Lost in translation?

Our international team of Oxford University graduate students has translated almost all of our editorial and specially commissioned content – a demanding task given the cultural and semantic differences across languages. You can find out more about the difficulties they faced in our Lost in translation? blog posts. This week, Maryam Omidi takes a look at “civility”.

When he was 16 years old, George Washington reproduced the Rules of Civility, a manuscript written by Jesuit priests in 1595. One of its 110 maxims advised: “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.” Another begins: “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks in the Sight of Others.”

Four centuries later, the meaning of civility is still the subject of numerous debates. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, civility can be defined as “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions” and “the minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation”.

As a central plank of Free Speech Debate’s ethos, the meaning of the civility has been greatly mulled over. It is a term that – beside the limitations of the law – forms the backbone of our community standards. And, it makes an importance appearance in one of our 10 draft principles: “We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference.”

So it was interesting to discover that many of our team struggled to translate the word into their mother tongue.

For our Spanish translators, the equivalent in their language, civismo, had overtones of patriotism. They opted for civilidad instead; a word closer to the English in its meaning, but one unfamiliar to many Spanish speakers. Google civismo and you get close to three million hits. By comparison, civilidad generates just 800,000 search results.

The difference in meaning between the two Spanish words appears to mimic the evolution of the English term, which derives from the Latin civilitas. In classical Latin, the word was used to mean “the art of civil government” or “behaviour as an ordinary person”. In post-classical Latin, it took on connotations of citizenship. It wasn’t until the 16th century that civility acquired the definition it has today, after it was popularised by Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.

In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen Carter writes that Erasmus advocated a set of social norms to distinguish the civilised from the uncivilised. From slavery to imperialism, Erasmus’ ideas were later appropriated to justify various forms of subjugation, but this was clearly not his intention.

Living in Europe in the 1530s, at a time when it was standard to defecate at the dining table and when people would maim or kill each other over petty squabbles, Erasmus was appealing for code of behaviour that would bind communities.

Though often translated as “politeness”, civility is much more. “Civility fosters a society that behaves well towards itself, whose members respect the intrinsic value of the individuals and the rights of people different from themselves,” writes philosopher AC Grayling in The Meaning of Things.

Unable to find a word that conveys the full richness of civility, our Turkish team used nezaket (politeness), hoping that context would add nuance to the term. Likewise, our Japanese translators settled on 礼儀正しさ (politeness).

Three of our language teams constructed phrases for civility. Our Arabic translators used بصوره متحضرة (in a civilised manner) while our German graduates went for Hoeflichkeit und Respekt (politeness and decency). Although there is a single word for civility in German, Zivilitaet, they reasoned it was seldom used and then only in erudite circles.

Similarly, our Russian team batted around several options before translating civility as этичное поведение, (ethical behavior) – the phrase also used by Wikipedia to describe the concept. Other contenders included вежливость (politeness), любезность (courteousness) and корректность (correctness).

Looking further east to China, civility (文明) has a meaning comparable to the English. Sign up to Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, and you’ll be asked to “Tweet with civility.”

For China’s ethnic minorities, however, who make up roughly 8% of the population, the word can have a much more ominous meaning, evoking the civility campaigns conducted by the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation of the Communist Party of China. Quite a mouthful.

The commission’s campaigns are designed to eliminate all behaviours which are perceived to be “barbaric”, “feudal” and “backward”. Adding detail, one of our Chinese students said: “In Tibet, nomadic people are forcefully moved into permanent housing. In some areas of Xinjiang, men are discouraged from sporting moustaches and women are told not to wear the hijab – all in the name of civility.”

This link between “civility” and “civilisation” is not unique to China, and stretches beyond the two words’ shared etymology. Among civility’s 13 definitions in the OED, is “The state or condition of being civilised”. In Portuguese too, civility can denote “a person who has a good education” or “good manners”. The word has been used in rhetoric that promotes western behavioural norms as “good” in comparison to those of indigenous or non-European populations. The German Zivilitaet has similar connotations; another reason why it was cast aside.

Five of our language teams found words analogous to civility in their languages without difficulty: Portuguese (civilidade), Hindi (सभ्यता), Farsi (فرهیختگی), Urdu (تہذیب) and French (civilité).

What does civility mean to you? Let us know here.

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Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Not trying to refute your argument btw, just elaborating the “lost in translation” in relation to the Chinese word for it 🙂

  2. Although I would agree the word ‘civilization’ might have some overlapping implications with the word 文明, their meanings are quite different from each other. The Chinese language, quite wonderfully, lends itself for very deep and layered analysis. Concepts that originate in the Western tradition, like ‘modernity’ and ‘civilization’ as much as its binary opposites such as ‘nature’ are very differently interpreted in the Chinese context. For example, it was not until the 19th century that a translation for ‘nature’ (自然) entered the Chinese discourse, and until then the Chinese always thought about ‘nature’ in a more holistic way where man is within nature instead of outside of it. Such a binary structure of ‘modernity’ and ‘nature’ or ‘civilization’ versus..? barbarism? is very much a Western approach. It would be wrong to say that there is no such word for civilization in China, but to equate ‘civilization’ to 文明 would do injustice to the cultural and linguistic connotations of both of these concepts.
    For an interesting article that supports and elaborates a bit more on my argument, I’d like to refer to the following, which was brought to my attention by Jessie (thanks Jessie): http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=28940

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