Trump translated

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In "Trump's Tower of Babble:  How the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explains Donald Trump's rantings — and why the rest of the world is so confused" (Foreign Policy, 8/30/16), Christopher M. Livaccari and Jeff Wang allege:

Questions about the meaning of Trump's words… may be a type of category mistake. Trump and his supporters seem to be adherents to a strong version of what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — the idea that the language we use has an effect on our thinking and the way we perceive the world.  There's only one thing the Trump campaign seems to sincerely believe, in other words — namely, that if it says something enough times, no matter how disconnected from truth or logic, other people will begin to believe it.

Neither is it clear to me how "[q]uestions about the meaning of Trump's words" are "a type of category mistake", nor is it evident that Trump and his supporters are "adherents of a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis."  Neither the strong nor the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have anything to do with repetition, truth, logic, or belief.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis simply holds that "an individual's thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks", while the strong version of the hypothesis maintains that " all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language" (definitions from Linguist List).

When Livaccari and Wang stick to discussions of notable instances of mistranslations, they make the most sense.  For instance, when in 2011 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, supposedly declared that Israel would be "wiped off the map", what he really said was that "the regime in Jerusalem would fall or vanish", but that is not "another good indication that the Sapir-Whorf principle has some validity".

Likewise, the notion that Vladimir Putin called Donald Trump a "genius" is based on a false extrapolation from yarkii яркий ("bright; colorful") –> "brilliant" "genius".

Disappointingly, Livaccari and Wang do not give any examples of Trump's utterances being translated or mistranslated into Chinese.

The Chinese have had a lot of fun transcribing / translating Trump's name in Mandarin:

"The Chinese already have an amazing nickname for Donald Trump" (Fusion, 5/6/16), and see also the Quartz article cited below.

"What Is Being Said On Chinese Social Media About Donald Trump" (XpatNation, 3/17/16):

In China's social media, Trump is transliterated [VHM: –> transcribed] into "Chuan-pu"* or "Tang-Chuang-Po,"** both of which sound funny and disrespectful in Mandarin. The former literally means "Sichuan-style Mandarin" and the latter "Donald Breaking Bed."

—–

*Chuānpǔ 川普

**Táng chuáng pò 唐床破

The normal transcription for Trump is Tèlǎngpǔ 特朗普 (purely phonetic)

The normal transcription for Clinton is Kèlíndùn 克林顿 (purely phonetic)

For those who are curious about why Trump is so popular in China, despite his caustic rhetoric directed at that country, this article by Aaron Mak is worth a read:

"Why China's Not Afraid of Donald J. Trump: No matter how much he trashes the country, the Chinese media love The Donald" (POLITICO, 5/18/16).

See also:

"What do Chinese people have to say about Donald Trump? " (Brookings, 7/22/16), by David Dollar and Wei Wang, also helps to understand the Trump phenomenon in China.

Above all, the Chinese people seem to be fascinated and even flattered by Trump's fixation on China:

"Trump on China" (Language Log, 8/29/15).

Conversely, whereas they think the Donald is a riot, by and large the Chinese are wary of Hillary Clinton:

"China's netizens mock Donald Trump, but they fear Hillary Clinton" (Quartz, 3/02/16)

Clinton played hardball with China when she was Secretary of State, and many Chinese fear that, as president, she would be tough on them for their aggression in the South China.  The bad blood between Hillary Clinton and Xi Jinping runs deep.  It's hard to forget that, shortly before he was anointed as the ruler of China, Xi conspicuously failed to keep a long-appointed meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, without the slightest explanation or expression of regret.

It also hasn't helped Clinton's cause in China that, unlike Trump, she has said things that are translated in such a way as to come off as threatening.  Here Livaccari and Wang do a much better job of illustrating the kind of problem that can occur in representing American political discourse in Chinese:

During a Democratic primary debate last year, the former secretary of state shared stories of her and Obama "hunting for the Chinese" at an international climate conference in Copenhagen. The expression in Chinese used to translate "hunting" — bulie — by a number of Chinese media outlets does not include the extended meaning of "searching" that is common in English. So to Chinese ears (or eyes, if they were reading subtitles), Clinton had conjured up the image of her carrying a gun and trying to hunt down and kill her Chinese counterparts. The internet lit up with debate and anger. Just like the complexities surrounding the use of the word "brilliant" to translate Putin's comments about Trump, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the English word "hunting" and the Chinese word "bulie."

VHM:  bǔliè 捕猎 ("hunting")

I would like to end with a transcription and translation of the captions on the photograph at the top of the article by Livaccari and Wang:

Měiguó
xīnwén zhíbò jiān
mínzhǔdǎng jìngxuǎn chǒuwén xìjié pùguāng
niēzào zhèngjù dǐhuǐ Tèlǎngpǔ

美国
新闻直播间
民主党竞选丑闻细节曝光
捏造证据诋毁特朗普

America

Live news

Details of Democratic Party election scandal revealed

Fabricated evidence to discredit Trump



10 Comments

  1. Laura Morland said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 1:10 am

    Note to HRC: In future try to use words with the most specific (narrowest of) meanings.

    I can guess why she chose the word "hunting" — it conveys a level of difficulty absent in "searching for" — but with reckless translations abounding, colorless language is certainly a safer choice.

    It can happen even in monolingual circumstances. I myself was "mis-translated" twice in the past 24 hours, when my use of the word "get [= receive]" was understood as "get [=purchase]". Both times I had to stop folks from running to the store and/or internet to purchase something I'd already sent them (but that they were unaware they'd received).

    I'm now excising "get" from my vocabulary… if I can get myself to do it.

  2. AntC said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 4:14 am

    Thank you Victor. I agree the article flounders around incoherently.

    The article is an example of 'linguification', isn't it? [A LL copyright word that hasn't appeared much lately.] That is: attempting to illuminate some phenomenon in terms of some spurious linguistic observation.

    In this case, what is most notable about Trump is exactly his language. He has no experience or record in government or public service, so the political dialogue can't be in terms of whether he was a good Congressman or Governor or Mayor or Secretary of State.

    If there is a category mistake, it's in supposing his speeches represent policy pronouncements. They're more like dog-whistles[*]. In what way could it be a "beautiful wall" to block Mexicans? Its "beauty" is in the eyes of those whose vote he is trying to attract; and its beauty consists purely in its ability to block the alleged threat to the rust belt.

    [*] ref http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/30/science/with-dogs-its-what-you-say-and-how-you-say-it.html?_r=0

  3. leoboiko said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis simply holds that "an individual's thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks", while the strong version of the hypothesis maintains that " all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language" (definitions from Linguist List).

    Is that so? I always thought that the strong version was simply "one's languages determine one's worldview irreversibly", while the weak version was "language nudges thought (but it's possible to get around it)".

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    @Laura Morland: 'get' was largely excised from my vocabulary in Primary School (Elementary School in AmE) in the 1950s. We were strongly encouraged to prefer more specific verbs: receive, purchase, become etc, not just in writing but even in everyday speech. I believe that was sound teaching, although it seems terribly fussy from the modern point of view at 60 years' distance.

  5. Margaret Dean said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    Is there a name (other than "magical thinking", perhaps) for the delusion that if you repeat something enough times, it will become true?

    ("Hey, it worked for Assad. He kept saying "foreign terrorists," and sure enough…")

  6. K. Chang said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 12:43 am

    Is there a name (other than "magical thinking", perhaps) for the delusion that if you repeat something enough times, it will become true?

    "The Secret"? (That stupid book, I mean)

  7. John Roth said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    @Margaret Dean

    Advertising.

  8. Stephen Hart said,

    September 2, 2016 @ 11:51 pm

    Margaret Dean said,
    "Is there a name (other than "magical thinking", perhaps) for the delusion that if you repeat something enough times, it will become true?"

    The big lie?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_lie

  9. R. Fenwick said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 1:33 am

    @Margaret Dean: I'm not sure about repetition, but certainly Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule comes to mind, which states (judgment of intelligence aside) that a person will believe any false statement given a sufficient fear of, or desire for, the statement to be true. Certainly repetition can build fear – we're pattern-matching machines, after all, and if we see something happen or hear something said enough, the fallacy of the argumentum ad populum often kicks in (or perhaps 三人成虎 ). The question is, can a single person say something enough times that it triggers the same effect?

    Actually, now that I dig a little deeper, Wikipedia appears to refer to such things as the proof by assertion, or the aptly named argumentum ad nauseam, that seem pretty appropriate to these circumstances.

  10. hanmeng said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 8:18 pm

    I wonder how the Trumpchi autos are currently faring.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trumpchi

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