Languagehat doesn’t normally concern itself with the news pages (except as sources of linguistic tidbits), but two recent stories should be troubling to anyone who cares about the free flow of information.
1) Publishers Face Prison For Editing Articles from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya or Cuba:

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes which include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba.
Although publishing the articles is legal, editing is a “service” and the treasury department says it is illegal to perform services for embargoed nations. It can be punishable by fines of up to a half-million dollars or jail terms as long as 10 years.

Commentary at Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light; a bold countermove at Shanna Compton’s Rebel Edit, whose first post says:

So welcome to Rebel Edit. Edit a poem or short piece by a writer from one of these countries and send to rebel edit at shannacompton dot com. I will post it on this blog, which in effect will become both an act of protest and a petition.

Addendum. Bill Poser at Language Log has gone into more detail about both why the Treasury Department’s interpretation of the law is wrong and why it’s counterproductive.
2) Charges have been dropped against translator Katharine Gun—not in itself bad news, but Gail Armstrong has some extremely cogent remarks about the implications of the case for translators:

I expect that in the UK at least, this episode will lead to more careful screening of potential in-house translators in government offices, and perhaps even to recruits being questioned on their political stance (and an unspoken policy of hiring only those who toe the incumbent party line).
Translators have traditionally been viewed with some suspicion by those unable to grasp a divided devotion to two or more cultures, and by those baffled by such dedication to words.


  1. Hear, hear! There is, however, some good news on this front. Although some publishers, most prominently the IEEE, are complying with the Treasury Department’s interpretation, quite a few, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have refused. According to this report, the American Chemical Society has terminated its suspension of the editing of papers from the embargoed countries.

  2. That is good news — thanks.

  3. The fact that translators in the UK will be asked to declare any political affiliations surprises me not one bit. The fact that they have so far not been asked to do so, does. I have seen such questions on application forms here.

  4. This development on the part of the government seems to me part of the long and gradual swing to the Right. I read this last night, and today, on reconsideration, I felt sure this presents a danger of serious erosion of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech:
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abriding the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
    I never get tired of hearing or reading those words. I write this, being the eldest son of a woman who was detained illegally, along with her sister my aunt, because their father, my grandfather, the attorney Don Jorge Padilla, had defended the rights of the people in Jalisco to choose and practice, and express their faith.
    So when I consider that the government is seeking to control, nay, even restrict speech, foreign though it be, I must express in the strongest terms and tone that we must protest this now, loudly and throughout the world, both in cyberspace and on the streets, and in the halls of government, and in our houses, workplaces, marketplaces, coffeehouses, bars, and eateries.
    I raise my Weekend Edition coffee mug to toast y’all who have raised this matter and who are discussing it now. Happy Leap Day!

  5. I’d been waiting a long time for a post like this here.

  6. In my own field of interest (the Mongol Empire) the inaccessibility of primary and secondary Persian texts is a major issue. Of the four major sources, one is available only in Chinese and Russian translation, one in a ragged English translation which is 130 years old, and one in a 160-year old German translation. Situation doesn’t seem likely to improve.
    Compared to Chinese Studies, Persian Studies seems to be an incredibly stunted area in terms of the support it gets.

  7. christopher anderson says

    Is anyone clear on whether the Treasury Department restrictions include translating authors who lived in Iran before it was the current Islamic Republic (and are now dead)? In other words, if I use an edition of Hafez’s poetry published in Iran in 1965 in Persian, and translate and publish the poetry, am I liable to be charged? What if the edition was published in 1995?

  8. More words never to tire of: Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (Article 19, UNUDHR [to which the U.S. is a signatory])

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