This post is on the meaning of wollen as used in this passage from chapter 'Weg nach Ramses' of Amerika (Der Verschollene) by Frankz Kafka.

Es war übrigens keine Zeit, sich darüber auszusprechen, denn die Zimmerfrau kam herein, genau so verschlafen wie in der Nacht, und trieb alle drei auf den Gang hinaus, mit der Erklärung, daß das Zimmer für neue Gäste hergerichtet werden müsse. Davon war aber natürlich keine Rede, sie handelte nur aus Bosheit. Karl, der seinen Koffer gerade hatte ordnen wollen, mußte zusehen, wie die Frau seine Sachen mit beiden Händen packte und mit einer Kraft in den Koffer warf, als seien es irgendwelche Tiere, die man zum Kuschen bringen mußte.

Some translations of the highlighted passage.

  • Will and Edwin Muir:

    Karl, who had started to pack his box

  • Mark Harman:

    Karl, who was about to tidy up his trunk

  • Bernard Lortholary:

    Karl, qui s'apprêtait justement à mettre de l'ordre dans sa mallette

  • Alexandre Vialatte:

    Karl, qui s'apprêtait à refaire sa malle

For the meaning of s'apprêtait à, please see e.g. definition 2 on this Wiktionary page.

QUESTION

  1. What does wollen mean in the passage?

  2. Would it have been a mistranslation to render the clause as:

    Karl, who had wanted just then to. . .

  3. For question 3, I assume that wanting in this context would be a mistranslation for wollen, which must here be understood as being about to etc., as offered by the four translators. (If, on the other hand, the German text simply meant Karl having wanted and the translations were taking a liberty, then question 3 would not arise.) So assuming, how can I tell when wollen means wanting vs. being about to etc.?

  4. If hatte were changed to hätte, would the clause then mean:

    Karl, who had wanted just then to. . .

BACKGROUND

I have asked these questions on whether wollen could have no element of volition in its meaning.

On hatte vs. hätte, this other post may be relevant:

  • 1
    The phrases "was just about to do" and "was just going to do" are closest to what "hatte gerade tun wollen" means. – Björn Friedrich Apr 26 at 10:12
  • @BjörnFriedrich. Then, wollen in that context has no element of volition? Please note that you can be going to do the thing you most hate to do (i.e. not want at all). On the other hand you may want to do something while thinking it was an impossibility (in which case you would not be going to do it). I am not asking what would be a natural way to translate the clause given the novel's context etc., but what it means in German itself. Thanks. – Catomic Apr 27 at 2:12
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think the translations are a tiny little bit off. But then again, I would not want to translate Kafka either. Your questions:

  1. In this case, wollen means that he had the intention to do something. In combination with the word gerade, it implies that he was about to do it when something else happened.
  2. No, this translation seems corret. It is what the phrase means. I don't know if it is better to say "Karl who had just wanted to ..." or your version...
  3. Wollen always means that there is an intention.
  4. hätte does not make sense here, I think. It sounds very artificial if not entirely wrong.

EDIT to answer follow-up questions:

  1. Am I OK to understand that strictly speaking hatte ordnen wollen means had wanted to (i.e. something about Karl's intention or volition) and not being about or getting ready? ... In other words, can we say that strictly speaking the translations are erroneous?

Yes, you understood that correctly. "Wollen" by itself describes the volition and nothing more. In combination with "gerade" (hatte gerade tun wollen), it means he was just about to do it but it does not mean that he already did it or started to do it. So yes, the Muir translation is erroneous.

  1. From hatte ordnen wollen, can we also infer that Karl had actually done what he wanted to do (ordnen)?

On the contrary, we can infer that up to that point he had only planned to do it, but he did not. I repeat what I stated above: The Muir translation is erroneous. The three following translations all highlight that he was about to do it but did not. Lortholary even uses the word "justement" which means "gerade".

  • 1
    This answer misses the important fact that wollen here is the perfect participle (Partizip II). In other contexts it would be gewollt (as in ich habe gewollt) but if a perfect participle is preceded by an infinitive it takes the same form as the infinitive. – RHa Apr 26 at 11:40
  • Thank you. Am I OK to understand that strictly speaking hatte ordnen wollen means had wanted to (i.e. something about Karl's intention or volition) and not being about or getting ready? Strictly speaking, you can want to do something when it is an impossibility. If you wanted to be emperor that does not imply that you were about to be one. In other words, can we say that strictly speaking the translations are erroneous? – Catomic Apr 27 at 2:09
  • From hatte ordnen wollen, can we also infer that Karl had actually done what he wanted to do (ordnen)? According to the answer in this post german.stackexchange.com/questions/18822/…, that (actually packing) seems to follow. See 1A and 1C of the post. Also, the Muir translation seems to think so. If you have thoughts on these follow-up questions, perhaps you can expand your answer (instead of adding comments). Thanks. – Catomic Apr 27 at 2:42
  • I answered the questions in an extension to the post. Concerning the linked post - there is no discussion about "wollen", only about "können" which is a different story :D – lmr Apr 27 at 6:35

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