Trumpslation. The untranslatable Mr Trump

An Italian interpreter takes consecutive notes from Mr Trump (October 2019)

It would be remiss of us to let the pre-eminent moment of Donald J. Trump pass (presuming that it does pass) without a brief look back on some of the hair-pulling episodes of hilarity and frustration he has provided us with over the last four years.

Only last week I read a report about the difficulty of interpreting Mr Trump, particularly for Japanese interpreters. Mr Trump is just too angry and rude to render into Japanese, a cultural context in which emotional outbursts in formal contexts are taboo. It is hard to imagine from a western point of view the severity of the dissonance involved.

I have been looking back over some of the Trumpslation stories of recent years. Here is a selection from three years ago, when there was still general astonishment at Mr Trump’s presidential vernacular:

I am sometimes asked, What should you do as an interpreter when speakers do not observe due decorum? There is no one-size-fits-all solution but I can give examples of such behaviour from my own experience. In one instance, I was interpreting at a sales convention and one of the representatives asked if the supplier could offer special discounts beyond what had already been set out. The supplier, speaking in Spanish, made a remark that went something like “Pues, si no me hacéis bajar los pantalones y enjabonarme…”, resorting to a traditional Iberian figure of speech. All present knew that a joke had been made because the Spanish delegates started laughing. But those listening to my interpretation were waiting for me to tell them what was so funny.

What to do?

I could not think of any viable translation on the spot so I moved into the third person and said something like “The speaker has a made rude sexual joke about humiliation”. That was the best I could do at the time. Looking back now, it seems to me that it was sufficient.

This anecdote is an example of the softening that is frequently attested to by interpreters. To avoid overstepping the mark, looking foolish, or worse, interpreters tend to smooth out the wrinkles in the original speech and seek to create a climate of understanding.1 If the speaker is aggressive, the interpreter will soon find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Should you go with the speaker, creating a climate of tension, and risk taking the blame for a breakdown in communication? Or should you soften the blows, rendering insulting intentions in an empathetic tone?

In my view, caution is the better part of valour.

  1. See, for example, Eline Helmer, Smoothening and Softening: The Interpreter as an Everyday Diplomat, 2019.
Richard Samson
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Richard Samson

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I’m a teacher living in Osona, Spain. I'm into tennis, dogs, and chickens. I’m also interested in translation and Moodle (well, digital tools for teaching, in general).
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