I'm reading a text in which the following sentence appears:

"Es trägt die Schuld des Lebens nicht durch Thun, sondern durch Leiden ab."

I also have the English version for this text, in which the word "Thun", translates to "activities", which leads me to the noun "Das Tun".

Now I also wanted to know how could I translate - or at least get a grasp of - the meaning of the word "ab", found in this sentence.


"ab" does not have meaning of its own here. It is a separated part of the word "trägt", i.e. a form of "abtragen" (to clear away, to pay off a debt).


You flagged your question with the tag "separable verbs".

how could I translate ... the meaning of the word "ab"

Normally for separable verbs it makes no sense at all to look at the two parts of the verb separately:

The verb "abhauen" for example has two different meanings and one of them has nothing to do with the meaning of the verb "hauen".

The example "abhauen" shows that the two parts of a separable verb in many cases do have no meaning on their own.

This is also true for the "ab" in "abtragen" as well.

Indeed separable verbs are formed of two words ("ab" and "tragen") however a German teacher would tell you that the following sentence:

Er trägt die Erde ab.

... neither contains the word "tragen" ("trägt") nor the word "ab" but that it contains the word "abtragen" ("abträgt").

A word that does not appear in a sentence cannot be translated.

This is true for all separable verbs.

  • True, but not an answer to the question.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 3 '17 at 19:55
  • @CarstenS The question was how the word "ab" can be translated. And the answer is: This word does not appear in the sentence so it cannot be translated. I improved my answer a bit to make it clearer. Jun 3 '17 at 20:11
  • Now you at least mention abtragen, I think you did not before. Do not get me wrong, what you write is useful, but I think it should be accompanied by the meaning of abtragen. And I find it curious, too, that the OP has tagged the question to be about separable verbs, which seems to contradict not understanding the function of ab.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 3 '17 at 20:18
  • @CarstenS I edited my answer multiple times. The problem was that after the first edit (the first answer was not good) I accidentally deleted the most important part which said that the sentence does not contain the word "ab" at all. Jun 3 '17 at 20:20
  • Ok, so you think the OP should look up the word himself, that's ok with me ;)
    – Carsten S
    Jun 3 '17 at 20:21

The other answers are technically correct that a separable-verb should be treated and translated as one word to obtain the correct meaning.

On the other hand for a verb to be separable usually means that it consists of a prefix and a (base) verb. Both do have a meaning of their own. Though simply translating them separately does not necessarily yield a usable translation. It can however convey a basic meaning, especially if one keeps in mind to also consider figurative meanings.

For your concrete example abtragen consists of tragen which translates to to carry and the prefix ab- which translates to

Separable verb prefix, from.
    ab- + ‎fahren (“to leave”) → ‎abfahren (“to depart from”)
Separable verb prefix that indicates removal or quitting, off.
    ab- + ‎spülen (“to rinse, wash”) → ‎abspülen (“to rinse off, wash off”)
Separable verb prefix that indicates a downward movement, down.
Separable verb prefix that indicates from or of.


As such the meaning of abtragen can be understood as to carry sth. away or perhaps to reduce sth. [by carrying (some of) it away] here to reduce could also convey a sense of a downward movement, e.g. making the pile smaller.

In combination with the context of Schuld (which should probably be understood as some kind of karmic debthere) a possible translation is to pay of (karmic) debts.

For more information on separable-verbs see also link.


In my opinion it would be like when we use "up" within an English word or word group. Like the word abwaschen is similar to "wash up" and the word abholen is like "pick up." Notice that if you separate the two English words in these examples that they loose their complete meaning, I think it is similar in German.

  • "wash up" ist kein idiomatisches Englisch, um das mal dezent zu sagen. "doing the dishes" would be a better term.
    – Robert
    Jul 7 '18 at 7:50

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