False appearances

One major takeaway from Perry Anderson’s excellent new article on the European Union (‘An Ever Closer Union?’, London Review of Books, January 7) is that fundamentally undemocratic arrangements lie at the heart of the EU, as policy formation would now appear to be the prerogative of a technocratic elite, with decisions of fundamental impact ‘ratified in ministerial conclaves, announced by heads of government, and presented to citizens at home as faits accomplis.’

As the insulation of regulatory policy from public preferences seems to be an inescapable feature of all modern administrative states (cf. DeCanio, Democracy and the Origins of the American Regulatory State), it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘democratic legitimacy’ enjoyed by EU institutions has become an ever-more frequent topic of debate in academic circles, particularly in Germany. While such discussions in the German-speaking world invariably make frequent use of the term gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz (roughly, ‘social/public acceptance’), in Anderson’s 15,000-word article, the word ‘acceptance’ does not appear once. How is this possible?

In contrast to their Anglo counterparts, the members of the German intellectual class are far more deliberate in their effort to codify and deploy terminology in a consistent and rigorous fashion, a phenomenon that I subsume under the term begriffliche Strenge (roughly, ‘terminological rigorousness’). While this tendency must be connected in part to the syntactical properties of German — including the ease with which abstract relationships can coagulate in noun form — the underlying causes elude simple identification, making it advisable instead to focus on the outward manifestations of this tendency, not least due to its relevance for the translator’s task.

Awareness for the divergence between German and English in this area allows one to realize that “acceptance” is not missing from Anderson’s text because the notion of gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz is more frequently subsumed under another term, as most Germans would suppose — thus leading them, when writing in English, to search for a specific noun that they can deploy in a consistent fashion (a vain endeavor).

Indeed, there are whole range of exceedingly common terms in German that are central to the academic discussion of certain topics but which lack proper English equivalents — yet not because Anglos have failed to adequately consider such issues, but rather because English tends to be somewhat more ambivalent and indeterminate in its use of terminology, a characteristic of English that can strike the German native as unsystematic — and, by extension, epistemologically unsophisticated. For clearly, terminological precision is a cornerstone of unambiguous communication and effective action by the collective. Yet it is not without its costs — I would suggest — for it also leads to a certain ‘brittleness’ and lack of flexibility in mental modes, as the contents of thought threaten to become chained to synthetic concepts out of step with true insight, particularly among the greater mass of men who merely adopt ready-made concepts en toto.

So how does Anderson convey the notion of gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz? Far from repeatedly deploying a single term in a rote manner, he speaks of ‘citizen investment’ and ‘active endorsement’ as alternatives to ‘listless acquiescence’ and ‘adverse public attention’. The first two terms actually provide an excellent example of the flexibility of English in the area of ‘ad hoc compounding’ (my term), a crucial source of linguistic dynamism in English and differentiating factor from German that I will seek to elaborate on in a future post.

As a final remark for those seeking a translation solution, I would expressly recommend against ‘public/social acceptance’, which seems to imply ‘begrudging toleration’, thus contradicting the ‘active approval’ inherent to the German term. ‘Public support’ is a decent solution; however, it should not be deployed with mechanical repetitiveness, as if it were a firmly codified Fachterminus without alternative (viz. alternativlos).