Translating Trump: Mission Impossible?

With his incoherent, repetitive style, coarse expressions, and dubious syntax, the American president has made life difficult for French translators and journalists. In Trumpspeak, translator Bérengère Viennot discusses this tricky task.
© Sylvie Serprix

Since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent election in 2016, translators and journalists worldwide have been faced with a unique challenge: making a Trump-style speech intelligible. While some prefer to paraphrase the U.S. president’s declarations to make them more palatable, French translator Bérengère Viennot says she “dares to translate Trump.” This means daring to write the French equivalent of “shithole countries” (pays de merde or trous à merde) when relating Trump’s outbursts. But also repeating certain words (“great” appeared 41 times in a single interview in late 2016), and accurately relaying dubiously constructed phrases, such as when the president mixed up his words (“mentality” instead of “immunity”) while referring to herd immunity to Covid-19: “Over a period of time, sure, with time, it goes away and you’ll develop, you’ll develop like a herd mentality — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen.”

A faithful rendering of some of Trump’s sentences gives such strange results that journalists are some-times forced to add disclaimers, as seen in a February 20, 2017 article in Le Monde, which stated: “The syntax errors have been deliberately left in.” Viennot sees a real paradox within Trump’s manner of speaking. He uses simple vocabulary, but the style is nevertheless harder to translate than the usual speeches given by other politicians. “It is very misleading for a Francophone who has learned English academically. You understand each word separately, but it all gets very complicated when trying to decipher the underlying message. Aside from pre-written material, his speeches are rarely coherent. Yet translators do not translate words, but messages. We have to ask ourselves what Trump wanted to say to accurately reflect it in our own languages. But often, Trump himself seems to have little idea of what he means.”

This explains the temptation to rewrite the American president’s words. This is the case in India, where many of Trumps remarks are paraphrased — so much so that readers might assume that he speaks like any other political figure. However, enabling people to experience Trump’s true language is crucial for informing the public. Understanding his manner of speech is essential to understanding his political success, particularly among white Americans without college degrees who see themselves in him. By the same token, his ultra-binary way of communicating — things are “good” or “bad,” “great” or “sad” — reflects his simplistic, black-and-white worldview.

“Trump has broken away from the regulated, conventional speeches of the political class,” says Viennot. “As a candidate, then as the president, he has spoken as if he were a reality TV star.” While the translator was originally far from delighted at the prospect of translating the U.S. president’s ill-formed addresses, she now finds it to be a stimulating challenge. “It is harder but more interesting than translating Barack Obama! Trump’s speeches are filled with bumps and pitfalls, both in syntax and meaning. Translating Trump implies translating a stream of consciousness. It is far closer to literary than political translation.”

The translation of nicknames Trump assigns to his enemies also poses a number of interesting linguistic questions. “Slow Joe,” which he uses on Twitter to poke fun at Joe Biden, his adversary in the presidential elections, can be translated by Joe le mou (soft or weak), which is more effective than the overly literal Joe le lent. Since 2016, “crooked Hillary” has been translated as Hillary la véreuse (dishonest), la tordue (twisted), and simply la corrompue (corrupt). Some of the president’s expressions are completely untranslatable, such as “Kung Flu,” a xenophobic slur highlighting the Chinese origins of Covid-19.

In France, the register of speech used by Trump is almost unthinkable in the political sphere. In fact, informal, vulgar phrases are so rare that they generally go down in history. This was the case of the now infamous “casse-toi, pauv’con,” spat out by Nicolas Sarkozy when a farmer refused to shake his hand at the 2008 Paris International Agriculture Show. In translating it, the English-speaking press chose either “get lost, you poor jerk” or “get lost, you bloody idiot.”

Trump has understood the political advantage offered by speaking plainly to give the impression of being close to “real people,” unlike other elites. While rarer, this outspokenness is also occasionally welcomed in France. “Many voters do not identify with speeches by hyper-educated politicians who use incredibly refined syntax and pompous turns of phrase,” says Viennot. “De Gaulle would hardly fit in today. What’s more, syntactical slip-ups from elites help make them more popular, such as Jacques Chirac’s immediately adopted ‘abracadabrantesque’ (‘stupenderous’ instead of ‘stupendous’), and Ségolène Royal’s ‘bravitude’ (‘bravity’ instead of ’bravery’), which became a model for creating neologisms!”

=> Trumpspeak by Bérengère Viennot, translated from French by Susan Pickford, Contra Mundum Press, 2020.

Article published in the November 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.