Donald Trump has words. Lots of words. He has "the best words," and has said so himself. The problem with Trump's words is they don't always have meaning. That has been obvious to observers here in the U.S., and now that he is the leader of the free world, others are learning that for a man who "tells it like it is," Trump often speaks without really saying anything.
French translator Bérengère Viennot recently offered some thoughts about Trump's words to the Los Angeles Review Of Books. What she told interviewer Robert Zaretsky paints a picture of a man who claims to know "the best words" but has very little idea of how to properly use them.
French is a complex, elegant language. Its dissimilarity to English makes translation a challenge even when the English being translated has a clear meaning. Viennot explained the job of the translator to Zaretsky:
The act of translating consists in carrying a meaning from one set of readers to another, and to make sure that the readers of your words will feel the same as the readers of the original text. For the translator is an author: if the thoughts are not hers, the words definitely are. It is a huge responsibility.
She followed that with praise for President Obama's use of language.
Translating Obama was a real intellectual joy. His thought was clear and his vocabulary was rich enough that it allowed me to write beautiful sentences that could vary ever so subtly according to the tone of his discourse.
In contrast, she referred to translating Donald Trump as "un casse-tête inédit et désolant," "an unprecedented and depressing headache." Why? Because, she explained, to translate properly you have to "get into someone's mind." A translator has to have some understanding not just of what the person is saying, but the thought processes behind the words. Viennot says Trump makes that almost impossible.
Trump is not easy to translate, first of all, because, most of the time, when he speaks he seems not to know quite where he’s going. In my essay, I took the example of the interview he gave to The New York Times. 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. Trump seems to go from point A (the question) to point B (himself, most of the time) with no real logic. It’s as if he had thematic clouds in his head that he would pick from with no need of a logical thread to link them.
But here’s the other problem with Trump: even once you’ve understood his point (or lack thereof), you must still express it in your own language. You realize, at that moment, that you have written something very unpleasant to read. Trump’s vocabulary is limited, his syntax is broken; he repeats the same phrases over and over, forcing the translator to follow suit. If she does not, she betrays the spirit of the original piece. The translator has to translate the content and the style. So that is what I do, and reading Trump in French, which is a very structured and logical language, reveals the poor quality of his language and, consequently, of his thought.
For his part, Trump seems to embrace the ambiguity of his speech, because it allows him to claim he was misinterpreted any time he gets called on an outrageous statement. And of course, no matter what he says his supporters seem to find an interpretation of it that satisfies them. But translators can't take liberties and assume meaning. They have to be certain that what they say matches the original intent of the speaker.
Viennot would probably agree with former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, who recently explained Trump's use of language by saying he only uses words to create feelings in his audience. Ratigan said there is no meaning to anything Trump says beyond creating those feelings. Which means Viennot and other translators are left trying to assign meaning to the meaningless. Not exactly a situation you want to be in when a poorly translated word or phrase could mean the difference between war and peace.