A Wise Man Once Said…

Never was a truer word spoken when it was said that you can only have an argument with an intelligent person: ‘… you can argue with a wise man but it’s damn near impossible to win an argument with a fool’, and the prospect of interpreting for someone who lacks a good grasp of his or her own native language will probably bring this saying to mind.

The Challenge for Interpreters

Interpreting for those who have a proficient command of language, and who can express themselves clearly, without resorting to jargon, is every interpreter’s dream. So how then do you manage speakers who go off-piste, so to speak, and who rely on body language and facial expressions to boot? A prime example of this in recent times is Donald Trump, whose every word is interpreted, translated and replicated around the globe.

Trump vs Johnson

Donald Trump certainly speaks from the heart, shoots from the hip and rarely uses a script writer. What’s more, his use of English is often so obscure, disjointed and broken that it hardly bears translation. Compare him with Boris Johnson, the current British Foreign Secretary, once described as never knowingly on-message. But in fact Boris Johnson is a man whose bumbling and seemingly random utterances belie a very sharp intellect and an expansive, and indeed expensive, education. There is stark contrast with his ability to express himself. Trump stands alone among current world leaders when he delivers speeches in an unscripted and seemingly unplanned fashion, and gave many interpreters an enduring headache after he won the US Presidential election. So what is it that makes him so difficult to interpret?


Trump tends to jump from one concept to another, following any thought that comes into his head. He digresses a lot and doesn’t always finish a sentence, chain of argument or due process; interpreters have to be light on their feet to follow him. His speeches are always very emotive, so interpreters may find themselves lacking that sense of reassurance of knowing where they are going. Trump relies on facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice and jargon, much of which will often be lost in translation. Journalists have also found it difficult to filter and paraphrase what has become known as ‘Trumpese’, since his thoughts are often incoherent or not fully expressed, not helped when he breaks off mid-sentence and diverges into something else entirely tangential. Trump is an example of someone arguably better heard in person, with a brand that is hard to replicate, unique in every sense of the word.

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