Lost in Trumpslation: An Interview with Bérengère Viennot

WHEN PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP takes office on January 20, many lives will change, and change mostly for the worse. This will be true, of course, for the majority of Americans who feared the president-elect’s victory — ranging from ethnic and religious minorities, legal and undocumented immigrants, and, well, everyone who takes the warnings of climate scientists as seriously as the warnings of our Founding Fathers. This will also be true for the white blue-collar workers who dared believe the president-elect’s promises to bring back factory jobs. 

In this great sweep of suffering, the lot of French translators hardly amounts to a hill of beans. And yet, the professional challenges they face when it comes to translating Trump go far beyond personal trials and tribulations. Last month, Slate France ran a fascinating essay by Bérengère Viennot, a professional translator, in which she reflected on what it means to make sense of the president-elect in French. In order to explain and expand on her essay in English, I interviewed Viennot via email. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.


ROB ZARETSKY: When I read your essay, Bérengère, I could not help but sense an elegiac tone, a kind of wistfulness for what had been — the Obama years. You write about the pleasures of translating President Obama’s English: not just his rhythmic flow, faultless diction, and logically constructed discourses, to slightly paraphrase you, but also his subtle sense of humor and use of irony, which he often aimed at himself. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that. Is it possible that Obama made the translator’s job too easy?

BÉRENGÈRE VIENNOT: Whatever field you work in, translation is never only a matter of words. The act of translating consists in carrying a meaning from one set of readers to another, and to make sure that the readers of your words will feel the same as the readers of the original text. For the translator is an author: if the thoughts are not hers, the words definitely are. It is a huge responsibility. If accuracy is essential in conveying the meaning of the discourse, translators have absolute freedom in the choice of words. We select in our own language the lexical field that matches the original text, but since this still gives us quite a lot of leeway, translators of political discourse have to be extra careful. Translating Obama was a real intellectual joy. His thought was clear and his vocabulary was rich enough that it allowed me to write beautiful sentences that could vary ever so subtly according to the tone of his discourse.

What does that mean in practice?

There are dozens of ways of translating the same sentence or word, depending on the context, the mood of the speaker, the time (which is why some books are retranslated), the political situation, the culture it will be read in. For example, in American English you use the word “race” a lot. It’s a word heavy with terrible historical significance for Americans. We have the word “race” in French, but I would never use it to translate yours, because the history of our word “race” is very distinct from yours. Moreover, we consider it derogatory; for French cultural anthropologists, there is only one race, the human race. So I tend to translate your word “race” by the French words “couleur” or “ethnie,” depending on the context. In the end, translating Obama’s discourse — or should I say, Obama’s thought — was pleasurable because it was easy to get into his head, or rather, to let him get into my head and speak with my voice.

But come January 20, the head that will count will be the Donald’s. And yet, as the title of your piece announces, Trump presents “un casse-tête inédit et désolant,” or an unprecedented and depressing headache. Could you explain why?

Well, as I said, you have to be able to get into someone’s mind in order to translate his speech and reformulate it into your own language. Trump is not easy to translate, first of all, because, most of the time, when he speaks he seems not to know quite where he’s going. In my essay, I took the example of the interview he gave to The New York Times. He seems to hang onto a word in the question, or to a word that pops into his mind, repeating it over and over again. He shapes his thought around it and, sometimes, succeeds in giving part of an answer — often the same answer: namely, that he won the election. Trump seems to go from point A (the question) to point B (himself, most of the time) with no real logic. It’s as if he had thematic clouds in his head that he would pick from with no need of a logical thread to link them.

That is not at all the way I am used to thinking, which, in itself, would not matter so much, as I very often have to translate things that are unfamiliar to me. But here’s the other problem with Trump: even once you’ve understood his point (or lack thereof), you must still express it in your own language. You realize, at that moment, that you have written something very unpleasant to read. Trump’s vocabulary is limited, his syntax is broken; he repeats the same phrases over and over, forcing the translator to follow suit. If she does not, she betrays the spirit of the original piece. The translator has to translate the content and the style. So that is what I do, and reading Trump in French, which is a very structured and logical language, reveals the poor quality of his language and, consequently, of his thought.

Does this mean that Trump poses an ethical as well as linguistic challenge to the translator?

As a translator of political discourse, you also have the duty to write readable texts: so what am I to do? Translate Trump as he speaks, and let French readers struggle with whatever content there is? (Not to mention the fact that I will be judged on the vocabulary I choose — sometimes the translator is blamed for the poor quality of a piece.) Or keep the content, but smooth out the style, so that it is a little bit more intelligible, leading non-English speakers to believe that Trump is an ordinary politician who speaks properly — when this is obviously not the case?

But is Trump unique? After all, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic often lump him together with Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, the former and present leaders of France’s extreme right-wing Front National. Leaving aside the debate over their ideological and political resemblances, do you find that Trump and Le Pen père et fille also share linguistic and rhetorical similarities?

Well, first of all, there is a real difference between the spoken words of the Le Pens. The elder Le Pen was — he’s all but retired — terribly shocking in his speech. Just like Trump, he would say what he thought — but his language, and his thoughts, were more structured than Trump’s. He would freely utter racist and anti-Semitic thoughts that are outlawed in France. For example, in 1987 he famously said that the extermination camps’ cremation ovens where Jews were burned were “a detail in history.” He was condemned in a French court for denying the nature of the Shoah. Tellingly, the court found that the phrase was uttered by “a politician skilled at political rhetoric and the nuances of the French language.” Quite simply, Jean-Marie Le Pen is a good speaker. He is well educated, and he knows how to address a crowd. Trump, on the other hand, gives the impression of repeating whatever he heard or read on the internet the day before. He is not an ideologue; he’s an opportunist.

What about Marine Le Pen, who inherited her father’s party five years ago?

She also is a very good speaker — far better than Trump. Her father’s racism is still there, but she is far subtler, and thus far more dangerous. First, there’s her appearance: she is a woman, she is blonde, and she is practical. Second, Marine Le Pen’s speech is more measured than her father’s; she has even condemned, on more than one occasion, what he had said, which led to a dramatic rift between the two. Her speech is also racist, but it pretends not to be, which partly explains her success. Somehow, it is no longer shameful to agree with the Front National’s ideas. Now you hear, “I’m not a racist, but you must admit Marine Le Pen is right when she says …” This would not have been possible with her father. Because her speech is “softer,” it makes her more popular and dangerous. And I don’t think either the father or daughter’s public utterances compare to Donald Trump’s. They don’t stutter, they don’t repeat themselves, and they are actually very good at speaking in public.

Do you think it is possible for a Frenchman or Frenchwoman who speaks like Trump to have the same political success in France as Trump has had in the United States? Pierre Poujade, a populist agitator of the 1950s, comes to mind, but I’m not sure if his public words were as impoverished as Trump’s.

I don’t think so — but on the other hand, there was a time when I did not think Trump could be elected or the Brexit could happen. As you well know, the French language is very difficult. Even the French make a lot of mistakes when they speak, not to mention their writing. On the other hand, there is also a sort of pride in having political figures who speak well. People would give less credit to a politician who speaks bad French. There is a saying by Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711) that every French student heard at least once in her life: “What we clearly conceive we clearly express, and the words easily come.”

Well, I never had the impression that Sarkozy was at a loss for words.

You know, when Sarkozy was president people were terribly shocked by his vulgarity, especially when he said “Casse-toi pauvre con” (“Beat it, asshole”) to a farmer who refused to shake his hand. Such a vulgarity was considered to be dishonorable for a French president. On the other hand, he was elected. But he used to be a lawyer and he was good at convincing people (with a dash of populism). So maybe one day, who knows, we will elect a president incapable of speaking properly, because he will not be intellectually fit. But our tradition of public speech still protects us from that kind of character — at least, I believe and hope.

Also, most French politicians are shaped by the same institutions of higher learning, the so-called grandes écoles, and in particular the École Nationale d’Administration [the National School of Public Administration], which guarantees a solid cultural background and public speaking skills. In fact, this is also a problem: some say that because these individuals study in these very elitist schools, they are completely disconnected from “normal” people.

The funny thing is that Trump graduated from an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps its admissions process is slacker than ENA’s. But back to Trump. Do you think that the act of translation, particularly in the case of Trump, presents a kind of ethical X-ray? In other words, that the poverty of his language becomes manifest only when it is cast into another language?

I guess it does, but on the other hand, one doesn’t need to translate his discourse in order to feel it, do they? Can’t you feel, when you listen to him, that his words are shallow?

Shallowness is, of course, relative. One can drown as easily in the shallow end of a pool as in the deep end. In other words, shallow or not, Trump’s language connects with many Americans. Does that mean all of them are shallow?

The thing is, in France, politics are “a serious matter” in the sense that French politicians are never “natural.” They have always been very dignified. (This has begun to change with Sarkozy, but very slowly.) We would never have a president joking around like Obama does, or singing a song in public other than “La Marseillaise.” One of the criticisms of Hollande is that he doesn’t look dignified. (He appeared ridiculous giving a speech in the rain, or driving a scooter to see his mistress.) So that helps to explain why translating Trump into French is really shocking. We are used to hearing or reading people who take a lot of care in what they say — and when they don’t, when they utter something with a double meaning or that could be misinterpreted, everybody sees it, discusses it, and s/he has to justify it. And we tend to analyze the political discourse of foreign politicians just as we do that of our own — and in this case there is a translation of words and meaning but not a translation of context or culture. So you can imagine that if Trump’s culture is already very different from your “average” politician in the United States, it is light-years away from ours.

But as you have already suggested, light-years also separate the words of “average” French politicians — namely, those formed by elite institutions like ENA — from “average” citizens for whom the halls of ENA are as mysterious as, say, the double helix of DNA. Think about the distinction made by 19th-century nationalist intellectuals like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras between the pays réel (the fatherland) and the pays légal (the abstract nation), or the recent distinction made by the sociologist Christophe Guilluy between les métropoles (economically thriving and globally connected urban centers) and les péripheries (economically flailing and globally forgotten exurban regions). How different is the culture of la France périphérique from the culture that identifies with Trump, one we might call l’Amérique périphérique?

Well, that’s a really interesting question, and I would love to have a clear answer to that! We do have a dichotomy between the Parisian elite and the rest of France, and politicians tend to belong to the former, of course. The problem being that most of the people governing the country are disconnected from the realities of life — and that is what they are mostly blamed for. When they are asked the price of a Metro ticket or a pain au chocolat, they usually give ludicrous answers that show how far they are from “normal” people. So populist politicians like Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon [the onetime presidential candidate for the leftist Parti de Gauche] actually call to the people we refer to as “la France d’en bas” [“the France of the common people,” or “France at the bottom”] by stating that they are different from the elites that have been governing the country. Now I don’t think one can really compare French and American cultures­­. Your country is still very young compared to ours; you’re still going through adolescence, and we are in old age! So our social gaps have very different shapes. French people who would vote for Le Pen or Mélenchon are very attached to what is considered dangerous socialism by Trump voters: health benefits for everyone, compulsory paid maternity and sick leaves, free public schools and universities, and, well, the taxes that go with all that. So I suppose the only common point there would be a growing discontent with the ruling class — but then again, not for the same reasons.

Well, perhaps this means we are all fated to be lost and buried in translation. But let’s check again on the state of our national languages — and our nations — once France has elected its own president. Bonne chance et bon courage!

Thank you, Robert. We’ll need it, too. And let’s hope neither of us will get lost in Trumpslation.


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013, and recently reissued in paperback. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.