A Special Challenge for Political Interpreters: America’s 45th President

6 03 2017

Professional language interpreters of political leaders face numerous obstacles to accuracy. Among those: the speaker’s voice or accent, his or her attitude, missed words, misheard words, misconstrued logic of the speaker’s thoughts. When every sentence must be quickly or even simultaneously translated, the interpreter must – like lightning – 1) understand what is being said, 2) convert it, and 3) deliver it.

A prestigious job, certainly, but an extreme challenge under any circumstances.


Add to this picture a leader like the new American President, whose speech contains multiple idiosyncrasies, and the problems are not merely technical, but can become ethical. As French translator Berengere Viennot wrote in the French edition of Slate, if she translates what he is actually saying, French listeners may not understand him; however, if she edits and smoothes his language then she misrepresents him as “an ordinary politician who speaks properly.”

An interpreter’s job requires acting; the interpreter must “become” that person whose words they are translating. Vile ideas, ugly words, offensive arguments … these are not the interpreter’s to soften or exclude. It is incumbent upon interpreters to expressively communicate all of the ideas their subject speaks, as well as every emotion, nuance, and tonal element that can possibly be conveyed.

So translating low-minded comments and vulgar words is all part of the job, although slang, sarcasm, and innuendo are notoriously difficult to find equivalents for. What’s troubling in the 45th American President’s talk is more fundamental. Good interpreters attempt to get into the minds of the politicians they are translating, because if they can understand their subjects’ ways of thinking, the interpreters can more fluently anticipate and comprehend the speakers’ ideas. But finding integrated ideas at the core of the 45th President’s mind has proven difficult so far.

From the point of view of many professionals, Donald Trump’s ramblings often just don’t contain clear meanings. Agness Kaku, based in Tokyo, told the Washington Post that within Trump’s remarks the subject is very easy to keep track of: “it’s about him, it’s about the enemy.” But the actual point of his sentences is hard to track. “It just drifts,” she said. “You end up having to guess as a translator, which isn’t very good.”

And who takes the blame for incoherent translations that might have relied on some guessing?

“Trump gives me outbreaks of sweat,” his German translator said, according to a Tweet by journalist Laura Schneider. “He is so contradictory that people think the translator talks rubbish.”

There have been many tense moments and high stakes in the history of political interpreting, and it seems there may be an increased number in the near future. But on the other hand, in your world, for your interpreting needs, Skrivanek offers some of the best professionals in the industry, and we are ready for any challenge.

J. McShulskis