A French Translator Describes the Difficulty of Translating President Trump

Posted on January 29, 2017

Robert Zaretsky of the L.A. Review of Books interviewed translator Bérengère Viennot about the challenges and joys of translating the words of American presidents for a European audience. In particular she bemoans the difficulty translators are having turning President Donald Trump whose style is so different from President Obama's.

Ms. Viennot, who is French, wrote an essay for Slate France discussing the issue. In this interview, she elaborates upon why Trump is so difficult to translate. Her analysis is not flattering. She feels she was spoiled by President Obama's English which consisted of "not just his rhythmic flow, faultless diction, and logically constructed discourses, to slightly paraphrase you, but also his subtle sense of humor and use of irony, which he often aimed at himself."

When faced with translating Trump's words, she says she faces "un casse-tête inédit et désolant,” which is "an unprecedented and depressing headache." So what exactly is the problem? First off she says he speaks off the cuff -- and he rambles. She says he, "seems to hang onto a word in the question, or to a word that pops into his mind, repeating it over and over again. He shapes his thought around it and, sometimes, succeeds in giving part of an answer -- often the same answer: namely, that he won the election." She says the speeches follow no logical pattern as to how they get from point A to point B.

She also has a problem with the president's vocabulary. She calls his vocabulary "limited" and his syntax "broken." She says that French is a very structured language with a logical progression and translation "reveals the poor quality of his language and, consequently, of his thought." She says Americans use the word "race" quite a bit, but the French do not except in the sense of describing the human race. The racial content of current American discourse is problematic for translators who want to get it right and not confuse readers.

She says her objections are not political in nature, but linguistic. Marine Le Pen, the head of the extreme right-wing party Front National, is an excellent speaker according to Ms. Viennot noting that Ms. Le Pen does not stutter or repeat herself (which seems to be setting the bar pretty low). She notes that Marine's father, the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen, would violate French law many times by making racist and anti-Semitic statements, but his brilliant use of language allowed him to get away with hate speech.

She says that Trump poses an ethical dilemma for her: whether to smooth out his language so it sounds coherent and intelligent in French, or just translate it directly and let the French readers attempt to figure it out. Part of the problem is that French politicians always try to sound more formal, whereas Trump's entire campaign was based on speaking plainly and forcefully to his base in a freewheeling, stream of consciousness style. No doubt the Russian, German and Japanese translators are also having a terrible time.

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