Trans­lat­ing Trump

The Moscow Times - - LIVING HERE -

WBy Michele A. Berdy Moscow-based trans­la­tor and in­ter­preter, au­thor of “The Rus­sian Word’s Worth” (Glas), a col­lec­tion of her col­umns. hat we trans­la­tors don’t do for our pro­fes­sion! For months now I’ve been study­ing Don­ald Trump in English and in trans­la­tion to try to dis­cover the se­cret of his pop­u­lar­ity among Rus­sians. As I found last week, Trump can thank Rus­sian trans­la­tors for mak­ing him sound more pres­i­den­tial, co­her­ent, and grown-up in Rus­sian.

Now that is not to say that trans­lat­ing The Don­ald has been smooth sail­ing for my Rus­sian col­leagues. They are some­times be­fud­dled by Trumpese. For ex­am­ple, trans­la­tors had a hard time un­der­stand­ing what Trump told Repub­li­cans to do if the Democrats tried to fil­i­buster his nom­i­na­tion of Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court. “If we end up with that grid­lock I would say if you can, Mitch, go nu­clear,” he said.

The trans­la­tors wisely ig­nored the di­rect quote and put their hopes on a para­phrase. If ne­go­ti­a­tions broke down, they wrote, в арсенале республиканцов имеется «ядерный вариант» (“the Repub­li­cans have the ‘nu­clear op­tion’ in their ar­se­nal”). That’s a de­cent trans­la­tion — it’s col­or­ful and reads well. The only prob­lem? Av­er­age Rus­sian read­ers — heck, above-av­er­age English read­ers — would have no idea what that nu­clear op­tion is. Are the Repub­li­cans go­ing to drop a nu­clear bomb on the Democrats? No peo­ple, no prob­lem?

In an­other case, trans­la­tors clearly didn’t have a Mid­dle East ex­pert nearby or easy ac­cess to Wikipedia. Trump tweeted, “Iran is rapidly tak­ing over more and more of Iraq,” and no one could fig­ure out if the take-over was lit­eral or fig­u­ra­tive. Throw­ing geopo­lit­i­cal cau­tion to the wind, one trans­lated it as Иран быстро захватывает Ирак (“Iran is quickly oc­cu­py­ing Iraq”). A trans­la­tor at an­other pub­li­ca­tion agreed, and in fact thought the phrase needed some drama: Иран быстро поглощает все больше и больше Ирака (“Iran is quickly swal­low­ing up more and more of Iraq”).

But other trans­la­tors thought there was a war of in­flu­ence be­ing waged: Иран имеет все больше влияние на территории Ирака (“Iran has more in­flu­ence on Iraqi ter­ri­tory”) or Иран устанавливает все более ощутимый контроль над территориями Ирака (“Iran is es­tab­lish­ing more pal­pa­ble con­trol over Iraqi ter­ri­tory”). So de­pend­ing on what Rus­sian pub­li­ca­tion you were read­ing, Trump was ei­ther ac­cus­ing Iran of grab­bing land in Iraq or ex­ert­ing soft power.

Some­times Rus­sian pub­li­ca­tions seem to for­get what lan­guage Trump speaks. Take a re­cent tweet about Crimea: “For eight years Rus­sia “ran over” Pres­i­dent Obama, got stronger and stronger, picked-off Crimea and added mis­siles. Weak!”

For some rea­son, a slew of trans­la­tors — or the Rus­sian me­dia they work for — be­came ob­sessed with the phrase “picked-off” (sic). Трамп подобрал новое слово для перехода Крыма к России (“Trump chose a new word for the trans­fer of Crimea to Rus­sia”). Раньше он назвал его “захватом” (“Be­fore he called it a ‘seizure of land’”). One pub­li­ca­tion claimed that his use of the word захват meant that он потерял симпатии российского телевидения (“he lost pop­u­lar­ity with Rus­sian tele­vi­sion”).

So what new word did Trump use? Перехватить. The word can mean in­ter­cept­ing some­one or some­thing — get­ting it first. Here the im­pli­ca­tion is: Rus­sia grabbed Crimea be­fore the Amer­i­cans could. That is, in­deed, a highly sig­nif­i­cant ad­mis­sion by the U.S. pres­i­dent.

But wait a minute. Don­ald Trump doesn’t speak Rus­sian. He didn’t write захват or перехват. He wrote “picked-off.” Buckle your seat­belts. It’s go­ing to be a bumpy four years.

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