A recent guest post at the Log by Reza Mirsajadi clears up a point that had eluded me even though I studied Persian fairly intensively for a while:
For much of my adult life, whenever I have had to defend the Iranian people to conservatives, they have fought back with the “Death to America” argument. This more or less amounts to “They [Iranians] want to kill us, they said so!” I am so fed up with these misconceptions, and the news media and translators need to take responsibility for their part in it.
As someone who does a lot of translating, I understand that there is an ethical component to the craft. People rely on your work to understand the Other. For this reason, cultural context is absolutely imperative. The “Death to ___” chant commonly heard in Iranian political protests for well over sixty years, is a mistranslation. Yes, the Farsi word “marg” can translate to “death,” but “marg bar ___” translates to “Down with ___” […]
Furthermore, the “down with ___” chant as it is used today is not about a violent overthrow or physically harming the people of a nation. The phrase became popular during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), when political activists would chant “zende ba ___” (“long live ___”) in support of a policy or leader, or “marg bar ___” in opposition. These two phrases became entrenched within Iranian political discourse, and during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, swarms of protestors took to the streets chanting “marg bar Shah” to express their dissatisfaction with Iran’s monarchy. “Marg bar ___” and “zende ba ___” have continued to live on as colloquial phrases incorporated into political chants, and they have been appropriated to express opposition to or support for any number of subjects.
While the phrase “marg bar” has not made its way into most Farsi or Farsi-English dictionaries, it is commonly understood in Iran as an idiom without violent intent.
That would have been nice to know forty years ago when I was watching Iranian crowds chant, but it’s never too late to learn.