This is a question about what is sometimes called "backshifting" in English grammar. I am sorry this is very long. You can skip the section on "Backshifting" if you know what that means, and you can skip the "Background" in any event.

German Sentences in Question

Please see the following translations of a sentence from Der Fremde (L'Étranger) by Camus.

(D1') Es war lange her, daß ich auf dem Land gewesen war, und ich fühlte{-1}, welchen Spaß es mir gemacht hätte{-1}, spazierenzugehen, wenn da nicht Mama gewesen wäre{-1 or -2}. (Tr. by Uli Aumüller.)

(E1') Schon lange war ich nicht mehr auf dem Lande gewesen, und ich fühlte{-1}, wie gerne ich spazierengegangen wäre{-1}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gegeben hätte{-1 or -2}. (Georg Goyert und Hans Georg Brenner.)

Meursault, the first person narrator, has kept a vigil for his poor mama. Seeing that it was a fine morning, he expresses the "feeling" (or wish) as above.

I marked some verbs for their time of occurrence, where '-1' means the past. That is:

  • The "feeling" ("fühlen") occurred in the past (relative to the act of narrating).
  • The "walking" couldn't occur, but its supposed time of occurrence is, I believe, the same as that of "feeling" (or its immediate future). I.e., Meursault was thinking, "I now want to go on a walk but can't."
  • Mama's condition of being dead (represented as "Mama" or "die Geschichte mit Mama") is also contemporaneous with the "feeling" and "walking." ("Mother's now being dead prevents me.") But if we equate "Mama" or "die Geschichte" with "Mama's act of dying" then it is a more remote past, i.e. -2. ("Mother's dying yesterday now prevents my walk.") In what follows, I will ignore this second possibility.


So I could formulate the question, I now need to explain "backshifting." (You can skip this part if you know what that means.) Consider:

I think I am in the right.

I thought I was in the right.

When "think" became "thought," "am" backshifted to "was." In German, I understand, Konjunctiv I used for indirect speech does not backshift. It is also said that English counterfactuals (usually) do not backshift, as follows.

(X) I wish{0} I were{0} in Hawaii.

(X') I wished{-1} I were{-1} in Hawaii. (Last winter I wished I were in Hawaii, but now I am glad I stayed in New York. The snow kept me indoors, and I got a lot of studying done.)

(Y) I wish{0} I had been{-1} more careful.

(Y') I wished{-1} I had been{-2} more careful. (Last week I wished I had been more careful the week before, but it turns out it wouldn't have mattered anyway.)

You will note that:

  • In (X), "wish" and "were" refer to the present. (You can characterize "were" as timeless, but still the speaker is wishing it for the present.)
  • In (X'), "wished" and "were" refer to the same point in the past. I.e. (X') expresses the same thing as (X), only the act of expressing takes place at a later time.
  • When (X) became (X'), "were" stayed the same, i.e. did not backshift.
  • We can make similar observations about (Y) and (Y'), namely that, "had been" referred to a time before "wish"/"wished" and did not backshift.


The question is: How I am to understand the quoted German sentences?

Suppose I believed that German counterfactuals did not backshift. For example, I believe these German sentences should be time-coded as below.

(XX) Ich denke{0}, es wäre{0} besser.

(XX') Ich dachte{-1}, es wäre{-1} besser.

(YY) Ich denke{0}, es wäre besser gewesen{-1}.

(YY') Ich dachte{-1}, es wäre besser gewesen{-2}.

This would mean that, when confronted with the German quotes, I may be forced to understand them on the model of (YY') rather than (XX') and imagine: Meursault, looking at the beautiful day at e.g. 10 a.m., entertained thoughts about the hypothetical walk that hadn't occurred at 8 a.m. ("I would have got that walk out of the way two hours ago if not for mother!") Time-coding would go:

(D2') Ich fühlte{-1}, welchen Spaß es mir gemacht hätte{-2}, spazierenzugehen, wenn da nicht Mama gewesen wäre{-2}.

(E2') Ich fühlte{-1}, wie gerne ich spazierengegangen wäre{-2}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gegeben hätte{-2}.

But that seems implausible. Who would think like that?

So the alternative is to retain the Meursault who at 10 a.m. entertains thoughts about a hypothetical walk at 10 a.m., i.e. (D1') and (E1'). That, however, implies I must believe that German counterfactuals backshifted. Our story, if narrated "in the present tense," would have to go as follows:

(D1) Ich fühle{0}, welchen Spaß es mir machen würde{0}, spazierenzugehen, wenn da nicht Mama wäre{0}.

(E1) Ich fühle{0}, wie gerne ich spazierenginge{0}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gäbe{0}.

You will note that in going from (D1) to (D1'), and again from (E1) to (E1'), backshifting occurred, e.g. from "machen würde" to "gemacht hätte."

In sum: In order to retain my favored reading, I have to accept the grammatical principle that German counterfactuals backshift.

To answer my question, please tell me:

(Q1) Whether I am right to time-code the German quotes as (D1') and (E1') rather than (D2') and (E2'), i.e. right to retain the plausible reading of Meursault entertaining thoughts about a hypothetical present.

(Q2) Assuming yes to (Q1), whether backshifting as exemplified in (D1) and (D1') or (E1) and (E1') is normal in German.

(Q3) If such backshifting is not normal, i.e. German counterfactually usually do not backshift, what accounts for the deviation from that rule seen in our German quotes.


For what it's worth (in answering the question), the French original goes:

(F1') Il y avait longtemps que j’étais allé à la campagne et je sentais{-1} quel plaisir j’aurais pris{-1} à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu{-1 or -2} maman.

And while we're at it, two English translations.

(A1') I hadn’t been in the country for ages, and I caught{-1} myself thinking what an agreeable walk I could have had{-1}, if it hadn’t been{-1 or -2} for Mother. (Stuart Gilbert.)

(B1') It had been a long time since I'd been out in the country, and I could feel{-1} how much I'd enjoy{-1} going for a walk if it hadn't been{-1 or -2} for Maman. (Matthew Ward.)

You will see that all but Matthew Ward exhibits what you we would call backshifting. I asked a similar question for French. If anybody can answer that also, please go and see.

For what it's worth, I think in English:

  • A sentence like (B1') is always clear. The "I'd enjoy" part is contemporaneous with "could feel."

  • A sentence like (A1') by itself suggests "could have had" being a more remote past than "caught." Suppose you overheard someone at the next table remark, "Yesterday I was thinking{-1} how much better it would have been{-2}," and nothing more. You would probably understand him as time-coded. Or better yet, imagine a novel that began, "One afternoon, Meursault was thinking{-1} how much better things could have been{-2} if not for his mother." This suggests to my ears a man reflecting on what he did or did not enjoy or achieve in the past. For someone reflecting on the current state of his life, we'd say: "One afternoon, Meursault was thinking{-1} how much better things could be{-1} if not for his mother."

  • I think in (A1') Gilbert may be mirroring the French original because he expects context will set the reader right anyway, all this rather subconsciously. I wonder if the same thing might be said of the German renderings.

  • 2
    Your question needs a very well-thought-out answer so I put an initial thought as a comment here. German is in general not very rigid when it comes to this issues (Konjunktiv, backshifting). When using 'Indikativ' we do at least use the four Präteritum-tenses to express a time-structure. When it comes to 'Konjunktiv' we use it more as means to express e.g. 'personal opinion of the referent' in an indirect speech etc. - Meaning 'er tue es/er habe es getan' and 'er täte es/er hätte es getan' do not express the same than the Indikativ does. It's more of a 2-tense concept with 2 flavors.
    – mramosch
    Sep 17, 2015 at 11:26
  • But that's what all languages I know of do with Konjunktiv respectively Subjuntivo. However, romance languages are more strict when it comes to 'Backshifting'. If the verb of the main-clause is of a indicative-present-tense-group (present/present perfect) - then is the verb of the sub-clause, too. If -> main-clause: indicative-past-tense group (past/past-perfect/ conditional !!!) so is the sub-clause. In German you say 'Gestern dachte ich, es ist schon Sommer' - if you said 'Gestern dachte ich, es war schon Sommer' you actually mean that you thought summer was already over.
    – mramosch
    Sep 17, 2015 at 11:50
  • In Spanish e.g. you are obliged to use 'backshifting' unless the referent wants to express his personal opinion on the subject of the main clause. He would use present tense in the sub-clause to express what we do with our rather 'undefined' system of Konjunktiv, because Subjuntivo (Konjunktiv) is a no-op for the 'discurso referido' in Spanish...
    – mramosch
    Sep 17, 2015 at 11:50
  • BTW: with 'four Präteritum-tenses' I was referring to Perfekt, Imperfect, Plusquampserfect + Präsens... ;-)
    – mramosch
    Sep 17, 2015 at 12:24
  • 2
    Note that in “Ich wünschte, ich wäre in Hawaii”, the wünschte will most likely be interpreted as a subjunctive, not as a preterite indicative. In that way, it is not a good example for the difference you want to highlight.
    – chirlu
    Sep 17, 2015 at 14:45

2 Answers 2


I am a bit intimidated by the details of your questions, but I will try a humble attempt.

1.) Times and the indicative

The German times have usually a strict order when in indicative:


  • Ich war nach Hause gegangen {-2}
  • Ich ging nach Hause {-1}
  • Ich bin nach Hause gegangen {-0.5} (the Perfekt marks something that just happened, a near past. I gave it the 0.5 so it doesn't meddle with your time stamps)


  • Ich gehe nach Hause {0}


  • Ich werde nach Hause gegangen sein {+1}
  • Ich werde nach Hause gehen {+2}

2) Times and the conjunctive II

However, the irrealis, which is built with conjunctive II, has only two possible times:


  • Ich wäre nach Hause gegangen {-2, -1 or -0.5} (but I didn't do it!)

Present (2 possible forms):

  • Ich ginge nach Hause {0} (but I don't do it!)
  • Ich würde nach Hause gehen {0} (but I don't do it!)

Note that the grammatical times of the conjunctive II do not match the logical times of the irreal!

An irreal in the past is built with the Plusquamperfekt form of conjunctive II, and the irreal in the present uses both Present and Futur I forms equally.

You can skip this part if you want, I got a bit distracted by the future!

Most tricky is the Futur II form of the conjunctive II: "ich würde nach Hause gegangen sein"

I did think a lot about a possible use for that form and first thing that came to my mind was:

"Zu diesem Zeitpunkt würde ich schon nach Hause gegangen sein" --> I am planning an event in the future, and at some point I can't join something, because I know I wouldn't be there. I will go home before that.

Notice the difference to the irrealis present and past forms: I am thinking through a fictual plan, but in this plan, the conjunctive II Futur II form means that something is happening, instead of just wishing that something happens or had happened while it actually never will.

You can actually use the conjunctive II Future II in a future sentence:

"Ich weiß genau, dass ich morgen lieber heute nach Hause gegangen sein würde". (Tomorrow I will regret that in a few minutes, I won't go home but somewhere else)

This sentence gives me, as a native speaker. headaches, though. It is probably a correct form, but it is hardly ever used nor is it easily understood. Also, it is only understandable with exact time stamps (heute, morgen). "Ich weiß genau, dass ich lieber nach Hause gegangen sein würde" does NOT make any sense by itself!

3) The translation of your examples

Now, as you can see, the conjunctive II is not that "sharp" in the past, and I guess that's what makes the sentences you quoted so hard to understand. I actually had to read them three times to get them myself.

(D1') Es war lange her, daß ich auf dem Land gewesen war, und ich fühlte{-1}, welchen Spaß es mir gemacht hätte{a: 0.5 or -1 or -2}, spazierenzugehen, wenn da nicht Mama gewesen wäre{b: 0.5 or -1 or -2}. (Tr. by Uli Aumüller.)

(E1') Schon lange war ich nicht mehr auf dem Lande gewesen, und ich fühlte{-1}, wie gerne ich spazierengegangen wäre{a: 0.5 or -1 or -2}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gegeben hätte{b: 0,5 or -1 or -2}. (Georg Goyert und Hans Georg Brenner.)

0.5 doesn't make sense here (as the whole story takes place in the past, not the near past), so we can ignore that. However, from those sentences you can NOT tell, when the walk or the "thing" with his mom should have taken place. Without context, each of these possibilities would be equal:

  • At this moment in the past, he would enjoy a walk, but he doesn't want to, because right now "the story with his mum" distresses him to much {a: -1, b: -1}
  • At this moment in the past, he would enjoy a walk, but he doesn't want to, because there was something the day before (or earlier) with his mum, that distressed him {a: -1, b: -2}
  • At this moment in the past, he notices that he would have enjoyed a walk the day before, if there hadn't been something up with his mum on that same day, or even before that {a:-2, b:-2 or even -3}

It is not possible, that {a: -2, b: -1}, as the incident with his mum is the reason he's not going for a walk. Note that this is a logical, not a grammatical conclusion!

4.) The Backshifting

Now the nifty part. I am trying to figure this out with a few examples.

Ich gehe gerade so alleine nach Hause. Ginge ich doch gerade nicht alleine! (oder: Würde ich doch gerade nicht so alleine gehen!) --> Right now I am going home alone, but it would be nicer if someone was with me.

Ich ging gestern so alleine nach Hause. Wäre ich gestern doch nicht so alleine gegangen! --> Yesterday, I went home alone, but it would have been nicer, if someone had been there with me.

I am trying your "I wish I had been" example, but it's not that easy in German:

Heute wünschte ich (oder: würde ich mir wünschen), ich wäre gestern vorsichtiger gewesen.

Gestern hätte ich gewünscht, ich wäre am Tag davor vorsichtiger gewesen.

In those cases, there is 1 day difference between the moment of wishing and the moment where the wish should have taken effect.

However, it get's complicated when there is a more general description of the "effect" time (the wish is infinite).

Ich wünschte (oder: würde ich mir wünschen), ich wäre vorsichtiger. --> Right now, I am wishing that I was much more careful - today, tomorrow, in general.

Now, if I put this in the past, it depends on what I want to say. If your wish is more "finite", you can backshift

Ich hätte mir gewünscht, vorsichtiger gewesen zu sein.

But if you still wish this, you would probably use a different construction, like this one:

Ich hätte mir gewünscht, vorsichtiger zu sein.

So, I think in German the conjunctive II doesn't automatically backshift, it rather depends on what you want to say.

5.) Conclusion

Conjunctive II is evil. :D

No, seriously. The sentences you've mentioned are very confusing and complicated. When it comes to the irreal in German, things are not that much in order. In the spoken language, you will hear many, many deviations that try to avoid the use of the conjunctive II, because it doesn't fit too intuitively into the language. Also, Germans usually have a very hard time learning the strict "if-clause"-constructions in English, which indicates that German is more flexible here.

So I am not sure if there really is a rule for the backshifting. Maybe you can extract some from my examples or a Germanist expert comes around and tells me all my thoughts are nonsense. :D

What I can tell you, though, is this: the fact that you don't understand those quotes easily is not some matter of backshifting or not. It's simply the fact that past irreal forms all look the same, no matter when the irreal event would have happened.

Hope this helps a bit!


  • 1
    Thanks. I believe you've answered all of my questions (Q1) to (Q3) with a single sentence: "Without context, each of these possibilities would be equal." So if I take my favor interpretation {-1, -1, -1}, I'd have to conclude backshifting took place at least in (D1') and (E1').
    – Catomic
    Sep 20, 2015 at 6:29

I am writing a hypothetical answer to my own question so that it may be roundly rejected (or accepted in parts as the case may be). Actually, this is the answer I was hoping to get because it would make German come out neat and manageable in this area. If this answer is wrong, please leave comments to tell me so. (I think Ladybug already did indirectly.)


(D1') and (E1') are mistranslations of the French original. The translators blindly followed the surface form of the French sentence.

Time Borrowing

Let us say that a verb instance which does not backshift "borrows" its time from another verb instance, typically the one in a large or more independent context. A clear example is the infinitive.

I will want{+1} to go[NUL] {+1} home.

I want{0} to go[NUL] {0} home.

I wanted{-1} to go[NUL] {-1} home.

I had wanted{-2} to go[NUL] {-2} home.

[NUL] stands for the idea that the time of "want" (occurring in a larger or more independent context than "go") simply becomes the time of "go." Again:

I will want{+1} to have had[-0.9] {+0.1} breakfast.

I want{0} to have had[-0.9] {-0.9} breakfast.

I wanted{-1} to have had[-0.9] {-1.9} breakfast.

I had wanted{-2} to have had[-0.9] {-2.9} breakfast.

Here, [-0.9] stands for the operation of subtracting some arbitrary time so that, whatever might be the time of "want," the time of "to have had" is somewhat before (more past than) that. (Note: I didn't want to use [-1] because "I will want{+1} to have had[-1] {0} breakfast" would make it look as though the sentence meant I now want to have breakfast.)

A Categorical Statement

Now, we say categorically: A German Konjunctiv II form used for an irreal does not backshift and instead borrows its time from the main verb. For example:

(XX) Ich denke{0}, es wäre[nul] {0} besser.

(XX') Ich dachte{-1}, es wäre[nul] {-1} besser.

(YY) Ich denke{0}, es wäre besser gewesen[-0.9] {-0.9}.

(YY') Ich dachte{-1}, es wäre besser gewesen[-0.9] {-1.9}.

Essentially, Konjunctiv II here works just like infinitives (insofar as it "borrows" time).

An Interpretation

Next, we assert that Camus's original French sentence describes a man regretting what he could not do right then and there, not earlier that morning.

Correct Translation

Form that interpretation and the categorical statement above it follows that the correct German translations should have been:

(DD') Ich fühlte{-1}, welchen Spaß es mir machen würde[NUL] {-1}, spazierenzugehen, wenn da nicht Mama wäre[NUL] {-1}.

(EE') Ich fühlte{-1}, wie gerne ich spazierenginge[NUL] {-1}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gäbe[NUL] {-1}.

(Note: For simplicity I ignore the possibility of "Mama" referring to her act of dying, an event before "feeling" or the prevented "walking.")

An Error Theory

We now try to explain why the translators made the mistakes they did. We surmise that they would not have made a similar mistake in a third person narrative. For example:

Eines Morgens denkt{0} Meursault daran, wie viel besser es wäre[NUL] {0}, ohne seine Mutter zu sein[NUL] {0}.

Eines Morgens dachte{-1} Meursault daran, wie viel besser es wäre[NUL] {-1}, ohne seine Mutter zu sein[NUL] {-1}.

Eines Morgens denkt{0} Meursault daran, wie viel besser es gewesen wäre[-0.9] {-0.9}, ohne seine Mutter zu sein[NUL] {-0.9}.

Eines Morgens dachte{-1} Meursault daran, wie viel besser es gewesen wäre[-0.9] {-1.9}, ohne seine Mutter zu sein[NUL] {-1.9}.

(Note: "zu sein" borrows time from "wäre" or "gewesen wäre," not "denkte" or "dachte.")

Why didn't the translators make a mistake here? Simple. German grammar is "neat and manageable" in this area (per the Categorical Statement) and the things to be said are straightforward.

Finally then why the mistakes in the actual translations? Two reasons.

(a) The influence of the French original.

(b) The fact that the narrator (one speaking the sentences) and the actor (one being described by the sentences) are the same person. Suppose you were describing what you regretted one fine morning right after your mother's wake. You start the sentence with, "ich fühlte," but then find yourself still regretting missing that walk and so instead of describing what the actor felt then, you go on to describe what you now feel ("What a fine walk I would have had if not for mother"). This mistake cannot occur in a third person narrative, where the narrator and the actor are not the same person.


According to Ladybug, I should be wrong in multiple places. For example, the Categorical Statement and perhaps also (XX') and some of the "3rd person" sentences in Error Theory. I'd really appreciate comments that point out whatever is wrong and correcting it. Thanks.

  • Your reason (b) did also cross my mind. I also think that the narrative past and the conjunctive II don't mix well in first person. It might actually be that the use of the past form of conjunctive II is indeed completely wrong in general in this situation, as he is reporting about his feelings then.
    – ladybug
    Sep 28, 2015 at 13:14
  • However, I would say this applies only to the walk, as the death of his mother is in the past, even at the time speaking. So I guess the best translation would be: Ich fühlte{-1}, wie gerne ich spazierenginge{-1}, wenn es hier nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gegeben hätte {-2}.
    – ladybug
    Sep 28, 2015 at 13:16
  • In contrast to: Ich weiß heute {0}, wie gerne ich damals spazieren gegangen wäre {-1}, wenn es dort nicht die Geschichte mit Mama gegeben hätte {-2}
    – ladybug
    Sep 28, 2015 at 13:17
  • Or probably, the easiest way to avoid that problem would be: I fühlte mich unglücklich und dachte: "Ach, wie schön, wäre es jetzt, spazieren zu gehen... wenn da nur nicht die Geschichte mit Mama [gewesen] wäre..." :D
    – ladybug
    Sep 28, 2015 at 13:19

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