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In his famous "you can't handle the truth" speech, Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise that

"...my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives."

I bring up this example because I have the feeling that the German Anwesenheit carries with it a color that goes beyond the English equivalent of "presence". I don't think I want to suggest that in the Nicholson quote that Anwesenheit would be the best translation for "existence"; but I wonder if it wouldn't at least be a closer approximation than the English "presence". Or would Wesen be even a better approximation? I know you could say Existenz but I'm not interested in that option.

The reason I ask is because I suspect there is a phenomenon whereby American usages get calqued over into foreign languages word-for-word, regardless of the differences in nuance which might have previously existed in the "equivalent" words. I asked a similar question a few weeks ago about the usage of Öffentlichkeit as meaning "the public". I can't see how this meaning derives logically from the German adjective öffentlich, so I proposed the theory that the German usage was copied from the American, where the transition from the Latin publicum to the American "the public" and subsequently to the adjectival usage as in "public opinion" makes logical sense. I didn't get much support for my theory in that discussion, but I'm trying again anyhow.

Another example is the phrase in Anwesenheit von, corresponding to the English "in the presence of". I feel the English "presence" is a very neutral word implying the simple physical presence, while the German Anwesenheit carries a bit more the flavor of the essence of ones being, or Wesen. So I find the German usage a little peculiar, and wonder again if it didn't creep into the common usage under the influence of the English phrase.

Am I misreading the nuance or is there something to what I am saying? I wonder if people would care to comment on this?

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I would have suggested "Dasein" but after seeing the full quote I'd opt for something more mundane ... I would even go as far as to say "mein Wirken", "Wesen" and "Anwesenheit" definitely do not work in that situation. Not at all. –  Emanuel Dec 16 '13 at 14:23

4 Answers 4

In the example of "Anwesenheit" we do have a connotation different to presence or existence but it is not the way you suspected. It is true that it is build as a compound with "Wesen" (in the sense of "the being") but the usage is different.

Etymologically it is a noun derived from "anwesend" (being there) but it was used as an antonym of the much older "Abwesenheit" (absence). Still today it is mainly used in this meaning. Whenever we want to express that somebody or something (yes it is used for objects too) is present in a certain place we use "Anwesenheit".


Ihre Anwesenheit wurde von allen geschätzt.
Ich kann dazu nichts sagen, da ich nicht anwesend war.
Die Anwesenheit von Schadstoffen konnte in unserer Analyse nicht bestätigt werden.

In the context you gave I would say that "Anwesenheit" may be understood but it does not quite cover the meaning of "existence". As you said you are not interested in using "Existenz" (which would be a very close translation) we may put the meaning in words like:

Die Tatsache, dass es mich gibt, ... , rettet Leben.
Mein Dasein ... rettet Leben.

A more philosophical approach to the existence of a human being would be the Platonic term "das Sein", or the Freudian "das Ich", which both do not fit to the given context.

The observation that we can not draw a sharp line between meanings of similar words from one language to the other is not really new. Both English, and German have very close etymological roots, and meanings may have or may have not drifted apart over time.

This is the beauty of a living language, when influences from different cultures are reflected in the development of meanings, or connotations of words. This was the case in medieval Europe and later where English, German, French, and other languages coexisted happily in the courts, and this is now when we have a friendly coexistence of so many languages. Other than in the Middle Ages language even crosses continents today.

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Anwesenheit is as neutral as presence is. Both words can loose this neutrality by connotation or phrasing.

Examples of neutrality:

Er wurde in Anwesenheit des Bürgermeisters geehrt. = He was honoured in presence of the mayor.

Die Anwesenheit eines Anwalts ist nicht nötig. = The presence of a lawyer isn't necessary.


Hans glänzte durch Anwesenheit. = In contrast to many other students, he was indeed present (if nothing more).


Maria zeigte auch geistige Anwesenheit. = In contrast to Hans, she even took part in the discussions.

In order to catch the sharpness of the speech, the translation Existenz would be to weak. Better would be:

meine Anwesenheit auf Erden / meine Anwesenheit auf diesem Planeten

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I'm afraid you are reading too much into this. Anwesenheit simply means presence without any further connotations. If you are looking for a slightly different meaning, perhaps Präsenz might be a better example: it, too, can simply mean presence, but it has other meanings, too: in a military context Präsenz zeigen can mean increased visibility, i.e. a show of force, e.g.

Personally, I wouldn't translate existence in the original quote ("my existence ... saves lives") as Existenz. Perhaps a somewhat freer translation (meine Rolle, meine Funktion) might be in order.

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The best translation for die Anwesenheit (from a semantic point of view) is

the being present

Anwesenheit is rather worldly and mostly refers to exactly this... a person's being present in some location. It is not just presence because that carries notions of aura (as the effect of someone's being present) that Anwesenheit is lacking.

His presence is palpable.

Seine Anwesenheit is greifbar.

Of course it is. The German sentence has somewhat a redundancy in it. He's there. A better translation for that would be Gegenwart.

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ot: Ist Anwesenheit im Deutschen nicht eher spürbar als greifbar? –  Em1 Dec 16 '13 at 14:35
Also nicht für mich... "Die Anwesentheitsliste", "Die Anwesenheit ist nicht erforerlich", "Schmidt?" "Anwesend."... es gibt noch mehr Beispiele. Zudem muss man für Geist extra modifizieren "geistig Anwesend" während körperlich impliziert ist. Es kann schon sein, dass es eine Kollokation mit "fühl"-Verben gibt. Das ist dann aber eher der Tatsache geschuldet, dass Anwesenheit eben per se körperlich ist. "Seine Anwesenheit ist greifbar"... ja, natürlich ist sie das. Ist sie auch spürbar... das ist schon eher die Frage –  Emanuel Dec 16 '13 at 16:26

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