PITY THE POOR translator in the age of Trump. Finding the mot juste to convey one’s own thoughts is already difficult; perhaps more so is finding the mot juste to convey another’s thoughts. A difficulty of an entirely different magnitude, however, is to find the right words to convey another’s thoughtlessness. To cast our president’s words into another language is, with apologies to John Milton, to remake not just the darkness, but the sheer daftness visible.
Is Trump’s language merely daft, though? Over the past two years, his use and abuse of words has spawned an industry of specialists and scholars. Some find Trump’s capacity for self-expression is no greater than a child’s, while others find it is no lesser than that of other demagogues. What strikes his base as authentic staggers his critics as incoherent. While many believe Trump’s word salads signify the absence of design, others insist that even salads are, as a French menu reminds us, composée.
Okay, you caught me: I’ve just committed a faux ami. Une salade composée is not a carefully composed salad, but a bunch of veggies as mixed as I am in my linguistic confusion. No doubt Bérengère Viennot, one of France’s most articulate translators, would point this out. But she is after bigger poissons to fry in her punchy, powerful book, which richly deserves an American edition.
Like the vast majority of her fellow French, Viennot was shocked by Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Ever since, she writes, “I have the impression of being slapped in the face every day.” Yet this slap is not just visceral or even existential, but is also professional, nearly prosaic. How should one transpose Trump’s words into another language? How does one convey the spirit of a Trumpian text all the while holding fast to its letter? Should the translator, as was the case with a Le Monde journalist, explain in a footnote to a translation of a Trump interview that it had “preserved all of the original syntactical faults”? Or is something more, something different called for?
In general, when translators encounter passages that are somewhat obscure or convoluted, they simplify them without violating the idea evoked in the original text. But with Trump, this is not possible. By straightening out his speech, we end up in a place far, far away from where we — or rather, he — started. Trump’s language is of a piece with Trump’s person; to alter the first would misrepresent the second. The repetitions and reprises, the stunted vocabulary and severed clauses, in effect, the desolate debris of words Trump leaves in his wake is not incidental, but elemental to his success.
Where does this leave a translator? The answer isn’t at all clear. Five centuries ago, John Dryden identified three paths that translators can take: metaphrase, imitation, and paraphrase. The first is the straight and narrow of strict literalism, whereas the second is the boundless space where, Dryden explains, the translator is free to forsake words and sense “as he sees occasion.” The third option, as if you didn’t already know, is the elusive center. This is the middle ground, Dryden concludes, translators must cultivate.
While Viennot does not cite Dryden, she would certainly concede that, in general, the poet is right. Yet there nevertheless is the rare case, such as Trump’s language, where the middle ground simply won’t do and extreme measures are called for. In After Babel, his classic work on translation, George Steiner defines the translator’s goal as making “graphic as much as they can of the semantic inherence of the original.” If this is true, than the translator must, when it comes to Trump, abandon Dryden’s golden mean and be as literal as possible. Rather than gingerly wrapping Trump’s spoken offal into a neat sausage, the translator has both a professional and ethical duty to serve it up as she found it.
Does this mean, though, that a typical Trump interview belongs, in Viennot’s words, to a “linguistic universe of a different dimension”? Are Trump’s words the spawn of a philological wormhole, the linguistic equivalent of Daleks hellbent on exterminating all those attempting to stand in their way? The answer is not as obvious as we might like it to be. Some prominent linguists insist that Trump’s language is, when all is said and done, how most of us say and do things in our own lives. The well-known linguist John McWhorter, while certainly no fan of the president, argues that “Trumptalk” is quite ordinary, an instance of “unmonitored language.” By this term, McWhorter means how all of us speak in relaxed — rather than rigid — settings. Humans are genetically specified to use it, McWhorter notes, and “none has ever been known to lack it — it comes easily.” With our president, it is not the words that are unusual, but instead the context in which he blurts them out.
Viennot does not doubt the importance of context. In her book, she cites a viral video from 2008 that starred then-president of France Nicolas Sarkozy. As Sarkozy made the obligatory rounds at the country’s annual Agriculture Salon, someone in the crowd refused to shake his outstretched hand. A flustered Sarkozy withdrew his hand and blurted: “Casse-toi, pauvre con!” Whether one translates the phrase as “Get lost, asshole!” or “Fuck off, jerk!” its, ah, semantic inherence is pretty clear. But as French phrases go, it is also pretty common. The reason the exchange went viral, of course, is that while French presidents might well think such things, they are not supposed to say them out loud — at least, that is, in front of a battery of cameras.
But that kind of public retenue has been undone, at least in our country. The Trump presidency, Viennot writes, has dissolved the distinction between spoken and written language. “Everything with him is oral,” she marvels. “Even when he writes, it’s as if he is speaking, that he’s physically there.” But this does not mean that we can dismiss his language as so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. There can be, in strictly semantic terms, a great deal of signification in sound and fury. By reducing the rules of syntax to rubble, Trump has not obscured his message; instead, the work of demolition is the message.
In this regard, Viennot refers to the work of Olivier Mannoni, the French translator of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, who discerns a method to the linguistic madness of totalitarian regimes. One element of this method is the use of simplistic and binary oppositions. Citing the reflexive juxtaposition made by the SS chief Heinrich Himmler between schlecht and gut, Mannoni notes the similar juxtaposition incessantly made by Trump between “bad” and “good.” This childlike distillation of reality, along with the demolition of grammar and syntax, paves the way to arbitrary and authoritarian rule.
The degree of clarity and urgency that Viennot brings to her analysis of Trump’s language is salutary. Perhaps her Frenchness gives the book an edge that is missing from equally informed analyses written by Americans. If this is so, it is not surprising. After all, with his book Democracy in America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote what arguably remains the most insightful work on the nature of political culture in our country. Nearly two centuries later, it took another Frenchie to warn us about authoritarianism in America.
Rob Zaretsky is the author, most recently, of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2019). He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.