Translating Trump — literally

The World in Words

Eli Christman

Trump hotels, Trump wine, Trump golf courses, Trump steaks — we've heard a LOT about how Trump has made millions from his name.

In English, the word "trump" connotes a certain grandiosity but how does his name translate into other languages?

And more importantly what do the translations say about how Trump is viewed in other countries, in other people's minds?

This week we look at Trump’s name in three different languages: American Sign Language, Mandarin, and Russian.  And we enlist the expertise of several Davids and one Jami: Chinese linguist David Moser, The Washington Post's Moscow Bureau Chief David Filipov,  Princeton Professor of French language and literature David Bellos, and American Sign Language Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, Jami Fisher.  


00:00 “Trump does sound rich, it’s almost onomatopoeic,” said John Oliver on his TV show.

1:37 Trump’s name sign in American Sign Language

(ASL sign for Donald Trump. Credit: Jami Fisher)

2:00 Trump’s name sign isn’t without a bit of controversy in ASL

2:36 “Signs that seem to be insulting on the surface are really just descriptive,” says Jami Fisher.

3:08 How hard is it to change a name sign once it has been established?

3:25 How Jami’s dad got his name sign, “Pittsburgh”

4:00 Donald Trump’s name sign in Greek sign language

(Greek sign language for Donald Trump. Credit: Jami Fisher)

4:30 Name signs for other politicians like Nixon & Hillary Clinton

5:17 How you sign the word for "conservative" says a lot about your political leanings

6:12 How is Donald Trump’s name transliterated into Chinese?

8:00 Donald “Sichuan Mandarin”

9:10 Donald “Break the Bed”

9:38 On mainland China the Xinhua news agency determines how a foreign name will be spelled but that name may differ in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

10:38 David Filipov gets a funny question about Trump's name from a Russian caller on a Russian radio show

11:00 Trump in Russian kinda sounds like a Sinatra song

12:12 What “Putin” and “Stalin” means

13:30 The etymology of the English word “trump”

15:00 Patrick attempts a make the sound of a German trumpet

16:22 The story behind “trump card”

17:17 Will the presidency of Donald Trump color all of these words?


[00:00:00] Nina: Trump Hotels, Trump wine, Trump golf courses, Trump steaks, even steaks. We've heard for – I don’t know the past year and a half or so – how Trump has made millions from his name.

[00:00:14] John Oliver: Trump does sound rich. Trump is the sound when a mouthy servant is slapped across the face. With the words a thousand dollar bills Trump. It's the sound of a kook popping on a couple champagne of ulcerate the day when the vice is in the wine cellar we're finally completed. The very name Trump is the cornerstone of his brand

[00:00:30] Nina: in English Trump connotes as John Oliver says there are certain grandiosity. But how does his name translate? And more importantly what do the translations say about how Trump is viewed in other countries and in other people's minds? Today on the podcast translating Trump. I’m Nina Porzucki.

Patrick: And I'm Patrick Cox and you are listening to The World in Words.

[00:01:00] Funder credit: The World in Words is made possible in part by the National Endowment of the humanities. Celebrating 50 years of excellence.

[00:01:20] Nina: So, Patrick I started getting curious about how Trump's name was being translated or transliterated into different languages. After seeing the names sign for Trump in American Sign Language.

[00:01:31] Patrick: Oh right. What is the ASL sign?

[00:01:34] Nina: Trump is pretty great. The most common name sign for Trump is a curved open hand moving forward towards the front of your face. Kind of like you're combing your hair towards your forehead.

[00:01:44] Patrick: Ooh like a combover.

[00:01:47] Nina: Like there's actually also a variation that I kind of love where the fingers move forward like his hairs flapping in the wind. Pretty good. Of course you know these signs aren't without a little bit of controversy within the ASL community. And I spoke with Jamie Fisher who's been on the podcast before and she's a teacher of ASL at the University of Pennsylvania and she also speaks ASL She's known as a CODA, a child of deaf adults. So she grew up speaking as well. And here's what she had to say about this.

[00:02:16] Jami Fisher: Now some people I think take issue with that name sign because having a comb over isn't necessarily seen as positive in our culture. So some people finger spell his name just T-R-U-M-P and some people do his initials but the most commonly used sign is the sort of comb over sign. You know sometimes these signs that seem to be sort of insulting on the surface are really just descriptive and it's really important to understand that deaf people are descriptive. And when you see something that is visibly obvious and to use that as the name sign that represent the person I think is is not necessarily intended to be an insult but is intended to be efficient and descriptive.

[00:02:57] Patrick: OK. All right so how hard is it if you want to change the name sign if Donald Trump wants the ASL community to change his sign. I mean how could that be done if people already use that sign.

[00:03:11] Nina: Jami says signs come from within the deaf community so if you're a hearing person you can't really impose a sign on somebody else's language and name signs in particular are pretty hard to change and she has this hilarious story actually. So her dad who's deaf moved when he was small from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and when he moved to Philadelphia people started name signing his name as Pittsburgh. And so his name became Pittsburgh and he hasn't been able to get rid of it his entire adult life you know so that's his name. It's Pittsburgh. They stick. Interestingly though I asked Jamie about name signs in different sign languages around the globe and she referred me to this video that's been bouncing around the deaf Internet. It's the Greek sign for Trump's name.

[00:03:59] Jami Fisher: The sign here was having sort of your index finger and your thumb on your forehead and the index finger was pushing toward the thumb which would indicate that he sort of had what we might call like a pea brain or small brain person whether you like Donald Trump or you don't.

[00:04:15] Patrick: That’s got to be pejorative.

Nina: The line between descriptive and pejorative is kind of thin. Jami described for me several different name signs for politicians of the past. Speaking of that thin line between descriptive and pejorative and one of my favorites was for Nixon. So apparently some people use a name sign that combines the sign for an “N” the sign for lying.

[00:04:42] Patrick: That's really great. So this is like editorializing on the fly.

[00:04:46] Nina: Yeah there's a lot of embedded meaning lots of signs that Hillary Clinton apparently also is occasionally signed the same way with age and the sign for lying but most commonly Jami said that people to finger spell HRC but there's a big debate about how to name sign Hillary throughout the whole election cycle.

[00:05:05] Patrick: Oh that's so interesting you can imagine signers like Republican signers versus Democrat signers.

[00:05:11] Nina: She was telling me that actually there's two different ways to sign the word conservative.

[00:05:17] Jami Fisher: Some people would say a sign for a politically conservative person would translate to English as “mind closed” or like “having a closed mind” whereas other people who may not believe that conservatism means that you're close minded might tend to side conservative sort of like shaking of the “C” to indicate conservatives. But you can certainly give a lot of insight into what your political leanings are if you sign you know conservative as having a closed mind versus just this shaking “C.”

[00:05:47] Nina: And both are accepted signs for conservative?

[00:05:51] Jami Fisher: Both are accepted and new signs in the community for conservative. But based on your political leanings you would use one or the other.

[00:05:59] Nina: Very interesting. Think about that, in sign language, as you know all the intonation that we use in language that conveys so much meaning, you're conveying it in different ways.

[00:06:08] Patrick: Yeah. Oh no totally. So it makes me think as someone learning Chinese at a very, very low level you know in character based language like Chinese they've got all of this embedded meaning for which the speakers themselves don't think about very much unless they make a point of thinking about it.

[00:06:25] Nina: Well I was curious about how Trump was being transliterated into Chinese. Because I know that Chinese is rife with puns.

[00:06:33] Patrick: Yeah and a lot of Chinese people right now think, you know, like my Chinese teacher…I mean I said, What do you know about Trump?  And she says, “He doesn't like Chinese people.” So I don't know.

[00:06:52] Nina: when I researched what is the Chinese transliteration for Trump I spoke with David Moser… a friend of the podcast and a Chinese linguist and he told me…and you probably can confirm this…that usually when Western names are transliterated there's a certain set of characters that are used for this sort of thing.

[00:07:11] Patrick: I couldn’t tell you if I knew …my knowledge is very limited.

[00:07:17] Nina: What was interesting is in mainland China the transliteration or the name for Trump is actually kind of boring.

[00:07:24] David Moser: His last name is three syllables: “Tèlǎngpǔ.” It doesn't really mean anything. Those characters have meaning but no one has associates it. And then his first name is just the usual transliteration of Donald.

[00:07:38] Patrick: So has he come across other versions of Donald Trump.

[00:07:41] Nina: Yes according to most or there is another kind of sexier version of Trump and he thinks that it originated even though they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong. But he thinks that originated in Hong Kong and with things a little bit loose where things are a little bit they're just. And it has kind of a clever double meaning.

[00:08:01] David Moser: They use the term “Chuānpǔ.” It literally means river “pǔ,” which is the pǔ as in the name of the official version of Mandarin that they teach in the mainland. So the joke is “Chuānpǔ” could also mean “chuān” as in Sichuan Province right. You could also see it as any literally Sichuan Mandarin, kind of a derogatory term that they've used for a long time that means bad Chinese they speak in Sichuan Province.

[00:08:31] Patrick: That's a lot more fun.

Nina: That's gaining popularity on the Internet. According to Moser he was saying he recently was on a TV show that was taped in the mainland but it was like a Hong Kong TV show. But there were lots of like mainland Chinese and he knew that people were just going back and forth between the two different Donald Trumps. Online Chinese netizens are notoriously clever and he [David Moser] has found a couple of jokey versions and this is one that he particularly enjoyed.

[00:09:09] David Moser: Some people came up with “Táng chuán pò” for Trump which means to tear up the bed or break down the bed, which people thought was funny because he's such a destructive kind of anarchistic person so I was like “break the bed.”

[00:09:22] Patrick: I'm not quite sure what it means but it's really good Breaking the Bed.

[00:09:28] Nina: So there's different versions of names depending on what part of Chinese world you are talking to: Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong...

[00:09:36] David Moser: In China it's the Xinhua news agency that sets the standard. So they'll pick one and then they start using it and everyone has to use that one. But in Taiwan and in Hong Kong they don't go by what the news agencies says so they will choose their own and sometimes it overlaps but sometimes it won't. So good example is President Reagan.  In the mainland he was called “Lǐgēn." But in Taiwan and I'm not sure about Hong Kong and Taiwan he was “Léi gēn." And I think that's what's happening with the two Trumps. But because we read each other's articles so much people kind of use both transliterations… it is really complicated and multi-layered. 

[00:10:24] Nina: And the next example I have for you I just I like love this example. I was speaking with David Filipov recently. He is the Russian bureau chief for The Washington Post and he had this hilarious story about how Trump's name is being perceived in Russia.

[00:10:38] David Filipov: Well I was on a radio show and it was one of those shows where people call in and somebody asked me Does Trump's name mean a woman of loose morals and I'm like, “What are they talking about?!” Then I realized they thought “tramp” like “the lady is a tramp.”

Patrick: Tramp, oh yeah the Sinatra song.

[00:10:56] Nina: Yes tramp. And that's apparently because there's no “u” sound in Russian. So Trump in Russian gets transliterated and excuse my bad Russian accent... “tramp.” And then apparently this guy who called onto the radio show to ask David that question he knew just enough English to know the word tramp or actually he knew enough Frank Sinatra to know that.

[00:11:28] Patrick: I mean that's some deep knowledge right. I mean like if you at least if you understand the word tramp on the many levels that Trump has including the kind of racy stuff I can imagine for one minute. You know Americans or any English speakers would never hear a Russian name and think of a Russian words

Nina: Right. Right. We just can't do that and not enough maybe Russian music has infiltrated our pop culture diet. I mean that's part of the reason why this like guy from the middle nowhere knew like this English word is because he knew so much Frank Sinatra. But when I was talking to David one thing that was really interesting to me is Russian names have a lot of significance.

[00:12:10] David Filipov: I don't know if anybody knows what Putin actually means. You know there are words in that name.

Nina: Like what. Like what kind of words.

David Filipov: Well you know Russian names are created from roots and endings.  “IN” is an adjective ending for a male. Stalin means the man of steel.  That wasn't his name. His last name was Dzhugashvili and he took this kind of name on as kind of like a stage name.  Putin, “put” is “a path” but it's also “to confuse.”  You know when you hear it. The first thing you hear is that and then Russians who make jokes like to make jokes based on “Putin” getting something confused. That name is in there you can hear it.

[00:13:01] Nina: So getting back to John Oliver for a moment you must remember he made this big deal about Trump's ancestral name.

[00:13:08] John Oliver:  I found that a present ancestor had changed it from. And this is true…Drumpf

[00:13:20] Patrick: Drumpf is certainly way less magical. So what's the etymology of the word trump?

[00:13:30] Nina: It actually comes from a French. I spoke with David Bellos about this. He's a friend of the podcast he teaches French language and literature at Princeton. He's also a fair bit of an etymology nerd. He gave me a huge treatise on the word trump, which I quite appreciated. So he said that it dates back to a thousand years ago when the Normans conquered a bit of England.

[00:13:54] David Bellos: They brought with them lots and lots of words. And one of which is this word trompe or trompe. I'm not quite sure how it was pronounced in the Middle Ages but what it meant then was a trumpet, a cornet, a horn, a thing you blow on. It came into English meaning trumpet and with the verb trompe meaning to trumpet to make a noise and consequently also to fart.

Patrick: oh my daughter would like that.

Nina: Going back further the word comes into French not from Latin but actually Germanic.

David Bellos: It's assumed that it came into French from a Germanic word, a Frankish word that the Normans themselves had adopted because they were Frankish Germanic origin. Probably an onomatopoeia, that's to say that, you know, if you blow a lot of through your lips and flap your lips you get something like..trrrrrrrmfffff. And that top meaning home comes from some such source.

[00:14:54] Patrick: OK so let me let me try that.

[00:15:08] Nina: Pretty good. So this is not the end of the story. Sometime around the 14th century according to Bellos the meaning of the French word trompe changes from to blow a trumpet to, to make a mistake or to be wrong or to cheat or to deceive. It is kind of unknown how that word changed or shifted meaning but it did. Then that new meaning for the French word slips into the meaning of the English word as well because a lot of the elite you know in England speak French and there's a lot of exchange.

David Bellos: That sense remains in English in the expression “trumpery,” which is deception or “trumped up” charges which are false charges.

[00:15:53] Patrick: So that must be where that expression “trump l’oeil” comes from. I think it's a visual arts term so like an image that is in some way deceptive like you know Escher or Salvador Dali and all of that. What about like you know using a trump card for the card that beats all other cards?

Nina: that iteration of the word is a bit of a mystery says Bellos. But by the 16th century there are instances of the English word Trump being associated with cards.

[00:16:23] David Bellos: I mean obviously you know people who play cards often it's kind of a plausible transition to make. By the 18th century trump means to win, the card that overrules the others and that's the meaning it's kept down to the 20th century.

Nina: Incidentally and I think you speak French.  But I asked [David Bellos] what it is in French. Is the trump card also trump? The French the word for Trump card is “atout.” So that word did not translate.

[00:17:09] Patrick: I wonder whether the presidency of Donald Trump is going to affect all of these words from now on. I mean it's bound to in some way color all of these words. You know that you see headlines that play off of his name and the current meanings and it's bound to have a lasting effect on a lot of these.

[00:17:35] Nina: Bellos says you know it's only a matter of time. I asked him you know in the French press are they playing around with the word? Because it still means to cheat to deceive to lie. It's a matter of time before they play with the word.

[00:17:48] Patrick: Yeah. So he's got it all really. Blow a trumpet, fart, deceive, win… I mean he's all set.

[00:17:55] David Bellos: A simple monosyllabic name but it has infinite riches in it. Once you bring it into contact with other languages.

[00:18:09] Frank Sinatra song, “Lady is a Tramp”

[00:18:30] Nina:  And that's all for this week.

Patrick: You have a funny story about how Trump is translated into any other language. You can e-mail us that

Nina: Or tweet us. @lingopod. And as always. Thanks so much for listening.

[00:19:01] Funder credit: The World in Words is made possible in part by the National Endowment of the humanities celebrating 50 years of excellence.