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.

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The great British science fiction satirist Douglas Adams writes in his series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about the Babel fish, a small creature that can be inserted into one’s ear to effectively translate any language in the universe. By “removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures,” the device served to illustrate that communication is ultimately a matter of interpretation. Adams remarks that the Babel fish “has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

One is tempted to pity any poor Babel fishes tasked with translating Donald Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail. But in China, home to one of Trump’s largest and most enthusiastic global audiences, legions of young Chinese have volunteered for the job. They currently crank out crowd-sourced translations of his speeches on the Chinese equivalents of YouTube and Vimeo, much as their American counterparts subtitle the latest Japanese animation series. Whether their translations are accurate, of course, is another question.

Regardless of how it ends, Trump’s bid for the presidency has already been fascinating from a linguistic perspective. What has been especially instructive, though frightening, is that his remarks seem to be getting lost in translation most frequently among native speakers of American English. His use of innuendo in his remarks about “Second Amendment” supporters doing something about Hillary Clinton, like his assertion that President Barack Obama is the “founder of ISIS,” set off days of debate in the media about what he actually meant and how literally his words were to be taken.

Questions about the meaning of Trump’s words, however, 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.

So, according to Trump the linguist, the very repetition of the words “Make America Great Again” compels his audience to immediately embrace the assumption that America is decidedly not great at the moment — a notion that the Democrats have tried to counter vociferously. But like George Orwell’s Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-four or Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, the words themselves may carry assumptions that may become unconsciously lodged in listeners’ brains and influence their behaviors. From “crooked Hillary” to “lying Ted,” the Trump campaign has mounted a rearguard action against consensus reality through the manipulation of language.

Although Trump’s unknowing embrace of the strong version of Sapir-Whorf seems to be having an impact on people’s thinking when it comes to the honesty of Hillary Clinton or the robustness of the American economy, he was much less successful in his assertions that the mother of a fallen U.S. soldier had nothing to say, or that Mexican immigrants are “rapists.” In these cases, Trump’s words have indeed had an impact — not on public opinion, but on people’s perceptions about his motivations and fitness for office. For most Americans, Trump’s campaign has served as an emphatic illustration of why their leading politicians should choose their words carefully. 

Of course, this is something that global audiences, and most global politicians, already knew. Political leaders today, especially American ones, don’t have the luxury of choosing their audience; they instantaneously reach a diverse international public. This is a challenge, because it’s human nature to listen for what we want to hear, to understand words in the context of our own lives and experiences, or to hear echoes of our leaders in the translated words of foreign politicians.

The most appropriate international parallel for Trump might be Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whose gaffes, insensitivity, and misogyny as prime minister made him a laughingstock abroad – and were a significant part of his appeal at home. It is perhaps no accident that Mr. Trump seems to be more popular in Italy than in other places in Europe, particularly among supporters of Mr. Berlusconi.

Or consider Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom an Iranian friend recently compared to Trump for the ways in which they have both suffered due to the negligent ambiguity of their pronouncements. In 2011, the Iranian president infamously made remarks about Israel that were translated as a wish that the country be “wiped off the map.” What he had actually said was that the regime in Jerusalem would fall or vanish; what sounded like a call for violent action was in fact a prediction about the future. The great number of people who still condemn Ahmadinejad for declaring that Israel should be “wiped off the map” is another good indication that the Sapir-Whorf principle has some validity.

It’s also worth noting that Trump’s oft-repeated belief in Vladimir Putin’s regard for his intellect is itself based on a mistranslation, which doesn’t seem to concern him. Although Trump and some commentators continue to assert that Putin called Trump a “genius,” what the Russian president in fact said was that the American businessman was “yarkiy” — “bright” or “colorful.” This got translated into English as “brilliant,” but the sense of it should have been that of the sun shining brilliantly or colorfully and not the extended meaning of “smart” or “intelligent,” which is more common in English.

Although Trump’s remarks are caustic and often insulting, they don’t seem to have suffered from much in the way of mistranslation in China, at least not in the most literal sense of that term. His words are simply too blunt and direct to be misinterpreted — which is not to say the Chinese like what they hear. Trump’s official website has an entire section devoted to China policy that lays out four key goals, including “forcing China to uphold intellectual property laws,” “putting an end to China’s illegal export subsidies,” and “bolstering the U.S. military presence in the East and South China Seas to discourage Chinese adventurism.” There is little here that could either be misconstrued or embraced in China. (Though when it comes to Trump’s immigration policy, China may have more sympathy; the country has more than two millennia of experience building walls to keep out foreigners.)

The Trump candidacy already threatens to damage the stature that the words of U.S. presidents hold in the Chinese linguistic and political consciousness. Although the Chinese and American governments have perceived one another as rivals and adversaries for much of the 20th and early 21st centuries, people in China have long shared a fascination with — indeed, an unbridled appreciation and admiration for — U.S. presidents. Abraham Lincoln is a particularly venerated figure on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and his “of the people, by the people, for the people” has passed seamlessly into Chinese as the foundation for Sun Yat-sen’s famous Sun’s “Three Principles of the People” principles of nationalism (minzu), democracy (minquan), and the welfare of the people (minsheng). It’s hard to imagine anything Trump says fulfilling the same function.

Which is not to suggest Hillary Clinton would do any better in this regard. Her presidential campaign to date suggests the opposite. 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.”

Every translation involves an act of interpretation on the part of the translator. Words in different languages cover different ranges of meaning; there will always be close equivalents but never an exact one-to-one correspondence. In some languages, the word “blue” may cover colors that we see as “purple” or “green,” for example. And the more abstract and nuanced the language one uses, the more complex and subtle that act of interpretation becomes. Consider the story of the U.S. official who went to China many years ago and remarked to his Chinese counterpart that his wife was very beautiful. His interpreter thought for a moment about how to translate the Chinese official’s reply — literally, “Where, where?” — the Chinese attempt to deflect a compliment (as in, where do you see such a beautiful wife?). The American struggled to come up with an answer to what he heard as a question back to him and haltingly declared, “From head to toe!”

On China, there isn’t a lot of nuance from either candidate. Clinton has said, “I’ve gone toe to toe with China’s top leaders on some of the toughest issues we face. I know how they operate — and they know that if I’m president, the games are going to end.” Trump’s official campaign website declares, “We need a president who will not succumb to the financial blackmail of a Communist dictatorship.… No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers.” It is hard to contemplate more cutting remarks aimed at China’s leadership and economic system.

If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis teaches anything, it’s that words have the power to shape reality. And in our highly interconnected global world, it’s important for the next president of the United States to carefully consider the power of his or her words to shape the image of the nation in the minds and hearts of the world. Neither Trump nor Clinton, after all, will have Babel fishes at his or her disposal.

Photo credit: Wei Bo/Fair Use

Christopher M. Livaccari is Chinese Program Director and Elementary School Principal at International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, CA, and the Senior Advisor for China Learning Initiatives at Asia Society. 
Jeff Wang is director of China Learning Initiatives at Asia Society.

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