March 15, 2019

Unspeakable translations of touchy terms in German

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The German left-wing political discourse often uses English loanwords, although there are more or less fitting German equivalents. When you think about why, it can get scary. Loan words, like other catchy terms, can serve as a way to skip the thought process.

1. Empowerment

As in “community empowerment,” which is often used in grant writing and job descriptions and can mean a lot of things from relationship counseling to building a guerilla movement. So friends and enemies will know, something’s going on – but not what exactly.

The most obvious translation, “Ermächtigung,” specifically refers to the law Hitler used to seize full executive power right after being elected. More generally, it can just mean “authorization.” One neologism that didn’t catch on is “Selbstwertsteigerung,” which only describes one sub-aspect of empowerment – making people feel more confident – so it doesn’t work as a blanket term.

2. People of color (PoC)

A purported “empowering” self-description for all visible minorities in the USA, which has made it over to Europe, despite many cultural differences. Whether white Eastern Europeans are PoCs in Germany remains debatable, for example. The term is often used by minority representatives seeking to address polite society – while the hipper ones might use less polite terms to “bond” with each other.

So what’s  a PoC? While immigrants, for example, would identify by their native nationality or ethnic group, their children, who grew up in Germany, might call themselves PoCs, if they have enjoyed a certain type of education.  So PoC doesn’t say as much about your heritage as it does about your political leanings.

The direct German choice for PoC, “farbige Menschen,” was once used for “colored” – a term which “people of color” tries to reframe, although “colored people” sounds pretty much the same to the unititiated. (Actually, “people of color” might even be much older as a term for non-enslaved black people, and a polite way to say “black,” which in turn is just a translation of the “n-word” into English.)

“Menschen mit Farbe” sounds like a house painting company, most other German choices don’t sound empowering enough, so PoC has become established in Germany, together with all the untranslatable cultural contradictions.

3. Communities

Also quite a buzzword, and another euphemism for marginalized groups – “empowerment of queer PoC communities.” It sounds like all the people in these groups have the same goals and kind of like each other. Maybe political language really can reshape reality. (You wouldn’t say “the white community,” however, although white people are said to be a very cohesive bunch…)

In any case, “communities” is used in the same way in German, but not because the direct translations are not politically correct, but because they have different meanings. “Gemeinden” means a church congregations or communal administrations, “Gemeinschaft” could mean society as a whole and is sometimes used for “communities” in more formal texts, “Kommunen” means communes or communal administrations.

“Bevölkerungsgruppen” (population groups) would be a good, neutral translation, because doesn’t imply the same cohesion as “communities.” However, it is close to “Volksgruppen” (ethnic groups), which reeks of 19th century anthropology.

So in the case of “communities,” the reason for using a loan translation is not that the German options are inherently wrong, just that they have different meanings already.

So you see, touchy terms need touchy language. As a rule, whenever talking about charged terms, use an English loan word. The Anglo-Saxon world is not free of racism, but its racism is certainly more progressive than many regional flavors. After all, doesn’t “shithole country” sound way more inclusive than “Scheißlochland”?

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