Is it correct to imagine a sentence like that to be pronounced by a waiter to some clients? Because the translation I found for it sounds like this "What can I bring/give you?". Is it correct?

Now, how come does this mean so? I mean, literally it means something like "What can it be for you?", but that sounds really odd to me, so I don´t really know how to explain that translation.

  • 1
    Do you think "vado dal medico" sounds less odd or more logical to a foreigner learning italian? Idiomatic usages are very often illogical.
    – persson
    Jan 11, 2015 at 15:22
  • What do you find odd about "vado dal medico"? I think "vado dal medico" can be literally translated and is clear in its meaning. While "Was darf es sein" doesn´t explain itself very well through literal translation.
    – E.V.
    Jan 11, 2015 at 15:28
  • 2
    Does "I go from the doctor's" sound good to you? (That's the literal translation from italian) Or wouldn't you, more logically, say "I go to the doctor's" (as in english, spanish, german and a lot of other languages)? Yet italians say "vado dal medico" nonetheless. Idiomatic usage.
    – persson
    Jan 11, 2015 at 15:32
  • Unawareness of a native´s mistake
    – E.V.
    Jan 11, 2015 at 15:38
  • @karoshi... Italian "da" actually often expresses "towardness" or "by-ness". It's "di" that is "from"
    – Emanuel
    Jan 11, 2015 at 17:45

5 Answers 5


There are tons of verbal phrases in english that can't be translated verbatim into other languages like "how do you do?" or "you're welcome" as answer to "thank you". (They mean in German: "Wie geht es Ihnen?" and "bitte, gern geschehen")

Other languages also have lots of such phrases, and "Was darf es sein?" is just one of those phrases.

You can't learn a language by just learning grammar and single words. You also have to learn those phrases.


The usage of "dürfen" is not very strange, it exists in English as "How may I serve you" too. The basic idea is that staff is supposed to serve and not to disturb you. When you're in the middle of a conversation about the current Kaiser with your peers, your staff is not supposed to just interrupt by bringing the next part of a meal, but to ask "Gnä'ge Herrschaft, dürfen wir auftragen?" which might convey that the roast will be cold or burned crisp otherwise.

  • This answer has nothing to do with the question. The question is not about "dürfen" meaning/usage, but how "What can it be" (literal translation) in fact means "What can I do for you / bring you / give you ?" in German. Hubert Schölnast's answer is the correct one. Oct 4, 2018 at 17:13

In a restaurant the waiter might say: What would you like to order. Or: May I have your order?



I think the asker have confused sein as a possessive pronoun or something. (I did the samething at first.) Literally, Was => what, darf => may, es => it, and sein => be. So it literally translates to "What might it be?". I guess you will now have no problem understanding why it means "What can I bring you?". In interrogative sentence, the auxiliary verb comes in front and the main verb moves back to the end in root form, that's why sein is at the end.


Wäre das der erste Bestellvorgang im deutschen Sprachraum, würde man vielleicht sagen:

Ich möchte Sie bedienen. Was darf es sein (was ich Ihnen bringe)?

Als Floskel, die der eine hundertmal am Tag sagen muss, und die der andere weitgehend erwartet, ist sie wohl auf ein Minimum zusammengeschrumpft. Es muss nur unterschieden sein von "Darf ich Ihnen den Mantel abnehmen?" oder "Dürfte ich den Tisch nochmal abwischen?" oder "Die Karte?", falls keine am Tisch ist.

  • 1
    Manchmal wird es sogar noch weiter verkürzt zur Frage "darf ich?" - aber nur, wenn die Bedeutung aus dem Kontext klar wird (z.B. wenn man jemandem in den Mantel helfen will und mit dem Mantel auf die Person zugeht). Dec 21, 2020 at 11:59

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