It’s been a while since I complained about a Safire column, but this week’s On Language has me scratching my head. Here are the last three paragraphs (he’s talking about Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council):
Nobody knows for sure if the head of the Expediency Council, an old revolutionary named Rafsanjani, is a potential dealmaker or a Supreme Has-Been, but language mavens know that his council has a problem with the English translation of the key word in its name: in Farsi it is maslehat (does not rhyme with mazel tov) as “expediency.”
Expedient started out as meaning “suitable, fit”; Shakespeare wrote that “expedient manage must be made” and “with all expedient duty.” Thomas Jefferson wrote of George Washington in 1793 that “the president thought it expedient to remind our fellow citizens that we were in a state of peace.” It had speedy-managerial cousins in expedite and expedition.
But then the worm of meaning turned. A sense of shiftiness set in the central sense of expediency, and instead of “suitable,” it became “politic,” more concerned with utility than with morality, setting ends ahead of means, too willing to compromise principles in a lust for power and pelf. Tehran’s official propagandists need a new translator. On the other hand, should the kakistocrats in Iran stick with the name of expediency to describe their power brokers? Some of us think it’s eminently suitable.
Now (setting aside the utterly bizarre “does not rhyme with mazel tov“—huh?) there is an obvious problem here. He talks at length about the English word expediency, but says not a word about the meaning of the Persian maslehat. How can he claim that the translation is a “problem” without discussing the actual meaning of the original? As it happens, Language Log had a whole post about this, and it turns out that maslehat, or more accurately maslahat, means ‘interest’ (or, to quote the full entry from my Haim’s Persian-English Dictionary, “1) Policy. 2) Best thing to do. 3) Interest [usu. in the pl.]. 4) Good intentions. 5) Affair. [Used as an adj.] Advisable; expedient”). Opinions may differ on how good a translation “expediency” is, but it’s useless to try to decide without knowing the meaning of the original.
Speaking of expediency, I was first flabbergasted, then furious, when I did a Google search on the late-nineteenth-century writer of popular potboilers N. I. Pastukhov, clicked on the first result—a biography from the always helpful Hronos site—and got a message “Данный сайт закрыт по указанию МВД РФ”: “This site has been closed by order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation.” A little googling got me this page from the Russian Law blog:
The St. Petersburg police ordered the hoster to shut down history web site hrono.info because of finding there the text of Adolph Hitler’s books “Mein Kampf.” Notably, the police did not care to obtain a court order or even institute formal criminal or administrative proceedings; they simply directed the hoster to close the site referring to possible license suspension and criminal liability for complicity in “extremist activity.” The hoster complied.
They call Hronos “the most popular history web site in Russia (10,000 visitors per day)”; I’ve used it countless times myself. It’s not exactly surprising that the police can just shut it down because they feel like it, and it’s certainly far from the worst thing that’s happened lately in Russia, but it brings home the difficulty of trying to carry on civilized life in a place where the powerful can get away with anything because they’re powerful.