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COMMENTARY

Even in English It's Hard to Translate

By Geoffrey Nunberg
Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the author of "Going Nucular" (PublicAffairs, 2004).

October 10, 2004

The genius of language is to comprehend different things under a single name, but that can also be what makes it deceptive. Most of the proposals that President Bush has been touting to restructure taxes have been floating around for quite a while — offering tax incentives for establishing health savings accounts, reducing taxes on investment income and allowing workers to redirect some of their payroll taxes into investment accounts. But even critics of these programs acknowledge that they acquire a new appeal when bundled as part of "the ownership society."

But for all the slogan's domestic allure, the foreign press has had a hard time explaining it. The Italian daily La Stampa rendered the phrase as the "societa dei proprietari," or society of property owners. The German edition of the Financial Times used "Teilhabergesellschaft," or roughly, shareholder society. And a writer for the French business journal Les Echos rendered the phrase as "la societe de la propriete," using a word that can mean either property or legal ownership, but added that the English word "ownership" is so vague that the phrase is basically untranslatable.

Foreigners have the same problem with Bush's description of the programs as "empowering people to help themselves." The best the Finns can do to render "empowerment" is a phrase that means "being in charge of one's life." The French sometimes paraphrase it as "emancipation" or "active participation," but usually they just leave it in English and hope for the best.

And although German has a word that literally means empowerment, it trails some unfortunate historical connotations. The Ermaechtigungsgesetz, or Empowerment Act, was the 1933 law that allowed Adolf Hitler to rule by decree — one reason why the Germans too usually opt for the English word.

Of course there are plenty of other English words — such as "cozy and "smug" — that resist translation. But when foreigners are scratching their heads over the keywords of our political debates, it's usually a sign that English is trying to get away with some semantic sleight of hand.

The Europeans' puzzlement over "ownership society" doesn't testify to an obstinately collectivist mentality. They don't have any trouble expressing the idea of owning a house, a bistro or 100 shares of stock. But they're mystified when we talk about people owning things in ways detached from legal possession.

Self-help gurus talk about "owning your feelings." Business consultants stress the importance of getting employees to "feel ownership," not by giving them an equity stake but by encouraging them to "celebrate the company's vision." Nowadays, pride of ownership doesn't always require a deed.

That psychological sense of ownership is always in the background when Bush and others talk about ownership as an abstract social good. "In a new term," he says, "we'll continue to spread ownership to every corner of America." On its face, that sounds a lot like Oprah's "Everybody gets a car!" But Bush's "ownership" is a lot broader and vaguer than that — it simultaneously promises an increase in wealth, individual responsibility and personal control.

There's no question that enabling people to acquire property and assets gives them a sense of control of their lives and of having a stake in society. In that sense, an ownership society is everybody's dream. That's why liberals have stressed the importance of redressing disparities in personal wealth and of reversing the alarming drop in net worth of the bottom 40% of the U.S. population.

But critics have charged that Bush's proposals would actually increase those disparities, by displacing the tax burden from investment income to wages and by favoring those in the top brackets who naturally benefit most from tax incentives. From that point of view, Bush's "owners" can seem just an oblique synonym for "haves." The problem with big-tent words such as "ownership" is that they obscure the discord among their meanings; it can take a while to realize that one sense of ownership can work to the detriment of another. Younger workers may derive a psychological satisfaction from controlling their own retirement accounts. As investors, we all like to think we're a bit smarter than average. But if these workers make the wrong choices, they could wind up owning less, and might ruefully recall why it was called "social security" in the first place.

But "the ownership society" deftly obscures those trade-offs, conflating personal control and financial well-being. In the midst of an electoral campaign, Republicans aren't about to point out that ownership can come down to saying you're on your own.