19 August 2014

Gemurkste Uebersetzungen - Mangled in translation

Translation does not mean merely passing over from one language to another, foreign one, but making the delicate, convoluted transition from one historical world to another, foreign one. So it is also with the translation from English to German even within the Western world. There are terms, especially political concepts, whose translation from English into German necessitate a covert operation in which a phenomenon in one world becomes scarcely recognizable in another. Hence we have e.g.:

i) country -> Staat

Where 'country' in English refers in the first place to an historical people living together in a certain geographical part of the Earth, in German the Staat is above all a system of political rule over a people who are its subjects. The 'member countries' of the EU, for instance, thus become EU 'Mitgliedsstaaten'.

ii) government -> Staat

In English, a government rules over a people who live together in a society, which is primary, so there is a counterposing of society to the government, which, society concedes, is 'unfortunately necessary'. In German, the Staat encompasses and permeates society thoroughly with its rule. Prussia invented modern bureaucracy that seeps into all niches of social life, ensuring Staat rule. Society is hence merely part of the State. Despite today's Germans distancing themselves from their Prussian heritage, they are still covertly, and even overtly, enamoured of Prussian order and very fearful of breaching the rule of authority from above.

iii) rule of law -> Rechtsstaatlichkeit

'Rule of law' in English signifies not only due legal process in the administration of justice, but that the positive law posited by the government's legislative branch conforms to and protects the freedom of social interplay among the members of society. Such conformity is understood as justice in the sense of fairness, i.e. a beautiful interplay. So positive law can be unjust and resisted in the name of freedom. 'Rechtsstaatlichkeit' in German, by constrast, refers only to due process of law within the democratically institutionalized apparatus of the judiciary, where due process is defined and regulated ultimately by conformity with the constitution that itself is adjudicated by the constitutional court. The Staat posits the law according to its will which is constrained only by interpretations of the constitution. A groundswell of an ethos of justice as fairness embedded in society is absent, being mostly a foreign import from the West.

The contrast between English and German understanding of law and justice is reflected also in the distinction between common law and posited, codified law. The former is founded upon an ongoing dialogue between the courts' judges and the interplay in society itself, whereby the judges are able to forge new law in line with how society is currently living. Codified law, on the other hand, comes from above through the organs of state rule.

A further contrast between English and German understanding of law and justice is embedded in attitudes toward taxation. For liberal Anglo-Saxon thinking, taxation is one of those 'necessary evils' of government which, however, has to be restricted, at the least, by the principle of 'no taxation without representation' that, in practice. means that tax legislation has to go through due democratic process, including parliamentary debate, to be legitimated. This is formally the same in today's Germany, i.e. for the German way of understanding the world. The difference lies in the 'feel' for taxation, the people's sensitivity to being taxed. There is much unavoidable arbitrariness in the state's positing tax legislation, both as to the kind of tax and its amount, since criteria for taxation, its 'principles', are themselves ad hoc and vague. The state is highly inventive and capricious in imposing new kinds of taxes. The legitimacy of tax regimes is flimsy, so that tax-raising becomes a naked power-struggle between the state and tax-payers in which the sheer effectiveness of the state's tax-collecting apparatus is paramount. The state can easily show itself as a tax-fraudster.

For Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking, taxation is regarded first of all as an incursion into private wealth and income, and thus into personal liberty, whose legitimacy rests tenuously on whether it's necessary and its fairness both as to sharing the tax burden among the population and as to whether the state is 'gouging' its taxable population. Taxation can become a highly sensitive and volatile political issue, especially when a government reneges on promises regarding taxation. For the Germans, by contrast, the State's imposition of taxes is conceived as necessary for its tasks of caring for the universal well-being (das Allgemeinwohl) of itself, whereby society is regarded as an integrated part of the State. The German populace is thus surprisingly docile when the State taxes it and even dishonestly shifts ground on taxation issues. The Germans gladly subjugate themselves to the State's tax impositions, obediently condemning tax evasion whilst themselves practising it.. A major task for the State as the "concrete Universal" (das konkret Allgemeine) is (seen to be) to care for society through its social welfare apparatuses, and this is acknowledged by the population above all in its clamouring for more and more benefits that smooth out the vicissitudes of life. Such clamouring for more, in turn, gives the State more leeway to levy more taxes, and politicians easily recognize welfare benefits as a major and convenient way to paternalistically rule a populace that desires more than anything else to be cared for securely.

iv) social justice -> soziale Gerechtigkeit

'Social justice' in English signifies the fairness of the interplay among the members of society. 'Soziale Gerechtigkeit' in German signifies the redistributive justice undertaken by the Sozialstaat within society. The Sozialstaat is paternalist and designed to secure the rule over its people by distributing welfare benefits, mollifying its subjects, who are thus securely taken care of in the double sense.

v) free individual -> verstaatlicher Einzelne

The free individual in English is the core of society, being thoroughly misunderstood and wilfully perverted when conceived as the individual vs. society, as in the ideology of individualism. Rather, the free individual is a player in the interplay of society and is free only to the extent that this interplay itself is free and fair. In German, there is no free individual, who is seen as, and is in German society, a self-interested, asocial egoist who claims freedom to do what he arbitrarily wants without hindrance. This egoist is the residue left behind by the Sozialstaat sucking the sociability out of society. The individual is hence seen as being in need of incorporation into the Staat, subject to its laws and regulations in every aspect of life. This is the 'verstaatlicher Einzelne' who, in terms of Hegel's philosophy, is the con-cluding 'closing together' (Schluß) of the Universal (das Allgemeine, here the Staat) with the Singular (Einzelne). The individual's "supreme duty" (höchste Pflicht) is to be a member of the Staat.

Liberal freedom has thus been mangled, gemurkst in translation from West to East.

See also Set-up vs. gainful game and Negative and positive freedom.


  1. German is the language that is spoken by almost 2 billion peoples around the world. Learning this language would give one self confidence to look the world in a different perspective. You have made me to realize that in a moment on reading this article. Thanks for sharing this in here. By the way you are running a great blog.

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