Translating Resilience

“Strong, self-reliant, prepared, and prosperous.” These are the four words Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, Calif., recently used in a call for civic leaders to contribute to community resilience.

The nuanced differences between those words show just how rich and deep the concept of resilience goes in English-speaking cultures. ”Resilience” can refer to the recovery of a people from war, environmental disaster, or economic depression; the bravery of a child who has withstood personal or political turmoil; or the strength of a building, a neighborhood, or an entire city infrastructure.

Is this true in other languages, other cultures? Apparently so. A blogger for the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience recently dug into the many meanings of resilience worldwide:

Resilience literally means to “bounce back.” It is used virtually everywhere, from sport to science, environmental, economic and global policy. As far as science is concerned, it seems to have been used in physics and ecology first (C.S. Holling), but it is also used frequently in the social sciences (see “Putting a Face on Resilience” in HRR magazine). Psychologists and psychiatrists talk about examples of personal resilience, especially in young people (see Norman Garmezy).

It turns out that around the world, the spectrum of translations and interpretations of the term resilience dates back centuries. In ancient Latin, a basis of many modern languages, the closest things to the concept of “resilience in the face of adversity” were words like "fortitudo" and "constantia," which hold meanings of strength, courage, steadfastness, and perseverance. Virgil managed to write around the problem with his usual eloquence: “Carry on and preserve yourselves for better times,” and “Yield not to misfortunes, but advance all the more boldly against them.”

We've pulled together this list of the many ways people convey “resilience”:

Finnish: kimmoisuus

Greek: ελαστικότης, ελαστικότητα, ελαφρότης, ελαφρότητα, ευθυμία, αναπήδηση

Mandarin:  弹回; 恢复力; 弹性

Arabic: قدرة على الانكماش, الرجوعية للجسم, مرونة

Spanish: elasticidad, resiliencia

Russian: упругость, эластичность

Dutch: veerkracht, elasticiteit

Portuguese: ressalto; elasticidade; alegria

We define resilience as the capacity of individuals, communities, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it. Building resilience is about making people, communities, and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.

How do you define resilience? Is there a single word or phrase that evokes for you this combination of readiness, strength, communication, and the organization and resources to bounce back?

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