Translating Trump: Why is it so hard?
Since the boundaries-breaking presidential campaign in 2016, through the inauguration, up to the elephant-in-china-store-style international politics, President Trump has surely achieved one thing: the historically "unpresidented" media coverage of the U.S. commander-in-chief all over the globe.
The reality show of Trump's presidency is a challenging experience for the entire planet, including translators, who struggle to translate Mr. Trump's rather originally structured language. It's a "thing" of such proportions that there are now about 570 thousand search results on "Translating Trump" on Google.
As each language has its specifics, translators from different cultures need to polish the president's message into many different shapes, not only to try to convey the content of the message but also to make it digestible to a local audience. Both of these tasks, however, sometimes prove close to impossible (especially for simultaneous interpreters).
Why is Trump so hard to translate?
First of all, the president's language is incoherent even for English speakers. He uses a very limited elementary-level vocabulary full of synonyms to describe any sentiment (wonderful, beautiful, incredible / sad, bad, crooked, etc.) that makes the translation result fall flat. And it's no better when Trump chooses to enrich his vocabulary because he tends to fashion up new words, without apparent reason or meaning. Remember "covfefe"?
Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI) research that analysed Mr. Trump's campaign speeches concluded his lexical richness was at the 7th-grade level, being the lowest of all past U.S. presidents and rival candidates in the 2016 race. His grammatical level is a bit better – only the second worst after George W. Bush who hardly reached the 5th-grade level.
Unless sticking to the scripts carefully prepared by others, Mr.Trump displays little attention to sentence structure or coherence, and he disregards grammar (or spelling for that matter). And when he slips off the script, he tends to use "street-origin" Americanism (nut job, showboat, tippy-top, etc.), which often are too culture-specific to be comprehensible without broader explanation, and/or are culturally incompatible due to its vulgar subtext.
Trump cannot be translated literally in Japan
Speaking of cultural incompatibility, covering and translating Trump's speeches regarding firing the FBI director James Comey was a big test for Japanese translators. Being from a culture of extreme social politeness, where words are chosen carefully, Japanese translators simply couldn't cope with the president calling someone of such high standing as the former FBI director a "nut job" and broadcast the words in their original meaning. Instead of opting for the Japanese alternative for "stupid" (politely atama ga warui), the term eventually used was henjin – which describes someone odd or eccentric, so not really what the president said. An even harder cultural challenge was to translate the now-notorious Access Hollywood grabbing recordings into Japanese, as the very fact of having to translate such a phrase made the Japanese translators rather uncomfortable (although they eventually chose to go for a non-vulgar, safe description of the problematic term).
Japanese translators even joked that Trump is so overconfident and logically unconvincing that if he should be translated as he actually speaks, the translators would make themselves sound stupid. The Trumpian era actually brought an interesting dispute within Japanese translator circles as to whether it is proper to polish the president's language and neutralize it, or to translate it exactly as he expresses himself in English.
The problem is that going with the latter produces results that hardly make any sense in translation.
Japanese language is generally very polite with few words that explicitly belittle the listener or others. Foul language is probably only found inside the Japanese mafia – the yakuza – while the very large majority of the Japanese population expect decent, respectful language in speech, writing and all other kinds of communication.