadaesque utterances are well to be expected, the scripts and frames of presidential discourse don’t allow for such features! Donald Trump, however, has changed the script, and interpreters had better get used to it! The challenge for interpreters consists of leaving behind their usual understanding of how a statesman has to talk and of inhabiting Donald Trump’s world with all its political incorrectness, with all its vulgarity and its lack of diplomatic finesse. If an interpreter manages that feat, embracing Trump’s way of thinking, his words, over time, will certainly appear less bizarre and inconsistent to them than they do if they stubbornly refuse to venture into his world.

For the French translator, I have much less sympathy. In her article, she keeps on raving about the beauty of Obama’s speeches, which she used to translate with great passion, speeches for whose translations she was able to write all those fancy words, those silent hints of irony, those elegant figures of speech translators learn to use at university for the unlikely case that they might, some day, earn their money by translating literature. She now seems bitter, because with Trump, she can no longer show off her writing skills… Oh, those writing skills! Translators always fancy themselves as authors, but they’re not! While they may well have the linguistic skills to be authors, when they’re working as translators, they’re translators, and their task consists of creating a target-language mirror image of the source text, of the words and thoughts and the personalities behind those words. And with Donald Trump, those words are simple, sometimes rude or even vulgar, not refined and elegant as Obama’s words. However, they are ideal for translators to show off their translation talents: their talents of figuring out the intention and the meaning behind the words, which might not always be the right words, the overall function of a speech, the conscious and less conscious reasons why someone says what they say the way they say it and of conveying the speech in the most appropriate manner to the intended target audience. For those who don’t share Trump’s political inclinations and who value a refined style in language, translating Donald Trump – more than translating any other politician – means to leave their intellectualised, inclusive, multi-cultural world of taste and good style behind them, providing a voice for someone they profoundly disagree with and whose linguistic style they disdain. Simplistic language has to be rendered simplistically; vulgar expressions have to be rendered as vulgar expressions; xenophobic thoughts as xenophobic thoughts! People have a right to know how exactly the American president expresses himself, and a good translator will bring out all the nuances in his speeches, his thoughts and his personality. The French translator, somewhat hypocritically, claims that she’s afraid of normalising Donald Trump by making his speeches sound more elaborate than they are in the source language. Well, if she does do that, she does it because she forgets that translation is not about her and that she’s not supposed to shoehorn Donald Trump’s worldviews into her intellectual and linguistic universe, but that quite the opposite is the case: that she has to use the riches of the French collective vocabulary to re-create Donald Trump’s thoughts and words in a French context. It is nonsensical for a translator to claim that Donald Trump ruins their reputation in the target-language community because of his simplistic style and thought processes.

Trump translators, get a grip! Unlike what you would like to be perceived as, people in the target-language community don’t see you as authors. If they see you at all, they perceive you as the trusted messengers mirroring the words and thoughts of Donald Trump, the man they’re interested in. It is your job as translators to serve your source text author by maintaining their style and choice of words, however offensive, stupid or inconsistent you think their utterances are, and to serve your target-language audience by helping them create an accurate picture of the man behind the speeches you translate. It is not your task to foster your career as a writer! Translation is not about you, and if you cannot detach yourselves from your own political ideas and convictions, let alone from your own writing style, quite frankly, you should probably consider a career change.

It is also not very professional for translators to step into the limelight, speaking about the linguistic inadequacies of the people you work with. Translators and interpreters should always remain impartial and their political views should never interfere with their work. If you cannot morally lend your voice to a specific person, simply don’t translate them. And if you think that a speaker’s language is a reflection of his intellectual deficits, keep it to yourself. If you translate him well, your audience will come to the same conclusion after reading your translation. As a translator, you are not supposed to alter the reception of a speaker in the target-language community by meta-linguistically commenting on their language skills.


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