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I aim to translate an automated system that will provide spoken phrases to callers, including prompts about when a person will be back from an appointment.

I don't know German, but I am trying to complete at least a prototype translation, that can then be sent to professionals for verification.

I got super good help from a Portuguese forum, so good in fact that only very minor adjustments will be necessary, so I figured I would see if I can do the same for German to be able to demo for German users with your help.

So, for this kind of use you want short and very standardized – but no awkward – wording and during prototyping.

For instance, in English, the automated voice may combine these phrases into a sentence (actual example):

“Lisa” “is in a meeting” “and” “will return” “the fifth of” “January” “at ten” “thirty” “five” “a.m.”

In this real world example, we omit “on” in “will return on the fifth” for simplification reasons in programming, since will return might also be followed by “tomorrow” for instance. We would also use the somewhat less natural “ten-thirty” even for “half past nine” sharp, since that also simplifies coding and is considered good enough.

I hope this example works as background of what I am trying to achieve. The first question I have is how would you best say the time in German for it to work well on a system of this kind.

I supposed Germans are used to the 24-hour system, which is good. But how would you say the minutes best for both exact fractions of ours, and full hours in a natural way when automated.

That is, would something like

Lisa ist in einer Besprechung, und werden wieder am einunddreißigsten Dezember um sechzehn Uhr fünfzehn.
Lisa ist in einer Besprechung, und werden wieder Morgen um sechzehn Uhr dreißig.
Lisa ist in einer Besprechung, und werden wieder um sechzehn Uhr

work?

Or what would be more natural sounding ways to say these sentences?

Also, how would you say 00:30? „Null Uhr dreißig”?

---EDIT---
According to the discussion with besc below, this is currently the alternative I am leaning towards using:

A) Herr Schmidt ist im Urlaub und ab ersten Februar wieder erreichbar.

B) …und ab ersten Februar, acht Uhr wieder erreichbar.

C) …und ab acht Uhr fünfundzwanzig wieder erreichbar.

D) …und ab Morgen, acht Uhr wieder erreichbar.

Do they appear reasonable from an automated spoken system?

--- EDIT---

  • You only want to create messages, where you talk about persons that are in a meeting from which they will return at a know time. Is this correct? I ask because I read the answers, and they all focus only on this very specific setting. Other use cases may need other grammatical constructions. – Hubert Schölnast Jan 31 '18 at 6:57
  • Well, it can be both actually. For most cases, return time will be given, but in cases such as "busy on the phone" and "not available" (as in when the cell-phone is off the grid or turned off), they won't. The syntax has to be compatible (only the "and will return" parts won't be added to the end). – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 9:20
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    Splitting the sentences into tokens with a fixed meaning and keeping the order of those tokens isn't a good choice. The correct ordering differs between languages and tokens may even have to be split, as "will be available at" + "[time]" has to be split in German to "wird um" + [time] + "wieder verfügbar sein." – Alexander Kosubek Jan 31 '18 at 9:55
  • Well, moving them around is not a problem as long as the structure stays the same. If I could avoid conditional aspects, it would be very helpful though. For the best illustration of that that means, see the discussion under besc’s reply below as besc has perfectly understood my restrictions. Anything is possible with coding – but there are already 5 languages where this has been solvable without having to add in conditions. I am hopeful that we produce something adequate (it does not have to be perfect or the very best sounding alternative for this kind of application) for German as well. – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 10:06
  • »... as long as the structure stays the same.« This exactly is the problem. This premise is not true. The structure changes. This is exactly the reason, why so many automated translations sucks. They are all a pain in the as. – Hubert Schölnast Jan 31 '18 at 20:37
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The natural way to say this is to skip the future tense at all.

Lisa ist in einer Besprechung und kommt/kehrt um sechzehn Uhr dreißig wieder.

This is okay for informal contexts, between coworkers. For automatic replies to customers, you need to use wieder erreichbar sein (general) or für Sie da sein (cheerful, only for people with frequent customer contact):

Frau Muster ist in einer Besprechung und ab sechzehn Uhr dreißig wieder erreichbar.

Frau Muster ist in einer Besprechung und ab sechzehn Uhr dreißig wieder für Sie da.

  • Just in addition: there is a comment of OP under my answer, maybe you have a good solution for that as well. – RoyPJ Jan 29 '18 at 11:53
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    If you want it to sound natural, you have to move the erreichbar to the end. Unfortunately there's no way around that because all matching verbs are either separatable or you have to use ist … which also has to be separated. The other cuts are okay, but you should use ab (ab dem for a date) instead of am/um, because am/um suggests an appointment. If you have both a date and a time, the date gets ab dem, the time um or no preposition at all. – Janka Jan 29 '18 at 12:36
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    Ab dem … um … is perfectly okay, but if you don't have a date and only say um …, callers may understand they should call exactly at the time. And Germans will do that. Poor Frau Muster. Your latest examples are perfect. – Janka Jan 29 '18 at 13:56
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    It's understandable but grammatically wrong and sounds awkward, too. – Janka Jan 29 '18 at 16:03
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    The general pattern is und ist ab … wieder erreichbar. or und kommt/kehrt am … zurück. The phrase und ist erst wieder ab … erreichbar. is also possible but has an apologetic mood. – Janka Jan 29 '18 at 20:34
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Your time translations are actually completely right. Where your algorithm lacks correctness is in the structure of the sentence:

Lisa ist in einer Besprechung und wird am einunddreißigsten Dezember / Morgen / um sechzehn Uhr wiederkommen.

werden is what you have to use as plural form, for example

Tim und Lisa sind in einer Besprechung und werden ........ wiederkommen.

Luckily, in the will-future you don't have to adjust wiederkommen, what should help you programming it.

The sound of these sentences is absolutely natural, although there obviously exist multiple possible variations. It might be more natural to use halb vier instead of fünfzehn Uhr dreißig, but this is not worth the programming effort.

Finally, yes, we do say Null Uhr dreißig (or, of course, halb eins).

  • Thank you very much for that great and prompt reply @RoyPJ. Just a follow up, is there any good/natural way to say "and will return" where you can have it all before the return-time and date? It would help a lot if I could finish with the date and time (as we do in all other languages). If there is no good way to achieve that, we will of course recode to accommodate the structure you suggest. – Empo Jan 29 '18 at 11:03
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    One might use "Lisa ist in einer Besprechung und erst wieder erreichbar um/am ...". For me this construction would sound a bit better: "Lisa ist in einer Besprechung. Sie ist ers wieder erreichbar am/um ...". Note that the latter requires destinction between female (sie) and male (er) and might therefore be an additional challenge. The former works as well. – RoyPJ Jan 29 '18 at 11:12
  • The verb “wiederkommen” would not be used in a business scenario. – Philipp Jan 29 '18 at 13:12
  • Thank you Philipp! Interesting, it is amazing how different German is compared to US English and the Nordic languages when it comes to how formal it is in certain circumstances. Really makes you want to learn more German, it is a fascinating language. Is there no expression that can convey something like “and will return at” in German that might work? Something like “Frau Schmidt ist im Urlaub und wird am sechsten März um elf Uhr vierzig zurückkehren”. (or “zurückkommen”)? – Empo Jan 29 '18 at 17:58
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Janka’s suggestion with “wieder erreichbar” is a good one. Also it has the nice property that you can section it in such a way that you never need to switch the order of the sections around.

Such a sentence breaks down like this:

who?         | count | where/what? | fixed  | date and/or time              | fixed
Herr Schmidt | ist   | im Urlaub   | und ab | dem ersten Februar um acht Uhr| wieder erreichbar.

fixed

The two fixed sections stay exactly like they are no matter what the other sections say. You might want to rethink the “wieder erreichbar” in the final version, because it means “can be reached again” with a strong implication that reaching is impossible at the moment. In the era of mobile communication that might not be true exactly. Alternatives with the same grammatcial properties:

  • wieder zurück (back again, slightly more informal but still perfectly acceptable in a work/business related context)
  • wieder am Platz (back at their desk, implies a fixed physical location where they usually do their work)

who

Can be the formal or informal address, for one or more people, and any combination of those. Some examples that you can plug into that section as is:

  • Herr Schmidt und Frau Müller
  • Anna
  • Peter und Frau Müller

count

Depending on the number of people named in the first section: “ist” for singular and “sind” for plural. Might become more complicated if you have to deal with named groups of people, for example “die Abteilung” (the department). One group is still singular.

where/what

Works with any location and other common phrases. Plug-in examples:

  • in der Mittagspause (on lunch-break)
  • auf einer Konferenz (at a conference)
  • auf Dienstreise (on a business trip)
  • krank (sick)
  • momentan nicht erreichbar (currently unreachable)
  • außer Haus (out of the office)

date and/or time

Works with any common expression for a point in time. Plug-in examples:

  • morgen (tomorrow)
  • nächster Woche (next week)
  • dreizehn Uhr dreißig (1:30 p.m.)
  • dem fünften März (the 5th of March)
  • dem fünften März um acht Uhr fünfzehn (the 5th of March at 8:15 a.m.)
  • Herbst 2018 (autumn of 2018)

There’s one annoying detail when combining date and time. You need to insert that “um”. You cannot leave it out when you have the date as well. And must omit it if you have the time only, i.e. “und ab um acht Uhr” is wrong (although it is used like that in some German dialects, but never in standard German).

Update:

“und ab” is marked fixed because it really can stay exactly the same in all situations. For example, “und ab morgen wieder zurück” is perfectly fine.

Thinking about the “um” a bit more, I found two shortcuts. They are so common that I wouldn’t think twice about them in real live. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come to mind right away. You can:

  • omit the article for day number + month constructions, making it more similar to article-less things like “morgen”,
  • omit the ”um″.

Stylistically it’s a good idea to either omit them both or not at all. For example:

Herr Schmidt ist im Urlaub und ab ersten Februar, acht Uhr wieder zurück.

Herr Schmidt ist im Urlaub und ab achtzehnten März wieder zurück.

Note the comma after the date. In speech a native speaker would make a very short pause at that point in the sentence. Because an automated system probably won’t get the rhythm of the sentence 100% correct anyway, I guess that’s a detail you can ignore.

  • Thank you for that very thoughtful reply besc! Yea, that is the problem that I can't solve. I E the conditional aspects. Sometimes it will be only the date (for all-day appointments), as in "und ab dem ersten Februar..." Sometimes times it will be date and time, as in "und ab dem ersten Februar um acht Uhr..." Sometimes there will be just time (partial same day appointments) "und ab acht Uhr... Sometimes it will be tomorrow and time (partial day next day appointments), as in und Morgen ab acht Uhr... So two problems, "und ab" won't work for tomorrow, and no "um" before hours for same day. – Empo Jan 29 '18 at 19:32
  • And this (or something like it) is no good I take it: “Frau Schmidt ist momentan nicht erreichbar und wird am sechsten März um elf Uhr vierzig zurückkehren”? – Empo Jan 29 '18 at 19:35
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    For the date/time problems, see the updated answer. Your “Frau Schmidt” example is grammatically correct, but not idiomatic. In these kinds of phrases German wants to stress the aspect of starting at a specific time and continuing into the future. That’s what “ab” means. In contrast “am” denotes a single point in time only. For the same reason “zurückkehren” doesn’t work well. The fact that someone comes back isn’t all that important. The interesting part is the being back that comes after the coming back … if you know what I mean. ;) – besc Jan 30 '18 at 17:09
  • Really grateful for that suggestion since it would solve all problems - including the "appointment nature" of the return time that Janka pointed out so well. Then I can also go back to “wieder erreichbar” that was more suitable for a business setting as Janka suggested, right? Syntax would be: " Herr Schmidt ist im Urlaub und ab ersten Februar wieder erreichbar." "…und ab ersten Februar, acht Uhr wieder erreichbar." "…und ab acht Uhr fünfundzwanzig wieder erreichbar.“ „…und ab Morgen, acht Uhr wieder erreichbar.“ Are all these all correct? – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 9:36
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    You’re welcome! :) All your syntax example are correct. As for the phrasing of the reason of absence: that’d warrant its own question. There are a lot of nuances involved. But all of them are acceptable and correct German. – besc Jan 31 '18 at 19:34
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Structure of the sentence

  • <person>
    Name of the Person in nominative case
    »Lisa« | »Herr Huber« | »Dr. Schmidt«
  • <reason of absence>
    must include a verb which depends on the kind of reason
    »ist in einer Besprechung« | »befindet sich auf einer Dienstreise« | »hat derzeit Urlaub« | »ist leider erkrankt«
    (is in a meeting | is on a business trip | is currently on vacation | is ill)
  • <fix part>
    »und ist«
    (and is)
  • <day>
    (detailed description below)
  • <fix part>
    »um«
    (at)
  • <time>
    (detailed description below)
  • <fix part>
    »wieder erreichbar.«
    (available again)

day

  • if the person is available on the same day:
    »heute« | (empty, i.e. you don't include the day-part)
    (today | )
  • if the person is available tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, you can use the words:

    • »morgen« (tomorrow)
    • »übermorgen« (the day after tomorrow)

    You can use this words only (i.e. instead of a date), you can use them together with the date (before the date, separated with a comma) (recommended), or you can omit this words and use the date only.

  • if the person is not available today (i.e. tomorrow or any number of days later)

    • <fix part>
      »am«
      (on)
    • optional: <day of week>
      »Montag« | »Freitag«
      (Monday | Friday)
    • only when you use the day of week: <fix part>
      When you use the day of week, you need the article den between the day of week and the date:
      »den«
      (the)
    • <day of month>
      This is an ordinal number in dative case
      »ersten« | »elften« | »siebenundzwanzigsten«
      (first | eleventh | twenty-seventh)
    • <month>
      either:
    • <name of month>
      Note, that the first month in a year has different names in different countries: In Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg: »Januar«. In Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Italy: »Jänner«
      »Jänner« | »Januar« | »Februar« | »Oktober«
      (January | January | February | October)
      or:
    • <ordinal number of month>
      Ordinal numbers are the same in all countries
      »ersten« | »sechsten« | »zwölften«
      (first | sixth | twelfth)
    • <year>
      The year can be empty, if it is the actual year (recommended).
      It can also left empty, if the actual date is at the end of the year (October, November, December), and the date of return is within the first three months of the next year. But this is not recommended.
      »zweitausendneunzehn« | »zweitausendeinundzwanzig«
      (two-thousand-nineteen | two-thousand-twenty-one)

time

  • <fix part>
    »ab«
    (at)
  • <hour>
    a cardinal number between 0 and 23
    »null« | »neun« | »achtzehn«
    (zero | nine | eighteen)
  • <fix part>
    »Uhr«
    (o'clock)
  • <minute>
    a cardinal number between 1 and 59
    If the minute would be zero (i.e. en hour exactly), the the minute is empty, i.e. you don't say the minute.
    »zehn« | »fünfundvierzig«
    (ten | forty-five)

Note, that there are also other time-formats in German language, but they are complicated and have great regional variations, so they are not recommended.

For example, 16:40 can be:

sechzehn Uhr vierzig
vier Uhr vierzig Zwanzig vor fünf
fünf vor Dreiviertel fünf

examples

Herr Huber hat derzeit Urlaub und ist übermorgen, am zweiten Februar ab acht Uhr wieder erreichbar.

Lisa befindet sich auf einer Dienstreise und ist am Mittwoch den zweiten Jänner zweitausendneunzehn ab neun Uhr dreißig wieder erreichbar.

Dr. Schmidt ist in einer Besprechung und ist ab sechzehn Uhr fünfzehn wieder erreichbar.

Joseph Bauer hat derzeit Urlaub und ist am Montag, den fünften zweiten ab dreizehn Uhr zwanzig wieder erreichbar.

  • 1
    You should somehow include the case when the return time is unknown or vague. You can't know exactly when somebody is back when he/she's ill. – PMF Jan 31 '18 at 9:20
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    Thank you very much Hubert! Unfortunately, your examples do not address my main problem as detailed above since sometimes it will be just a date (and then the ab has to be before the month as in "...ab/ab dem ersten Februar wieder erreichbar."), sometimes it will be date and time (as in "...am ersten Februar ab dreizehn Uhr zwanzig....") and sometimes it will be only time (as in "...ab acht Uhr...".) That makes it impossible to just build by just adding standard sounds snippets for all the occasions without conditional rules. For more on that see the discussion with besc above. – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 9:54
  • Oh, and for now, I am only doing standard German (for Germany) - but I will certainly keep your helpful points about other German-speaking countries/regions in mind for the future. – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 9:55
  • @Empo: Austrian German is also Standard German. This is like British and American English. Both are Standard English. – Hubert Schölnast Jan 31 '18 at 20:39
  • Yes, with standard I meant not in a southern dialect/accent or so. For clarity I should probably have written "Standard/Nationally accepted German for Germany" or something like that. – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 20:52
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In case shortness matters here is another alternative using 3 variables and an optional addendum:

<name> ist <time span> <reason> <optional addendum>.

On having default content we only need to care for few defined variables. Defaults could e.g. be:

  • <name>: Ihr gewünschter Gesprächspartner
  • <time span: derzeit/momentan
  • <reason: abwesend
  • addendum: Danach werden wir gerne wieder für Sie da sein.

This renders:

Ihr gewünschter Gesprächspartner | ist | derzeit | abwesend. [Danach werden wir gerne wieder für Sie da sein.]

Each variable can then be replaced by a more precise content. By choosing a different addendum we can easily adapt our system to various levels of formality:

Lisa | ist | bis 15. August | im Urlaub. [Du kannst erst danach wieder mit ihr reden.]

A basic implementation may simply use a fixed time table (hour/date) and few reasons only, e.g.:

Herr Weber | ist | bis 12. Februar 2018 | im Urlaub. [Bitte wenden Sie sich an seine Vertreung, Frau Müller.]
Frau Müller | ist | bis 13 Uhr | abwesend.

On demand the time span can then be further adapted with more natural content whithout having to change the whole frame.

  • Lisa | ist | bis Ende der Woche | auf einer Fortbildung. [ ]
  • Hans | ist | heute und bis 13. Februar 2018 | krank. | [Bitte wenden Sie sich in dringenden Fällen an die Rufnummer 0123456789].
  • Dr. Maier | ist | bis 14 Uhr | leider nicht erreichbar. [...]
  • Frau Professor Müller | ist | bis morgen | auf einer Besprechung. [...]
  • Thank you Takkat. If it is better to say it this way, that would work. I guess than it would be: A) Herr Schmidt ist bis ersten Februar im Urlaub. B) …ist bis ersten Februar, acht Uhr im Urlaub. C) …ist bis acht Uhr fünfundzwanzig im Urlaub. D) …ist bis Morgen, acht Uhr im Urlaub. Is that better than the alternatives I have in the edit to my first post? – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 13:23
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    @Empo: no it is not better - but it is a bit shorter. In addition you would be a tiny bit more flexible in the wording - but if this is not needed it really does not make much of a difference. – Takkat Jan 31 '18 at 14:00
  • I see Takkat, well in that case, I might as well go with what I have in my edit in the OP since that conforms more to the languages that are already in production. The cases above (date - date & time - only time - tomorrow & time) are the only cases, so flexibility beyond that is not important. Thank you so much for your continued help and considerate responses! – Empo Jan 31 '18 at 17:27

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