For the interpreter Berengere Viennot, translating the American president’s statements has led her to write a frazzled and worried book in which she addresses his limited vocabulary and total lack of syntax. However, this scrambled and irregular style of discourse is only a distraction, a symptom of a much more serious political reality.
A press translator, Berengere Viennot, tells of the professional nightmare she has confronted since Trump’s election to the White House. She translates numerous news articles on American politics, including, notably, the president’s celebrated tweets. “Trump’s Language” (published by Arenes) is an angry outburst, but is also highly amusing.
Liberation: What was your reaction the day after Donald Trump’s election in November 2016?
Viennot: It was like an unending hangover. This election presented a problem of representation, since Trump was elected with 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Another problem is that he was supported by many Americans who, at the time, felt that they had never been represented, and who would vote for him again except if they were destitute. This voter base really exists, and I don’t think it will disappear when Trump leaves office. Therefore, the real problem is not the American president himself, but what he represents. We can’t keep on commenting on his presidency just by taking offense at the way he orders burgers for the White House during official receptions. That’s only a distraction. What matters is that Trump has opened a sluicegate in the United States, which is also the case in Brazil and Hungary.
Liberation: In your book, you cite the psychologist Ben Michaelis who observes a lowering of tone in Trump’s expression over time. Have you made the same observation since he took office?
Viennot: I have not noticed any major deterioration during the past two years. To me, such a thing is barely imaginable; Trump’s language was utterly unstructured from the beginning of his presidency. No syntax, very little vocabulary, and unfinished sentences. That limits me to translating him as I would with a literary work, adapting myself to a very particular context without referring to the overall political situation a translator normally uses when rendering politicians’ words. There is no real political context in Trump’s discourse; with him, each statement starts from zero.
Liberation: Does this occur in all his remarks, both spontaneous and prepared?
Viennot: Yes, with him it’s always oral, never anything written. Whether addressing a child or a head of state, he uses the same register. I think that if he were French, he would call everyone by the familiar “you.” Trump is incapable of social empathy, and he cannot put himself in the other person’s place when he speaks.
Liberation: You clearly make a harsh judgment about Trump’s poor language. But isn’t it a matter of national context, in the way that the French expect their politicians to use more polished language?
Viennot: The French elite is much more schooled; they need to attend the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. Mitterand and De Gaulle wrote books, and Macron employs classic expressions, while Sarkozy’s “shut up, you dumb cunt” was an aberration. In the United States, a politician can be a self-made man without much education who presents himself as being close to the common people. Above all, American politics has to be showbiz. The televised debate between Clinton and Trump is a good example. The two candidates stood on a stage without looking at each other. Trump acted in an almost physically threatening way to Clinton, and having been a frequent guest on reality shows, he won. Although Clinton spoke much better than he did, it did not count. In America, rhetorical skill is secondary.
Liberation: Trump’s speeches are often analyzed by their form. You seem concerned about their content.
Viennot: We don’t pay enough attention to what is being discharged with each utterance, such as the racism implied in many of Trump’s statements. The minorities he targets must not be the only ones worried about it. There is a lack of analysis. For example, when Trump entertained an American football team at the White House several weeks ago with hamburgers, the American press criticized his ordering junk food there! This was during the shutdown, when government workers were not paid for 26 days. Also, the FBI was launching an inquiry based on its ever-mounting suspicions of Trump’s involvement with Russia. The preoccupation with hamburgers should never have made headlines during such a crazy period. It’s a mistake by the American media as well as the Democrats, who should ask themselves why Trump’s speeches go over so well with his voter base. There seems to be an ever widening gap between media analysts and Trump’s audience.
Liberation: All the same, Trump’s statements have a strong political effect. He sometimes positions himself with the tea party.
Viennot: The tea party is not an insignificant historical reference. In the 18th century, they were opponents of British taxes who threw sacks of British tea into Boston’s harbor. But they were not just about liberation from colonialism; they dressed up as Indians so that the British would blame the latter, not them. The reference is therefore far from innocent. Yet, we must also be aware that Trump is hugely ignorant of his country’s history – which doesn’t seem to bother many people. Moreover, Trump’s statements aligning himself with the tea party appear more opportunistic and ideological.
Liberation: In the vehement conclusion to your book, you explain the deep historical origins of all this, tracing them from the pilgrim fathers to Trump. What about Barack Obama?
Viennot: In becoming president, Obama embodied an aspect of the American dream: he was elected despite being black. He thus represented emancipation, and probably also a trend that white Americans don’t accept or want to see happen: the emergence of minorities. The movement is there, but the repercussions against it are venomous. I also believe that Obama was, above all, an exception, a historical accident, and that if they were alive today, the pilgrim fathers would back Trump. Here, too, they seem to represent freedom from England, yet they were also the ones who started taking the country away from the Indians. Today, they would no doubt be anti-abortion and pro-guns, defenders of the pioneer spirit where one does everything on one’s own and owes nothing to anyone.
Liberation: There’s still one positive thing: with Trump, there is no more silence.
Viennot: Remaining silent is very harmful for a translator; it happens more often; it prevents risk-taking, and avoids controversial topics. It’s more comfortable all round, but doesn’t it eventually lead to the election of a Trump?