Marg bar ___

« previous post | next post »

This is a guest post by Reza Mirsajadi, who previously published a version on Facebook.


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 ___”, as you can see in the lead photo for the Guardian article “Iranians turn out in force for rallies after call for Trump response“, 2/10/2017:

The Wikipedia article on the “Marg bar Âmrikâ” slogan shows a mural in Tehran with the same English translation:

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. In fact, the Farsi Wikipedia article for “marg bar America” explains that the phrase is not in reference to the American people or even the country as a whole, but instead discontent with American political policies and its intervention in the Middle East. When the Iranian people took to the streets last week to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, the chants of “marg bar America” were not threats of violence or war, but rather anger over Trump’s policies targeting Iranians and Muslims.

In covering that event, the 2/10/2017 Reuters article “Hundreds of thousands rally in Iran against Trump, chant ‘Death to America’” follows in this tradition of Farsi-English translators for news media egregiously misrepresenting Iranian words and sentiments, which helps to engender the deep Islamophobia and hatred of the Middle East among much of the American people. The Guardian article that I cited earlier does a better job of representing the feelings of the Iranian people, although they still get some of it wrong. At least they address the fact that Iranians are deeply appreciative of the Americans who have come out in support of Muslims and opposed the immigration ban. And the New York Times’ coverage of the event “Iran Celebrates its Revolution, and Thanks Some Americans” 2/10/2017, does an admirable job of changing the narrative on the phrase “marg bar ___” and conveying Iranians’ true sentiments towards the American people.


The above is a guest post by Reza Mirsajadi.



43 Comments

  1. Maude said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:18 am

    What a breath of fresh air, thank you. An example of fossilization turning into propaganda.

  2. Lugubert said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:29 am

    Pretty much the same phrases and meanings in Urdu: X zindabad vs. Y mordabad.

  3. Ari Corcoran said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:35 am

    Thank you Reza Mirsajadi!

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:50 am

    This post is a major public service. It should be widely disseminated.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:58 am

    This may remind older readers of the time Nikita Khrushchev, in a speech at the United Nations, said – addressing the USA – something that was translated as “We will bury you”. This was widely taken as an outright threat of destruction, but turned out to be based on a Russian expression meaning “We will be around a lot longer than you”, i.e. we will still be alive when you are buried.

    I agree with the other commentators about the value of this post.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 8:03 am

    1. Surely by this point in history, after several additional conflicts in the region, quite a lot of AmEng speakers understand that political rhetoric in that part of the world tends to the florid and hyperbolic and thus discount accordingly. Consider how, as early as 1990, Dana Carvey was able to get laughs by having his Pres-Bush-the-Elder character speak in that florid/hyperbolic style (in a supposed effort to communicate with the Iraqi people in a rhetorical style they would find familiar). http://snltranscripts.jt.org/90/90abush.phtml Thinking your audience will “take everything literally” and doesn’t know how to comprehend metaphor, simile, hyperbole, etc. can come off as condescending.

    2. A classic problem encountered once one veers away from a more “literal” style of translation to a more “dynamic equivalence” approach is that when substituting target-language idioms for original-language idioms, there are often a lot to select from. How is one to judge whether “Down With America” is a better rendering than e.g. “America Sucks”?

    3. To be fair, translations in a tv-news sort of environment do not have the luxury of footnotes, so the intermediate approach of rendering original-language idioms closer to word-for-word and then explicating their meaning-in-context in the critical apparatus is unavailable.

  7. Michael said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 8:46 am

    I wonder whether the same is true about their calls for the destruction of Israel. Can anyone verify that?

  8. Rose Eneri said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 9:16 am

    I second Michael’s comment/question re: Israel.

  9. D.O. said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    Jeffrey Goldberg has a collection of quotes. Maybe they are all some misunderstandings ans mistranslations.

  10. Lugubert said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    Michael,

    The way I remember it, the prediction was that Israel will cease to exists, without mentioning how or by whom that would come to pass.

  11. Alana Forsyth said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    “it is commonly understood in Iran as an idiom without violent intent.”

    I see. Is that why there are missiles on the side of the building with the text?

    [I think those are bombs. American bombs, shown falling from the stripes of the American flag. It’s a criticism of American bombing raids in the Middle East. —Geoff Pullum]

  12. Tim Leonard said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    Those are bombs, not missiles. Who is dropping them on whom is not shown. Certainly the US has dropped lots of bombs in the region.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

    Re Professor Ladd’s reference to the old chestnut about Khrushchev having been misunderstood (ha! stupid Americans!), here’s a text from an 1886 American magazine article: “Christians are endowed with divine obstinacy; they will resist you, they will use you, they will bury you. They will bury your great statesmen, your victorious generals, your powerful writers. You may reduce the world to ruins, they will continue to live.” Via the awesomeness of the google books corpus, it is now easy to dig up pre-Khrushchev instances of “I/we/he/she/they will bury you,” and some of them are certainly plausibly understood in context as threats of homicide but others aren’t. Another striking one is the vaguely menacing “Comrade Baugh, we will bury you and it will be worth your dollar,” which turned out to be in a context where Baugh was being sold on the practical advantages (including assistance with burial expenses) that would accrue to him if he continued to be a dues-paying member of the Grand Army of the Republic. (Also a helpful reminder that “Comrade X” as a form of direct address has not been an exclusively Communist usage, although perhaps in more recent generations it got skunked by the Communist associations and was no longer used internally by Republican-leaning US veterans’ groups.)

  14. Max said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    “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.”

    Considering what happened to the Shah, this explanation isn’t necessarily reassuring. It feels like we’re in the realm of quantity implicature that trips up how different groups hear “Black Lives Matter”, viz. “Black Lives Matter [Too]” vs. “[Only] Black Lives Matter.” If I were an English king and I heard people in the streets shouting the relatively benign translation “Down with the monarchy!” I might see two interpretations depending on how paranoid I was but which are both correct: “Down with the monarchy [right now, I brought torches and pitchforks, what are we waiting for?]” or “Down with the monarchy [at some point, eventually, and hopeful of its own accord].”
    Context makes the difference, but the trouble is that different people could be supplying different contexts. In a group of anti-Trump protesters chanting “Not my president!,” some people may mean it in the emotional and symbolic sense, that Trump does not represent what they hold to be presidential values, while a handful may mean that he is literally not a legitimate political actor and that any means of removing him, up to and including a coup, would be justified. But I suppose that’s why it’s silly for Americans to look at an entire country’s political culture through the lens of one brief slogan

  15. D.O. said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    As an old Russian/Soviet joke goes “There will be no [nuclear] war, but the struggle for peace will destroy the world.”

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

    From a colleague:

    Alireza is right to try to downplay the slogan — for two reasons: 1) This is an early revolutionary slogan that is quite exaggerated. 2) Not many Iranians actually subscribe to this view. Note that the anti-government demonstrations in 2009 brought out millions on the streets vs. the numbers of thousands that have been bussed in for the Iranian revolution’s anniversary. We have to recognize that the current Iran is very different from the Iran of 40 years ago, and the pace of change is more rapid there than anywhere else in the world I know. The official government uses this slogan, but not many actually take it seriously.

    From a linguistic perspective, however, the word “marg” clearly denotes death and it has been so for millenia — as is the case in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) and possibly in Old Persian. In fact, I think it has a common etymology with the Latin mors and mortis, which has been also the roots of words such as morgue and mortal.

    One more thing about the word “marg” and its etymological link with other Indo-European European languages: the infinitive verb “mordan” has as its present stem and past stem mor and mord.

    What I found interesting is also the etymology of “zendeh” (or zandeh). Zan in Persian means woman, and deh/dah is the present stem of the verb to give. So, zandeh could mean it is the thing given by woman, namely life or becoming alive, and thus the noun “zendegi” (also zandagi)is formed, which literally means life.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

    There’s a famous Indian art journal called Marg, which in that context means “pathway” (e.g., “Independence Marg”), but it’s an Indian term that’s completely unrelated to the Farsi. This “marg” is a Sanskrit word meaning “righteous / high path”. This is why the antonym for the adjectival form “margi” is often “deshi”, which signifies “folk” or “local”. Therefore Sanskrit is “margi”, while Pali is “deshi”.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

    From another colleague:

    Marg is the Persian word for death, so ‘death to’ is more literal. The Urdu words mentioned by Lugubert are Persian loan terms, but not used much in modern Persian in Iran.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

    From yet another colleague:

    Iranians commonly said “Marg bar Amrika”- “Death to America,” after occupying the embassy.

  20. Yuval said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

    If the writer is fed up with the “Death to America” argument, surely we should oblige by focusing on the worldwide terror-agitation, the woman-oppression and the gay-hanging-from-cranes.

  21. Christian Weisgerber said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    Does it even matter to American nationalists if the slogan means “Death to America” or “America sucks”? Tomayto, tomahto.

  22. David Farber said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

    It’s also important to note that “Marg bar diktator” (“down with dictatorship / the dictator”) was one of the slogans used by anti-Ahmadinejad protesters in 2009, not just vis-a-vis the Shah.

  23. David Marjanović said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

    Surely by this point in history, after several additional conflicts in the region, quite a lot of AmEng speakers understand that political rhetoric in that part of the world tends to the florid and hyperbolic and thus discount accordingly.

    A lot in absolute numbers, perhaps. As a proportion, certainly not, and that’s not limited to the US.

    What I found interesting is also the etymology of “zendeh” (or zandeh). Zan in Persian means woman, and deh/dah is the present stem of the verb to give. So, zandeh could mean it is the thing given by woman, namely life or becoming alive, and thus the noun “zendegi” (also zandagi)is formed, which literally means life.

    Shouldn’t PIE *gʷenh₂ “woman” and *gʲenh₁- “beget” both end up as zan in Persian?

  24. Levantine said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

    I think what alarms people about the slogan is less that the wording appears extreme (I agree with other commenters who’ve pointed out that “death to” is readily understood as a colourful way of saying “down with”) and more that the target is an entire country. Wishing for the downfall of a regime or individual is very different from condemning a whole nation. That said, I hasten to back up what others have noted about this viewpoint being far less widespread than Western reporting would suggest.

  25. RP said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    “I wonder whether the same is true about their calls for the destruction of Israel.”

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is no longer the President of Iran and belongs to a different party or faction from the current president, is famously alleged to have demanded that Israel “be wiped off the map”. But a more literal translation was “the regime occupying Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time”. Thus, the remark was directed against the Israeli state, not the people or the land.

    It could be argued that in 1990, South Africa’s apartheid regime vanished from the page of time or was destroyed, and that in 1991 the Soviet regime was destroyed. Thus, to say that the same fate should befall the Israeli state is an extremely controversial statement but nevertheless we should not necessarily interpret it as a call for violent destruction of a country or its people.

  26. RP said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

    @Levantine,

    But metonymously, doesn’t the name for a country stand in for its government or its armed forces? Thus, in English-language media too, we frequently reports that “the United States” has bombed such-and-such, that “the United States” has imposed sanctions, or that “the United States” has voted against such-and-such at the UN, or whatever.

  27. Levantine said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    RP, that’s a good point, though Western rhetorical standards do not, I think, accommodate this kind of totalising language to quite the same degree. I can’t think of any case where saying “Down with [insert country]” would be considered remotely acceptable in mainstream anglophone discourse. Even when one is very careful to distinguish between a regime and the country (as when calls are made to end Israel’s Zionist policies), one runs the risk of being misunderstood.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

    From a specialist in Indo-European Studies:

    Yes, *mer is a good PIE lexeme (cf. Lith. mirti). I don’t know where the ‘g’ comes from, but there are other *mer- suffixes in other IE languages. There are other Old Iranian *mer words without the -g-.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    From a professor of Iranian cultural studies:

    The article you’ve shared shares some interesting views on the political slogan that has been mainly introduced to the Iranian political scene after 1979 revolution. I agree with the author that the accurate translation of ‘marg bar’ is ‘down with’ and not ‘death to’; though the word ‘marg’ in Persian means ‘death’. In 1998 when the reformist president, Mohamad Khatami, came to power he tried to eliminate this slogan from the political scene and he suggested to replace any ‘marg bar’ slogan with ‘zendeh baad my opponent’. It was of course a fascinating move by a politician but unfortunately since any reformist movement in modern Iran is doomed to fail that too failed and we still continue to hear it every now and then in officially sponsored demos. It’s certainly not addressed to the American people/society and it should be mainly interpreted as part of the ‘anti-superpower’ discourse and constant reproduction of the conspiracy theory against them as a source of ideological empowerment for the ruling regime (the conservative body of the state). Most of those people who ignorantly chant that slogan in demos may speak English with an American accent and have most certainly watched Hollywood movies and love Mc Donald if they were offered one! It’s more of an ideological gesture than any actual hatred or rejection…

  30. E said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 10:44 pm

    “Zende bad” not *”zende ba”.

  31. Muhammad Al Waeli said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 11:08 pm

    Its an interesting post (and blog), especially that I am interested in languages and am currently writing this from Iran. One phrase, but so much to say about. It in fact symbolises the history and the relationships between the different actors in the region.

    However my suggestion is to look at the bottom line before trying to address the meaning of the phrase. The bottom line is this: how many people die or have died, as a direct and indirect consequence of the Americans or Iranian policy in the region? All of them. Civilians, military. Deliberate, unintended. Openly, secretly.

    By thinking about the real context of the phrase, you’d have a better idea how to translate and interpret the meaning of ‘marg-bar’, the graffiti on the wall, or any other chant by the Iranians people disapprove of.

  32. Jason said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 1:00 am

    Victor Mair quoting a colleague said:

    “In 1998 when the reformist president, Mohamad Khatami, came to power he tried to eliminate this slogan from the political scene and he suggested to replace any ‘marg bar’ slogan with ‘zendeh baad my opponent’.”

    Why would he try to do this if “marg bar X ” neutrally means “down with X”, not “death to X”. Similarly:

    “Alireza is right to try to downplay the slogan — for two reasons: 1) This is an early revolutionary slogan that is quite exaggerated. 2) Not many Iranians actually subscribe to this view…The official government uses this slogan, but not many actually take it seriously.”

    Again, why is your colleague /so concerned to downplay the significance of this slogan/ as “exaggerated” (whatever that means — do they mean “hyperbolic”) and “not taken seriously” if it merely means “down with America?”

    Frankly this piece reads like pure political drivel of the type that’s increasingly infecting Language Log of late, when it seems perfectly obvious that:

    1) Marg bar Amrika literally means “Death to America”
    2) Native Persian speakers are perfectly aware of this fact, or else why try to euphenize/euthemize the expression or downplay how “seriously” Iranians take it?

    Reza Mirsajadi’s effort in sophistry reminds me of David Irving’s attempts to prove that “ausrotten” doesn’t mean “exterminate”. And indeed, given what happened to the Shah, the fact that the phrase originated in the Iranian revolution is the opposite of comforting.

    Violent metaphors have a long provenance in all langauges, but in the age of terrorism and the twitter soundbite every English speaker has had to learn to avoid them /precisely because/ you can never know if such threatening language is sincere or not. I fail to see why Iranians should get a free pass and a translational obfuscation courtesy of Mirsajadi on such language. Can anyone trust Mirsajadi to translate honestly after this particular effort?

  33. E said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 2:32 am

    “Marg bar X” is also used with inanimate objects and even concepts that cannot be killed, for example the protest slogans “marg bar tavarrom” or “marg bar fesaad” – down with inflation, down with corruption, respectively. Khatami tried to eliminate this slogan because it’s negative. For the same reason you will find people in the US political scene who oppose attack ads.

  34. tangent said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 2:35 am

    Lots of ad hominem, Jason, but facts are heavier. Can you present native speakers who think “death to X” is the primary sense of this idiom? We’ve heard in comments from several who say otherwise, despite the literal meaning of “marg”. Your move, if you wish to play.

  35. Doreen said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 6:24 am

    In the French-language animated film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s two-volume graphic novel of the same name (which was originally written in French), there’s a scene in which little Marjane marches around her family’s living room in Tehran saying, “A bas le Shah!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBsDmWOD70M Presumably she had actually said “Marg bar …” in Persian/Farsi.

  36. Frank said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:17 am

    In my native Portuguese the words ‘viva’/’morra’ (may it live, may it die) often appear in political chanting. ‘Morra’ does sound a bit unsophisticated and ‘abaixo’ (down with) is becoming more common, I think. Other languages certainly have similar usages?

  37. Mike said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    Language is dynamic. It difficult to imagine that the way this phrase is translated/ exploited by the Western/ American media doesn’t find it’s way back into the Iranian media, especially given the widely-strewn diaspora. So Iranians must be aware of how their words are heard/ ‘misheard’ by Others, yet have so far declined to refine their expression.

    Why? Probably because the phrase is provocative, striking at a nerve that is known to be exposed. It makes headlines.

    One parallel might be the Japanese prime minister visiting shrines where war criminals are buried. He knows in advance how his deliberate choice will be received in China.

    Also, is “down with America” really so different from “death to America”? Are we to imagine that America goes down without harming any Americans? No. It’s vague enough that violence cannot be ruled out either.

    The popularity of usage, irrespective of translation, evidences a widespread animosity. Perhaps this feeling is grounded in fact, and perhaps it’s a construct owing it’s origin to propaganda. Either way, semantics will not change that.

  38. RP said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:44 am

    @Frank,
    In the UK I can imagine “kill __” or “die, __” if you were campaigning against an agreement, treaty, system or law (“kill the bill!”). But I can’t imagine anyone using it to campaign against a person, people or country – unless they were willing to take the risk of being interpreted as literally meaning it.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    From an Iranian friend:

    I very much hope that all ‘modeh baads’ and ‘marg bar’ will be soon replaced by ‘zendeh baad’ and friendship between two countries.

  40. Shahriar said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    As an Iranian, I am sorry to say that “Marg bar” means “death to”.
    Official and governmental translating from the Persian language to other languages are important to study. We should know from Iran government views, some texts should not be translated and these texts are for Iranians inside Iran. If these texts are translated into other languages and broadcasted in foreign media, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran will tell translators did not translate in the right way.
    The official English translated texts that I used, for example, are the texts provided for audiences outside Iran. The official site of Mr. Khamenei’s translators sometimes changed the words with milder synonyms. For example, the NY Times translated the supreme leader’s words to “would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos.” (Fathi 19 June 2009)And official website of Mr. Khamenei translated the same paragraph to” will be responsible for the repercussions of such incidents.”

  41. chris said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

    I don’t think someone saying “marg bar Amrika” necessarily wants to kill any Americans any more than someone saying “Trump sucks” necessarily believes that Trump performs a specific sex act.

    Non-literal invective is a human tendency that transcends any specific language, and if we ever encounter another sapient species, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did it too.

  42. Joshua K. said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

    With regard to Ahmadinejad saying that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” that was actually stated in a translation provided on the Iranian presidency’s English-language web site:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20080611115143/http://www.president.ir/en/?ArtID=10114

    Furthermore, even if interpreted in the most charitable way possible, Ahmadinejad’s comment implies that the Israeli Jews should have to either live under the rule of the Palestinians, or go into exile. Neither of these possibilities would go over well in Israel.

  43. RP said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:52 am

    @Joshua,
    That’s interesting in that it shows that the less charitable translation wasn’t the product of foreign prejudice; however, it would perhaps be wrong to assume that the official translators are infallible or that their translations are always the most accurate.
    On your second point, I’m aware of that, which is why I said it would be highly controversial.

RSS feed for comments on this post