Do you speak Trump? The Stations of the Cross of the American President’s translators

There are the boring but comfortable business conferences, the more thrilling translations on the clay courts of Roland-Garros or on the set of “Quotidien”… and then there are the speeches of the UFO Donald Trump. On the Richter scale of the toughest challenges for a translator-interpreter, rubbing shoulders with the US president live on television has no equivalent.

While the Republican candidate is preparing to debate for the second and last time this Thursday evening with Democrat Joe Biden, several of these French interpreters have agreed to tell us about this strange mission.

“You have to know how to do anything and improvise”, concedes Tom Viart. “When I interpret, I am really in the character. I am convinced of everything I say (laughs). But it is certain that sometimes, we look at each other with the colleague and we say “what” “.

“He will repeat the word fifteen times great

Tom officiated on LCI for the billionaire’s first speech at the White House since his infection with Covid-19 and his hospitalization. He was also Trump’s voice for France 24 during the first presidential debate.

To no longer be trapped by the “ultra-limited” vocabulary of the Head of State, this 34-year-old independent interpreter never comes into the cabin without his synonym files. “Now we know he will repeat the word fifteen times great, that he will not finish most of his sentences and that in the end, it will not be a very good speech, especially if he does not have a teleprompter ”.

The “Trump”, he has practiced it since the 2016 campaign. A binary language, stuffed with references to television and American sports, acronyms and even pungent nicknames. Among the most recurring: “Crooked Hillary” (Hillary Clinton “the crook”) or “Sleepy Joe” (Joe Biden “asleep”, also translated as “Joe big dodo”).

A selfie of Tom Viart in a booth before a speech by Donald Trump

A study conducted a year later by Carnegie Mellon American University had argued that Donald Trump’s level of grammar and vocabulary did not reach the level of a sixth grade college student. “Frankly, I pity those who do this live,” blows the translator in writing Bérengère Viennot, author in 2019 of a sharp analysis on the verb of the tycoon (“The Language of Trump”). Their role is to get the main message from a speech. Only, with him, it goes all over the place. It never goes from point A to point B ”.

“He talks like he tweets”

Loïc Hoff remembers one evening when “he made a scathing comment on Iran when, a second earlier, he was talking about general national policy”. “He constantly goes from rooster to donkey. It is not easy in our profession where we must constantly succeed in anticipating ”, squeals this 38-year-old interpreter, also freelance for continuous news channels. “He actually talks like he tweets.”

There is one thing these specialists do not take away from Trump: his spontaneity. “I even think he’s sincere,” Bérengère Viennot says. Only, he lives in a reality other than us. Since childhood, Trump has always heard that he was right and that everything he touched turned to gold ”. “It’s uninhibited talking taken to the extreme,” continues Loïc Hoff. A simplification of the speech “to say super nagging stuff” which has no equivalent, but which sometimes reminds him of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Almost an actor’s performance

It remains to be seen how to restore this “sincerity”. Should we stick to Trump’s lexicon, his slang and even his factual errors, even if it means losing the listener? Or else use a more punished language and sew up a thought with holes? Tom and Loïc go for the first option. “There were ethical choices to be made,” remembers Loïc. I cut my teeth with Obama, I can tell you that it took me years to master his very written and very rich speeches ”. Velvet. “So when you go on with Trump and his nitroglycerin, the gap is huge. I couldn’t keep my reflexes. It sounded completely wrong, ”he says.

Likewise, the two men refuse to erase Trump’s “banter”. “A tone below certainly”, specifies Tom Viart, but no question of censoring his messy energy. Do we still need to know how to do it… Patrick Sauce, major reporter for BFMTV and specialist in foreign policy, prefers not to risk it. When he is urgently dispatched by the editorial staff to translate an intervention by Donald Trump, he plays it sober. “When it’s live, I do dubbing, I don’t go all out with him”. Too dangerous.

The journalist remains traumatized by the commentary ten years ago of a colleague “who had made not a translation of John Paul II at the end of his life, but an interpretation of a pope to the article of the dead… It was really not possible ”. An anecdote that sums up the subtle mix of skills required for this job. At the limit of translation, journalism and acting.

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