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Is there an idiom which would convey

I'm afraid I can't do that

Literally translating, It would become

Ich fürchte, ich kann das nicht tun

Would that make sense?

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You give the English phrase with a comma in your title and without in the question body. These are two very different statements. The one with the comma (really a comma splice, which would be better represented by a semi-colon) is two distinct statements, and means that you are actually afraid of something and that you (probably therefore) can't do something. The version with no comma is an idiom which has little or nothing to do with actual fear. –  TRiG Aug 3 at 21:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

One of the most common ways of saying this in German would be:

Das kann ich leider nicht tun.

or

Leider kann ich das nicht tun.

Your original sentence is correct, but perhaps not the most idiomatic: it reminds me of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, although in reality the famous phrase "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave" was simply rendered, "Das kann ich nicht tun, Dave" - take that as you will.

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A few moments later HAL says "I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen". Translating that with "leider" would look something like "leider kann ich das nicht zulassen". Imho that does not preserve the insidious overtone as well as a variant with "ich fürchte". –  Grantwalzer Aug 3 at 17:25
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"I'm afraid" can be tranlated as "leider" but "ich fürchte" just gets much closer and preserves the prosodic features better. –  Grantwalzer Aug 3 at 17:33
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Additionally, Try translatig this phrase with "leider": I'm afraid he's dead. Way off. –  Grantwalzer Aug 3 at 19:16
    
@Carlster I think the take-away here is that context is important. –  Milchgesicht Aug 3 at 19:17
    
Exactly, and "leider" is neither covering different contexts nor in any way idiomatic. –  Grantwalzer Aug 3 at 19:25

Those sound more natural to me, you can omit the "tun":

Ich bezweifle, dass ich das (tun) kann.
I doubt I can do that.

Ich befürchte, dass ich dass nicht (tun) nicht kann.
I fear I cannot do that.

Ich glaube nicht, dass ich das (tun) kann.
I don't think I can do that.

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Ich fürchte, das kann ich (leider) nicht (tun).

... is perfectly fine and idomatic. In comparison,

Das kann ich leider nicht tun.

as proposed by "Milchgesicht" simply drops the "I'm afraid" phrase.

I'd therefore go with the former, which is closer to the connotation of the English version.

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I think it depends on context: in a customer service setting in English, it is typical to say "I'm afraid I can't do that." when rejecting a customer's request. However in German, saying "Ich fürchte, das kann ich nicht." seems a bit exaggerated to me. I could be misguided there. –  Milchgesicht Aug 3 at 17:38
    
@Milchgesicht That's because your translation is missing the "tun". –  Grantwalzer Aug 3 at 19:14
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@Milchgesicht: Maybe; the "ich fürchte"-variant may sound a bit old-fashioned or formal to some in a more casual setting. But for my sprachgefühl it's closer to the original intent; and it's perfectly reasonable for HAL 9000, anyway ;) –  Frank Aug 4 at 0:19

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