Sunday 31 October 2010

Eigensinn macht Spaß, as they say

Letter from Germany. A public holiday here today, & time for reflection...

The German lawyers I negotiate with bemoan the paucity of their own language when it comes to capturing commercial ideas: all substantive discussion is in English, and all preliminary drafting – even when the ultimate document will be in German. They have fewer words, less nuance, fewer concepts even. A strong claim, but that’s what they say.

Of course German has a handful of terms that find no one-word translation into English –
schadenfreude being the one most frequently cited. That at least can be readily rendered accurately enough in a very few English words, or even deployed in English as an import. But here’s a far more profound, nigh-on untranslatable word, the depths of which genuinely deserve consideration: Eigensinn / eigensinnig.

Generally translated as stubbornness, opinionated, pig-headedness, wayward, wilful obstinacy, headstrong, it comes across as having essentially negative connotations (check your own German dictionary) – which is in itself an important observation.

Because, properly considered, it freights so much more than this, including an entire positive side to the same coin: originality, self-confidence, perseverance, integrity born of personal conviction, unshakeable private determination contra mundum.

The dichotomy has its origins in divergent religious doctrines, of course: whether it is the place of the individual to have any views on significant matters other than those taught by clerical authority.
o a Capitalist@Work in 2010, it is interesting that the negative translations prevail completely (and, by the way, in conformist Germany the negative connotation for the most part prevails as well). It shows how superficial is our regard for genuine independence of mind.

Think of the fates of the various whistle-blowers at banks over recent years. “I label you Not A Team Player” intones one of Dilbert’s evil characters at the slightest sign of independent thought. “Never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do” is Homer Simpson’s highest principle.

And of course it’s true: don’t ever be the lone voice of dissidence in an American company (trust me on this one). ‘Headstrong’ sounds, a priori, as though it should be a term of approbation. But it ain't.

Eigensinn macht Spaß, wrote Herman Hesse (a bit headstrong himself): Eigensinn is fun. Or perhaps, makes mischief. Indeed it does. But we need the headstrong independence, the stubborn integrity: and all too often, in banking, politics and elsewhere, we don’t get it.



Chuckles said...

Single-minded perhaps?
Or a trace of 'hubris' hovering around?
Not really, the German meaning sort of implies a lightness in the meaning, as you note, whereas hubris is usually seen as negative.

Gewollt, aber nicht gekonnt is another favourite of mine.

Sackerson said...

"Des Menschen Wille ist sein Himmelreich."

Anonymous said...

How interesting....I don't speak German (having opted for Chemistry when we had the choice between these 2 subjects...another story) but I think the word fits me exactly. In all the jobs I've done I never felt any of them fitted me and worst of all I've never seen rushing off every morning to work as a good way for us to run society or for individuals either. In one job (in a well-known insurance company) we (at least 20 people)spent more than a month with literally nothing to do yet we had to be there. Why, what's the point in that? When there was work it was dull.

Now I've downsized and with very little in the way of savings I'm ekeing out my cash until it's time for the old age pension. I am so much happier I cannot tell you. Society seems to think we must all have jobs but so many of them are pointless and unnecessary except as a way to get an income.

I've thought for a long time that the availablwe work should be shared out more equally and now with the increase in part-time working this is beginning to become a reality. Full-time jobs are great if you genuinely love your work but how many can really say that they do.

Simon Fawthrop said...

As a young squaddie serving in Germany one of my colleagues, a very good German speaker, would often use the phrase gut gezeitung, meaning good timing.

I thought it was accurate and thought nothing more of it until I used the phrase some years later when working in Vienna as a throwaway quip. One of my German colleagues, a very correct and precise person, looked at me puzzled and asked what I meant. When I said good timing he thought for a moment and said there was no German phrase for good timing, but that it was very good.

PS Does Germany still have all its holidays and Tuesday and Thursday so that they can have long weekends?

Electro-Kevin said...

When touring Germany I took to shouting out "Schnell! Schnell !Fernsehapparat !" and declaring, "Ich bin Kevin. Ich habe funfsehen jar alt"

I got plenty of sex with those simple phrases.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

My translation would be wilful stubborness, FWIW.

@EK: I found "blaest du mir einer?" MUCH more effective, especially when combined with a winning smile and strong English accent.

Nick Drew said...

well chaps, a culturally elevated level of responses (on average), very gratifying ...

I can only refer all you German lovers to this

Mark Wadsworth said...

I agree with your version, the word has positive as much as negative connotations.