Translating Trump

Translating Trump"Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest –and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure,it's not your fault" 

How would you translate this if you knew it would be seen by millions? Will you keep to the same childish tone or make it slightly more presidential? Something as trivial as putting a space after the comma is already an alteration to the original text, and not every translator would agree that that's morally justified.

This is a daily problem that translators face today. Translating politicians wasn't a big problem until Trump showed up, since he is the first President to use this kind of language. His twitter rants, sometimes vulgar, insensitive and containing spelling errors, must be translated into hundreds of languages, however. Louisa Van Aeken discusses how translators solve this problem and the risks that are involved in doing so.

Louisa Van Aeken is studying French, Italian, Latin and History at Queenswood school just outside London. During her stay at The Language Sector in Ghent, she tackled this subject by creating the Trumpslation Quiz. She has since written an interesting article in which she provides an in-depth analysis on the matter. She provides arguments for "verbatim" (literal) translations and "oblique" (adapted) translations.

(Try the Quiz:



Louisa includes several arguments for this translation choice. The following paragraphs are my summary of her main arguments. My name is Simon Teuwens, I'm a master's student in translation, and am currently working as an intern at The Language Sector in Ghent. Since the subject of Louisa's article is so interesting, I thought it might be a good idea to provide a summary of its main aspects. Trump is a polarising but interesting figure, and I think this topic will be relevant as long as he continues to tweet.

Firstly, a "verbatim" translation is seen as a way for translators to limit their influence, since it means that they don't change the text or speech in any significant way.

After all, a translator has a much bigger influence than most people are aware of; Louisa gives a courtroom as an example. Juries are often prejudiced towards defendants with interpreters because they are reminded of the defendant's foreignness.

Nevertheless, many defendants need an interpreter to speak for them in order to exercise their right to express their thoughts clearly. The judges and jury must then base their impression of the person on trial based on the interpreter, who can change that person's image for better or worse.  They can make the defendant seem more articulate by correcting errors or translate "verbatim" and keep the language level the same.

Since an interpreter should be the “speaking organ of the defendant”, a literal translation is often seen as the most appropriate and accurate path to follow, though that doesn't mean that this happens in practice. The interpreter's reputation might be affected if the defendant's language level is bad, even if he or she is simply offering a translation. An interpreter can thus influence our impression of people, consciously or unconsciously.

Secondly, "verbatim" translations avoid distorting the image presented in the source. As Louisa puts it: "In some countries it is part of the nation’s culture to adapt a translation in order to uphold the reputation and image of the person being spoken about."

In Russia, for example, Trump is viewed as an eloquent speaker, because of the way his language is translated there. Trump often ends his tweets with the phrase "sad!" for example, which is then translated into Russian as "that is very unfortunate" – a much less childish alternative.

If two nations have a positive relationship, 'biased' translations can paint a politician in a positive light. However, the opposite is also possible, creating tension by giving a negative impression of an opposing politician.

There can be drawbacks to a "verbatim" method, however. Trump, after nominating a new judge for the Supreme Court, jokingly told the senate: "If we end up with that gridlock, I would say, 'If you can, Mitch, go nuclear'." This was unfortunately translated as "use the nuclear option" in Russian newspapers, which could have had dire consequences.


Most translators prefer more liberal translations. They believe that languages cannot simply be translated literally, as words often do not have exactly the same meaning or connotations. Sarcasm, slang, idioms and tone cannot be translated literally, for example. When translating freely, the goal is to get the message across and evoke the same emotions in the reader as the source text.

Louisa herself prefers this type of translation, as "an 'oblique' translation could result in a more realistic depiction of the original piece". However, "oblique" translations can also cause miscommunication.

Khrushchev was famously translated as saying "we will bury you", which is idiomatically correct, but has an incorrect meaning. The true meaning was closer to "we will outlive you", or "we will be present at your funeral", which might not have damaged the relationship with the US quite as much.

Louisa also states that there should be "contextual limits" put in place to curtail the translator's influence, especially when translating for someone of import. A translator might omit or change offensive language to please his or her readers for example, which, she argues, is morally unjustified. 

The National Standard Guide for Community Interpreting Services (a guide which was created for Canada but has since influenced guidelines in the EU and US) addresses these issues, but these rules are difficult to enforce and there are ways around them.

Thus, the biggest danger in "oblique" translation is misinterpreting the original message and then conveying a different one in a translation. This problem does not occur with "verbatim" translations, as they do not try to relay the same message and emotions but provide a word-for-word translation. Alternatively, translators may also use their powers to distort a message on purpose, which is why Louisa argues for limiting a translator's freedom in this regard.

Translating Trump

Since people are likely to blame the translator for repetitive or erroneous language, translators will often opt to improve the texts or speeches of politicians such as Trump in order to preserve their own reputation.

Donald Trump poses a particularly tough problem for translators. He has a unique style of speaking and writing, often riddled with offensive language, which is difficult to translate. How would you translate "we can't continue to allow China to rape our country"? Translators are hesitant to use such vocabulary and potentially insult an entire country.

The most obvious reason why Trump is difficult to translate is his limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing. Furthermore, his speaking style is often unstructured, illogical, and unclear. He is not unlikely to lose his train of thought while speaking, leaving translators and interpreters struggling to convey his message.

Trump will also utter the occasional 'faux pas' when meeting other diplomats. He told the French president's wife, Brigitte Macron, that she was "in such good physical shape!". This was translated as "vous êtes en grande forme," which is a much more polite and respectful tone.

This "oblique" translation probably influenced the French people's opinion of Trump for the better. However, it is unclear what Trump even meant to say. Did he really try to compliment her on her looks? If so, that would have been highly inappropriate, but since there was some doubt about it, a translator might be forgiven for thinking it better to play it safe.

Trump also likes to exaggerate. His use of "tremendous", "huge", "big" (or bigly...) can lead to repetition in other languages. The Chinese language, for example, only has one word for 'big', which interpreters must use again and again. Trump's neologisms like "bigly" are also tough to translate.

If the word doesn't exist, how are you supposed to translate it? Would you create your own neologism, or pretend he wrote the word correctly?


A translator needs to become a different person when translating Trump's language. Those who decide to translate his texts or speeches need to be prepared to receive criticism. They need to understand the risk of damaging their reputation if their translations contain offensive language. Translators have a duty to convey the message and emotion of the source text, regardless of where (or who) it is from.

Louisa created a quiz on The Language Sector website to find out how people would like to see Trump's tweets translated. The results showed that people gravitated towards "verbatim" translations, though this might have been different if their reputations had been on the line, like the translators who actually do translate Trump's tweets.

Finally, Trump's direct and childish language, translated or not, ensures that his political intentions are not subtly hidden (think of "build that wall" or "lock her up"). The question is whether this will come back to bite him, as he has made many promises which are unlikely to be kept. Then again, Donald Trump is the first president of his kind, so who knows?

Read Louisa's full article:

The Trumpslation Quiz is still available, so be sure to try it out!

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