February 7, 2019

Moral dilemma of translating bureaucratic euphemisms

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Bedarfsgemeinschaft

Need some community? Life is Hartz.

If you ever had to deal with the German welfare system, you’ve probably heard the term “Bedarfsgemeinschaft” (BG). Wikipedia says the construct dates back to the 2005 Hartz IV reforms and refers to people with special personal or family relationships who live in the same household.

It basically means (and I’m not a lawyer) if you share an apartment with someone with whom you can be reasonably expected to share financial responsibilities, the JobCenter is going to pay you less.

The trick is, if you’re living in a flat share with “strangers,” you will not be considered a BG, so each roomie will be a separate unit for the JobCenter. Although you might share the rent, you’re not financially responsible for each other.

It’s different with significant others or dependent children (under 25) – they’re going to be part of your BG.

It’s surprising that none of the major German to English dictionaries offers a functional translation, only literal ones like “community of need” (Oh Jesus!). The JobCenter uses “benefits community,” a literal translation of the euphemism, but not of the meaning. But accuracy isn’t always appropriate. After all being part of this “community” reduces your benefits.

A euphemism is never neutral, so to render a “neutral” translation of it means unmasking it. I just use “household unit.” A household – very intuitive – is a group of people living together and sharing income and expenses. The “unit” makes clear, that the larger household could consist of several “administrative” units.

What do you think? Have you seen similar euphemisms in the bureaucratic language? What’s the right approach? Is there a conflict of interest between the recipient (reader) and the sender (the state), and how do you deal with it?

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