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Can anyone explain how the word zwar is generally used? I see it a lot and it doesn't seem like it usually translates very well into English, if at all. Here's an example sentence:

Frage: Hat man heute Geburtstag?

Antwort: Ja und zwar mein Bruder

Does it mean something like "namely" in English? It would sound strange and very formal to say "Yes, namely my brother."

Does zwar have any other important usages?

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Aside: The question "Hat man heute Geburtstag" is a bit strange. You'd rather ask "Hat heute jemand Geburtstag" –  Em1 Jun 6 '13 at 6:47
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Ok, I took the question directly from an episode of "Der kleine rote Traktor" but it's definitely possible that I heard it wrong –  kokirii Jun 6 '13 at 13:30
    
Zwar ist der ganze Dialog befremdlich, doch möglich ist er, muss man sagen. –  user unknown Nov 6 '13 at 1:24
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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I guess in this case "namely" is the closest thing you'll find. But there are other situations where you would translate it to something completely different:

"You'll be in trouble, in fact in deep trouble." = "Du bekommst Ärger, und zwar gehörigen."

"..and rightly so!" = "..und zwar mit Recht!"

Using it as an amplifying word to underline or specify some condition is the most common use I would say.

In addition to that you can use it similar to the word "though" in some cases:

Though I remembered his birthday, I didn't call him." = "Zwar erinnerte ich mich an seinen Geburtstag, doch ich rief ihn nicht an."

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I’d say the main usage is the combination “zwar … aber”, where it indicates that some kind of reservation is following: Ich habe zwar an seinen Geburtstag gedacht, aber ich habe ihn nicht angerufen. –  chirlu Jun 6 '13 at 1:32
    
Is there any difference in your last example between "zwar" and "obwohl"? –  kokirii Jun 6 '13 at 14:15
    
The last example could use "obwohl" as well: "Obwohl ich mich an seinen Geburtstag erinnerte, rief ich ihn nicht an." –  Landei Jun 7 '13 at 9:01
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The answer of @hcrudolph is correct, I just want to put in another way:

Zwar is used as an adverb or conjunction, respectively. This word goes (almost) always along with und or aber.

The collocation zwar...aber indicates that the statement in the main clause is (somewhat) contrary to the statement in the subordinate clause. In these cases you can translate it with although.

Zwar klingt das unglaubwürdig, aber es stimmt wirklich.

When zwar has the antecedent und, the closest translation is indeed namely. You add a specific description of what has been said before. In German you can often use nämlich, too, which is not a false friend in this case.

Ich spreche zwei Sprachen, und zwar[=nämlich] Deutsch und Englisch.

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Looking at the etymology of "zwar" we may find a clue why the translation to English is so divergent.

Die meist adverbiell gebrauchte präpositionale Fügung ahd. zi wāre ‘in Wahrheit, wahrhaftig, in der Tat, freilich’ (8. Jh.), mhd. ze wāre, zusammengezogen zewāre, zwāre ‘wahrlich, fürwahr’, frühnhd. zwar (15. Jh.) DWDS

As seen above this prepositionally used adverb derives from "wahr" (true, real, veritable, actual) which orginiates from Latin verus. Other than in German the Latin root only survived in the English "very" which today has a different meaning to the German wahr.

Still, the meaning of "zwar" does have the connotation of "being in reality, in truth" but in English this is expressed by different means as was nicely shown in the other answers here. The closest there may be "in fact".

Other English translations of "wahr" do have etymologically related German counterparts (true - "treu", real - "real", veritable - "veritabel", actual - "aktuell") but there is either a considerable shift in meaning, or they found their way in to German very much later than "zwar".

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My 2 cents as a native English speaker:

In my observations, zwar usually seems to fill the same role as the English indeed / in fact.

Quick note about these two terms:

Indeed and in fact are roughly synonymous in that they both pretty much amplify something in the same manner that zwar does, except have slightly different connotations. Indeed usually leans toward reinforcing something that has already been established, while in fact leans more toward introducing a new concept, possibly also contradicting an already-established concept.

Deciding which one to translate zwar to depends on the context of the conversation.

To translate some of the examples given in fellow answers & the OP:

Ja und zwar mein Bruder

Yes, my brother in fact does!

Zwar erinnerte ich mich an seinen Geburtstag, doch ich rief ihn nicht an.

I did indeed / in fact remember his birthday, though I didn't call him.

Zwar klingt das unglaubwürdig, aber es stimmt wirklich.

It indeed doesn't sound credible, but it's actually correct.

Du bekommst Ärger, und zwar gehörigen.

You'll be in trouble; you will indeed.

The biggest stretch for this is when it means "namely":

Ich spreche zwei Sprachen, und zwar Deutsch und Englisch.

I speak two languages, and they're in fact German and English.

That sounds a little odd, and "namely" would certainly be preferred. But it's still not even completely wrong. It can work much better if you were already talking about the subject with someone and thus use indeed instead.

NB:

Translating is of course a complicated process with many factors, and you'll very rarely get a 1:1 "perfect" translation for any word, and I do not claim such in this answer. For most of the translations I've provided I'm sure there are "better" versions, and I do not claim that indeed / in fact is always the "best fit" when translating zwar. However, I've merely noticed that it helps to mentally map to a similar concept in your native tongue. At least for me personally, when I encounter zwar in a sentence, I start with one of these two as a launching point for my brain, and from there on it becomes much easier to deduce the meaning and, subsequently, translating to a roughly equivalent, less awkward form is a simple task.

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