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Recently I found the following sentence at the end of a novel which I was reading in translation (i.e. it’s the German translation of an English-language novel).

Dann mache ich mir eine Liste im Kopf und verzeichne darauf jeden Akt der Güte, den ich je erlebt habe.

To me, this means “… every act of good which I have ever experienced”, i.e. which has ever been done to me. But the original turns out to be:

That's when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. Suzanne Collins: Mockingjay

The English version also includes act of goodness which the speaker has witnessed. For example if you have seen someone giving your brother some cake, it would be included on the list in the English-language version. But when I was reading the German, it did not seem to me that such an act would be included on the list in the German version. Whereas, if someone had given you some cake, then it would be included on both lists.

I would like to know how a native speaker would translate this use of erleben. Does it suggest only those good things that the writer has experienced, or does it also encompass good things which the writer has witnessed someone else experience?

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I would say that both interpretations are possible. A different verb that would rule out the English meaning is erfahren. –  chirlu Sep 20 '13 at 1:52
    
Maybe you should in addition ask in English Stackexchange how native speakers would interpret the sentence... unless you are a native speaker. Then I'd have to say that regardless of what Oxford Dictionary says, the translation is wrong because it evokes different associations –  Emanuel Sep 20 '13 at 12:09
    
Re: the edit: I deliberately didn't say what book the sentence was from in order for it not to be a spoiler. I assumed that anybody who wanted to know could just google it. –  Flounderer Sep 20 '13 at 21:17
    
@Emanuel I am a native English speaker and I am inclined to agrre with you! That's why I was surprised when I saw the English version. –  Flounderer Sep 20 '13 at 21:24

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It may not be the best wording, but then I suppose the context should make the meaning clear. Without context and in isolation, as a native speaker, I interpreted it the way you did when I first read it.

In general, erleben means to experience as in be witness to something, whether you are merely a by-stander or an active recipient.

However, in the case of being a by-stander, there is a strong connotation of be emotionally touched or impressed included.

There is a common expression you might know.

Das ich das noch erleben durfte! ([I am glad/happy] That I lived [long enough] to see/hear/... this [happen]!)

Dass ich das jemals erleben würde! (That this would ever happen [I never would have thought]; not as strong as the first expression, but essentially the same)

The das in both expression could refer to "hearing him apologize", "the revolution being successful", "your (grand) daughter giving birth", etc. You might or might not be directly involved, but what is common to all situations is you(r feelings) are involved in some way.

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I agree, but I also think that the sense of living long enough to be alive when it happens is somewhat special and hence not a very good indicator that “erleben” can also mean to merely witness something. –  Carsten Schultz Sep 20 '13 at 9:10
    
+1 for mentioning "being emotionally touched" and also the example –  Emanuel Sep 20 '13 at 12:16

Well, one of the many senses that the English word to see has is:

3 experience or witness (an event or situation) Oxford Dictionary

Now, if you look up the German word erleben you find out that it has quite the same meaning. The bold bits are highlighted by me to emphasize those words that -imho- represents to experience or witness a situtation most appropriately.

Bedeutung: eine Erfahrung machen, bei etwas dabei sein
Synonyme: dabei sein, etwas mit ansehen, etwas erfahren

So, it's not astonishing that I have seen was translated as ich je erlebt habe. Both the German and the English sentence means to experience something but also in both languages it's more appropriate to not use this word here and instead go with to see and erleben, respectively.

Regarding your ultimate question:
In both languages I rather understand that she only refers to those acts of goodness that she has witnessed. But to tell for sure if she also includes those she experienced herself, I guess you must read the full book.


In respect to the comments I'd like to make it more clear:
The word erleben can indeed have a slight difference in meaning. In one sense you are the person who experiencing something, i.e. it happens to you. In the other sense, however, you are just the person who is observing something, i.e. it does not happen to you.
Usually it's quite clear from context what is meant. Compare those simple examples:

Heute habe ich erlebt, was es bedeutet, wenn man keinen Strom hat.
Heute habe ich erlebt, wie jemand die Verkäuferin zusammen geschnauzt hat.

In OPs example it's hard to say whether the speaker is talking about things happen to themselves or not. As a stand-alone sentence it may suggest that the acts of goodness were directed to themselves but not with absolute certainty.
Both the English and the German sentence are ambiguous. There's some room for interpretation. But I think the translation is absolutely fine.

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Ich glaube, dass die Frage eigentlich andersrum gemeint ist: die Menge "experienced" ist bei Flounderer in der großen Menge "witnessed" enthalten. In Deiner Antwort ist es umgekehrt, oder? –  Mac Sep 20 '13 at 10:26
    
@Mac Genau, ich hab's umgedreht. Daher auch "I rather understand...". Ich habe aber nicht das ganze Buch gelesen, sondern nur die paar Zeilen davor und dahinter. –  Em1 Sep 20 '13 at 10:51
    
Musste jetzt kurz überlegen, wo ich meine Antwort am besten anfüge :) --- Also: ich finde, dass die Akte der Güte, die einem selbst zuteil werden eine Teilmenge der Akte der Güte sind, deren Zeuge man wird. Beispielsituation Schulklasse: ich werde Zeuge von allen Nettigkeiten, die der Lehrer den einzelnen Schülern zukommen lässt. Von allen diesen Nettigkeiten werden mir selbst aber nur ein paar zuteil. Deinen letzten Absatz verstehe ich so, dass die selbst erlebten Dinge NICHT automatisch zu denen zählen, deren Zeuge man wird - und das ergibt doch keinen Sinn, oder? –  Mac Sep 20 '13 at 11:55
    
@Mac also im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch trägt erleben doch schon zumindest einen Anteil an persönlicher Beteiligung. Wenn du einen Vorgang zwischen Menschen beobachtest, der ABSOLUT ungewöhnlich und bemerkenswert ist , dann verwendet man sicher erlebt. Wenn du aber Zeuge wirst wie jemand einem Obdachlosen 1 Euro gibt, dann würdest du, denke ich, nicht zu Hause erzählen "Rate mal was ich heute erlebt hab'" Das weckt dann etwas zu große Hoffnungen. Insofern ist sehen ohne erleben durchaus möglich –  Emanuel Sep 20 '13 at 12:14
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Ah - jetzt beginne ich zu verstehen: Für Dich drückt "erleben" primär A (unbeteiligt Zeuge werden) aus, B (am eigenen Leib erfahren) ist nur eingeschlossen, wenn's ausdrücklich dabeisteht, richtig? Mir geht's umgekehrt: für mich bedeutet "erleben" primär B - wenn nur A gemeint ist, muss das ausdrücklich klar gemacht werden. Interessant! –  Mac Sep 20 '13 at 13:05

While the other answers are right in that "erleben" can mean "to witness" as well as "to experience", I suppose that most Germans who read the book will primarily understand this sentence to refer to acts of goodness done to the speaker.

One could say that in this case, something gets lost in translation, BUT:

a) Does it really matter that much in this particular instance?

b) This is literature, so style should be a consideration, and a big one at that. I'd argue that an unambiguous translation, e.g. "miterleben", might have an awkward quality to it, making the sentence stand out more than it perhaps should.

I'd say the translator has done a pretty good job - as long as

  • it's not essential for the speaker to be characterised as particularly perceptive and sensitive, noticing all the little acts of goodness occurring around him (so that the narrow interpretation of "to personally experience" still makes sense), or
  • (if it is vital that acts the speaker has only witnessed are included) the context makes it clear that the speaker is referring to these as well.
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Hm. Du verwirrst mich auch. Im ersten Abschnitt sagst du, dass jeder der das Buch gelesen hat, erkennt, dass es um jene Sachen gehen, die zu Gunsten des Sprechers gemacht wurde, aber im letzten Teil heißt es dann, dass der Übersetzer einen guten Job gemacht hat, solange man aus dem Kontext erkennt, dass es um jene geht, die man beobachtet hat. - Was ist denn jetzt dein Standpunkt? –  Em1 Sep 20 '13 at 10:55
    
@Em1: Ach so, nein... wir kommen wieder aus zwei verschiedenen Richtungen: Dein Standpunkt ist, dass die Einschränkung auf Dinge, die zu Gunsten des Sprechers gemacht wurden, beabsichtigt und gewünscht ist. Ich (und ich glaube auch Flounderer) gehen davon aus, dass es sich um einen unerwünschten (m.E. schwer vermeidbaren und ohnehin unerheblichen) Nebeneffekt der Übersetzung handelt. –  Mac Sep 20 '13 at 12:03
    
+1 für den ersten Satz. So seh ich das auch –  Emanuel Sep 20 '13 at 12:19
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.miterleben finde ich in der Tat auch komisch. Aber trotzdem hätte es Möglichkeiten gegeben... "..Akt der Güte, dessen ich je Zeuge wurde." "... Akt der Güte, den ich je gesehen und erlebt habe."... oder eine komplette Umstellung "... mache ich mir eine Liste von all jenen Momenten (meines Lebens), in denen jemand gütig gehandelt hat."... wie auch immer... ich halte das erleben für misglückt, falls ein Englisch Muttlersprachler bei "see do" nicht automatisch experience assoziiert. –  Emanuel Sep 20 '13 at 12:25

As a native German speaker I understand the sentence that it basically is about "every act of goodness I ever experienced", so it's active and passive form. By that I mean it also includes acts of goodness which the speaker witnessed. So the cake someone gave to your brother is included in this list.

Erleben means everything you experienced in your life. So even if you saw someone doing something special for someone else.
So erleben means everything you see, smell, feel etc.

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