Fairness Discussion Unfair to Foreigners

Will Wilkinson passes on Bart Wilson‘s observation that, “fair is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language.”

Jim Henley, blogging into the Google Reader comment share ether, retorts:

I remember the days we were assured there was no word for ‘freedom’ in Russian. That was bullshit. ‘There’s no one-to-one translation of *fair* into other languages’ sounds like more of the same crap. As it happens, Google’s translater spits out one-for-one, reversible translations of ‘fair’ for Spanish and English. I got bored after I did those two. I suspect this is another case of an academic specialist’s research and vocabulary being misappropriated and stripped of important qualifiers within her own discipline.

As much as I’m flattered by the notion that “fairness” is somehow an Anglo-American concept, I’d have to concur.

Beyond the factoid, however, I think Wilson’s larger argument is also BS.

For the original antonym of fair is not, as most modern Americans would probably expect, unfair. If you want to understand the roots of fairness, look not to ethicists, but to baseball, which still uses the original dichotomy.  If a ball is hit outside the bounds of fair play, it’s not unfair–it’s foul. That’s an important clue.  As Columbia law professor George Fletcher had noted in his 1996 book Basic Concepts of Legal Thought, the Anglo-American notion of fairness is firmly rooted in the rules of a game.

Uh, no.  In a widely-cited study that Dave Schuler remarked upon recently, dogs have a strong sense of fair play.  Are we really to believe that other human civilizations are less socially evolved than man’s best friend?

Photo by Flickr user mringlein, used under Creative Commons license

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The fair/foul dichotomy goes back to at least Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

  2. odograph says:

    I posted a comment earlier with Will, referring to fairness studies in other primates. There are piles of those too.

    I’m not surprised that dogs (indeed most social species) would have it figured out.

  3. sam says:

    Here’s an interesting discussion of “fairness” in Anglophone cultures: Anna Wierzbicka, English: Meaning and Culture: “Being Fair: Another Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Underpinnings” in Part II, English Words: From Philosophy to Everyday Discourse. I don’t think that “fairness” as a concept is unique to us English speakers, but my feeling is that it doesn’t have the centrality in other cultures of European orgin that it has in ours. And it starts early. My mother-in-law forestalled whining about who got the larger piece of cake by saying to one of her children, “You get to cut,” and to the other, “You get to choose.” Pure genius, that. (Come to think of it, that might not be a bad summary of Rawls.)

  4. Matthew Stinson says:

    James, I have to respectfully disagree. What Wilson and Wilkinson seem to mean is that insomuch as language reflects culture, and cultures vary, the meaning of “fairness” will change from group to group. Hence, fairness is one to one untranslatable because translations cannot capture the whole meaning of the word in the different cultures. It doesn’t mean that other cultures lack a concept of fairness, and Wilson actually makes that point in his longer post. He argues, for instance, that fair has become an English loan word in German because it reflects a concept already present in German culture but in a more simplified form than native German vocabulary.

    Incidentally, I’m very familiar with this problem, as my students always add to (or subtract from) the meaning of their Chinese words when translating into English. For instance, the English words “make” and “let” are translated into the same word in Chinese. Thus we can say “make” is not one to one translatable into Chinese, since the Chinese word has extra meaning that the English word does not. In Chinese, the word often translated to mean fair, gongping, also means “reasonable,” “just,” “equal,” and “impartial,” among other connotations. So again, that’s not one to one translatable.

    Finally, you’re misrepresenting Wilson’s post to say that it’s all about fairness as linguistic concept. You haven’t actually explained how “Wilson’s larger argument is BS” since the larger argument is that fairness is culturally bound, and you haven’t addressed that by linking to the dog article. Robert Axelrod argued 20 years ago that cooperation could evolve biologically because cooperative entities gained more overall benefits than entities which always defected from cooperation, so it seems natural to assume that this gene for social cooperation might be present in a successful species like canines. (Note that the fact that dogs expect fairness in receiving gifts for actions as shown in the study doesn’t mean that they will be fair to each other — just watch dogs fight over a meal bowl if you want proof.) That said, the existence of a kind of fairness among dogs doesn’t disprove that fairness between Germans and Chinese and Americans is actually different. Since Wilson says he will continue to explore this theme in future posts, I’m willing to be more (ahem) fair to him than you and Henley were.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Matt: Fair enough.

  6. Franklin says:


  7. odograph says:

    I think Matthew went way to far on the anti-biological. Dogs, except possibly in groups long enough feral to redevelop it, do not have a society with rules about eating. Wolves do, and they don’t fight over every meal.

    I guess this is the second time in two days that arguments have ranged over ground covered in The Blank Slate. Pinker spends most of that on human nature, and the nature-societal interaction.

    If I recall correctly there are about a dozen concepts that are truly universal across human cultures … whoops, here is a longer list of human universals that contains .. you guessed it.

  8. Michael says:

    Are we really to believe that other human civilizations are less socially evolved than man’s best friend?

    James, as you’re both a dog lover and a politically aware individual, I’m surprised you’d find that so hard to believe.

  9. Steve says:

    If I recall correctly there are about a dozen concepts that are truly universal across human cultures

    But even here in the US we have different concepts or definitions of “fair”. A union member defines “fair” as everyone in a particular position getting the same outcome. Management defines “fair” as the rules being applied the same to everyone in a particular position no matter what the outcome.

    Since “fair” has multiple meanings in our culture how can you expect to have a one to one translation to other languages, cultures?

  10. odograph says:

    I think you need to take a step back, Steve. Of course we can argue about “what’s fair.” That is arguably, our nature. That’s the point.

    Do you think people IN other cultures agree about what’s fair?

  11. tom p says:

    Do you think people IN other cultures agree about what’s fair?

    From the movie, Blackhawk Down”:

    “If on skinny kills another skinny, his clan owes the other clan a hundred camels.”

    Not to put to much into Hollywood characterizations, but it sounds like they agreed.

  12. Steve says:

    Do you think people IN other cultures agree about what’s fair?

    Do you mean agree within their culture? I would say no. I think that most cultures of any size will have different definitions of “fair”. The country peasant and the communist bureaucrat in China probably have different, if not conflicting, definitions of “fair”.

    Do you mean agree with us about what is fair? I would say that there are some pairs but not always.

    My point was that translating a word is not the same as translating a concept. Words make a language and language is influenced by context. There may be words in other languages that mean fair but it makes a difference who is speaking which concept should be translated. Certainly the missionaries that went to Africa and told the indigenous people, “you are dressed ‘indecently’, here wear these wool trousers and shirt someone in England donated to you” and the indigenous people who were properly dressed for their environment translated the word indecent one-to-one but did not translate the concept of “indecent” the same.

    BTW, what did you mean by “take a step back”? I’ve heard that phrase before but I’m not sure quite how you meant it.

  13. Michael says:

    But even here in the US we have different concepts or definitions of “fair”. A union member defines “fair” as everyone in a particular position getting the same outcome. Management defines “fair” as the rules being applied the same to everyone in a particular position no matter what the outcome.

    That’s not because they have differing definitions of what is “fair”, they differ on the application of it. The union worker sees outcome as the goal of his working, and so he wants equality in that. The manager sees opportunity as the goal of employing the worker, and thus aims only to be fair in the application of that.

  14. odograph says:

    By take a step back … pretend that you a Martian arriving … do you think that these linguistic difference in fairness concepts between humans would seem all that huge?

    Or is the constant that they all have fairness “issues”?

    (The Martains might also notice those fairness issues broadly among earths social species.)

  15. odograph says:

    I guess I’m responding to the implication that since fairness has social aspects, that is its origin. Rather than say that it is one of those things in underlying human nature which expresses itself in their societies.

  16. G..A.Phillips says:

    What in the great purple hell are you guys talking about???

  17. Michael says:

    What in the great purple hell are you guys talking about???

    Nothing, go back to your cartoons.

  18. Hodge says:

    I’m somewhat sceptical of his argument, but yours is equally unconvincing. Henley’s translation experiment is laughable, because unless you actually speak the languages he had the program translate the word into, for all we know it simply spat back vaguely analogous concepts rather than close matches, or worse, translated the word in the sense that in English is synonymous with “carnival.”

    Likewise, the fact that a certain element of our language reflects something we can observe in the nature world does not mean that that observation will necessarily be reflected in every language. For example, Dutch (if I remember correctly) has a word for the empty space inside of an unfilled container such as a cup. Obviously, we know that this space exists and can observe it, but we simply refer to it indirectly with phrases such as “this cup is empty.” But if you were Dutch, I guess it would seem really strange that you couldn’t refer directly to that empty space with a noun. Being able to do so would make explaining the art theory concept of negative space much easier.

    Likewise, I would be really shocked if it were suggested that another language had no word that shares some shades of meaning with our word “fair.” However, within English, “fair” shares meanings with closely linked concepts such as “just” without being 100% synonymous with them. For example, it seems necessary for us to state to our children that life is not fair, but it seems obvious even to a child that life is not just.

    So that translator, for example, could spit back the Spanish word for “just” when asked to translate “fair,” but it is possible that Spanish (or French, etc) parents don’t have to explain to their children that life isn’t fair, because the manner in which they explain the rules of social behavior never make it seem to children (or adults) that life is fair.

    However, I suspect that all parents have to deal with their children attempting to manipulate their understanding of the rules of social behaviour in a similar manner, but the devil of the results for the experience of parenting may well be in the details.

  19. Gene says:

    The notion of “fair play” in soccer (football) is often said in English in some countries because it does mean a specific English conception (e.g., diving and faking to earn a penalty is considered legitimate in some football cultures but defnitely not “fair play”). So okay, fairness is a cultural construct. Who wudda thunk?

    But “justo” in Brazilian Portuguese means fair (more than just, in the latter’s sense of justice) pretty much along the lines of what we mean in the USA when we say something is or is not fair.

  20. Xenos says:

    ‘Fair’ is not the correct term to be considering here, as it is one of those ancient anglo-saxon terms with a wide range of meanings, including skin color, overall prettiness, social nicety, and so on.

    Legally, the term ‘fair’, as we use it now, is just a new term for equity. Within equity courts the common law has wrestled with fairness, or more precisely, the refusal to enforce unfairness, for several hundred years. So while ‘fairness’, with its multitude of now unrelated meanings, is impossible to translate, every culture has an equivalent to ‘equity.’ Certainly every European nation uses a version of the term, which derives from Latin.

  21. dp says:

    The adverb “fair” in the sense of “equitably, honestly, impartially, justly; according to rule” has been around since 1300 and occurs in Shakespeare, 1603, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Wilson’s grasp of basic and easily checked facts leads something to be desired.

    Additionally, even if the word were new or even if synonyms do not appear in other languages, it hardly follows that fairness is a foreign concept in our society or out of it. Word-for-word translation is only one way to capture meanings. Word-to-sentence translation can probably capture the meaning of the word fair in other languages (specifically those that lack the word).

    I guess I just don’t get how the sparse and inaccurate linguistic facts Wilson marshals militate against the legitimacy, historicity, or value of fairness.

  22. sherifffruitfly says:

    And don’t forget that Eskimos have like a brazillion words for “snow”!!


  23. FOARP says:

    Total BS. Many languages have a word for ‘fair’, the fact that in some countries the English word ‘fair’ has become a loan word simply means that is a shorter way of saying ‘fair’ that that otherwise used in that language. The Chinese word for ‘fair’ gongping, for example, has exactly the same use as the English term when referring to the equal or just treatment, and is understood as a one-for-one translation – it just doesn’t mean ‘pretty’ the way our word does.

  24. Tel says:

    The idea that “fairness” exists is pretty close to universal. The particulars of what is “fair” depend on the values people place on what’s being discussed. If those values are different, the precise distinction of what is “fair” is different to the people talking. So even within a language or culture, there’s no one-to-one translation of “fair,” since different people think different things are more or less valuable. So, no one-to-one precise translation of “fair?” Probably true, but probably useless.

  25. jeffry house says:

    Each of the several foreign languages I speak has a word for “fair” in the sense of “just”.

    However, the original comment was that “fair” has no one-to-one translation in any ther language.

    To me, it is odd that “fair” in English means both “just” and “light-skinned” or “light-haired”.

    I am not sure how common that particular dual meaning, or derivation (?) is in other languages.

  26. dutchmarbel says:

    I have no idea what I’d call the empty space in a cup, so I think that’s another language 😉

    I agree with Jeffry: we use fair too, but not in a one-to-one way. Sometimes fair is translated with ‘honest’, sometimes with ‘reasonable’, sometimes with ‘just’ – because those words are longer in Dutch. On average Dutch takes more words than English to convey the same thing, though there are also words that cannot be translated one-to-one in English either.

    Sometimes the English word is used because there is a whole cultural concept implied. Usually those are associated with the Brits; things like ‘fair play’ and ‘understatement’.