Nagoya – The United States of America has a new president, and that means there’s more Japanese vocabulary and grammar in the news to learn.
When Joe Biden took the oath of office on Jan. 20, his translated remarks in the Japanese media provided an opportunity to discover a bevy of useful current events words, such as 国民 (kokumin, the people), 意志 (ishi, will) and 憲法 (kenpō, constitution).
“The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded,” said Biden, translated as: 国民の声が、国民の意志が響き渡り、そして国民の意志が尊重されました (Kokumin no koe ga, kokumin no ishi ga hibikiwatari, soshite kokumin no ishi ga sonchō saremashita). More literally, it reads: “The voice of the people, the will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been respected.”
Biden in Japanese — henceforth “Bidenese” — can also teach us useful filler words such as わずか (wazuka, just/merely) and set phrases like 心の底から感謝しています (kokoro no soko kara kansha shite-imasu, I thank you from the bottom of my heart).
Bidenese even teaches us helpful ways to express common English rhetorical constructions in Japanese. Take the translation of “You know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength of our nation” as: この国の憲法がいかにたくましく、この国がいかに強いか、よく承知しています (Kono kuni no kenpō ga ika ni takumashiku, kono kuni ga ika ni tsuyoi ka, yoku shōchi shite-imasu, You are well aware of just how robust this country’s constitution is, of just how strong this country is).
Bidenese uses the か particle after a clause for rhetorical and dramatic effect. A more straightforward Japanese construction would read, この国の憲法の強さを承知しています (kono kuni no kenpō no tsuyosa o shōchi shite-imasu, you are aware of the strength of this country’s constitution). But この国がいかに強いか is a more emphatic phrasing.
To me, it feels even a little more emphatic than the English original. As a Japanese to English translator, if I were to reverse translate Bidenese into English, I would go for something like, “You all know well just how resilient our constitution is, just how robust our country truly is.”
It brings up a good question — how exactly do Japanese outlets translate Joe Biden? What is he like in Japanese? And how do translations of his English compare to those of former President Donald Trump?
Trump was notoriously difficult to translate into Japanese. Of course, that wasn’t because he used complex vocabulary or elaborate rhetorical devices. Precisely the opposite. Past coverage of U.S. political speeches in Japan has stated that Trump “makes interpreters cry” with his rambling speech style.
“If we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” one Japanese interpreter told The Japan Times. A few even said that they would occasionally suppress some of Trump’s extreme statements in order to remain credible. Trump’s repetition of the same simple words over and over again, his mid-sentence topic changes and his unexpected references all posed particular challenges for Japanese translators and interpreters.
These quotes rang true for me and anyone who heard Trump frequently speak in “Trumpese.” Hearing Trump on the Japanese news, you might think his speech style was closer to that of a normal president. Translators and interpreters couldn’t help clearing up his meaning at times when he made very little sense in English, and did a good job interpreting his speeches into Japanese ones that were easy to understand.
Even when translations of Trump leaned more literal, interpreters often added emphasis and split up his phrases. For example, in Trump’s election night speech on Nov. 3 last year, his rambling style was on full display: “The results have been phenomenal and we are getting ready, I mean, literally we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good.”
Compare that with the Japanese interpretation below, which adds some clarity by adding extra paraphrasing and more sentence structure.
今日の結果と言うのは、圧倒的でした。そして我々は本当に準備をしている段階なのです (Kyō no kekka to iu no wa, attōteki deshita. Soshite wareware wa hontō ni junbi o shite-iru dankai nano desu, Today’s results were overwhelming. And we are now seriously in the middle of preparing).
The interpretation either opts for tonal accuracy or slips up in the second sentence, which breaks down grammatically with an incomplete sentence in Japanese: 外に出て、そしてお祝いをしたいということこんなに美しくてこんなに素晴らしいということ (Soto ni dete, soshite o-iwai o shitai to iu koto konna ni utsukushikute konna ni subarashii to iu koto, To go outside and want to celebrate something so beautiful and so wonderful.)
Of course, it makes a difference whether we examine one of Trump’s off-the-cuff speeches, which have been famously incoherent, or one of his prepared speeches. Trump’s inaugural address featured the standard rhetoric of a presidential address, such as, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” or in Trumpese, この国の忘れられた人々は、もうこれ以上、忘れられることはありません (Kono kuni no wasurerareta hito-bito wa, mō kore ijō, wasurerareru koto wa arimasen, The forgotten people of this country, from now on, will no longer be forgotten.)
Without more context, you wouldn’t be able to tell if the line came from Trump or any other president. Trump mostly caused fits for translators by deviating from this scripted presidential mode.
Biden returns to a safe zone in most of his speeches, with quotes such as, “Beating this virus and getting back to normal depends on national unity.” In Bidenese: ウイルスを打倒しこれまでの生活に戻れるかは、国中がひとつになれるかどうかにかかっている (Uirusu o datōshi kore made no seikatsu ni modoreru ka wa, kunijū ga hitotsu ni nareru ka dō ka ni kakatte-iru, Whether we are able to defeat the virus and return to our normal lives depends on whether or not the whole country can unite as one.) Here, we see the same use of か to pose an emphatic rhetorical question as in the previous Biden quote.
Examining these Japanese translations of American presidents reveals an interesting trend — that the Japanese translations of these speeches tend to expand. They tend to have more lengthy rhetorical flourishes, more repetition and more pauses for dramatic effect — a gravitas that seems to rise a little above the way Biden and Trump actually speak.
Perhaps this comes from a perception of what the American president should sound like in speeches. Perhaps it arises due to differences in expectations for political speeches between the two countries. Regardless of what the true answer is, by paying close attention to Bidenese, we can learn a lot about both America and Japan, English and Japanese.
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