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A person known as Jack of all trades is defined as:

competent in many skills, but not necessarily outstanding in any particular one

How do you call (if it exists) a person like that in German?

11 Answers 11

13

In a business environment competent colleagues are sometimes called

„Allrounder“.

This term is quite popular in this context, as many job listings suggest.

Sometimes people competent in many skills are referred to as

„Allzweckwaffe“ (universal weapon, e.g. „Er/Sie ist unsere Allzweckwaffe.“),

especially when it comes to sports.

An old-fashioned word is

„Tausendkünstler“.

Duden - Das Herkunftswörterbuch (2nd ed.) points towards an origin in the 16th century with the meaning „skilled in many arts“ and then sometimes used to refer to the devil himself.

You could also use

„Alleskönner“

or

„Tausendsassa“

where the latter IMHO has a certain infantile aspect and thus seems more appropriate for skilled children („Er/Sie ist ein kleiner Tausendsassa.“)

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    @Mawg: As a native German speaker, I have never heard of the restriction to use Alleskönner or Tausendsassa only with respect to children. – O. R. Mapper Jul 3 '15 at 7:12
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    As a native german I can say the best sounding word for "Jack of all trades" is Tausendsassa : Der ist ein echter Tausendsassa meaning "He is a guy who has so many talents, you almost believe he can do anything" – Falco Jul 3 '15 at 8:03
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    @O.R.Mapper Me neither. There's no real reason to limit this to children. Esp. "Alleskönner". – Thorsten Dittmar Jul 3 '15 at 8:20
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    "Tausendsassa" seems nice because it has a little old-fashioned and poetic air (to me); that may fit better with Jack-of-all-trades than the mundane "Alleskönner". – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jul 3 '15 at 11:45
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    I am a native German speaker but would rather bite my tongue than use the term „Allzweckwaffe“ - a very militaristic, aggressive term. Also, never heard the term "Tausendkünstler" in my live. Must be a northern German thing. "Tausendsassa" is a good one. – Erwin Brandstetter Jul 3 '15 at 23:28
13

It will depend. Let's not forget, the full expression usually is

Jack of all trades, master of none

There is no single expression to convey this exact meaning in German. "Hansdampf in allen Gassen" was mentioned already, depending on context one might also use Allrounder, Generalist, Universalist, Alleskönner, Tausendsassa or Mädchen für alles. None of these expressions has the slightly condescending meaning ("master of none") of the English original, though.

Wikipedia suggests ...

Kenner allen Handwerks – und Meister von keinem.

... but I'm not really sure about that.

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    Mädchen für Alles ist jemand, der alle mögliche (einfache) Arbeit machen muss; das hat nichts mit Alleskönner zu tun. Eher im Gegenteil, das Mädchen für alles kann nichts (wichtiges) gut genug, deshalb bleibt die ungeliebte Arbeit hängen. – Robert Jul 2 '15 at 18:55
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    I'd say the expression has lost any negative connotation it once had, at least in tech circles. Workers are expected to be jacks of all trades. I think this change has been driven by unrealistic, buzzword-laden lists of qualifications set down by tech-ignorant executives and HR staff. – Kevin Krumwiede Jul 3 '15 at 4:44
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    Actually, the full phrase is usually rendered as being even longer: "Jack of all trades, master of none, often times better than master of one." – Williham Totland Jul 3 '15 at 8:00
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    I think if you need a slight condescending meaning the closest match in german feels to be "Generalist" - Der ist mehr so ein Generalist, kann alles ein bisschen.... - "He knows everything a little, but doesn't really excell at anything" – Falco Jul 3 '15 at 8:06
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    Hansdampf erscheint mir gut, weil auch hier ein Vorname verwendet wird, aber es beschreibt nicht unbedingt jmd. der beruflich/fachlich vielseitig ist. Es könnte auch jmd. sein der in jeder Uraufführung sitzt, alle Vernissagen besucht, bei Fußballspielen und Galopprennen auf der Tribüne sitzt. Tausendsassa betont dagegen den Aspekt der Fähigkeiten besser. "Mädchen für alles" gilt auch für jmd. der nur Kaffee kochen und den Kopierer bedienen kann, den man zur Post schickt usw. – user unknown Jul 4 '15 at 21:45
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Das wäre IMHO wohl "Hansdampf in allen Gassen".

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    Ein Jack Of All Trades ist ein Alleskönner, ein Hansdampf in allen Gassen ist ein Angeber und Aufschneider ohne viel dahinter. – Robert Jul 2 '15 at 18:53
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    @Robert: Keineswegs; ein "Hansdampf in allen Gassen" kann auch jemanden bezeichnen, der buchstäblich überall dabei ist. Zum Beispiel jemand, der in allen örtlichen Vereinen - Sportverein, Orchester, Theatergruppe, ... - überall irgendwelche tragenden Ämter hat. Ob er damit über bestimmte Kenntnisse verfügt oder einfach nur sehr engagiert ist, ist damit allerdings nicht direkt gesagt. Das wird in WP unter anderem auch ähnlich beschrieben. – O. R. Mapper Jul 2 '15 at 19:20
  • @O. R. Mapper Richtig, einer der sprichwörtlich auf X Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen will, kann auch ein Hansdampf in allen Gassen sein. – syntaxerror Jul 4 '15 at 1:43
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The two words Multitalent and Universalgenie come to mind, where the latter implies that the person described in that way is really, really good in many fields.

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I don't know any idiom that corresponds to that, but what came to mind first is:

Kann alles[or vieles], aber nichts (wirklich) richtig[or gut].

7

Er ist unser Schweizer Taschenmesser.

Means he has lots of abilities, but to a slight degree it’s also derogative (not a real screwdriver/knife/hammer/saw, so not useful for specialized work).

All the other terms have a different meaning.

This would be the same for a product instead of a person:

eierlegende Wollmilchsau

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    Schweizer is always spelled with a capital s. – Ralph M. Rickenbach Jul 3 '15 at 11:28
  • @Ralph M. Rickenbach: Just edit the post. :-) – chirlu Jul 3 '15 at 12:37
  • Schweizer Taschenmesser is a good fit, I think, but I have never heard it used to describe a person. Is this really in use somewhere? – chirlu Jul 3 '15 at 12:37
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    @chirlu Nowhere. And if, it is an ugly anglicism! No matter whether used for persons or things. The eierlegende Wollmilchsau is fine, and genuine German. But the "Schweizer Taschenmesser" is definitely nicked from English, in the figurative sense in e. g. "This has always been their Swiss Army knife". We need not necessarily rape all those English expressions and force them into a German context if there are one or more equivalents. – syntaxerror Jul 4 '15 at 1:41
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    @Sumyrda I still think it sounds horrible in German. :-/ I'd never use it ... ever. – syntaxerror Jul 4 '15 at 22:05
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A wonderful word for a person who is competent in many skills is also the "Faktotum". Which was also used in English since the 16th centure, but was later replaced by the use of jack of all trades (see the german Wikipedia for more information).

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    +1 for reviving a wonderful word. – Takkat Jul 3 '15 at 10:55
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    I think "Faktotum" is essentially a helper which is a very different aspect. Typically something like a male assistent for a CEO in the 1800s. True, he would (and could) do everything as the name suggests, but only for somebody else. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jul 3 '15 at 11:50
  • @Peter Schneider Right. Faktotum in German is more like Mädchen für alles, which literally translates to "Girl for everything". It describes someone (note: the person may even be male!) who, for instance, helps an elderly woman with performing important actions during office hours (e. g. ordering a new personal ID card at the local administration, the Rathaus), shopping, or even physically by assisting her in mounting staircases, etc. – syntaxerror Jul 4 '15 at 1:45
  • "Faktotum" can have a condescending undertone of "naive, dependent assistant"... – rackandboneman May 21 '17 at 19:33
2

Since "Jack of all trades" is not the most serious of expressions:

Experte für eh fast alles

You might hear that in Austria and Bavaria, not so much in northern Germany. It captures the meaning rather accurately, with a tad bit of irony - since, obviously, nobody can possibly be an expert for everything.

Wunderwuzzi

Even more ironic than the first with a touch of comical expression. Somebody who just works wonders on things in mysterious ways. The speaker may or may not believe in it.

Hans Dampf in allen Gassen

Also not used in formal language, somewhat theatrical and obsolescent, it stresses the involvement in many affairs and the energy behind it, more than the actual competence in all of them.

Zu allem fähig, aber zu nichts zu gebrauchen.

Would be at the other end of the spectrum: somebody with many skills and abilities ("zu allem fähig"), but just not reliable ("aber zu nichts zu gebrauchen") - not actually useful for anything.
It fits "Jack of all trades, master of none", but more extreme on both ends.

Meister aller Klassen

That last one is a bit more serious but still not a 100 percent. It stresses the greatness and superiority of the subject, right next to a superhero, just a real one.

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    "Zu allem fähig, aber zu nichts zu gebrauchen" is a good sentence, but it has more than one connotation. Because "zu allem fähig" (verbatim: capable of "everything") has a second (partly hidden, sarcastic) meaning, that he not only primarily thinks, he can "do all", but there is a fair risk, the person will cause a catastrophy, if not watched. In other words: He is "capable" of causing adverse events. – Philm Jul 7 '15 at 16:47
  • @Philm: To stress the negative connotation you mention, you would make that Zu allem fähig und zu nichts zu gebrauchen. The aber indicates that the first part is meant in a positive way. – Erwin Brandstetter Jul 7 '15 at 16:54
  • To Erwin Brandstetter: I beg to differ here. Most important, the second part makes it impossible to understand the first part in any positive way, sorry. Second, you don't consider the double meaning of "zu allem fähig". With (kind of) sarcasm in place, you cannot differ distinctly between "und" and "aber" here. Nevertheless, it is an elegant phrase, my comment was not meant as criticism, only as a comment. – Philm Jul 7 '15 at 18:57
  • Compromise? Let's imagine the "but" in my first comment ("it is a good sentence, but..") withdrawn and replaced by "and"- ok ? :-) Cannot edit old comments though – Philm Jul 7 '15 at 19:02
  • @Philm: Sure. There isn't a problem to begin with. I was the one who voted your comment useful. – Erwin Brandstetter Jul 7 '15 at 19:39
2

Summarizing and extending answer of the best pre-existing answers:
Order with best and most common wordings first (subj., but native speaker of "Hochdeutsch" :-)

Positive connotation:

  • Multitalent, maybe most common and general wording

  • Tausendsassa (coll.), very positive, e.g. a compliment

  • Generalist, neutral (no fixed connotation without context)

  • Alleskönner (coll.), mostly positive, if not extended or ironic, see below

  • Universalgenie, e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, not so often used for "normal" people, but possible, if high capability in distinct areas is observed. Of course, "Genie" is much above the engl. "specialist" or "pro".

  • "Eierlegende Wollmilchsau" (positive or negative depends on context. Not perfect, because primarily for things, but can be used- e.g. I used it once personally, searching for a word for this)

  • "Schweizer Taschenmesser"- not at all common for persons, but everyone would understand a sentence like "Er ist das Schweizer Taschenmesser unter unseren Programmierern". I would not see a negative connotation without context.

Negative connotation for ( '– and master of none'):

  • There exists not really a fixed and common wording in German for this. You need further text / context. Examples here:

    "Er kann alles, aber nichts richtig."

    "Er kann von allem ein bisschen, aber nichts wirklich gut."

    "Er ist ein Generalist, aber nirgendwo Spezialist."

    "Er glaubt, er ist ein Alleskönner."

    "Er ist ein Alleskönner, aber kein Profi."

    "Zu allem fähig, aber zu nichts zu gebrauchen." (sarcastic, special second negative connotation, 'can cause adverse events' or so, see my comment above.)

  • "Hansdampf in allen Gassen" (a good verbatim translation from English, but in fact, rarely used, and it describes more someone, who is "everywhere" than someone who is able of "everything")

1

One Translation may be Eierlegende Wollmilchsau.

It describes someone or something which can do many things.

Word for word it means something along the lines of "Pig which lays eggs, gives milk and has wool".

It is more commonly used in Southern Germany (I learned of that term in Munich, but I rarely hear it up North).

Funny side note: Google Translate translates it directly to "Jack of all trades".

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    While many of the other suggestions ("Alleskönner", "Multitalent", ...) primarily refer to people, but can also be used to refer to objects in a figurative sense without any issues, I'd consider it questionable to apply the term "eierlegende Wollmilchsau" to a person. Maybe it is simply because "Sau" is usually offensive when used toward people, but I have never heard the term used for anything other than an object. – O. R. Mapper Jul 3 '15 at 7:16
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    I'm not from the South and I know that term very well. It is used at least in Western Germany, too. Anyway, I think this term comes indeed closest to what is asked in the question with the only exception that @O.R.Mapper mentions: it's not used for people. – Besides, the term is already mentioned in another answer. – Em1 Jul 3 '15 at 7:20
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    I also only know the term being used for a product or a machine.... "They want to construct an Eierlegende Wollmichsau" - They want to build something that can solve every problem at once. – Falco Jul 3 '15 at 8:07
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    I don’t think it matches the English meaning that well. First, an eierlegende Wollmilchsau is always something positive, there is no reservation about it being bad in any of its abilities; second, it is almost always used in a context where such a thing can’t be had, because there are always trade-offs involved. Der Kunde wünscht sich eine eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Well, and I tend to agree the expression is not suitable for people. – chirlu Jul 3 '15 at 12:32
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    eierlegende Wollmilchsau is always something positive imo it is not so much positive as fictional. You just can't get such a beast (much as management wants or marketing promises it..) – TaW Jul 5 '15 at 18:42
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In Yiddish at one time we had a “Jörgel” (pronounced Järgel) who was a master craftsman of multiple skills. The story goes that during the reign of Catherine the Great, her advisor (and sometime lover) Graf Potemkin had the plan to exploit Jewish Enterprise to help modernise Russia. He had a modern weaving mill set up in the Jewish village of Dobrovna, and brought in German experts to teach the Jews how to use the machinery. Apparently one of them was named Jörg and he made a great impression on the Jews, because for at least the next hundred and fifty years, an expert in technical matters was called a Jörgel, at least in the local area.

As for Potemkin’s plans for modernization, they did not come to fruition. The Jews were suspicious of the government’s intentions and did not wish for their children to be drawn away from the religious traditions by the allures of the modern world. So they restricted the factory to the manufacture of religious wear such as prayer shawls. That way they could tell themselves they were just doing God's work.

I know this answer is not exactly on topic, but it’s a pretty good story and I really wanted to tell it. Yiddish has another word for an expert: a berye, which comes from the Hebrew. Theoretically it is gender-neutral but it is most often applied to women in praise of their multiple talents ("beryeschkeit") as homemakers: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and as often as not running the family store while her husband studied the Torah. Perhaps men were not expected to be multi-talented in the old world: they apprenticed into a single trade, and were expected to stick to that.

Perhaps the use of a Hebrew source for the “jack-of-all-trade” concept further re-inforces the point that there was not necessarily a ready German equivalent, at least not during the formative period (1200-1600?) when Yiddish was drawing most heavily on German sources.

EDIT: In response to the comment by "syntaxerror": Yes, the Potemkin Villages were indeed created as showpieces for the future of Russia; we can infer from the quoted expression that they did not fulfill their promise. Here is the description (from my original source) of what Potemkin did with the sleepy hamlet of Dobrovna:

“Potemkin hât gebaut a schöene stadt, mit grõsse mark-plätzer, mit breite gassen, mit krâmen, mit freie, geraume häuser, mit fabriken vun drap un gewand, vun séigers (watches), vun schwebellach, un hât eingeführt a druck mit Jüdische oysiyos (letter type). Hât gebracht meister-spezialisten vun ausland. Dann hât er gebracht zu führen vun Moskveh säck mit spielereien un zuckerkehs, un flegt séi alle Suntag warfen auf dem neuen mark far die pauerim (bauers, peasants) mit séire kindr, k’dei (in order that) einzugewöhnen séi gehen aher.

  • Indeed, this answer is a little off track, but not entirely. :) Because in German, there exists a standalone metaphoric expression called *Potemkinsche Dörfer", which stands for "make-believe" or "feint(s)" and sometimes even "(just) window-dressing". – syntaxerror Jul 5 '15 at 21:58
  • This is a said comment on the failure of Potemkin's enterprise. I elaborate on this in an edit which I have added to my answer above. – Marty Green Jul 5 '15 at 22:34

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