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Japanese translators forced to grab the Trump bull by the horns

by

Special To The Japan Times

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A day after last week’s U.S. presidential election, I got an email from my former host mother in Fukushima with the subject line 残念 (zannen), the word used in situations of regret, disappointment or — fittingly enough for the election of Donald Trump — when something is “deplorable.”

日本も心配だわ! (Nihon mo shinpai da wa!, “Japan is worried too!”), she wrote, which put me in the position of trying to comfort someone who had generally comforted me. I tried replying with some sort of consolation — that things would be OK, that nothing would really change — but it all felt false. What did I know? All I could manage was the uncertain どうなるだろうね (Dō naru darō ne, “I wonder how it will turn out”).

It’s difficult to know exactly what the world will be getting with President Trump, but looking at the word choices of the 次期大統領 (jiki daitōryō, president-elect) and how those words have been relayed in Japanese can help explain much of the international uncertainty and concern. The Donald certainly chose nice words immediately after his election. NHK’s reporting on NHKラジオニュース (rajio nyūsu, radio news) made the man sound like a leader, both through the gravelly 声優 (seiyū, voice actor) they chose to dub him with and the translation itself.

Trump claimed 私はすべての国民の 大統領になると誓う (Watashi wa subete no kokumin no daitōryō ni naru to chikau, “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans”) and これからアメリカの分断の傷を癒そう。国民が団結すべき時だ (Korekara Amerika no bundan no kizu o iyasō. Kokumin ga danketsu subeki toki da, “Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together”). But the translation doesn’t accurately capture Trump’s off-kilter combination of teleprompter remarks and extemporaneous echoing. The first phrase above, for example, excludes “and this is so important to me,” which Trump likely added off the cuff.

The attempt to make peace clearly hasn’t moved much of America, given ongoing 抗議デモ (kōgi demo, protests/demonstrations) around the country. Nor has it eased Japanese concerns, the foremost of which is likely the implication of comments made in March and August that Trump would reconsider the 安全保障条約 (Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku, Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security) between the two countries.

Japanese newspapers captured one aspect of Trump’s personality through the word 不公平 (fukōhei, unfair): He complained throughout his campaign about how awful the U.S. has it under its current set of alliances and trade deals.

Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Japan unless the country drastically increased its 駐留経費 (chūryū keihi, financial contributions to cover the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Japan). He even opened the door to Japanese 核保有 (kaku hoyū, possession of nuclear weapons) in an interview with the New York Times in March.

The Japanese press has also covered Trump’s other 暴言 (bōgen, inflammatory remarks). When he made his entrance into the race in June 2015, many media outlets covered his declaration that some Mexican immigrants were 強姦犯 (gōkanhan, rapists), even if their coverage came a few weeks later.

Possibly the most concerning incident of the cycle was referred to as Trump’s わいせつな発言 (waisetsuna hatsugen, obscene remark) or 下品な発言 (gehinna hatsugen, vulgar remark) by the Japanese media. This was, of course, the October release of a video recorded during the filming of TV show “Access Hollywood” that captured Trump bragging off-air about sexually assaulting women.

Japanese newspapers often avoided touching upon the most controversial phrase: “Grab ’em by the pussy.” The Nikkei quoted several phrases, including this one that makes nice use of the Japanese 使役 (shieki, causative form): スターなら女性は何でもさせてくれる (Sutā nara josei wa nan demo sasete kureru, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything”). As above, Trump’s repetition is compressed into a single Japanese phrase in the interest of efficiency.

The Wall Street Journal’s Japanese edition hedged a little and replaced the gehin word for female genitalia with the far more indirect expression あそこ (asoko, there): あそこをつかめばなんでもできてしまう (Asoko o tsukameba nan demo dekite shimau, “When you grab them there, you can do anything”). It’s a pretty poor translation that prioritizes not offending the reader over providing them with the truth.

The less prudish Agence France-Presse opted to transliterate the offending word (プッシー, pusshii) and provide the explanatory note 女性器を指す俗語 (joseiki o sasu zokugo, colloquialism for female genitalia). It was easy enough for newspapers to translate Trump’s excuse: “Locker room talk” goes easily into Japanese as the transliteration ロッカールーム トーク (rokkā rūmu tōku).

Many media outlets and politicians alike seem to want to give Trump a clean slate, but his aides have returned control of his Twitter feed to the man, and his response to protests is a continued whine, captured accurately by this NHK translation: メディアにあおられたプロがデモを行っている。非常に公正を欠く行為だ (Media ni aorareta puro ga demo o okonatteiru. Hijō ni kōsei o kaku kōi da, “Professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”). The translation isn’t bad; it’s tough to capture Trump’s pithy style.

Japanese media may not have captured every detail of Trump’s personality in high-definition detail during the campaign, but the big picture was effectively communicated, and his words were clearly a concern to many. Now that he has won the job, translators will be poring over his words even more closely.