As the new year unfolded with horrifying images of fire, drought, earthquakes and the threat of war with Iran, the Facebook post of a dear friend caught my eye.
She is a linguist, fluent in five languages, and smart enough to know the trouble that human beings can conjure when they misunderstand each other.
Farsi, or Persian, is one of her languages. She linked to a piece about three volatile words that most North Americans have heard and reacted to in recent days as it has been included in reports of Middle East protests since the assassination by U.S. forces of Qassem Soleimani, a general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force.
“Death to America” is how the Iranian protest chant “Marg bar Amrika” is usually translated for English speakers.
That’s an error.
I’ll quote Reza Mirsajadi, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote the article my friend linked to in her post. “The ‘Death to ___’ chant commonly heard in Iranian political protests for well over 60 years, is a mistranslation,” he wrote. “Yes, the Farsi word ‘marg’ can translate to ‘death,’ but ‘Marg bar ___’ translates to ‘Down with ___.’ “
Mirsajadi wrote the piece in 2017. It’s every bit as, if not more, relevant today.
By native Farsi speakers, “marg bar” is used more to display a fervent animosity toward a government’s action, rather than a wish for the genocidal annihilation of that country’s people.
It’s a distinction likely not apt to move many minds, especially when paired with footage of mobs burning a U.S. flag as they chant.
President Donald Trump invoked the inaccurate translation when he addressed the nation after Iran fired retaliatory missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq.
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“Instead of saying, ‘Thank you’ to the United States, they chanted ‘Death to America,’” Trump said during the portion of his speech where he blamed the attack on former President Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated a nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran.
Trump referenced the chant to bolster his decision to scuttle the nuclear accord, as well as to justify military action so far and to boost public support for future retaliatory strikes.
As my Facebook friend noted, cultural context is imperative.
A bit of online research showed that this mistranslation has been the subject of much discussion among native Farsi speakers.
This might seem trivial to some. People are rightfully concerned with tensions between the U.S. and Iran, in the form of anything from cyberattacks to terror attacks.
But we all need to remember that words have power. Misapplied, they can spread fear and support an atmosphere where questions are shut down and skepticism is denounced as unpatriotic.
Politicians who asked probing questions about the White House justification for the killing of Soleimani have been labeled sympathizers of terrorists.
Understanding the difference between a literal translation and how phrasing is actually used by native speakers is unfortunately the type of higher-level thinking that too many North Americans — monolingual as we tend to be — often skip.
Ethical translators emphasize the dilemma of finding an exact word in English to capture the emotion, the intent of the original speaker, admitting when nothing fits exactly.
Again, this is not to minimize the current danger of war in the Middle East. Rather, it’s a call to remain vigilant to facts, to intents, to truths.
These three words alone, when misunderstood, have proven powerful enough to sow confusion, to stir anxiety and to marshal support for political and military action.
We need to replace such misperception with nuance and understanding.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn