Contrasting Styles

Why Japan is finding it difficult to comprehend Donald Trump

Shinzō Abe and Donald Trump
Shinzō Abe and Donald Trump
28 MAR 2017

Donald Trump once opined: ‘In Japan, they bow. I love it. Only thing I love about Japan’. In his presentation of a well-known fact as if it were a novelty and his enthusiasm for gestures of obedience, here Trump could be said to be making a characteristic statement. Moreover, the antipathy he betrays in the last sentence towards the proverbial Land of the Rising Sun was later echoed in the attacks he made on Japan’s trade and military arrangements with the U.S. during the 2016 election campaign. What is, however, unusual about this quote is that Trump is using simple sentences that are easy to translate into Japanese. Japan’s interpreters are currently up in arms about the difficulty of translating Donald Trump’s English. According to Chikiako Trusuta, Professor of Translating and Interpreting Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, ‘He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid’.

To illustrate some of the challenges of translating Trump, the Japanese writer and translator Agnes Kaku pointed to his response to Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani American Gold star mother who accompanied her husband Khizr as he addressed the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Trump speculated: ‘His wife—if you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me, but plenty of people have written that’. Kaku notes that the Japanese broadcaster NHK translated this as ‘She likely wasn’t allowed to give a statement’ and CNN Japan interpreted it as ‘It could be she wasn’t allowed to speak’. Were NHK and CNN guilty of cleaning up Trump’s statements and turning a circuitous implication into a direct accusation? This raises a more important dilemma: is giving Trump the clarity he lacks mistranslating him?

If we wanted to break down the challenges Trump’s English poses perhaps the easiest to grasp for non-Japanese speakers is his vocabulary. In Japanese, there are no exact translations for words like ‘goofy’ or ‘crooked’ (for the latter you could use ‘magatta’ but that connotes ‘distorted, ‘irregular’ or ‘warped’). The most obvious translation for the words ‘fantastic’, ‘great’ and ‘terrific’ are all the same word—‘subarashī’—but if you always use this term then Trump sounds far more repetitive than he really is. The U. S. President habitually employs the term ‘nice’—a difficulty for translators since it can mean so many different things. And then there is the additional problem of trying to work out which English word he is actually using. Is ‘bigly’ an adverb of his own coinage—or an abbreviated ‘big league’?

Then there is Trump’s grammar. His speeches are littered with false starts (starting on one topic and them moving to another without completing the first one) and parentheticals (comments inserted in the middle of a sentence). Consider for instance the following: ‘And in 19—and I will tell you this, and I said it very strongly, years ago, I said—and I love the military, and I want to have the strongest military that we’ve ever had, and we need it more now than ever’. Trump’s sentence has unfinished details (‘19—’), unnecessary emphatics (‘I will tell you this’) and repetitions (the last three clauses, for instance, in which Trump stresses his affection for the army). For admirers attending his speeches, this abrupt style can sound winningly spontaneous. However, when Trump’s words are written down, they can appear fractured and incomprehensible, because Trump’s oral cues are missing. Whether fairly or not, the written versions suggest a speaker with a chronically short-attention span, unable to hold a thought long enough to explain it. Depending on your political persuasion, this may or may not be a fair assessment—but should it be up to the translator to decide?

Furthermore, Trump’s use of rhetorical techniques such as hyperbole or purposeful exaggeration pose additional challenges. For instance, when the President describes the previous administration’s trade regulations, energy policies or dealings with other countries as ‘a disaster’, does he mean it was a Biblical-style cataclysm or merely a mishap? Another is his fondness for crude puns. For instance, his question ‘If Hilary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America’ plays on how the English verb ‘satisfy’ can connote sexual climax and professional aptitude. But other languages do not have terms that carry the same associated meanings. A further challenge is his use of sarcasm. This is always a tricky area for translators, since it relies on an audience recognizing that you mean the opposite of what you say. But, in Trump’s case it is compounded by his habit of using sarcasm as an excuse for retracting earlier statements. Famously, a 12 August 2016 Tweet reads ‘CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) “the founder” of ISIS… THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?’.

At the same time, Japan has a very different understanding of the international context to the one sketched by Trump’s assertions—and this contrasting perspective contributes to the country’s bewildered and anxious assessment of the President. While in 2016 Trump attacked Japan for relying on forty-seven thousand American troops based in the country, Japan contributes 1.84 billion US dollars each year to their costs. Moreover, the country is forbidden to possess an independent military according to its constitution—a document itself designed by Americans after the War. Additionally, Shinzo Abe was a leading supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in large part because it was a U. S.-led agreement advocated by President Obama. In fact, the proposed treaty encountered significant opposition within Japan itself. Rice-farmers, for instance, resisted it, believing that it would have led to undercutting by low-price U. S. farm exports. Far from being a freeloader on America, Japan can sometimes feel like a faithful retainer whose loyalty has been unrewarded. Perhaps for these very reasons, the Japanese population feels sceptical—if not downright hostile—towards the new U. S. leader. According to an SCMP survey, eighty-eight percent of Japanese respondents said they would have voted for Hilary and only twelve percent for her opponent. Asked to choose the attributes that most accurately describe Trump, the same group chose ‘arrogant’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘divisive’.

This latter survey result perhaps identifies the most important reason for the combination of hostility and bewilderment with which Donald Trump is regarded in Japan. which is Trump’s style—or perceived lack of it. The President’s ostentatious persona, his grandiose gestures and flamboyant verbiage do not impress a culture that places a higher premium on discernment, modesty and tactfulness. ‘Trump’s kind of politics—the bombast, the arrogance, the anger—simply do not play well to a Japanese audience’, according to Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. ‘That kind of personality is really offensive to Japanese people’.