Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Seditious Passion for Soccer

It’s still early days on monotran and I’m doing yet another post on the guy, so I would like to confirm that I do not have some kind of schoolboy crush on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though a succession of seriously dodgy translations could mean problems with what’s coming out of Iran in general. Anyway, I spotted this story on anti-Ahmadinejad protests in Iran. The man himself dismissed the protests as
passions after a soccer match
which, frankly, is a total shambles. Firstly, nobody would call a football riot “passions”. You could maybe say they were running high, or talk about “high spirits”, but ‘passions’ on its own is just not normal English. So you can already see we’re dealing with a rather shoddy, or at least hasty, translation. It’s also a little problematic as he’s being ironically euphemistic. Secondly, I’d expect the BBC to call its home nation’s favourite sport by its proper name. The use of ‘soccer’ probably means they’ve used an American translation, or at least a translation intended for an American audience (could be a MEMRI job, for example). And Americans’ often mythical view of British football riots might also have a slight effect on how they read this story. But most of all, this shows the BBC have printed a translation without really reading it through, and/or have been very reluctant to edit it in any way, even with something as smooth and uncomplicated as changing the name of a sport into their own dialect.

But slightly worse is the Iranian Interior Ministry’s claim that
Some seditious elements had planned to hold a rally
and that
Any disrupter of public security would be dealt with according to the law
Firstly, “Disrupter” is a bit clunky and not a particularly common word – probably because English is generally more cautious with agent nouns than other languages. We like sticking to established ones and it can sound strange or silly if we use a rare one or make one up (like “Ruiner”). I’d probably say something like “anyone who causes disruption to public security”. Also the ‘would’ is weird. They know a rally is planned so it’s not as if the disruptions are hypothetical or anything. Maybe the Iranian government is a bit naïve and optimistic about the prospect of violence (unlikely considering their preparations), maybe futures and conditionals don’t divide up in Persian in the same way they do in English (quite likely), or maybe someone has translated it to direct from indirect speech, and lost some of it (also likely).

But the real word that sets my head whirring is “seditious”. This word is a slight taboo in modern political English, as the concept it embodies – criminally undermining the government – is largely incompatible with the politics of the modern Anglosphere. Nobody but stuffy Tory backbenchers would use this word without irony in English, as it makes you sound like a backward authoritarian who wants soldiers to fire into the crowd*. On the other hand the Iranian plain-clothes militias policing the demonstrations are supposedly packing live ammunition, a winning combination if ever I saw one. So maybe it is appropriate. But on yet another hand, it’s fashionable among dictators these days to pretend to be democratic, so governments will often act, but not talk, like dictatorships. There may of course be no real English alternative to this Farsi word, although if English-speaking politicians want to talk about ‘sedition’ they tend to use euphemisms like, say, ‘extremism’. Whatever the reasons, using a word with these connotations in English makes Iran sound rather authoritarian, and I would consider that a bad and even irresponsible translation unless this was clearly how the speaker sounded in Farsi. Whether Iran actually is authoritarian should be irrelevant. No doubt Ahmadinejad and his allies have produced an awful lot of BS, but cutting through that is not the job of the translator.

*I'm not saying this is how Tory backbenchers like to sound (though I single them out because it was one of them I last heard use the word straight). It's just Tory backbenchers, well, they're generally a law unto themselves as far as choice of words goes and don't usually mind sounding a tad eccentric.

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