what’s in a word?

The past couple of weeks have been busy with translation, both for work and for research. A good translation isn’t just a mechanical rendering of one language into another; it accurately conveys sense and nuance and, pondering the deeper layers of meaning, you soon recognise how some vocabulary is imbued with certain values and attitudes. In this blog I’ve chosen a few German words, seemingly innocuous in their everyday usage, that never fail to make me inwardly cringe a bit. Naturally, my perception of these words is informed in part by my own cultural and political background. And I should also point out that this blog isn’t a critique of German itself; it’s simply that German is the language I work with and therefore think about in some depth. You might be familiar with similar examples in other languages. 

something missing?

Let’s start with the adjective suffix –los, which suggests a lack or scarcity of something. For example: ‘humorlos‘ (humourless), ‘sprachlos’ (speechless) or ‘arbeitslos’ (unemployed/jobless). In each case, something is missing: humour, speech and a job. Fair enough. Similarly, we can also say ‘konfessionslos‘ (non-denominational) and ‘kinderlos’ (childless). For me, this is where it gets tricky. Being ‘denomination-less’ (a literal translation!) sort of sounds like you’re bereft of something — in this case religious belief. But of course many people are perfectly happy to have no religious denomination. Some might not spend much time dwelling on the matter; others, including myself, see agnosticism or atheism as a rational, free-thinking approach to life. Therefore, I frequently describe my self as ‘konfessionsfrei’  — free of any denomination — as this expresses my decision not to adhere to any particular religious belief.

More problematic is ‘kinderlos’. The German word isn’t alone here, as ‘childless’ is an ‘unhappy’ word in English too. Even now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, ‘childless’ women in their thirties or above often meet with one of two responses: sympathy or suspicion. Sympathy where it’s assumed you have sadly been denied motherhood, and suspicion where it’s supposed you are too selfish to have a maternal bone in your body. (Childlessness can even be a means of attacking or questioning a woman’s character, as the appalling comment about UK Prime Minister Theresa May showed.) However, let’s not overlook the many women who make a conscious, responsible decision not to have a child and, rather than be wracked with sadness or guilt, are absolutely happy with that choice, as it’s the right one for them. I count myself among this group of women who are not child-less, but child-free, or kinderfrei. Of course, this doesn’t imply that children are something negative — simply that, for us at least, not being a mother is a positive choice for our own lives.    

However, don’t expect freedom from religious belief or being child-free to go down well with officialdom. Once, when filling out an official form for work, I was asked to state my religious denomination and parental status, both utterly irrelevant for the purpose of the form. My responses — ‘konfessionsfrei’ and ‘kinderfrei’ —  were deemed unacceptable (even though they’re listed in dictionaries) and the form was swiftly returned for more suitable answers.

family values

Here’s another curiosity: ‘Homoehe’, which literally means homosexual marriage. A more usual English translation is of course same-sex marriage. I have to say, ‘Homoehe’ really grates every time I read or hear it. Germany recognises civil partnerships but still hasn’t legalised marriage between same-sex couples. Proposals to introduce full equality have stalled in parliament, particularly as government coalition parties toe the conservative Christian Democrat line. So what bothers me about the word itself? Well, simply that ‘Homoehe’, as opposed to ‘Ehe’ (marriage) suggests a qualitative difference between the marriage of same-sex partners and the marriage of opposite-sex partners. But isn’t marriage simply marriage? The fight for full marriage rights isn’t a campaign for some new kind of marriage, but a campaign to remove discrimination and achieve marriage equality. That term — marriage equality — is common in English, but even progressive German media platforms advocating marriage equality use the word ‘Homoehe’. Curiously, as far as I can see, approximate German translations of ‘marriage equality’ refer solely to gender equality within male-female partnerships. 

give and take

Let’s finish with a bit of politics. This one is a personal favourite

Arbeit’ means work. An employer is the ‘Arbeitgeber’ — literally the ‘giver of work’, and the employee is the ‘Arbeitnehmer’ — the ‘taker of work’. Several years ago, when I was first learning German, I always confused the two words: who was giving and who was taking? Then my German teacher made an interesting observation. She said that from a Marxist perspective, these terms are completely topsy-turvy. It is the fruit of workers’ industry that creates wealth: the worker provides his or her labour, and the employer receives that labour in exchange for wage payment. In other words, it is the worker who gives the work; the employer takes the work. As such, the formal definitions of Arbeitgeber and Arbeitnehmer both reflect and reinforce capitalist norms and values. Something that’s always stuck in my mind. 

workers: giving or taking?

Maybe this seems to be arguing semantics, but isn’t it important to be conscious of the social and political attitudes and norms that shape our everyday lives. Because they do matter, and are often related. Freedom of — and from — religious belief, for example; the relationship between state and religion; attitudes towards women; challenging and overcoming discrimination. And the ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ of work? Perhaps a bit niche, admittedly, but on the other hand we live in an age when work is being devalued and becoming increasingly precarious. So actually, while we’re about it, let’s be mindful of the language framing the dismantling of workers’ rights and protections — so often derided as ‘barriers’ and ‘job killers’. Whichever language you use. #justsayin.


image credit: pixabay / stux


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