How would you translate the term tar baby?

I know the translated title of a book by Toni Morrison is Teerbaby but that doesn't really mean anything for someone who didn't read the book. In English however, this is a word that's actually in the dictionary.

Is there something like that? I couldn't find anything so far.

If nothing exists, how would you express it?

4 Answers 4


There's the term "Zwickmühle", which roughly matches your dictionary description:


  • I am not sure that's exactly the same. You can walk away from a tarbaby, which is not true if you are stuck between a rock and a hard place or got into a catch-22 situation ...
    – Ingmar
    Jan 21, 2015 at 21:06
  • @Ingmar The linked dictionary entry of tarbaby is in line with this. "[...]almost impossible [...] to break away from."
    – Harald
    Jan 22, 2015 at 10:16
  • Well, it doesn't match my (native) understanding of the term. YMMV.
    – Ingmar
    Jan 22, 2015 at 10:39

Ich fürchte dass es überhaupt keine gute und griffige Übersetzung gibt. Joel Chandler Harris ist in Europa dafür einfach nicht bekannt genug. Es bleibt also nur eine Umschreibung.

  • Yes, I thought so. How would you express it?
    – Kolja
    Jan 21, 2015 at 21:04
  • Depends on context. Do you have an original sentence? Maybe something like "eine Situation, aus der man ohne Flecken auf der weißen Weste nicht mehr herauskommt".
    – Ingmar
    Jan 21, 2015 at 21:09
  • I heard this verbally. The conversation was about a third person and the sentence was something like "he is a tar baby, I would not rely on his help."
    – Kolja
    Jan 21, 2015 at 21:17

What lupor said is pretty close. A "Zwickmühle" describes a situation that is almost hopeless. Like choosing between a rock and a hard place (German: Lebra und Cholera; two diseases).

I think there is no other way but describing it metaphorically. One way of explaining it may be a spider web. Once you got in it is hard to get out.


If it is the title of an English novel a German publisher would probably choose a totally different title as tar baby doesn't tell Germans anything. In the novel the term tar baby may be used and translated as "Teerbaby" but the translation would probably insert a sentence or two to explain the expression.

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