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.


  1. “the difficulty of trying to carry on civilized life in a place where the powerful can get away with anything because they’re powerful”
    Yeah, tell me about it! It’s called selective application of justice, and it’s one of our favorite ways of doing things over here.
    Here’s a Moscow Times article about the closure of the site:

  2. utterly bizarre
    Since this attempt at wit falls so flat, let me clear the air with one from the master, which while not relevant to the subject of this post, touches on an area that comes up here often.
    From a review of a book by Herbert Giles.

    Chuang Tzŭ, whose name must carefully be pronounced as it is not written, was born in the fourth century before Christ, by the banks of the Yellow River, in the Flowery Land; and portraits of the wonderful sage seated on the flying dragon of contemplation may still be found on the simple tea-trays and pleasing screens of many of our most respectable suburban households.

    (I came across this by accident looking for the adjacent Pater one.)

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  5. I understood the Mazel Tov reference as Safire’s little way of reminding his readers that the Iranian government hates Israel, and why they are supposed to be interested in Iranian affairs.

  6. I guess that makes as much sense as anything.

  7. That was exactly my interpretation, but this little half-joke gives off a smell of deliberate ignorance, of that special “all foreign stuff looks the same” variety.

  8. That was exactly my interpretation. To me, this little half-joke gives off a smell of deliberate ignorance, of that special “all foreign stuff looks the same” variety.

  9. (whoops — previewing error)

  10. komfo,amonan says

    That Safire piece, dripping with contempt & condescension, is so far away from commenting on what’s ostensibly the issue that I’m inclined to conclude that it wasn’t meant to at all. Rather it is another piece of Persophobic propaganda, disguised as a linguistics piece.
    If I’ve gotten too political there, I apologize.

  11. No, I can deal with that level of politics, especially when it’s so obviously warranted.

  12. Perhaps I am too innocent, but I simply assumed that this was Safire’s way of saying that contrary to what a monoglot anglophone might reasonably guess the masle in maslehat was pronounced ma-sle rather than masel.

  13. It could be both, Bingley.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Does maslehat rhyme with Language Hat?

  15. Speaking of Yiddish, has LH ever mentioned the Yiddish Radio Project? It’s a website with a wealth of New York Yiddish radio broadcasts from the 1930s to 1950s. If you ever wanted to hear ads for “a kendele Carnation milk” in Yiddish that’s the place. It also has radio dramas, letters from housewives, refugee stories and hours of other material. Very interesting window into a lost world.
    At yiddishradioproject.org

  16. Very interesting window into a lost world.
    At yiddishradioproject.org

    One of the really great things about the Internet is the way it makes stuff instantly available that in the past was obtainable only to specialists who knew their way around the most arcane academic sources, and not always then.
    I had often wondered what Ladino sounded like, and recently found out from Omniglot that it sounds even more like modern (Latin American) Spanish than its written form suggests.

  17. does not rhyme with mazel tov
    In the U.S. the question of a writer’s religion rarely comes up unless they are writing about the subject of religion (if this isn’t too much of a generalization), but in the Middle East, religion is part of political and cultural identity. According his wikipedia biography, Safire
    …is a staunch defender of policy in favor of Israel and for this reason received the Guardian of Zion Award of Bar-Ilan University in 2005.
    Looks like a political statement.

  18. I had often wondered what Ladino sounded like…
    Mor Karbasi sings in Ladino.

  19. FYI: hronos has mirror sites (Hrono.ru and Hronos.km.ru) which are still working because they have a different provider.

  20. From a guest post on Juan Cole’s site:
    Traditionally, the clergy stepped in only when they felt the vital interests of the Muslim community of believers was at stake, addressed the shortcomings of the political leadership, and then returned to their seminaries, their lectures, and their sacred texts. This gave the clerics a decided moral authority, as well as an independence from the state, that had served them well for centuries.
    Yet, Khomeini undercut all that, first in defense of his revolutionary vision, and then in preparation for the succession after his death. He did so, he told his supporters, in the name of maslahat, or expediency [i.e. the principle, which he borrowed from a school of Sunni Islam, that the Law allows virtually anything that demonstrably furthers the general welfare of the Muslim community], which provided a religious justification for political policies he believed were necessary.
    at http://www.juancole.com/2009/07/lyons-spectre-of-khomeini-as-religious.html

  21. A maslahat cartoon ( مصلحت=maslahat) from a satire collection, I think in Farsi.
    A legalist discussion of maslahat in a discussion forum that defines it as “interest of the people” and “interests of the Muslims” and quotes a famous letter by Khomeini on the subject:

    The government or the absolute guardianship (al- Wilayat al-mutlaqa) that is delegated to the noblest messenger of Allah is the most important divine laws and has priority over all other ordinances of the law. If the powers of the government restricted to the framework of ordinances of the law then the delegation of the authority to the Prophet would be a senseless phenomenon. I have to say that government is a branch of the Prophet’s absolute Wilayat and one of the primary (first order) rules of Islam that has priority over all ordinances of the law even praying, fasting and Hajj…The Islamic State could prevent implementation of everything – devotional and non- devotional – that so long as it seems against Islam’s interests.

    In other words, because of this “interest of the people” principle, Khomeini claimed the government has the authority of the Prophet and Imams to supersede even obligatory Islamic laws.
    Iranian scholar Ali Gheissari defines maslahat as “public interest”.

  22. Herding grasshoppers, عمي?

  23. Wrong thread.

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