Rather than explaining the meaning of Zumutbarkeit, I will describe what it does.
First, for comparison, a few thoghts on the adjectives eßbar (edible) and sichtbar (visible), which are constructed in the same way as zumutbar, but less complicated.
Literally, an edible thing has the ability to be eaten, and a visible thing has the ability to be seen.
I’ll use one apple as an example for both.
The apple is edible if it’s not rotten, too full of worms, or poisoned by a bad stepmother.
It is visible if it’s not in my pocket, otherwise out of sight, or altogether imaginary.
Now, if you have an allergy to apples, you cannot eat, and if you are blind, you cannot see the apple, even though it might be perfectly edible and visible.
Still it would be unfair in such a case to say that that’s your fault.
I did it anyway, to show how this construction may be used to shift blame: The thing itself is o.k., and if you are still not content with it, it is your fault.
Now, an apple cannot eat, or see, itself. So actually it does not, all by itself, have the ability to be eaten, or seen.
The person who is to eat, or see, the apple, is hidden in the word edible, or visible.
Now, a zumutbares thing has the ability to legitimately, justifiably be forced by one person, or party, on another.
– Zumutbarkeit does not refer to the power to force the zumutbare thing on someone. If I have no power at all to force a thing on you, I may still freely discuss its Zumutbarkeit.
Instead, Zumutbarkeit refers to the legitimacy, the justification of forcing the zumutbare thing on someone.
If it is not justified to force a thing on someone, then it is not zumutbar.
– On the other hand, if I can establish a thing as zumutbar within a community, that creates pressure. So, while Zumutbarkeit does not reflect on power, it may be used to create it.
– Most german-speakers, I think, would say that force is a bit strong. I disagree. As I see it, at least in the cases where there is enough power to force something on somebody, the forcing is hidden in the process of civilly establishing the Zumutbarkeit of a thing.
Say, I want to build a pigsty on the lot next to your house.
In it, I want to raise 20.000 pigs at once, practically on your doorstep.
I will probably not feel like discussing how this might affect you personally.
Instead I will much rather speak about the ability of my pigsty to be legitimately forced on you, its Zumutbarkeit.
You and me will both be hidden in this word, by me.
And obviously this 20.000-pig-pigsty is zumutbar, because it will bring this big investment to the community, and 3 – three!!! – jobs, and on top we will use all the pigshit to make biogas, so it’s ecologic too!
Notice how the Zumutbarkeit of my pigsty has nothing to do do with what your life will be like if I build it?
And if you want to speak about that aspect, I’ll make you put up a good fight first to even be recognized as a concerned party.
If you succeed in that, then, well, we have already established that this pigsty is zumutbar, and if you still object, then it follows logically that you must be overly sensitive or something.
In case you refuse that fight and try to meet me on the abstract battleground of Zumutbarkeit, all the better (for me), because you are leaving it to me to inform the public that you live right next to the building site, and that really this is all about your own little egotistical self.
So, the most obvious properties of Zumutbarkeit are that the word hides two persons, and can shift blame.
I trust that english-speaking pigsty-builders can do exactly the same things with their english words. In german, though, Zumutbarkeit is like a verbal hinge to swing my pigsty into place on (also in legalspeak, by the way).
As an afterthought: The sound of this word is ugly in german, too.
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* Mir ist kürzlich aufgefallen, daß man „Zumutbarkeit“ meines Wissens nicht so richtig ins Englische übersetzen kann, und was für ein krasses Wort das eigentlich ist, nämlich.