Translating the Donald to Japanese

Monday, September 10, 2018 - 12:03pm

An anchor records in front of the New York Skyline.

An anchor records in front of the New York Skyline. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Ishi Mori

People always complain about Donald Trump.

I say, try to explain him to a foreign audience.

This summer I had the privilege of working at the New York bureau of TV Tokyo, one of Japan’s major television stations. I was put on a morning news program that focuses on business and finance, so of course, there was a lot of reading the Wall Street Journal as well as dusty econ textbooks in the back of the office. But the most memorable part of the whole experience was the arduous task of reporting on none other than the president himself.

The words of the president of the United States has a massive impact both at home and abroad. Love him or hate him, everyone is compelled to hear what Trump is saying on Twitter, and the people of Japan are no different.

But here’s where it gets complicated: Sometimes, nobody — not even his own staff — can comprehend what he’s saying. If native English speakers can’t understand him, that means it’s a massive headache for foreign broadcasters.

The difficulty translators have when putting Trump’s speeches and tweets in their own language has been well documented. Trump is a free-wheeling speaker on stage and a “covfefe” online, which confuses people used to presidents sticking to a script. Media outlets across the globe have also been known to go to great lengths to offer roundabout expressions of Trump’s most offending statements.

I’ve always heard about the difficulty of translating the Donald, but never did I anticipate how much of a pain in the butt it would be until I actually had to do it.

Take this news from July 31. A radical gun rights activist was preparing to release files online with instructions on how to build 3D model guns while the attorneys general of eight states were suing to block him. It sounded complicated enough, especially when we had to condense it to a 30-second segment, but then Trump decided to wade into the debate.

“I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” Trump tweeted. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

The main obstacle to translating this tweet is glaringly obvious. We are unsure whether “doesn’t seem to make much sense!” refers to 3D guns in general (the first sentence) or his conversation with the National Rifle Association (the second sentence).

In America, we would have the luxury of watching commentators on CNN battle out what exactly Trump means by this tweet. But the Japanese have their own problems to worry about — a tweet about 3D guns would most likely not make it onto the evening political roundtable program.

Thus, the burden falls on Japan’s newspapers and TV stations (that’s me!) to accurately convey what the president of the United States is thinking.

What’s important here is context. Unfortunately, the White House never commented on this tweet to clarify what Trump was thinking, so I had to think back to the past few news cycles to determine where Trump would stand on 3D-printed guns.

I knew right after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Trump said “we have to fight (the NRA) every once in a while” in enacting sensible gun control laws. However, he backtracked in May and vowed not to support any more firearm regulations.

Trump supporting liberal causes and then flipping to the conservative position to please his supporters has been a common occurrence, but sometimes he genuinely seems to change his mind — which leaves us at a loss as to what his true feelings are.

In the end, my editor and I determined that Trump would probably not attack the NRA at that moment, and the flow of the sentence seemed to indicate Trump was befuddled by 3D guns generally. Thus, we decided the expression “he expressed skepticism (懐疑的な見解を示しました) of 3D guns” while not expressing approval or lack thereof best represented the situation.

Another difficulty translators face in interpreting Trump is his vocabulary and language skills. Trump’s grammar and diction in speeches is known to be just below a sixth-grade level, and we Americans treat them as such.

However, in Japan — perhaps out of respect for decorum — the media does not directly translate Trump’s words into the vocabulary-level of a sixth grader and instead elevates it to that appropriate of an elder statesman.

Spoken Japanese, especially in fiction, has a variety of cues that reveal the gender, age, social class and regional origin. So as a 72-year old head of state, Trump has to be accorded proper language to not shock viewers with the speech of a 12-year old boy.

Take this July 19 interview when, in an unusual move for presidents, Trump said he was “not thrilled” about the Federal Reserve Board raising interest rates.

“I’m not thrilled because we go up,” Trump said. “And every time you go up, they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it.”

This one was tricky for two reasons.

The first was “every time you go up.” In his usual fashion, Trump left what was going up ambiguous. Based on context clues, my editor and I determined the what was the state of the economy, so we translated the statement as “every time the economy recovers (景気が回復するたびに).”

The second was “I’m not thrilled.” That is a colloquial expression in English with no equivalent in Japanese. And since Trump’s words were likely going to move the market (which it actually did), we had to be meticulous in conveying the right mood so audiences (especially investors) won’t get too alarmed.

In the end, we settled on “I’m not impressed (感心しない),” which admittedly felt a little mature and well thought out than the original English. But since the other options, including the onomatopoeia “waku waku,” which indicates excitement, made him sound immature or did not accurately convey his mood, we had to settle on a substitute.

Other similar Trumpisms roiled my corner of the newsroom once in a while, but with tenacity and grit, we managed to get it right every time.

It is ironic that I started to keenly realize the importance of words in politics only after encountering them in a foreign language. Back in 1946, George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” that political speech “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The same could be said of today’s political language. In today’s globalized economy, the words of one politician can reverberate around the world in a matter of seconds. This is why we should always demand those in higher positions to clarify their words, lest we get mired in untruths and convenient euphemisms.

Oh, and to alleviate the workload of translators too!