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I often come across these two words and they both seem to correspond to "responsible (for)". Are these two always interchangeable or there are some specific cases where one takes preference over the other.

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    I'd say "zuständig" is more like "being in charge of something" and "verantwortlich" is to take responsibility for something, but the meanings overlap. – Beta Aug 10 '16 at 15:50
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    @Beta: Please do not answer in the comments. – Wrzlprmft Aug 11 '16 at 10:23
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    @Wrz...etc But this wasn't a complete answer, that would have been appropriate to label as an "Answer". Should I have choosen not to write anything? – Beta Aug 11 '16 at 10:46
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    In my opinion, it would have been an acceptable (though not outstanding answer) and it would have been better not to have posted anything. – Wrzlprmft Aug 11 '16 at 12:40
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zuständig: Should be doing the job

verantwortlich: Takes accountability for the job and doesn't necessarily do it himself.

Close to the difference between responsible vs. accountable in English and just as often confused...

  • But isn't responsible more like being designated to do some activity, whereas accountable is something like being judged for the outcome of an activity. – mub Aug 10 '16 at 15:54
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    @mub I guess that's what tofro was implying. – Em1 Aug 10 '16 at 19:18
  • @Em1: i guess tofro should have used "accountability" (or rather "is accountable") instead of "responsibility" – Gerhard Aug 10 '16 at 20:40
  • @Gerhard: He uses both. – O. R. Mapper Aug 12 '16 at 5:04
  • @O.R.Mapper I have slightly changed my answer after the comments - Sorry for the confusion – tofro Aug 12 '16 at 5:52
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The grey zone

  • Somebody is zuständig if they are the person assigned to something or the person to go to if you have a request regarding something.

  • Somebody is verantwortlich if they are the person who would take the blame for something or is guilty of something.

The difference is roughly comparable to those of the English words proper and liable.

While in most cases, somebody who is zuständig is also verantwortlich (and vice versa), the words focus on different aspects. For example, using the respective other words in the following examples would be technically correct, but odd:

[Verkäufer im Baumarkt:] Es tut mir leid, aber dies ist die Sanitärabteilung; die Gartenabteilung ist für Wasserschläuche zuständig.
[Shop assistant in a hardware store:] Sorry, but this is the bathroom department; the gardening department is the proper place for hosepipes.

Wer ein Buch ausleiht, ist dafür verantwortlich, dass es nicht beschädigt wird.
If somebody borrows a book, they are liable for it not being damaged.

Also, if multiple levels of responsibility/accountability are involved, verantwortlich tendentially refers to those higher up in the hierarchy:

Die Stadt ist für Kindergärten verantwortlich. Die zuständige Behörde ist das Jugendamt.
The city is accountable for kindergardens. The responsible department is the child-welfare office.

Meine Frau ist für unsere Steuererklärung zuständig, aber wenn sie Mist baut, sind wir beide verantwortlich.
My wife does our tax declaration. However, if she botches it, we are both in trouble.

Exclusive use of verantwortlich

If verantwortlich is used in the sense of guilty, it cannot be replaced with zuständig without changing the meaning:

Wer ist für diese Sauerei verantwortlich?
Who caused this mess?

Wer ist für diese Sauerei zuständig?
Who is responsible for cleaning up this mess?

Kommissar Müller ist für den Mord verantwortlich.
Inspector Müller is guilty of that murder.

Kommissar Müller ist für den Mord zuständig.
Inspector Müller is responsible for [investigating] this murder.

In both of the above examples the variant with verantwortlich technically can have the same meaning as the variant with zuständig, but it is prone to be misunderstood.

Finally verantwortlich can be used for something other than persons, meaning being the reason. Zuständig cannot be used in such cases:

Der Schmetterlingseffekt ist dafür verantwortlich, dass wir keine langfristigen Wettervorhersagen treffen können.
The butterfly effect is reason why we cannot make long-term forecasts of the weather.

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I would translate zuständig rather as "in charge of". Verantwortlich covers both responsible and accountable, which as an adjective is not distinguished.

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