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Iranian Studies
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What about Translation? Beyond

Persianization as the Language Policy
in Iran
Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam & Reine Meylaerts
Published online: 07 May 2014.

To cite this article: Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam & Reine Meylaerts (2014): What about
Translation? Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran, Iranian Studies, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00210862.2014.913437


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Iranian Studies, 2014


Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam and Reine Meylaerts

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What about Translation? Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy

in Iran

Against the background of language policy research on Iran, and drawing on insights from
recent scholarship on the role of translation in language policy, this article calls into question
the claim that Persianization of non-Persian peoples is the main element of language
policy in Iran. In so doing, the article examines closely the role of translation as enacted
in two legal instruments: the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Law
of Parliamentary Elections. The study illustrates that although ofcial communication
between Iranian authorities and citizens is a prototypical example of monolingualism
and non-translation, voluntary translation happens between Persian and non-Persian
speaking individuals, acting as a viable and cost-effective bottom-up alternative for the
inclusion of non-Persian speaking peoples, far more effective than an impractical, topdown language policy reform implicitly found in the Persianization claim.
Language and Translation Policy
Generally speaking, from the fteenth century onwards language has progressively
become a state matter, when the rulers of centralizing states and European colonial
authorities began to feel the need to directly claim the allegiance of their subjects, and
to link this to the idea of one uniting languageand even to some extent one national
culture.1 Language became a national symbol, a community-building tool and the
basic principle for democratic legitimation and participation: citizens had the right
to communicate with (and control) the authorities, to understand the laws taken in
their name, to vote, to receive and understand ofcial documents, etc. This means
that language had to become institutionalized through language policies,2 dened
here as legal rules for language use in public education, in legal affairs, political institutions, administration and the public media. Often these policies wereand still are
an embodiment of the democratic ideal of one language for one people in one
nation-state. However, this monolingual ideal is at odds with the linguistic variety
Esmaeil Haddadian-Moghaddam (PhD, Translation & Intercultural Studies) is a research fellow at
KU Leuven University, Belgium. Reine Meylaerts is Professor of Comparative Literature and director
of the Center for Translation Studies (CETRA) at the same university. The authors would like to
thank G. Gonzlez Nez for his useful comments on an earlier draft of this article. This work was supported by a F+ grant from KU Leuven University in collaboration with a project named TIME (Translation Research Training: An Integrated and Intersectoral Model for Europe, FP7-PEOPLE-2010-ITN).
2014 The International Society for Iranian Studies

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2 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

on the ground: worldwide, authorities wereand still areconfronted with

multilingual populations and thus face the challenge of adjusting their language
policies in order to secure the allegiance and integration of their multilingual populations. This is where translation becomes part of the picture. Indeed, any language
policy presupposes a translation policy: determining the rules of institutional language
use presupposes determining the rules for translation within these same institutions.3
Translation policy will be dened here as a set of legal rules that regulate translation in
the public domain: in education, in legal affairs, in political institutions, in administration, in the media. Such translation policies can act as a tool for integration or
exclusion of speakers of minority languages and therefore deserve special attention.
Discussion of language policy from the point of view of translation might also act
as a compromise between the lofty aspirations of language rights and the tough
choices of language policy.4
However, among the numerous studies on language rights, on language policies or
on the integration of minorities and immigrants, the key role of a translation policy as
part of any language policy is not taken into consideration.5 In the eld of translation
studies, the links between language and translation policy are explored from time to
time,6 but synthetic accounts on translational justice are still lacking.
Prototypical linguistic and translational policies. Inspired by the works of scholars who
have called for various linguistic rights for minorities,7 and following van Parijss denition of linguistic territoriality regime,8 Meylaerts has identied four prototypical
linguistic and translational policies for the communication between authorities and
citizens in a given context:9
1. Institutional monolingualism, i.e. one ofcial language regulates communication
between authorities and citizens in public education and public settings. This
language policy requires a strict translation policy. On the one hand, it entails
obligatory translation of allophone documents and messages in order to
become ofcial or legally valid, while on the other hand there is a (sometimes
ofcial) ban on translations into minority or immigrant languages in public education and public settings. Speakers of these languages are thus supposed to learn
the national language and become multilingual. Promoters of this policy claim it
is favorable for minorities integration and for national cohesion.10 Opponents
think it leads to a deplorable elimination of minorities languages and cultures,
high dropout rates or poor school results, high unemployment rates, exclusion in
health and social services.11
2. Institutional multilingualism with obligatory multidirectional translation in all
languages for all. This policy would aim to make all languages institutionally
equal within a given territory so that all people have access to legal, political
and administrative institutions and education in their mother tongue. Thanks
to institutional translation, citizens can remain monolingual: multilingualism
of institutions enables monolingualism of citizens. Of course if authorities
were to implement this policy for each and every allophone indigenous or immi-

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Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 3

grant, it would go against what is known in the legal eld as the principle of proportionality:12 a translation service should be reasonable and justied, i.e. proportional to the relative size of speakers of a language. Next to nancial and
organizational issues, it is therefore claimed to involve an increased risk of ghettoization, impeding social cohesion and national identity.13
3. Institutional monolingualism combined with occasional and temporary translation into the minority languages. In comparison to the two above described
extremes, this is an intermediate policy which allows for translation in welldened situationse.g. to obtain a translated document or an interpreter in
court, in health care, in administration, at elections, etc. Still, translation
remains a granted exception, not even always explicitly enacted in law but
rather the implicit result of other obligations such as non-discrimination or
equal access to institutions. As such, translation does not endanger the dominance of the institutionalized language. However, opponents of this restrictive
translation policy still claim that it hinders integration and instead furthers linguistic and other ghettoization.14
4. The fourth policy is a combination of monolingualism (1) and multilingualism
(2), according to the level of governance concerned: institutional monolingualism at the local level and institutional multilingualism with multidirectional
mandatory translation at the superior (e.g. federal) level. Or vice versa: monolingualism at the superior level and multilingualism at the local level. This policy is
mainly applied in countries with indigenous minorities, e.g. in Belgium or
Canada where the federal state is ofcially multilingual, whereas the local
level (respectively regions or provinces) is (predominantly) monolingual. The
UK government, on the other hand, is monolingual, while the Welsh government and institutions are committed to bilingualism.
The above typology aims to be global and as such should be able to describe the particularities of whatever type of policies are adopted by (local, regional or national)
authorities worldwide to communicate with their allophone minorities.15 There is a
pressing need for such empirical studies, which would then allow analysis of which
policies further or hinder minorities integration and socialization in terms of access
to key services, such as government services, health and social care and legal services.
For the moment, due to a lack of empirical research, clear-cut, research-based
answers are lacking. This study wants to contribute to this need by describing the
language and translation policy of modern Iran in government settings.
Persianization in Iran
Ofcially called the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979, Iran is one of the few
countries in the world with a unique political structure, derived from the state religion,
Shia Islam. According to the 1979 Constitution the country comprises several closely
connected political institutions. Some of them are unelected, but the president and the

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4 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

members of parliament and city and village councils are elected by universal suffrage.
The Supreme Leader is the highest religious and political authority.16 He is the
commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints the leaders of the judiciary
and the heads of state broadcast media (IRIB),17 and has to approve all laws. Government legitimacy is thus based on popular sovereigntyalbeit restrictedand on the
rule of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.
The country has been criticized for its record on human rights, political rights and
minority rights. The way it deals with minorities will be relevant in our analysis of
language and translation policy. Although the 1979 Constitution guarantees a wide
range of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in practice there are a number of
serious impediments to the full protection of human rights and the independent functioning of the different institutions of the State.18 In particular, Irans ethnic minorities
(see also below) are reported to be subjected to socio-economic and culturallinguistic
discrimination.19 Iran, however, has repeatedly denied such claims by arguing that they
are procedurally wrong and rationally unjustiable.20 In the following, we would like
to focus on the role of translation policies as part of language policy in Iran. Specically,
we aim to show that translation policies can be a tool for integration21 or exclusion of
speakers of minority languages in their contact with authorities and participation in the
life of the state, and therefore deserve special attention.
Research on language policy in Iran has focused until now on either language planning
or linguistic purism22 or certain minority languages with politicized orientation;23
research on the possible role of translation in language policy in Iran is, not surprisingly,
missing. For example, in a special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of
Language in 2011 on aspects of sociolinguistics in Iran, the editors saw bilingualism
and multilingualism as two important areas of sociolinguist research in Iran.24
However, translation policy in Iran or its role for Iranians abroad were mainly overlooked: one scholar studied how two ethnic groups, i.e. speakers of Armenian and
Turkish who are exposed to diglossic bilingualism have different patterns of language
use, for example in intergroup and informal face-to-face communication in the capital
Tehran (see later in this article),25 and the other called for stronger cultural motivations
on the part of second-generation Iranian immigrants in the United States to resist Americanization.26 More explicit views on language policy in Iran, however, come from a
group of Iranian linguists with minority backgrounds. For example, recently, the International Journal of the Sociology of Language published a special issue (2012, no. 217)
on the minority language of Kurdish.27 The editors of this issue pinpointed the complicated nature of research on the politicized issue of the Kurdish language; however, translation policy was left out again. Because of this we have to start from a broader approach
and then move to a more narrow approach. This means we have to start from previous
studies in the eld of sociolinguistics, Persian/Iranian Studies, and more explicitly those
on language policy in Iran. But rst an historical overview of the Persian language and the
ethnic and linguistic make-up of Iran is needed.
An Iranian linguist argues that Persianization of non-Persian peoples continues to
be the building block of the Islamic regimes language policy.28 Taking the case
of Kurdish in Iran, the author leaves no room for translation as a tool for so-called

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Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 5

Persianization. This argument raises a number of questions, all worthy of our attention. Who are these non-Persian peoples? What kind of policy is the language
policy of Iran, and why should Persianization be the core element of this policy?
More specically, what is the role of translation policy therein? And what does this
mean for the inclusion of allophone minorities? With these questions in mind, we
aim to describe and examine translation policy in modern Iran, i.e. from the late
Qajar era in the twentieth century to the present day. As already mentioned, we
will deal with translation in the government settings, particularly as enacted in two
legal instruments, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Law of
Parliamentary Elections.29 As translation policies are often implicit (cf. above), we
need to extract them from these ofcial documents and examine their concrete
implementation in the context under study.
The Ethnic and Linguistic Make-up of Iran
Irans ofcial language is Persian (New Persian or Farsi). New Persian has its roots in
Iranian languagesi.e. the western group of the larger Indo-Iranian family which
represents a major eastern branch of the Indo-European languages.30
Prior to the seventh century, Middle Persian or Pahlavi, the language of the Sasanian
Empire (thirdseventh centuries CE), was in use in Iran, and Iranians were mostly Zoroastrians. Iranians accepted Islam in the seventh century, and Arabic became the
language of religion (cf. the use of Latin in mediaeval Europe); nevertheless, as
Meskoob highlights, after suffering defeat at the hands of the Arabs and after converting to Islam, the Iranian people also returned to the past Like Arabs, Iranians were
now Muslims, but they had a different language.31Although Arabic remained
the language of science and of religious scholars in Iran (the rst Persian translation of
the Quran appeared in the eleventh century), scholars used Pahlavi and later Persian in
their oral contact with the faithful. The return to the past mentioned above took place
with the rise of New Persian between the seventh and ninth centuries, and a number
of instruments including the Persian epics, the most exemplary being the classic work
of Ferdowsis Shahnameh (completed c. 1010), and lyric poems of, say, Shahid-Balkhi,
Kasai Marvzi and Abu Mansur Daqiqi.32 These works and the emergence of New
Persian formed signicant parts of what came to be known as the Iranian/Persian identity.
One example illustrates the importance of language in this common identity. Today, an
educated Persian-speaker can still read and understand classic Persian texts from the ninth
and tenth centuries, which are still widely available in Iran.
In addition to New Persian, several other Iranian languages continued to exist. The
history of Iran tells us that Persian enjoyed ofcial status for a number of dynasties from
the tenth century on: it was the language of the Mongol Ilkhanid empire in the thirteenth century, and even the Safavids, who ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722, used it as
their administrative and literary language, though they spoke Turkish at court and at
home.33 A recent study also shows that with a general policy of integrating religious
and ethnic minorities during the Safavids, the rst two Safavids rulers held a moderate

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6 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

policy towards Kurds.34 Persian served as the language of administration in a large geographical area, from todays Bosnia in in the fourteenth century35 to the Indian subcontinent where it worked as a lingua franca and the administrative language of the English
East India Company prior to the imposition of English in 1835.36 The general nationalist movement across the above territory in the nineteenth century, coupled with more
signicant political events, all inuenced by the colonial powers in one way or another,
gradually pushed Persian to its present borders.37 In Iran, as Spooner argues, the status of
Persian has been jealously guarded through various campaigns on the one hand,38 and
academically challenged on the other.39
Modern-day Iran is however all but a monolingual country. According to Ethnologue:
Languages of the World, the number of individual languages listed for Iran is 78. Of those,
75 are living languages and 3 (i.e. Avestan, Classical Mandaic and Salchuq) are extinct.40
According to the estimates of July 2012 by the World Fact Book, 78,868,711, people live
in Iran, of whom 61 percent are Persian-speaking, 16 percent Azeri, 10 percent Kurd, 6
percent Lur, 2 percent Baluch, 2 percent Arab, 2 percent Turkmen and Turkic tribes,
and 1 percent are known to have other ethnic backgrounds (Table 1).41
In terms of the linguistic make-up, the same reference reports that the rst language
in use in Iran is Persian (the ofcial language) 53 percent, followed by Azeri Turkish
and Turkish dialects 18 percent. Next comes Kurdish 10 percent, Gilaki and Mazandarani 7 percent, Luri 6 percent, Baluchi 2 percent, Arabic 2 percent, and the rest 2
percent (Figure 1).
Geographically speaking, ethnic Iranians live throughout Iran. Azeris live mainly in
the northwest; Kurds, who have traditionally kept a nomadic lifestyle, generally live in
the mountain areas of the west; Lurs are scattered in various provinces of the west and
south of Iran; Arabs mainly live in the western and southern border of Iran; and
Balochs live mainly in the province of Sistan va Baluchistan in the southeast border
region. Given the considerable mobility of Iranians inside Iran in the last decades,
this geographical division is no longer as sharp as it was, since people of various

Table 1. The Ethnic Make-up of Iran


Turkmen and Turkic tribes


Source: Adapted from World Fact Book, 2012. Middle East: Iran.

Numbers (millions)

Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 7

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Figure 1. The Linguistic Make-up of Iran

Source: Adapted from World Fact Book, 2013. Middle East: Iran.

ethnic backgrounds have been living visibly across the country. This mobility,
however, is not something recent, because people in Iran have a history of movement
that some argue should be attributed to linguistic reasons above all. For Frye, who
otherwise sees the political history of Iran playing its part, language is the most important historical factor in this and he nds evidence in, for example, the Tat speaking
minority in the northern part of Azerbaijan, among others.42
So, despite the fact that half of the population has a mother tongue different from
Persian, Persian continues to be the ofcial language of Irani.e. in all ofcial settings,
in administration, in education and in legal affairs. This is the result of an historical
evolution which we shall briey discuss below, but prior to that a few words are
needed about diglossia in Iran. Iran is not a diglossic society in the strict sense used
by Ferguson, i.e. the use of two or more varieties of the same language in a single
community.43 Iran is rather a special case, mainly due to high literacy rates within its
borders. Although Persian language usage ts the diglossia pattern, Spooner calls our
attention to a number of other signicant elements that distinguish it from that
pattern. He nds fault in Fergusons overlooking the larger context of Persian usage,
historical and modern. In addition to high literacy rate, Spooner points to the
growing signicance of past history of Persian in todays Iran as a further evidence.44
Historical Overview of Language and Translation Policy in the Government Settings in
In modern Iran, i.e. from the late Qajar period, or more precisely from the Constitutional Revolution (190511), Persian, the mother tongue of the majority of

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8 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

Iranians, became the ofcial language of the state. According to article 4 of the Electoral Law of 9 September 1906, those elected must have the following qualications:
they must know Persian, they must be able to read and write Persian, they must be
Persian subjects of Persian extraction, among others.45 This is probably the rst legislative enactment of language policy in modern Iran. Kia argues that in the Supplementary Fundamental Laws of 7 October 1907, compulsory instruction in
Persian had to be regulated by the Ministry of Sciences and Arts. However, evidence
shows that there is no mention of Persian in the law.46 In the Fundamental Law of
1906 or its supplement in 1907 there was no room for translation, and Persian was the
ofcial language of the Iranian state, administration, political institutions and judiciary. It is therefore reasonable to expect that there was virtually no translation into
the minorities languages to facilitate communication with the authorities. Further
enactments and development of language policy occurred in the following period.
Reza Shah took power in 1925 and succeeded in bringing back political stability to
Iran through his military power and tribal policy. In this policy, informed by his panPersian nationalist and centralizing sentiments, tribal life and culture was damaged,
and power was centralized in Tehran, from where Persian-speaking governors and
mayors were sent to Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic provinces,47 a tradition that is
still relevant. Moreover, Reza Shah and his successor Mohammad Reza Shah were
also equally determined to modernize Iran along the European lines, a policy which
proceeded hand in hand with secularization and Persianization.48 The above constitution and its supplement saw further revisions up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979;
however, Persian as before remained the ofcial language of the country, administration, education, political institutions and judiciary.
While assimilation policy in the early modernization campaigns in ethnic environments on the one hand and, on the other hand, nationalism and the need for a strong
state in which state-building was equal to nation-building49 formed much of the Persianization language policy in pre-Revolution Iran, for the revolutionaries of the postRevolution era (1979present) there was only one nation, and that was the nation of
Islam. Arabic was the rst language of Islam and Persian was the second.50 However,
the revolutionaries soon realized that they should guard the role of Persian as an ofcial language. According to Sheyholislami in his study of Kurdish in Iran,51 the
language policy in post-Revolution Iran is thus not different from the previous two
policies and is characterized by three components: treating multilingualism as a
threat to the countrys territorial integrity and national unity; restricting the use of
non-Persian languages; and promoting the supremacy of Persian as a venue for unifying the ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous body politic. In sum, the language
policy of modern-day Iran, the author argues, is Persianization of non-Persian
peoples.52 What does this mean exactly for the various autochthonous minorities
in Iran? Is translation playing any role in their inclusion or integration, and by extension in their participation in democratic procedures?
The denitive legal instrument on language policy in Iran on which such views are
based is Article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Revolution:

Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 9

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The ofcial language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian.
Ofcial documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as textbooks, must be in this
language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press
and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in
addition to Persian. (Article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of
Although the constitution makes some provision for minority languages (see below),
it is Persian that shapes the monolingual policy of Iran, the use of which is obligatory
in all government settings, in administration and in education (all school textbooks are
in Persian). As explained in the typology above, this policy entails obligatory translation of documents and messages not in Persian in order to become ofcial or
legally valid, while written communication between the Iranian authorities (local services, regional services, central services) and the inhabitants is subject to a non-translation policy. For public messages, for public signage, for forms, in ofcial meetings,
and so on, Persian is the only legal language. Speakers of minority languages
(Turkish, Kurdish and Baluchi, to name just three), do not have the right to use
their language in ofcial communications with authorities, and they should be
uent enough to read and understand ofcial texts in Persian. For example, for a
Turkish speaker it is obligatory to le a complaint in Persian, even though he is
not obliged to speak Persian to the public servant who receives the complaint. As a
consequence of this policy of monolingualism and non-translation (at least for
written messages) and, as mentioned in the typology above, minority speakers often
nd themselves disadvantaged, e.g. in terms of public employment rates.54 So, for
example, the Baluch minority in Iran are concerned about the low level of Baloch
participation in public life, given that they are underrepresented in high-ranking Government positions.55
A similar situation characterizes political institutions. The Iranian parliament is
made up of representatives (MPs) from all across the country, including representatives from areas populated by autochthonous linguistic minorities. These MPs as
well as MPs from recognized religious minorities (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians)
should use Persian as the only ofcial language in ofcial settings, communications
and in administration. Apart from the occasional use of Arabic by some MPs in
their speeches (usually in the form of Quranic verses or Hadith to illustrate a
point or to support a claim), Persian is the default language and non-translation is
the ofcial policy in the parliament of Iran, regardless of occasional translation that
might be available for ofcial, international ceremonies where non-Iranian statesmen
are present.56 Nevertheless, none of these MPs are obliged to use Persian with their
constituents, either in their ofces in the parliament or in the cities they represent.
However, a small test of the ofcial websites of some of the MPs with ethnic backgrounds reveals that they are Persian-only and that there is neither bilingual
content nor any translation offered (e.g. the website of Reza Rahmani, the MP
from Tabriz).57 In other words, monolingualism and non-translation have led to

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10 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

the absence of minority languages in the Iranian parliament and in written communications between MPs and their electorates.58 Similarly, when it comes to the most
emblematic act of the democratic process, casting ballots, non-translation prevails.
Although the right of voting is the legal right of all Iranians above the age of 18,
there is no mention of translation in the Law of Parliamentary Elections as a tool
for active participation of ethnic groups. In sum, it is through a fairly strict policy
of monolingualism and non-translation that Persian remains the only ofcial language
in Iran, regulating communication between authorities and citizens.
Indeed, article 15 sees Persian and Persian script working as a lingua franca for
Iranian people who might otherwise be bilingual (mother tongue plus Persian). In
other words, the policy of non-translation and language learning go hand in hand
in Iran. The Iranian authorities rely on learning Persian as the common language
of communication among all Iranian ethnic groups,59 and thus as a communitybuilding tool between the different autochthonous minorities. And although language
is one of the strongest symbols of shared culture and identity, Meskoob does not consider the use of Persian by such minorities, whom he sees as Iranians after all, as a
threat or negation of their cultural identity. He moreover argues that:
the adoption of Turkish, Kurdish, or Baluch[i] as provincial languages, for example,
would have signicant ramications, not only for interethnic relations with Iran,
but also for Irans relationship with its neighbors. The whole problem has
become intensely politicized, and it is within a political framework that it can be
analyzed meaningfully.60
It is clear that political unication is seen as a process that entails the imposition of
one language, entirely in the traditional spirit of one language for one people in
one nation-state and that language diversity is seen somehow as a menace. We
agree with the author about the political nature of problem, not to mention some politically slanted research so far; nevertheless, a political framework alone might not pay
attention to the role of translation.61 Meskoob also added that he would not advocate
a monolingual policy at the price of other minority languages. In other words, Persian
should continue as the common language of communication among all Iranian
ethnic groups while other ethnic languages exist and thrive alongside each other.62
Indeed, in practice complete monolingualism and non-translation are rather utopian
policies because they risk hampering communication between authorities and minorities, impeding accessibility of services, and endangering integration and inclusion.
Thus, according to article 15 of the constitution, the use of regional and tribal
languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in
schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.63 This means that although ethnic minorities
are still required to learn the ofcial language, they are no longer required to abandon
their own language and culture.64 Article 19 of the constitution further maintains that
all people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal
rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege. So all Iranian

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Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 11

ethnic groups (Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, etc.see Table 1) are born in Iran, are Iranians by
law, and therefore have equal rights. However, several sources report a discrepancy
between the law and the practical implementation. For example, there are some
reports that Kurds experience problems in the public display of their ethnic culture,
language or traditions.65 Moreover, according to Amnesty International, Irans
ethnic minority communities also have problems using their languages in government
ofces (in written form) and for teaching in schools, which remain prohibited.66 Similarly, although Azeris are said to be well integrated in government and society, they complain about their language being banned in schools.67
In sum, ofcial communication between the Iranian authorities and citizens seems to
be a prototypical example of monolingualism and non-translation (category 1), despite
the presumed risks for minorities access to government services and overall integration.
Keeping their institutions monolingual, Iranian authorities expect their minorities to
be(come) bilingual (mother tongue plus Persian), illustrating the general sociolinguistic
principle that minorities learn the majority language and not vice versa.68 Here the role
of public education is crucial. Generally the children of ethnic minority families grow
up in a bilingual environment in which both their language and Persian are spoken and
used to varying degrees. However, once they start public education at the age of six, they
are exposed only to Persian as the language of instruction and of textbooks. The Persian
language and Persian textbooks are the main educational resources throughout studies
up to university level.69 From the age of six onwards, children from minority groups are
thus exposed to a monolingual education. This approach, the argument runs, puts these
students in an unequal situation of double learning: learning Persian and general literacy.70 However, it goes against an international trend towards the recognition of
the fundamental importance of language and culture for indigenous people during
the last three decades.71 Moreover, study after study conrms that indigenous children
almost universally have among the highest dropout rates and the poorest academic
results.72 According to a 2008 report of the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO) many non-Farsi-speaking children leave school before they should
and the literacy rates of minorities are very low.73 Other studies have however shown
that there is no signicant relationship between the learning style and the students educational advancement of Persian monolingual students and bilingual students, i.e.
Kurdish and Azeri students.74 Additionally, indigenous peoples themselves are not
always in favor of education in their mother tongue.75 Still, research has shown in
this respect that although the use of Persian is more rewarding for bilingual Azeris in
Tehran, there is a growing sense of what Bani-Shoraka calls revitalization of this particular minority language and culture.76 While the jury is out on the pros and cons, minorities additional difculties in following Persian in school are illustrated through an
interesting translation practice. Quite often, pupils or their teachers nd themselves
translating between Persian and minority languages. As far as the educational level is
concerned, volunteer translation77 is thus used as a tool for linguistic inclusion of
the autochthonous linguistic minorities.
Volunteer translation into the minority languages also takes place when it comes to
ofcial communication between authorities and citizens, especially in cities with con-

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12 Haddadian-Moghaddam and Meylaerts

siderable ethnic groups, like Tabriz, Yasuj and Sanandaj. The translators here can be
bilingual public servants, close family members of the individuals in need of translation
or others who are bilingual. The same happens at elections. Because the ballot is in
Persian, considerable volunteer translation again happens between Persian and minority languages in the countrys most democratic exercise. In the absence of empirical
data, the exact extent of this type of translation remains unmeasured however.
Though translation in the ofcial setting happens in reality, it is not regulated
(neither forbidden nor imposed) by the authorities and is left to private initiative.
The response to the ofcial non-translation policy is circumstantial translation by circumstantial bilinguals.78 It may illustrate the utopian character of complete non-translation and citizens need for effective communication with the authorities.
What does the above translation policy mean for the immigrants and their languages?
The current statistics show that the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Iran, from
Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, is 863,350.79 Moreover, since 2006 around 1.2 million
Afghans have remained in Iran, despite various repatriation policies in collaboration
with the UNHCR, Afghanistan and often Pakistan. Many of these refugees were generally able to communicate in Persian; therefore, the language does not seem to be an
impediment to their integration. Some studies, for example, have shown that the
second generations of these groups, who have been exposed to Persian as the language
of education, have drawn on their educational achievement and occupational skills for
better integration in Iran.80 With Persian playing no major role in the integration of
Afghani immigrants in Iran, other key factors such as state restrictions on certain occupational categories available for immigrants, the unattractiveness of labor jobs for the
Iranian workforce and, above all, a deteriorating economy are seen as factors inuencing
integration, as indicated by one study,81 which nevertheless can be seen as more effective
than language and translation policy in this case. It is in this view that the issue of integration as it is understood in Europe is different in case of immigrants in Iran.
This paper aimed to describe and examine the nature of translation policy in government settings in modern Iran, i.e. from the late Qajar era in the twentieth century to
the present day.
The discussion showed that Persian has remained the core element of language
policy in Iran. On the one hand, it forms a major part of Iranian identity, and on
the other hand it masks the heterogeneous reality of various ethnic groups living in
Iran. It was also shown that assimilation of ethnic groups up to the Islamic Revolution
of 1979 was the underlying political and linguistic policy in Iran, and learning Persian
was a tool for the inclusion of these groups.82 The post-Revolution policy was
nonetheless shown to be more nuanced and exible in granting these groups the
use of their languages in the press and mass media, and for teaching their literature
in schools. However, some scholars see this as no different from the previous policies
and tend to see Persianization at its core.

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Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 13

The examination of translation policy in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic

of Iran and in the Law of Parliamentary Elections showed that legislative enactments
do not have provisions for translation as a possible tool either for maximizing citizens
participation in the democratic processes or for their inclusion in the majority.
Inclusion or integration for that matter was said to have different implications for
Iran, which has historically been a melting pot of various ethnic groups, and has ideologically used both religion and nationalism83 as two powerful tools to resist separationist campaigns.
In addition, despite the apparent lack of institutional translation, there is a considerable volume of volunteer translation happening in practice, the implications of
which are important for Article 15 of the constitution and the role of institutional
translation or lack of it in the inclusion or integration of minorities. This further conrms the theory that there is no language policy without translation policy.84 Without
using the word translation, the language policy in Iran neither provides provision for
translation, nor prohibits its non-ofcial practice, i.e. volunteer translation.
Finally, and in lieu of a conclusion, the following claims can be made here, all of
which call for further empirical studies:
1. Learning Persian is an essential segment of the language policy and one of the
key elements of linguistic inclusion of minorities in Iran. The question of
inclusion of ethnic groups in Iran should nonetheless be understood in the
larger political context and growing politicized discourse of minority languages
of a geographically and virtually dispersed space.
2. Non-translation policy in the government settings of Iran does not amount to
the linguicide of the minority languages in Iran per se, as some have argued.85
Volunteer translation works as an effective tool for the speakers of minority
languages to maintain their language and resist the assumed linguicide.
3. Translation offered in both government and educational settings in Iran largely
depends on the goodwill of public servants and teachers respectively.86
4. The increasing mobility, growing access of Iranian ethnic groups to modern
media and the growing political conicts in the region might bring some
changes in the language policy (more specically in the educational setting),
and in Irans non-translation policy in the long run. This is more plausible
than imagining an idealized fundamental change in Irans political and administrative structure as a precondition for such changes.87
From a more general perspective, the long-term theoretical goal of these kinds of case
studies is to generalize over the cases in order to complement existing theories of
language policy with the key element of translation policy and to develop a model
for analyzing the relation between translation policies and patterns of integration
and socialization and of internal cohesion. The applied goal is to use the theoretical
model to formulate best practices for authorities long-term strategic approach for
ensuring minorities integration and socialization worldwide.

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De Varennes, Language, Rights and Opportunities, 3.

Although language policy following Spolsky is seen as language practices, language beliefs and
language managements in a given context, in this paper, we dene it in a more restricted way as
legal rules for language use in the public domain (cf. above), see Spolsky, Language Policy; and
Spolsky, What is Language Policy?
Meylaerts, Translation Policy.
Gonzlez Nez, Chapter Three: Translation Anyone?
See van Parijs, Linguistic Diversity as Curse; van Parijs, Linguistic Justice and the Territorial
Imperative; Spolsky, Language Policy; Spolsky, Language Management; Arraiza, Blueprints for
Babel; Ginsburgh and Shlomo, How Many Languages Do We Need?; Patten, The Justication
of Minority Language Rights; de Schutter, Language Policy and Political Philosophy.
E.g. Cronin, Translation and Identity; Garca Gonzlez, Translation of Minority Languages;
Garca de Toro, Translation between Spanish; Glm, Muttersprachliche Ansprache Als Integrationsstrategie; Schffner, Behindert bersetzung die Integration; De Pedro et al., Interpreting and
Translating in Public.
E.g. Garca Gonzlez, Translation of Minority Languages; Beukes, Governmentality and the
Van Parijs, Linguistic Justice and the Territorial, 4.
See Meylaerts, Translational Justice, for concrete examples of the implementation of these four
Schuck, Immigrants Incorporation; Wong and Pontoja, In Pursuit of Inclusion.
See Glms, Muttersprachliche Ansprache Als Integrationsstrategie; de Varennes, Language, Rights
and Opportunities.
The principle of proportionality is a well-established and practiced legal principle under the domestic constitutional and administrative laws of many countries and in international law. Essentially,
it tries to balance individual and state or general public interests. [W]here public authorities at the
national, regional or local levels face a sufciently large number of individuals, they must use to an
appropriate degree their language. See de Varennes, International and Comparative Perspectives.
Van Parijs, Linguistic Justice for Europe.
See e.g. for the UK, Easton, Cost in Translation; and van Parijs, Linguistic Diversity as
Curse, 21.
Meylaerts, Translation Policy, 745.
The Assembly of Experts, according to Farahi (Assembly of Experts, 48) is a body of 86 scholars
of Islamic law tasked with selecting and dismissing the supreme leader in case of the inability to
perform constitutional duties or determination that from the beginning certain qualications were
not met.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
UN General Assembly, The Situation of Human Rights, 3.
United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur, 18.
High Council for Human Rights, Statement on the Report; cf. Secretary of Irans High Council,
UN Rights Reports on Iran.
Given the specic focus of this essay, integration is here narrowly dened as access to government
services and thus as communication between authorities and allophone minorities.
Sadeghi, Language Planning in Iran; Majid-Hayati and Mashhadi, Language Planning; Marszaek-Kowalewska, Iranian Language Policy.
Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran; Hassanpour, The Indivisibility.
Modarresi, Aspects of Sociolinguistics, 1.
Nercissians, Bilingualism and Diglossia.
Modarresi, The Iranian Community; for an update of the situation, see Mobasher, Iranians in

Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 15

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According to Paul (Kurdish Language), Kurdish is a continuum of closely related dialects that
are spoken in a large geographic area spanning several national states, in some of these states
forming one, or several, regional substandards (e.g. Kurmanji in Turkey; Sorani in northern
Iraq). Such a denition, in addition to linguistic and non-linguistic variables, depends on a
whole combination of larger social, cultural and political factors. It is perhaps because of this
that there is yet no common ground among scholars on a common denition of Kurdish.
Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran, 21.
Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Law of Parliamentary Election.
Windfuhr, The Iranian Languages, 1.
Meskoob, Iranian National Identity, 34.
Katouzian, The Persians, 112.
Ibid., 856.
Yamaguchi, Shh Tahmsps Kurdish Policy; cf. Newman, Safavid Iran, 106 and 120.
Spooner, Persian, Farsi, Dari, Tajiki.
See Bonakdarian, India viii. Relations. One scholar argues that the economic objective of the East
India Company was maximal prot, and any tool that served as a stumbling block to that objective,
such as the Persian language, had to be weakened or dismantled; see Farokh, Book Review.
However, Persian has continued to be either spoken as a local dialect or used as a literary language in
parts of India, in Afghanistan (as Dari), in Tajikistan (as Tajiki), and in parts of Uzbekistan
Additionally, it is expanding geographically through its diaspora, and is a heritage language for
second and third generation of the latters children.
Spooner, Persian, Farsi, Dari, Tajiki, 89.
E.g. Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran; Hassanpour, The Indivisibility of the Nation.
Ethnologue: Languages of the World.
World Fact Book, 2013. Middle East: Iran.
See Frye, Historical Evidence.
Ferguson, Diglossia, 325.
See Spooner, Persian, Farsi, Dari, Tajiki, 11216.
The original Persian of the quoted section is as follows:
. It should be noted that Brownes
translation is an example of explicitation, i.e. he makes the implicit ( i.e. Persian/
Iranian serf) explicit in the translation (Persian subjects of Persian extraction). See Browne, A
Brief Narrative, 68.
Article 19 only states that: The foundation of schools at the expense of the Government and the
nation, and compulsory instruction, must be regulated by the Ministry of Science and Art. See
Browne, A Brief Narrative, 90; Kia, Persian Nationalism, 32.
Katouzian, The Persians, 21314.
Kia, Persian Nationalism, 32.
Safran, Nationalism, 78.
For an illustration of how attacks on the Persian language were provoked, see Meskoob, Iranian
National Identity, 16.
Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran, 21.
Ibid. Be that as it may, this reductive view does not operate beyond a static categorization, as if there
is nothing in between. If such claims are made for granting ofcial status to any of the languages
mentioned earlier (Table 1), there is no guarantee that the political problems of, say, Kurds, in the
region and Iran are solved overnight, not to mention that it remains unclear whether the rights
should be granted individually or collectively, each of which are open to discussion, see e.g. MarMolino, The Politics of Language.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no other pertinent laws, policy documents, pronouncements, etc. that deal with the languages of the ethnic minorities in Iran. The English translation
of the constitution is reportedly provided by the Iranian Embassy in London, and has been referred
to in various publications without much deliberation about its accuracy or translators, see the entry

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for Iran here: ICL, Iran-Constitution. The UNHCR calls it the ofcial translation: see Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
United Nations Human Rights, 19.
Ibid., 33.
Article 16 of the constitution has made learning Arabic compulsory for all Iranian students up to
the secondary level. Of course, university-level students are also obliged to take some courses such as
the Quran which are in Arabic.
Rahmani, personal website. Accessed January 2013. http://rezarahmani.org
Although the judiciary is not our concern here, the Iranian judiciary, which according to the constitution is an independent power and protector of individual and social rights of all Iranians, has
a Persian-only website and all the local websites of judiciary ofces in the provinces of East Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan va Baluchistan are monolingual in Persian. These three provinces are
mainly populated by Azeri, Kurds and Balochs.
Meskoob, Iranian National Identity, 18.
Ibid., 18, emphasis added.
E.g. Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran.
Ibid., 18.
Various provinces in Iran receive TV and radio programs in their own minority languages.
However, it is not yet clear how and through what medium the literature of these ethnic groups
are taught in schools. In addition, access to the internet and the use of ofcially banned satellite
programs in Iran have increased the access of minority speakers to a more global media. Recent
studies have explored this aspect, see e.g. Sheyholislami, Identity, Language, and New Media.
This was actually one of the provisions of the 1989 ILO Convention but Iran did not ratify it.
See for example some of the reports by Iran Human Rights Documentation Center; cf. US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights. Cf. notes 20 and 85.
Amnesty International, Annual Report 2012, Iran.
US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights.
Meylaerts, Au-del Des Oppositions.
With the exception of using limited non-Persian texts for religious and cultural courses, e.g. the use
of Armenian, see Nercissians, Bilingualism and Diglossia, 65.
See e.g. Amirghasemi, Kasti-ha-ye bahreh-bardari.
De Varennes, Language, Rights and Opportunities, 17. The indigenous people referred to here are
in the same situation as what we have called autochthonous minorities in the context of Iran.
Ibid., 30.
UK Border Agency, Iran. Country of Origin.
Shams-Esfandabad and Emamipour, The Study of Learning Styles.
De Varennes, Language, Rights and Opportunities, 32.
Bani-Shoraka, The Iranian Language Policy.
Recommended term for community translation, crowdsourcing and collaborative translation. See
Pym, Translation Research Terms.
Next to issues about the quality of the translation provided by these non-professionals, this raises
ethical issues which fall outside the scope of this article.
UNHCR, 2013 UNHCR Country Operations.
Abbasi-Shavazi et al., Marriage and Family Formation.
Ibid., 844.
Whereas assimilation entails a coercive measure, inclusion is seen to be the opposite.
Following Chatterjees arguments in The Nation and its Fragments, one Iranian scholar argues that
Persian nationalism is made of two domains of the material and the spiritual. The former concerns
science and technology, owned by the West and desired by Iranians, the latter being Shitte Islam
and pre-Islam Persian heritage in conict with each other over supremacy, see Kia, Persian Nationalism, 9.
Meylaerts, Translation Policy.

Beyond Persianization as the Language Policy in Iran 17

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Hassanpour, The Internationalization of Language.

Cf. the case of Flanders and Wales in Gonzalez and Meylaerts, Translational Justice. For Whom.
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Iranian minister of education is talking about teaching minority languages at Iranian schools. The
latter has already stirred up a discussion at, say, Irans Academy of Persian Language and Literature,
and in the Persian press, see e.g. Zare Kahnamuyi, Tadris-e zaban-e madari.

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