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Trying to translate Trump into Chinese, one tweet at a time

Zhang Jiaqian spends several hours a day trying to render the American president’s tweets into Chinese.
Zhang Jiaqian spends several hours a day trying to render the American president’s tweets into Chinese. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)
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TIANJIN, China — If President Trump’s tweets are sometimes puzzling in English, just imagine trying to translate his idiosyncratic prose into Chinese.

Total hoax, lap dogs, Mr. Magoo, horse face, smocking gun, presidential harassment, angry Dems, steel slat barrier, total sham, Scott Free, fake news, covfefe. Much of it defies the laws of semantics and grammar, making translation a challenge.

But that is Zhang Jiaqian’s mission. Every day, he spends several hours trying to render the American president’s tweets into Chinese, and writes a commentary far longer than 280 characters to explain them.

“I think this is a public service to Chinese people. Chinese people need to understand him,” Zhang said during a break from his day job at a medical device company in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. He asked not to disclose the name of the company, fearing his employer would not look kindly on his extracurricular activity.

“If we want to win the trade war, if China is going to make the right policies, we need to understand Trump,” he continued in passable English he taught himself. “He may be reelected in 2020, so we may have to cope with him for a long time.” 

Zhang began a page on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, in April when the trade battle was beginning. He thought it would be a good way to inform Chinese people what Trump was saying through his tweets.

It was difficult at the beginning because Zhang needed to learn about American politics, American history, American personalities and American idioms. He is clearly a quick study. He drops Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director, into conversation and riffs on Republican Ron DeSantis’s win in the Florida gubernatorial race.

But he found that he couldn’t just translate Trump’s tweets. He also had to provide context. “If I just translated his Twitter, no one would understand it.”

What Trump conveys in a word takes Zhang whole sentences to contextualize. He had to introduce his followers to Stormy Daniels. “Pocahontas” was particularly time-consuming. To explain why a Kardashian was visiting the Oval Office, he had to first explain what a Kardashian was.

And Trump’s pejorative nicknames lose much of their zing in the translation. 

“Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer becomes “Chuck the Weeper” and “Crooked Hillary” is “Hillary the Liar.” James B. Comey, instead of being a “total sleaze,” becomes “outright despicable.”

Then there’s the “manipulated and nauseating political persecution” instead of Trump’s “Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt.” The ubiquitous “Fake News” becomes the much less catchy “made-up news.”

This newspaper, however, gets something of an upgrade, becoming the “Amazonian Washington Post,” while the New York Times is not “failing” but merely “decaying.”

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“Democrat spin machines” becomes “Democrat lie generators” in Chinese.

“Pocahontas”: “The colluding Indian woman Bo Ka Hong Ta Si.”

“America First”: “America takes precedence.”

“Elizabeth Warren beer catastrophe”: “Elizabeth Warren’s acting was terrible in the beer video.”

Zhang’s most popular post was about Trump’s complaint that it was too expensive to have a military parade in Washington, so he would go to France to watch its parade. “Many people are critical of how much money China spends on parades so they liked that the U.S. is being frugal,” Zhang said.

China has a small but active online community of Trump supporters who use the Chinese version of “libtards” — that’s the “white left” — and champion the American president’s policies, even in these trying days of U.S.-China relations.

But Zhang said he is not translating the American president because he’s a supporter necessarily, but because he’s doing a public service.

“Trump writes his foreign policy and his domestic policy on Twitter,” Zhang said. “It is very important for Chinese to know what he wants to do with the relationship between the U.S. and China. His policies can affect China significantly.”

That said, however, there is one subject that Zhang does not translate. The one that Chinese people would doubtless be most interested in: China. 

“When he criticizes China, it’s sensitive,” Zhang said. “The Chinese government doesn’t like China being seen as the bad guy. So I just don’t translate those tweets.”

He did not tell his followers that Trump tweeted in December: “Did China ask us if it was okay to devalue their currency” and “build a massive military complex?” 

“I don’t think so!” Trump wrote.

Nor did Zhang try to translate the president’s assertion that “I am a Tariff Man.”

He also didn’t attempt to explain that Trump talked about last month’s truce in the trade war as a “BIG leap forward” — not to be confused with the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous Communist Party policy that led to crippling famine and tens of millions of deaths in the early 1960s.

Trump used a really unfortunate phrase while hailing progress with China

On China’s highly censored Internet, these kinds of discussions are fraught with difficulty. Individual posts can be blocked, but so, too, can entire accounts.

Zhang tried to skirt these sensitivities. But censors closed his first WeChat account, called “Trump’s Twitter Governance,” in October. This was part of a crackdown that led the cyber administration to block almost 10,000 social media accounts for violations such as “spreading politically harmful information.”

Zhang set up a new account with a more subtle name. It’s called “Kaopu English,” or “Trustworthy English,” as though it were a language learning page. But “kaopu” can also be interpreted as “Things about Trump.”

What’s more, Zhang refrains from calling the American president by his official Chinese transliteration of “Te Lang Pu.” He instead refers to Trump as “Chuan Pu,” with an intentional typo to further try to avoid censorship.

He says he will continue trying to explain the American president to his followers as long as he can keep his account alive. There is no sign that Trump’s tweets will stop generating news and requiring explanation anytime soon.

For all Zhang’s efforts, there is one pronounced aspect of the president’s tweeting style that is definitely lost in translation: his quirky use of capital letters. Chinese doesn’t have uppercase and lowercase letters. 

Lyric Li contributed to this report.

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