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Realpolitik - Translating U.S. Political Jargon

Yesterday the 116th Congress of the U.S. was sworn into office. This new congress may be one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse in history, but they will still be using the jargon of our time and the pundits will certainly still be using theirs. After all, the U.S. is coming off a ‘lameduck’ session of Congress waddled right into a ‘government shutdown’. Candidates have already announced Presidential Exploratory committees and procedural votes have already been brought to the floor.

Aside from all the pop culture terms, you also have the parliamentary procedures and institutional terms of government founded in the language of the 1700’s. For this reason, constituents who are fortunate enough to speak the same language their government operates in, are unfamiliar with or downright confused by the terminology, resulting in the need for a “Schoolhouse Rock” style breakdown for the general public. When global news outlets start reporting on U.S. politics, translators and interpreters alike need to do a great deal of linguistic acrobatics to convert American English into their target language. What is a translator to do? Well linguistic acrobatics does require some flexibility.

Closed for Business

One of the more recent demonstrations of translator flexibility has come with the term “government shutdown.” Though not the proudest moment in U.S. politics when the government “shut down” occurs, it can be a proud moment for a clever linguist. The term shutdown gives the impression that the government itself ceases to function, almost like it is going out of business. Terms like shutdown, are actually idiomatic. Where the phrase “shutdown” occurs in other languages, most elect to use the equivalents of “cessation” or “stop”.

For instance, the French “arrêt” translates “to stop” or “to arrest” and is used in the context of government shutdowns. In Spanish “cierre” is used, meaning “close” or closing. These terms stay relatively close to the meaning that English possess. If you were to translate it into Greek, however, the term Κατάρρευση (Katárrefsi) meaning “collapse”, might be used instead. This phrase sounds entirely more dire than a simple “closing”, and demonstrates that each language has connotations for its own words, making political translation that much more challenging.

The term "shutdown" may itself expose the difficulty of translating political systems. The government may “proverbially” shutdown in the U.S. if representatives elected by THE PEOPLE decide not to pass funding a bills which is in their power, not the Executive’s power. The Executive can always veto a bill, but as is the case in the U.S. presidential system, the President doesn’t actually have the power to do anything except concede to the spending bill or veto it.

This digression into government highlights again how much culture and language effect one another. If you live in a country where the government regularly does not function the American concept of “shutdown” may be confusing or laughable because that’s just life. Or if your country has a parliamentary system where in effect you have “no government” for months because a coalition hasn’t been formed, the words your language uses for the government ceasing to function would more accurately reflect your reality of the government “stopping” or “collapsing”, than the equivalent of a U.S. “government shutdown’.

“Lame Duck” - Where did this term come from anyway?

We have British English and wit to thank for the term ‘lame duck’ now used to describe a politician or political party whose successor has already been elected and whose power is now limited. As described in a recent NPR “Ask Cokie” session the term comes from “18th century England, where it was used to describe someone who couldn't meet their obligations in the stock exchange, and they waddled away from debt like a lame duck.” How it morphed into describing politicians in the U.S. seems to be unclear, but Calvin Coolidge gets the award of being the first President described as a ‘lame duck’.

Just be careful of translations of this term, especially those existing online, as some machine assisted, or quick translations may take the literal form of the term and end up with something like ‘pato cojo’. A trained linguist would instead opt for the much more accurate ‘incapaz’ or “no tuvieron fuerza”. Which both capture the meaning, but really do not give it the same underhanded insult as the English term ‘lame duck’.

Say What You Mean - Countries Like Toilets Could Use a Car Wash

Politicians are often accused of not saying what they mean. The task of translating political terms or nuanced messaging of politicians can be fraught with difficulty. If connotation and nuance are the key factors to being able to understand the goings-on of a government, accuracy is undoubtedly a key component. And that accuracy, for professional linguists, isn’t literal. Translating politics requires a consistent precision and a great range of socio-linguistic flexibility. And translating slang directly is an absolute mess because literal speech is not the root source of meaning; context is.

Certain heads of state challenge even the most seasoned linguistic when they communicate in the untranslatable terms of jargon, pop culture, social media. If they actually do say what they mean, very directly and bluntly, the linguist has the opposite problem of softening the message for their linguistic context. The current U.S. President, Donald Trump, is a great example of  a politician who poses this challenge.

In a January 2018 article the Japan Times highlighted different terms for translation of the phrase “sh_ hole” - used in an infamously derogatory comment from the U.S. President. 

  • Japanese - “Like Toilets”
  • Korean - “Beggar’s Den”
  • Taiwanese - “Bird’s Don’t Lay Eggs”
  • Vietnamese - “Rotten”
  • Chinese - “Bad”

In the Philippines, where English is widely spoken, they opted to just keep “Sh_ Hole” and move one. But we digress again. Translated expletives and vulgarities is a topic for another day.

Of course all languages, cultures, and countries have their own political expressions that are untranslatable. Take for example the concepts of glasnost and perestroika from the Former Soviet Union. Instead of actually translating these terms into English, the Russian was commonly used instead because no words existed to fully express the meaning of these terms; roughly translating to ‘openness’ and ‘restructuring’. Our favorite modern example is the Brazilian “Lavo Jato” (car wash), referring to massive investigations into corruption and money laundering within the government. A literal translation of this term, or even a skilled translation of the meaning, does not quite capture the cultural and linguistic significance of the term in Brazilian Portuguese.

For the Common People

Translation is the act of making language intelligible. The notion that one’s own language can be used in such a way that it needs translation is indicative of a greater challenge. By relying on knowledgeable translators who are skilled at providing accurate and meaningful translation, the nature of national politics or even international relations can be understood by all. Tone is undoubtedly a strong candidate to consider, if you’re looking to elect a translation service.


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