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I’ve almost never encountered the word einfallen before, so it’s no wonder I don’t understand its meaning in the sentence:

Mir fällt die Telefonnummer einfach nicht ein.

Dictionaries do everything they can to make the meaning of the sentence yet even more obscure, supplying me with translations like:

The telephone number doesn’t occur to me easily.
The telphone number doesn’t come to me easily (Probably in the sense of sich erinnern an).
The telephone number doesn’t collapse/invade (and does all other things, it's famous for)

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    Just to confuse you a bit more: "Da fällt mir was ein", sagte der Bauingenieur. – tofro Jun 30 '16 at 11:33
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  • Thanks for the link, if forgot to check on German is easy, my bad – Gofun Dake Jun 30 '16 at 11:42
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    It would never have occurred to me to translate it as anything other than "occur". – Mawg Jun 30 '16 at 12:03
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    It still sounds kinda strange, you usually remember it, it doesn't come to your mind, because it's not an idea, it's a number. – Gofun Dake Jun 30 '16 at 12:09
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Einfallen in this context is closely related to erinnern. While sich an etwas erinnern is a conscious process where the subject is the person remembering and thus the verb is best translated by to remember something, in the case of einfallen it is more an appearing idea — and the idea is also the subject.

Mir fällt die Telefonnummer nicht ein.

is equivalent to, but syntactically distinctly different from:

Ich erinnere mich nicht an die Telefonnummer.

Both would best be translated into the same English sentence:

I can’t/don’t remember the telephone number.

The difference is a slight nuance. When saying »Sie fällt mir nicht ein«, you are just waiting for the helpful spark of a thought and then it should be there. When saying »ich erinnere mich nicht an sie«, you’re trying to remember but can’t make it happen.

And note how the einfallen or (hin)einfallen figuratively alludes to an idea dropping into your head — much like the other meanings of einfallen (to invade, to collapse, etc.).


Here are some examples on the other meanings of that verb, which could be the reason for it being confusing. First, in the sense of invading:

Heute Nacht wird unsere Armee in das Nachbarland einfallen.
Tonight our army will invade the neighboring country.

Letztes Jahr fielen die wilden Horden in unser Land ein.
Last year the wild masses invaded our country.

Documented on dict.cc.

And, second, an example in the sense of collapsing:

Gestern Nacht ist die alte Scheune eingefallen.
Yesterday night the old barn collapsed.

  • Vielleicht könnte noch kurz die Funktion von „einfach“ erläutert werden, da es die automatische Übersetzung auf Abwege gebracht hat. – Carsten S Jun 30 '16 at 21:58
  • Sich einfallen ist formeller als sich erinnern? – DerPolyglott33 Jun 30 '16 at 22:44
  • @DerPolyglott33 Sich einfallen gibt es nicht. Einfallen ist nicht formeller, hat aber eine andere Bedeutung (was meine Antwort herauszustellen versucht). – Jan Jun 30 '16 at 22:46
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    I don't think "mir fällt die Telefonnummer nicht ein" is exactly the same as "ich erinnere mich nicht an die Telefonnummer". The former means (at least to me) "I actually know the number, but I cannot recall it just now" while the latter means "I knew the phone number, but I have forgotten it" – celtschk Jul 6 '16 at 9:47
  • @celtschk Please point me to the spot in my answer where I call them identical …? Half of it revolves around the difference as I perceive it … – Jan Jul 6 '16 at 16:50
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Einfallen has a lot of meanings in German (see dict.cc). This is why the translator is a bit confused.

In your case it would be

to cross sb.'s mind
to come into sb.'s mind / head
to occur to sb.

I would translate your sentence as follows:

The telephone number doesn’t come into my mind.

  • It could also be to invade as in the vandals are invading == Die Vandalen fallen ein – DocRattie Jul 5 '16 at 13:06
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It can be translated to "remember" or "recall".

I just cannot remember the phone number.

So in this case it means the same as erinnern an.

Edit: Just for fun: In a completely different and somewhat special context, "einfallen" can also have the meaning of "invade".

Edit2: Changed "telephone" to "phone" in the example sentence to make the sentence sound more like something a British person would say.

  • I'd drop the "tele" from "telephone number" and you get what a British person would say. "Cannot" makes it stronger than "can't" - mir fällt die Telefonnummer absolut nicht win. – gnasher729 Jul 4 '16 at 20:58
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Mir fällt die Telefonnummer einfach nicht ein.

means

I just can't remember the/this telephone number.

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I would translate "einfallen" as "come to mind," or to remember.

The literal translation is to "fall into."

But a thought has to "fall into" something.

That "something" is one's mind.

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