Behind the scenes at the GEM Report, as we started working on the 2017/8 Report, we spent many hours trying to distinguish the meaning of accountability from other related terms like responsibility and trust. We are a team of 22 nationalities and we found that definitions and understandings of accountability are quite slippery, with different meanings in different contexts. It metamorphoses into all sorts of different words depending on the language you speak, as this blog will show.
It’s tricky to start looking into accountability in many countries, for instance, when the word itself doesn’t even exist. This is the case in Dutch, for instance. The Japanese don’t have a word for the term, but imported one, which they loosely translate as ‘responsibility to explain’. It remains very rarely used, nonetheless.
Most languages use multiple words interchangeably when talking about accountability. Arabic, for example, has a word for accountability , but also uses المساءلة “better governance الحكم الرشيد”, “trustالثقة ”, “access to information حق الوصول للمعلومة ”, “transparencyالشفافية ”, “integrity النزاهة ” or “answerability التجاوب ”.
Responsibility: In many countries the words for responsibility and accountability are used interchangeably, as you may know from English, but is also the case in Mongolian, French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and Swahili. A number of languages lack any real differentiation from the word responsibility when talking about accountability, such as in Hindi, Nepali, Bahasa Indonesia, or Malagasy. In Russian, a word for accountability exists when it is used in technical or financial contexts, but when it is used more figuratively (as in “we are held accountable for our commitments”) the word responsibility, ‘ответственность’, is used instead.
Answerability: Answerability is also a literal translation used by many contexts, including in Shona (Zimbabwe) ‘kuzvidavirira pachinhu chaunoita’; Urdu (Pakistan) ‘jawab dahi’; Nepali (Nepal), ‘jvaafdehitaa’, as well as in Bengali (India) and Tagalog (Philippines).
Control: In Poland, the most common use of the word accountability, “odpowiedzialność”, means responsibility, but the term is also translated as control, “kontrola”.
Promises and vows: One meaning of the word in Greek, Zulu (South Africa) and Kinyarwanda (Rwanda) means vowing, or promising something. In Zulu, “ukumela amazwi akho” literally translates as ‘being a person of his/her words’.
Financial accounts: In many countries, the word may also refer to financial issues, as is the case in Poland, for instance: “rozliczalność”, or in Pakistan, “ehtasab”.
As you might be coming to realise, and as a study from the Royal College of Nurses in the United Kingdom on the meaning of accountability brilliantly concluded a few years ago: “The more you use the term accountability, the more you wonder what it means”. Indeed, rather than attempt to translate all the nuances of the word, scholars in Italian and Spanish sometimes simply use the English term.
What is as yet unclear is whether not having a single and clearly defined notion of accountability actually results in reduced pressures for accountability in public life. It’s not hard to imagine that vocabulary can affect perception – the power of words is huge, after all.
Despite its abstract nature, however, accountability is alluded to in various ways across all sorts of settings and in relation to all sorts of practices and discourses. Perhaps the lack of a clear word across all languages represents the fact that it has a web of meanings, with a cultural resonance that lies largely beyond the reach of language.
There is a lot still to explore. This is why we are launching a survey asking how the word accountability translates in your language, and in your second language if you have one. Please do take part, and help us continue our work in this area.