I've noticed that it's not so clear to me how to translate English sentences that don't conform nicely to familiar German constructions. Here are some examples:

It would be better if we would speak instead of write - Es wäre besser, wenn wir reden würden statt zu schreiben.

He has convinced me that spoken communication will help me more than written - Er hat mich überzeugt, dass mir mündliche Kommunikation mehr helfen wird als schriftliche.

I use many English phrases which are difficult to translate to German - Ich verwende viele englische Redewendungen, die (nur) schwer ins Deutsche zu übersetzen sind.

Another example that I'm not sure how to translate would be

"I'm sure that I should be speaking better than I am".

All four of these sentences contain a subordinate clause that has an "extra" bit attached to it that foils my translation attempts.

Is there some general rule to follow when translating such sentences, or is it something that needs to be done by "feel"?

  • 2
    Could you please be a bit more specific on the extra bit? I find your translations quite nice, maybe a bit unidiomatic... where exactly do you have problems?
    – Vogel612
    May 4, 2014 at 0:31
  • These were the corrected versions of my translation attempts - I wish I could claim them as my own. I'll italicize the parts that I am calling "extra".
    – Astrum
    May 4, 2014 at 0:39
  • Inwiefern ist "statt" extra? Es steht für das "instead", oder wo siehst Du es aufgehoben? "Schriftliche" im 2. Beispiel steht für "written". "Zu übersetzen" = "to translate". Der Satzbau ist ein wenig umgestellt - das ist alles. May 4, 2014 at 8:54

3 Answers 3


All of your examples are pretty straightforward translations, and perfectly good ones. The only tricky bit is that in many cases you can't translate the construction literally, instead you have to use the appropriate German construction. The way to pick up these constructions, as emaltman has already said, is to read a lot of German texts, listen to a lot of German on the TV or in movies, and when you've encountered them often enough you'll remember "ah, that's the way to say it in German". This is not specific to German, it's the same for any language you want to learn.

Let's go over the translations.

  1. The pattern is either "X statt Y" ("X instead of Y") when X and Y are both nouns, or "X tun statt Y zu tun" ("doing X instead of doing Y") when it's a full phrase. So you get "statt zu schreiben" instead of "instead of writing").
  2. Same construction as in English. One repeated word is left out: spoken communication more than written communication -> mündliche Kommunikation mehr als schriftliche Kommunikation. The comparative uses "als", word order rules say that you can put the thing that is compared to at the very end.
  3. "X is Y to do" -> "X ist Y zu tun" is a literal translation.
  4. Again, the repeated word is left out: I'm sure that I should be speaking better than I am speaking -> Ich bin sicher, dass ich besser sprechen sollte, als ich spreche. German doesn't have a continous form, so there is no auxiliary in the last part. But you can't leave out the verb. So if you want to avoid the repition, you can replace it with "tun": ..., dass ich besser sprechen sollte, als ich es tue (which corresponds to "... better than I do" in English)

If you could be more specific what exactly you find difficult about these translations (or what your translations where before they got corrected), maybe we can spot the Knackpunkt a bit better.

  • I see what you're saying. I think my problem is that I've always thought that a subordinate constrruction needs to follow the rigid structure of "[main-clause], [subordinating preposition] [subject] [object] [main verb] [auxiliary verb]". My original translation for number three was "Ich verwende vielen Englischen Redewendungen, die schwer ins deutsch sind, zu übersetzen." You can see how I separated out the "zu übersetzen" from the other clause.
    – Astrum
    May 4, 2014 at 6:14
  • 1
    @Astrum: No, there are many different patterns for subordinate constructions in the general sense. Also, the structure of a subordinate clause (which is lead in with a subordinate conjunction or relative pronoun, not a preposition) is just that the conjugated verb has to come last, instead of in the second position as in a main clause. The remaining rules for word order are just the general rules (there's a great degree of freedom, but if you deviate from the "natural" order, parts of the sentence get emphasized).
    – dirkt
    May 4, 2014 at 7:10
  • Ok, so I'm a little bit confused about something else, now. For Examples 1 and 2, the conjugated verb doesn't come last, it comes before the "Extra" bit. How does that comply with the rules?!
    – Astrum
    May 4, 2014 at 9:15
  • 1
    In example 1, "X tun statt Y zu tun" compares a subclause with an infinitive construction, and in both the verb comes last, as it should. In example 2, "dass mir mündliche Kommunikation mehr als schriftliche (Kommunikation) helfen wird" is also correct. But you can, optionally, move the "extra" bit into the Nachfeld, to increase comprehensibility. But that isn't always possible, so to be on the safe side, put the verb last. See canoo.net/services/OnlineGrammar/Satz/Wortstellung/… for details.
    – dirkt
    May 4, 2014 at 11:44

As an avid learner, the best I can tell you is that you need to let go of English quirks when dealing with another language (as hard as that will feel initially.) Immerse yourself in texts and get a feel for the idioms and common constructions without starting in English every time. I had to learn to let go of all the complicated things I can say in English, and progress came more quickly that way.

  • That sounds great, but I can't help myself. I often become frustrated because I don't feel like I'm really getting my point across, if I can't use these more complicated expressions. Is there any resource where some common German constructions/idioms are listed?
    – Astrum
    May 4, 2014 at 0:42

"I'm sure that I should be speaking better than I am".

Step one literal translation:

Ich bin sicher, dass ich sollte sein sprechend besser als ich bin.

Step two make a German sentence out of it by reordering the words.

Ich bin sicher, das ich besser sprechend sein sollte, als ich (es (sprechend)) bin.

Still a bit rough. Reorder again.

Ich sollte (mittlerweile) besser sprechen können, dessen bin ich mir sicher.

My translation would be.

Ich bin mir sicher, dass ich besser sprechen können sollte.

(obviously than you actually are since you are using the subjunctive here (sollte))

--> I'm sure, that I should be more capable of speaking, than I am.

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