The question is on the 'wenn'-clause of this sentence, which is from 'Kinder auf der Landstraße' by Kafka.

Die stark durchbrochenen Vorhänge bauschten sich im warmen Wind, und manchmal hielt sie einer, der draußen vorüberging, mit seinen Händen fest, wenn er mich besser sehen und mit mir reden wollte.

The Muirs translation goes like this:

The coarse-mesh window curtains bellied in the warm wind and many a time some passer-by outside would stay them with his hands (a) as if he wanted to see me better and speak to me.

where '(a)' was inserted by me.

From grammar books, however, I learned that 'wenn' meant 'if' or 'when' while 'als wenn' or 'als ob' meant 'as if.' On this view, the 'wenn'-clause should mean:

(b) when (or if) he would (or wanted to) see me better and speak to me.

Question: Does the 'wenn'-clause mean (a) or (b)?

If it means (a) in spite of what grammar books say, please explain what in the sentence signaled that this particular instance of 'wenn' should be understood as 'als ob'/'als wenn' and how one could unambiguously say (b) in German. Thanks.

  • . . . and I wonder if "als ob" is considered more formal or more correct than "als wenn"? In Robert Heinlein's novel _Have Space Suit---Will Travel", the protagonist says "She looked like she was dying" and the girl called Peewee corrected his grammar, saying "as if she were dying". In Heinz Nagel's translation into German, I seem to recall he said "Sie sah aus, als wenn sie sterben würde" and Peewee' correction said "als ob". Mar 20 '15 at 15:46
  • @MichaelHardy If I get the subtleties right here between "like" and "as if", the first version would translate to "sie sah aus wie eine Sterbende", the second to "sie sah aus, als stürbe sie". Both "als ob" and "als wenn" + "würde" are casual workarounds of the conjunctivus irrealis (conjunctive II) which would be correct with "als", so you can't play off one against the other. To my sensation, the "like" version says "she's probably dying" while the "as if " version says "she's only looking as if she were dying". Mar 21 '15 at 7:31
  • @Martin Schwehla. Does the 'casualness' come from 'als wenn'/'als ob' or 'würde'? In other words, do we have, in decreasing formality: (x) 'als stürbe sie' > 'als wenn sie stürbe' > 'als wenn sie sterben würde' or (y) 'als stürbe sie' = 'als wenn sie stürbe' > 'als wenn sie sterben würde'? Thanks.
    – Catomic
    Mar 21 '15 at 11:23
  • @Martin Schwehla. Also, what is the effect of using Konjunktiv I, as in 'als schaue ich ins Gebirge oder in die bloße Luft'? This example is from the same short story by Kafka. Maybe this distinction between 'als (wenn) + K1' vs. 'als (wenn) + K2' should have its own question? If you tell me so I will create one. Thanks.
    – Catomic
    Mar 21 '15 at 11:48
  • It comes from "wenn" + "würde". Your rank of decreasing formality is right in my view (while x and y are the same). The Kafka quote, which is wonderful, does not comply with the rules demanding a conjunctive II for statements that are not real; but in this case, it doesn't sound wrong but beautiful and poetic. It is a kind of artful dichotomy, a combination of "als schaute ich" and "gleichsam schaue ich". "Ins Gebirge schauen" is a poetic figure in itself. The conjunctive I in German is a means of indirect speech only: "Er erzählte mir, er schaue oft in die Luft". Mar 21 '15 at 19:53

It is (b).

In this sentence the teller describes, that some passer-by, who wanted to talk to him/her and see him/her better, grab the curtain.

It's the reason for grabbing the curtain. Als wenn is used in metaphors and comparisons.

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