Updated: Mar 1, 2019
English is the language with the most words. One reason is the combination of its origins, bringing to the table Germanic and Dutch roots that are difficult to translate if a linguist is only vaguely familiarized with the language.
One common discussion in translation pertains to the faithfulness of the meaning from the source text to the target text. It occurs to me that in cases in which the source text contains a word to describe a meaning, that word has function in the text. Thus, it should not be modified or paraphrased or simply replaced with a synonym.
In addition, authors rarely use words in their prose without intent. Instead, I believe that each word has been purposefully placed to make a sense; the author’s sense. Therefore, a translator must be very careful in protecting the meaning of each wordand the style of the text to bring them carefully to the target language semantics. In other words, a translator must preserve faithfulness.
In some paired languages such as from English into Spanish, a word has synonyms in the source text that when translated, there is just one equivalent way to translate them. This is the case of accountability (in English) and responsabilidad (in Spanish).
For the sake of a faithful translation, let me first untangle three concepts in English that are related to each other and nowadays have gained a bit more independence: accountability, responsibility, and liability.
Responsibility was used in the public life of people who had to respond for their actions if they were public officials. Basically, it was used as a “technical” term. In the current world, responsibility corresponds to having control over something or duty to care for as a role of someone’s occupation.
Liability’s definition is solemnly used in the legal context, i.e., if a person is liable, she or he has an obligation to fulfill a required act (pay, transfer, etc) or abstention to do something.
The Oxford Dictionary’s definition for accountability is “the fact or condition of being accountable.” Accountable is a word that has its roots in the Latin language: accomptare or “to account.” By the 14th Century, accountable became the blend of two words: account and able. In layperson words, we use accountability to ascribe responsibility to someone or for some activity. In other words, whoever is accountable is responsible for and/or required to.
In Spanish, the equivalent of the noun accountability is responsibility, and we use this equivalence in a couple of ways and contexts:
1. As a personal characteristic. In this sense, if we say a person is responsible, we mean that he or she is attentive and careful with the tasks assigned to him or her.
- Example: the juvenile is very responsible; he always completes his assignments before the due date.
2. As an obligation to pay due to a tort or a crime, or even a simple debt with a bank.
Mary is “responsible” for paying the debt of the mortgage.
John is responsible for malpractice.
Patty is responsible for murdering her neighbor.
3. As moral obligation for wrongdoing.
- Example: It was his responsibility to bring his child to soccer practice.
There is a fourth definition that it is closely related to law. In Spanish speaking countries based on civil law systems, a person is responsible when he/she is capable. There is a definition of capability but it is not the subject of this article.
A designation does not have a meaning on its own. It is always accompanied by a context and culture. The translator has to read the text that contains the word accountability and understand it’s given context. Besides the context, the culture of both source and target language are a must to study as well.
In all, the English language bestows a few ways to convey a type of responsibility that someone carries over a thing, duty, or a person. The Spanish language, however, uses the same word (responsibility) but in different contexts. This does not mean that Spanish does not have a word to translate accountability. It simply means that the concept is surrounded in a word being responsabilidad.