Decoding Donald: A translator’s nightmare

by Veronika Lukashevich


Despite his confidence as a public speaker, Donald Trump causes a particular headache for translators who struggle to decode his words 

Trump may claim to “say it like it is”, but translators don’t seem to share his views. In an article published on last week, many translators claimed it was nearly impossible to interpret Trump because of his ramblings. The translations often made him sound softer, more authoritative or concise, raising the question if this distortion may have an impact on how the target group perceives him and how it can be justified.

An interpreter, who would like to stay anonymous, was Trump’s German voice in all three presidential election debates. When translating Trump, the interpreter admits that his decisions may have had an impact on how the target group perceived the Republican candidate, but in this case this issue wasn’t his main priority.

“I guess he was more concise in German because I omitted things he said. This may, in fact, alter his perception for a German audience but I didn’t do it intentionally – and frankly, this was my least worry, I tried to interpret him as thoroughly as possible.”

The interpreter saw the challenge in detecting the meaning in Trump’s utterances. “What irritated me more than his linguistic inventions were his ramblings, sentences without endings, allusions, use of proper names out of context, incoherent patterns of speech,” he explained.

The interpreters have to deliver the message as comprehensibly as possible and it also applies to a written translation.

“Instead of recreating the entire subjective morass of the original, the translator picks the most objectively defensible position and clear-cuts the rest”, wrote the Tokyo based freelance translator and writer Agness Kaku on her LinkedIn page.

This could also be due to the fact that people have higher expectations of the translation as opposed to statements in their first language. If the translation doesn’t make sense, they tend to blame the translator, rather than the speaker.

In addition, translators and interpreters always try to transmit a coherent rather than a utopian word-for-word translation.

“Recreating the visceral impact of a skilled politician’s performance is NOT an interpreter’s job, nor is it within the ambit of their ability. Interpreters are not playwright-actors“, said Kaku.

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