Power, force and strength

Three concepts with distinct but interrelated meanings in physics, but with lines that are blurred in everyday speech in various, differing ways in the different languages. Tricky.

Without diving into the watts, newtons and joules of it all: strength is the ability to exert or withstand a force and power is the rate at which work (force exerted over a distance) can be done. So much for the physics. The translation issues appear when the Dutch words kracht and macht are used in other ways:

  • the ability to flex metaphorical musculature and get things done is usually power, so “de kracht van de consument” is consumer power rather than “consumer force”
  • but where kracht is used as a synonym for “sterke punt”, the best translation will be strength, for instance “de kracht van deze studie”
    • by the way: that’s “a strength” – a countable noun, as opposed to the non-countable “strength” of (say) a person, team or bridge
  • luchtmacht and strijdmachten may have the word for “power” embedded, but they’re the air force and armed forces respectively nonetheless
  • zwartekracht is an awkward one, because it embeds the word for “force” but the English word gravity doesn’t. Fine as the word for the phenomenon, but it means that if you’re talking about the actual physical force exerted on a mass, you have to say the force of gravity or the gravitational force, which sounds tautologous to Dutch ears

So in fact it’s quite tricky to come up with general rules for these three words: if in doubt, you’re best off Googling up multi-word phrases on native English sites to check.

Prevalence: moderate. And it can be quite confusing too. A lot of authors will slip up sometimes!
Frequency: low. There’ll only be the occasional issue in any given text.
Native: no. This post is really about stock phrases, I suppose, and they’re not something the natives get wrong.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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