Interpreters say it’s nearly “impossible” to translate Donald Trump’s rhetoric into other languages

Es falso.
Es falso.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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The job of language translators and interpreters is never easy, but the task becomes especially dicey in the realm of politics. Differing interpretations of a turn of phrase, after all, have been known to lead to war.

The challenge is even greater when the translator is attempting to interpret words and phrases that even native speakers find hard to understand.

Such is the plight of foreign language interpreters and translators who have wrestled with statements by Donald Trump in his bid for the US presidency. His NSFW language, malapropisms, chants in B flat, and twisted logic have perplexed translators around the world.

Below is what foreigners hear in foreign language translations of Trump’s linguistic quirks:

He sounds more concise and authoritative

Trump’s rhetoric is notorious for being vague and evasive, but the haziness is often lost in translation. “A wink and a nudge from head to Artioli-shod toe, he exhales a cloud of words in which listeners see their chosen shape: a castle, a pony, a grinning skull.” This is how Tokyo-based freelance writer and translator Agnes Kaku described Trump’s rhetorical style on LinkedIn.

Kaku says Japanese translations—which omit Trump’s frequent use of phrases like ”I don’t know, probably, maybe, I’m not sure, other people say, the lawyers say, I haven’t looked at it, I’m not familiar”—make Trump sound more authoritative. As an example, she notes Japanese translations of Trump’s comments about why Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, didn’t speak during her husband’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

In English, Trump’s comments to ABC News after the speech implied that Ghazala’s silence was a sign of religious suppression: ”I saw him. He was—you know, very emotional and probably looked like—a nice guy to me. His wife—if you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me, but plenty of people have written that.”

By contrast, Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, turned his rambling response into: ”おそらく彼女は発言することを許されなかったのだろう” or “She likely wasn’t allowed to give a statement.”

CNN Japan simply stated: “発言を許されていなかったのかもしれない,” or “It could be she wasn’t allowed to speak.”

He sounds more sexist and racist

Much has been made of Trump’s comments in a surfaced Access Hollywood video about making advances on a woman without her consent. Trump dismissed the comments as “locker talk,” but foreign language translations of the lewd banter have only made the remarks sound worse.

According to Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, the sentence, “I moved on her like a bitch, and I could not get there, and she was married,” became “Wǒ xiàng zhuī biǎozi yīyàng zhuī tā, dàn méi néng chénggōng,” on people.cn, which means: “I pursued her like a whore / prostitute / harlot / strumpet, but I couldn’t succeed.”

Another news site translated the sentence into, “Wǒ xiàng duìdài dàngfù yīyàng kàojìn tā,” or “I treated her like a slut to get close to her,” Mair wrote on the blog Language Log.

In an attempt to reach Hispanic voters, Trump’s campaign organizers created a sign that read “Hispanic para Trump,” which irked Spanish speakers who knew better. The Spanish word for Hispanics is “Hispanos,” and in this case the word “para” should have been “por.”

In some cases, his delivery is actually softer

Translators say they often dodge Trump’s crude language altogether, either because they have no choice or to get around internal censors.

Odd but telling words like “bigly” and “braggadocious“ caught Spanish translators so off-guard that they skipped right over them, according to Aida González del Álamo, who translated Hillary Clinton in the debates.

In another example, Chinese translators interpreted the word “pussy,” which does not have a direct translation in Chinese, as: ”Nǐ xiǎng zěnme zuò dōu xíng, bāokuò mō tāmen de yǐnsī bùwèi,” or “You can do whatever you want, including touching / feeling / stroking / groping their private parts.”

Instead of “I moved on her like a bitch,” News.sina.com had Trump saying, “Wǒ duì tā cǎiqǔle qiángliè de jìngōng,” or “I made a strong attack on her.”

Del Álamo said her colleague used “coger sus genitales,” or “grab them by the genitals”and “tocar a las mujeres sin su permiso,” or “touch women without their consent,” to describe Trump’s “pussy” comments.

The term “bad hombres” in the third presidential debate was translated into “hombres malos” by Daniel Sánchez Reinaldo, a Spanish interpreter for National Spanish Televisión RTVE in Madrid, which made Trump sound childish, Reinaldo told Quartz.

In some ways, Trump’s habit of interrupting has also worked in his favor. One of his shortest and most mocked utterances—”Wrong!”—couldn’t be directly translated into ”Eso no es correcto” in Spanish because it took too long to say. To be quicker, the translator used ”Es falso,” or “That is not true,” which inadvertently sounded more polite.

In the third debate, Reinaldo made a snap decision to use the softer phrase ”Qué mujer más desagradable” (which translates to “What an unpleasant woman”) for Trump’s ”nasty woman” comment. He tried to make up for it by using a disgusted tone.