Donald Trump’s recent description of Caribbean and African countries as shitholes has created a shitstorm in the translation world, with translators and censors struggling to find words to convey Trump’s meaning. The need for a German language translation of the term has seen the media popularise the term Drecksloch, a previously little used noun, which denotes literally a hole of, or for, muck. Technically Dreck does not exclusively refer to excrement, as it may also describe dirt, mud, rubbish, and manure. Interestingly, Drecksloch was previously recognised by dictionaries Dict.cc and Leo.org but not yet by the authoritative Duden.
The word shithole is used colloquially in English to convey an undesirable place, usually squalid or run-down. Simply describing a place as a hole or a pit has a similar effect, as does describing somewhere as a hellhole, with the addition of shit strengthening the image. This also makes the speaker’s language cross the vulgarity boundary into the use of expletives and taboo language, a known Trump phenomenon.
So does Trump’s term refer to a hole from which excrement is emitted, for example from the human body, or is it a hole which receives or accumulates such effluent? That would be the difference between the anus and, on the other hand a latrine, outhouse, sewer, sewage pit, cesspool, cesspit, slurry pit, or manure pit, none of them remotely attractive to Trump’s audiences; interestingly, though, Roman toilet holes could apparently be attractive shared social spaces!
The Translator’s Dilemma
Donald Trump isn’t just redefining the political landscape. His use of language presents challenges for translators too. There has been a huge amount of technical translation debate since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States on 8 November 2016. The HE Translations team has been both fascinated, and maybe a little perturbed, by the style of language he uses and most interested in the discussion which has taken place around it. We’ve heard translators and interpreters complaining bitterly about the difficulty of translating his Tweets and speeches into other languages, and translating to German is no exception.
So what’s the problem? Surely short, highly emotive phrases should be easy to translate? In part, the issue is that his use of language falls outside the usual political norms and at times crosses the line into taboo or profane speech, with derogatory intent. His speeches often appear to be unscripted, which can lead to an abrupt shift in tone or subject matter, allowing him to conclude on an emotional and rhetorical high or low. He often defies logic and is prone to exaggeration, which might cause some to wonder about the accuracy or tone of a translation. As interpreters, we like people who give us balanced grammatical sentences, so our frustration with Trump often lies in his habit of breaking off mid-sentence or simply concluding a message with a single explosive word, for example, ‘Sad!’
Even native speakers of English can occasionally struggle to grasp Trump’s meaning, particularly when he uses sarcasm in a way that invites misinterpretation. Siavash Ardalan, a journalist and translator for the BBC Persian service, suggests that body language could be a useful indicator for translators. By mimicking the President’s gestures you can gain an understanding of the meaning and context of his utterances.
Discerning the intent of a piece of speech is even more difficult when the speaker is known to disown promptly, or deny, meanings of their own recent statements. As with sign language interpreters of live news broadcasts, we might need body language experts to read his gestures in real time and provide subtitles giving the true meaning conveyed.
So where does one train to be a Trumpterpreter? In Russia? Actually algorithms are emerging which can detect the sentiment of speech in video, but would translators of written text need to supply hyperlinks to the source video of the actual speech?
We are accustomed to polished political language, but Trump employs phrases which are attractive to his putative core support base in the working class, though psephologists find his support to be greater in the educated but reticent middle class. His many colloquialisms appealing to working class American voters are at risk of being lost in translation when rendered into a foreign language, creating dilemmas for accurate reporting to a foreign language audience.
Professional translators are often afraid of sounding too colloquial, and therefore unprofessional. However, translating Trump could mean having to let go of the compulsion to regularise his speech, as well as abandoning any attempt to tidy it up into more conventional grammar, which observes the target language’s technical standards of correctness. Translators can also face painful dilemmas when dealing with a text that conflicts with their own values or feelings. This point is well discussed in an article at The Conversation, which even reports professional translation services in Russia making Donald Trump’s language sound like Vladimir Putin’s.
There is a huge amount of pressure on us to convey Trump’s meaning correctly as his speeches are scrutinised across the globe. Many translators worry that their professional reputation will be compromised if the translation sounds awkward or the language used is illogical, ungrammatical or contains too much humour. Although Trump’s linguistic tics are now well known, we still worry that an accurate translation of his messages may leave our audience wondering if we’ve got it wrong.
The ‘evil losers’ phrase will be familiar to anyone who followed the coverage of the terror attacks in Manchester. This attempt at demonising the attacker is nothing new. Characterising your opponent as somehow less than human has been a feature of political speeches in wartime since reporting began. The phrase has been criticised as more hollow rhetoric but it presents us with a particular challenge. The concept of evil is a difficult one to translate in German and is fraught with nuance. Interpreting Trump succinctly, whilst retaining the meaning, is far from easy.
Whilst the phraseology is different, Trump’s use of ‘evil loser’ could also extend to his political opponents. His Twitter feed is a stream of allegations against ‘Crooked’ Hillary and the Obama administration. His use of colloquial language extends to slang, particularly where he describes the previous administration as: ‘…people running our country who didn’t know what the hell they were doing, didn’t know what they were doing.’
Interestingly, whilst he has justified his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord by referring to the ‘onerous burden’ placed on the USA, he has not reacted to the international condemnation this provoked. He describes his love for both coal miners and the environment. His criticism is levelled at those who entered into the agreement in the first place.
We, as translators, should continue in our efforts to translate Trump accurately. His language, whilst frustrating at times, is key to understanding his approach. To his supporters he is a man of the people, both because he continues to use his Twitter feed unmediated and because his language is simple to understand – even though the meaning may not be! Commentators and politicians across the globe are also getting used to a less than conventional President. We need to meet the challenge of ensuring that his message doesn’t get lost or distorted in translation.