April 02, 2007

Linguistic intervention in Iran

It's not quite as bad as the spammers' "I need of your assistance" or "within the nearest time", but L/S Faye Turney's most recent letter of "confession", released by the Iranian embassy in London on March 30, really doesn't read like something that a native speaker of English would write. Some of its infelicities might be attributed to stress, lack of practice in writing, or Shropshire vernacular, but it seems much more likely that the text of the letter was largely dictated by Turney's Iranian captors.

Let's take a look at this theory as it applies to the letter's first two out-of-tune phrases -- the salutation and the first sentence.

The first problem is between the first and second words in the salutation, "To British People". This feels wrong -- L/S Turney ought to be addressing herself "To the British People". As a syntactician of slavic origin is said to have explained, "in English, is sometimes necessary to use article". Persian lacks definite articles, and so the subtleties of their use in English are likely to be difficult for native speakers of Persian to master. For example, in the International Bulletin of the Tudeh Party of Iran for May 2006, we find:

Unlike some of the political forces in Iran, Tudeh Party of Iran does not believe that the external intervention in Iran is the way to achieve freedom and democratic rights for Iranian people.

This is missing two instances of the that idiomatic English would deploy in the phrases "the Tudeh Party" and "for the Iranian people". And it has an inappropriate the as well: "...does not believe that the external intervention in Iran is the way...".

A second plausibly captor-influenced infelicity in Thurney's letter follows quickly, in the first sentence:

I am writing to you as a British service person who has been sent to Iraq, sacrificed due to the intervening policies of the Bush and Blair governments. [emphasis added, here and throughout]

The usual phrase for the clearly-intended meaning here is {"interventionist policies"}, which is commonly used to criticize military meddling in the affairs of other countries, and turns up 1,440 hits in the Google News Archive. A search for {"intervening policies"} in the Google News Archive (restricted in date to eliminate the many quotations of Turney's letter) turns up exactly three hits, all of them BBC quotes from Iranian sources. The first one is from the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran external service, Tehran, March 15, 2002; and the snip that's available for free is:

Analysts believe that should the present protest of world's community to US warmongering and intervening policies continue, Washington would certainly ...

The second and third hits both quote the same item from Keyhan International, Tehran, November 16, 2005, "Iranian daily says Asia to disallow Bush's 'human rights hypocrisy'"; the free snippet is

... burst into loud laughter, for they feel that Washington's undemocratic and intervening policies are the cause of tension and divisions In East Asia. ...

And a general Google search for general Google search for {"intervening policies" -serviceperson -Faye} turns up that same Tudeh News bulletin quoted earlier, which also contains the sentence:

Once again, we raise our concerns about the current trends of developments, and express our strict opposition to interfering and intervening policies of Imperialist states.

(The Tudeh Party is the Iranian Communist Party, once an ally of the current regime in Tehran but now operating from exile in London.)

This search also yields quite a few uses of "intervening policies" in economic contexts, e.g.:

Private and social prices are equal only in the absence of intervening policies.
Growth differences related to productivity & intervening policies.
These institutions could cover the framework necessary to constitute competitive markets as constitutional rules or be part of directly intervening policies.
The presence of some intervening policies notwithstanding, these changes directly affected wages and employment.

But the only other example of "intervening policies" in the international-relations sense that I saw was also from a passage apparently also written by a non-native speaker:

These privileged members of Cuban society, along with the rest of the population, rebelled from the United States and its intervening policies by supporting the Revolution, at least initially.

I don't imagine that L/S Turney would have come up with the phrase "interventionist policies" on her own either. But her alleged use use of "intervening policies" is the fingerprint of intervention by a non-native speaker steeped in the traditional rhetoric of the third-world left.

[Many others have noted the non-native coloration of the letters attributed to Turney. Niall Ferguson put it especially pungently in yesterday's Telegraph ("Iran targeted the Security Council's weakest link: us", 4/1/2007): "Delighted by their coup, Ahmadinejad and his lackeys have been amusing themselves by forcing Leading Seaman Faye Turney to sign bogus letters dictated to her in Borat-ese."

One thing that puzzles me -- doesn't the Iranian government have some trustworthy employees with a better command of English? Or do they just not care, because the intended audience for the letters doesn't speak English either?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 2, 2007 06:40 AM