In Camus's The Stranger, there is a passage in which the caretaker of the nursing home compares, for the benefit of the bereaved young Meursault, how long a body may be left above ground in the hot Marengo vs. a milder Paris. Sensibly enough, the old man's wife hushes him by saying (in two translations):

Sei still, solche Sachen darfst du dem Herrn nicht erzählen.

Sei doch still. So was brauchst du dem Herrn doch nicht zu erzählen.

I understand what the first translation means. "Dürfen" works rather like English "may" in that its negation means that someone "does not have the permission" to do something and therefore must desist.


But what does the second translation literally mean?

What is confusing me

I thought "brauchen" worked like English "have to" meaning that the negation of "brauchen" was the denial of any obligation or compulsion. If so, "Du brauchst das dem Herrn doch nicht zu erzählen," would mean, "You needn't tell him such things," which is a milder form of spousal control than "darfst ... nicht." The actual sentence however seems to say, "What don't you need to tell the young man?" or "What is it that you don't need to tell him?" But I see that there is no question mark so perhaps it means something else.

I would appreciate an answer that first explains literally what the second translation says and then how it comes to mean what it ought to mean in context.


If it helps to answer the question, here is the fuller text. Thanks!

Translated by Aumüller:

Dann ist mir eingefallen, daß er von Mama geredet hatte, bevor er mich zum Heimleiter brachte. Er hatte gesagt, sie müßte sehr schnell beerdigt werden, weil es im Flachland heiß wäre, besonders in dieser Gegend. In dem Zusammenhang hatte er mir mitgeteilt, daß er in Paris gelebt hätte und es ihm schwerfiele, es zu vergessen. In Paris bliebe man drei, manchmal vier Tage mit dem Toten zusammen. Hier hätte man nicht di Zeit dazu, man hätte sich noch nicht an den Gedanken gewöhnt, und schon müßte man hinter dem Leichenwagen herlaufen. Da hatte seine Frau zu ihm gesagt: «Sei still, solche Sachen darfst du dem Herrn nicht erzählen.» Der Alte war rot geworden und hatte sich entschuldigt. Ich hatte mich eingemischt und gesagt: «Ach wo. Ach wo.» Ich fand das, was er erzählte, richtig und interessant.

Translated by Georg Goyert and Hans Georg Brenner:

Dann fiel mir ein, daß er mir, bevor er mich zum Direktor brachte, etwas über Mama gesagt hatte. Daß man sie sehr schnell beerdigen müsse, weil es in der Ebene, besonders in dieser Gegend, so heiß sei. Bei der Gelegenheit hatte er mir auch zu verstehen gegeben, daß er in Paris gelebt habe und Paris nur schwer vergessen könne. In Paris bleibe man drei, manchmal sogar vier Tage mit dem Toten zusammen. Hier habe man keine Zeit, man habe sich kaum an den Gedanken gewöhnt, und schon müsse man hinterrun after dem Sarg herlaufen. Seine Frau hatte ihn unterbrochen: «Sei doch still. So was brauchst du dem Herrn doch nicht zu erzählen.» Der Alte war rot geworden und hatte sich entschuldigt. Ich hatte dann vermittelnd gesagt: «Lassen Sie ihn doch!» Was er sagte, fand ich richtig und interessant.


3 Answers 3


If I understand you correctly you seem to be mainly confused by the start of the second sentence. So was doesn't mean so what. It is a short, rather colloquial form of so etwas and means something like that. It is the object of the sentence and the counterpart of "such things" in the first sentence. (I suppose you know that German sentences may start with the object.)

You seem to be rather clear about the rest. It is correct that brauchst nicht means don't need to. The particle doch adds an undertone of "I told you" or "You know that", so it is still an imperative (though a bit lighter than the first variant), and not a telling about some option of acting.

  • Yes exactly! Never in a million years could I have figured out "so was" = "so etwas." Thanks!
    – Catomic
    Sep 27, 2015 at 12:39

At first glance the sentences have different meanings:

  1. Sei still, solche Sachen darfst du dem Herrn nicht erzählen.

Be quiet, you may not tell such things to the man.

  1. Sei doch still. So was brauchst du dem Herrn doch nicht zu erzählen.

Be quiet. You don't need to tell things like this to the man.
(The word "doch" in the first sentence is just a modal particle, that can't be translated into english. It gives the order more strength. For further information read this answer about modal particles)

So, version 1 says, that you are not allowed to tell this information. Version 2, 2nd sentence says, that you are allowed, but you are not forced to do it.

In version 1 you have no choice. Do not tell!
In version 2, sentence 2 you have the choice. You can tell, but if you want, you also can be quiet.

But there is Sentence 1 in version 2: »Sei doch still.« I would have used an exclamation mark instead of a full stop at the end of the sentence, since it is a strict order: »Be quiet!« The modal particle »doch« gives this order an extra strength.

This short sentence is very clear: You are definitely not allowed to speak. You have no choice. Be quiet! Shut up!

This is in contrast to the second sentence, which superficially gives you a choice. But the truth is, that both sentences modify the meaning of the other one.

This is what version 2 really means:

The man already knows what the speaker has told him. But this knowledge does not help him in any way. It only makes him feel sad. So it was no good idea to rub his nose in it.

Sentence 1 »Sei doch still« (present tense!) really means: »Das hättest du besser nicht sagen sollen« = »You better should not have said this« (past tense!). This sentence is literally an order that was spoken in present tense, to influence the future. But in fact it is the irrational try to make the already spoken words unspoken. It is the irrational attempt to influence the past.

Sentence 2 means: The man already knows this, and it hurts him to hear it. You better should not talk with him about this topic.

  • "The man already knows what the speaker has told him. " - If this was true, why should the man (which is the narrator) conclude the section with "Was er sagte, fand ich richtig und interessant."?
    – Matthias
    Sep 27, 2015 at 11:42

Especially in informal language and in some more dialectal or popular forms of speaking "nicht brauchen" (quite similar to the English "must not") means simply "you should not" or "you ought not". It is very similar to "nicht dürfen", although the latter often is seen as more categorical.

So, both translations you quote have similar meaning. The difference is in the register of language. Considering who is speaking and in what situation the "brauchst nicht" solution seems better to me. It may be found a little bit out-dated. But sounding old-fashioned could be even appropriate here, as L'Étranger was published in 1942.

There are similar overlaps in other languages. Bulgarian "трябва да отидеш" means "you have to go" (with трябва = must), but "не трябва да отидеш" (with "не трябва" = "not must") means "you must not go (wherever)" in the sense of "you ought not/should not/are not allowed to go (whereever)". The differentiation of strict forbiddance and non-binding advise depends on context.

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