Translating Trump: How the president's language may pose policy problems

Translating Trump: How the president's language may pose policy problems
By Robert Hackwill
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Beyond the insults and inflammatory rhetoric Donald Trump's grammar may make understanding the presidency and policy harder in the future.


The 45th President of the United States has already been called to account for his mangling of the English language and observers have noted his gadfly approach to building single ideas, and changing them mid-stream of consciousness when he goes off-script, which is often.

In fact part of Donald Trump’s appeal, explaining many of the 58 million votes he won, is that he speaks like part of the electorate, or at least in a language they can understand.
But what about the rest of the world? Is Donald Trump going to find himself crashing into a language barrier?

Understanding Trump:</a> <a href="">#moralpolitics</a></p>&mdash; George Lakoff (GeorgeLakoff) 29 juillet 2016

You may think his electoral appeal belongs firmly in a tradition of frank or plain political speaking, an early theorist being Plutarch in the first century. But Plutarch said this about frankness:

“It should be combined with good manners, and there should be reason in it to take away its excess and insanity.”

Trump’s rudeness and violent statements regarding minorities are already well-documented and are not the focus of this article.

A bigly problem

The crucial aspect of the Donald Problem is technical. The president is a nightmare to translate, and this despite him coming out of a recent academic study with the language skills of a 13-year old.

That is not the problem it at first sounds, as a majority of the population does indeed respond to simple language that they use day-to-day. No harm in a politician speaking the people’s language, surely?

His speech suits online translators very well. They stay close to the original in several languages, which matches most teenagers’ speech structures; short phrases, single words, simple narratives.

But what if what is expressed sounds like it’s coming from a teenager on a bad day who finds grammar a bore compared to a testosterone rush? Apart from the problem that poses for domestic and foreign reporters and journalists imagine the international shockwaves once Donald goes on his travels.

Here is a well-known example from back in July 2016 on the campaign trail we copy-pasted into Google to see. Ostensibly it is about Iran and the nuclear issue. Try it out yourself in whatever languages you master:

“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune —you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Patter, not policy

The words in bold are just to give an easy glimpse of the mentions nuclear and Iran get in between rambling about his uncle, his past, how clever he was, how much he’s criticised and something totally random about gender politics, I think.

On-subject the translatable part is “the Iranians talked rings around us at the negotations”.

But now imagine the more subtle arts of diplomacy getting their hands on these words. What can be inferred? A multitude of possibilities opens up, ranging from taking a cheap pop at the position of women in Iranian society, to revealing a massive inferiority complex. Absurd? Of course, but sometimes Trump’s language leaves those seeking to understand him little choice but to draw their own conclusions.

This can be taken to its logical absurdity for laughs. One MIT whiz programmed a twitterbot to sound just like Donald Trump, DeepDrumpf, using artificial intelligence.

[My next gag order will be on] journalism. They're the problem. I'll educate our country and get rid of politics. RVAwonk</a> <a href="">#globalgagrule</a></p>&mdash; DeepDrumpf (DeepDrumpf) 24 janvier 2017

But with all the potential pitfalls contained within the President’s language, the laughs may be on us.

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