Stepping into the minefield: liberalism

Is there an objective way to translate the word "liberal"?
In the Soviet Union, the adjective "liberalny" was certainly not a word of praise. Just look at the definition of liberalism given in the 1985 edition of the authoritative dictionary of the Russian language by S.I. Ozhegov: 1. bourgeois ideological and political tendency whose followers include advocates of a parliamentary system and limited bourgeois-democratic freedoms; 2. excessive tolerance, leniency, or indulgence. Examples given by the dictionary include "rotten liberalism."

The word was a bad one in the eyes of Soviet-era ideologues. Ironically, today it sounds equally bad for quite a few Americans. They believe liberalism is akin to socialism. As a Russian commentator recently wrote, the fault lies with left-wingers who revised the ideas of "genuine liberalism" in the 1960s. Less judgmentally, the recently deceased New York Times columnist William Safire said something similar: "A liberal is currently one who believes in more government action to meet individual needs; originally one who resisted government encroachment on individual liberties."

Which brings us to the original "good liberalism." Based on the European interpretation, it emphasizes human rights and fundamental liberties as well as rejection of excessive government intervention in the economy and the insistence on free enterprise.

In the United States, the rejection of big government is part of the conservative creed, which adds to the confusion. Most Americans would not understand a call for "liberalizatsiya ekonomiki." I always translate it as "deregulation of the economy."

A footnote is sometimes necessary to explain what an author means when he or she says, for example, that "Russian liberal economists failed during the 1990s." However, unlike translators, who can afford an asterisk or two, interpreters have too little time to explain such things.

The battle for the soul of liberalism is likely to continue, challenging translators and interpreters to come up with creative solutions wherever political, linguistic or cultural confusion make understanding difficult. I have shared some of my findings with colleagues, who were not always enthusiastic about the suggestions.

Is "laissez-faire economics" a good equivalent for "liberalnaya ekonomika"? I've been criticized for using this phrase, but I still think it's something an educated American would understand. And understanding is key, as both liberals and conservatives surely agree.

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