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Lost in translation: The U.S. presidential debate in Japan

President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden speak during the presidential debate on Tuesday at Case Western University in Cleveland. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Japanese viewers watching the U.S. presidential debate endured not one unedifying fracas, but two.

Interpreters translating the mudslinging in real time for public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday faced what must have been one of their more challenging assignments: keeping up with the interjections, half-sentences and fiery squabbling that characterized the clash between President Trump and challenger Joe Biden, as moderator Chris Wallace battled to maintain order.

While interpreters the world over are likely to have faced similar difficulties, the live broadcast provided an especially stark contrast with Japan, where a recent debate for the leadership of the ruling party was an infinitely more staid affair.

NHK, perhaps anticipating the U.S. melee, employed three interpreters for the occasion.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

In clips of the debate, the Japanese interpreters can be heard repeatedly talking over one another — as well as over the three Americans duking it out in Cleveland — as they try to keep pace while making sense of the discussion.

Viewers who heard six voices simultaneously could be forgiven for changing the channel.

“It is really not like a debate. It is more like we’re hearing a fight,” said one person on Twitter.

“Enjoying something akin to chaos,” remarked another.

Others expressed admiration for the interpreters’ skills and endurance, given the extended bickering and interruptions during the 90-minute ordeal.

“Those interpreters deserve MEDALS! What a horrendous task,” said a user named Overlady.

It’s not the first time that Japan’s interpreters have had a hard time under the Trump administration. In 2017, interpreter Chikako Tsuruta said in an interview with local media that she found it nightmarish trying to make sense of Trump’s disjointed remarks.

“He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” she told the Japan Times.

Akiko Kashiwagi and Simon Denyer in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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