I am trying to figure out how to properly untangle some of the words that are commonly translated as "to refrain from" in German. After looking through some dictionaries, I find three common translations:

  1. etwas unterlassen
  2. von etwas absehen
  3. auf etwas verzichten

One common thing that one may be asked to refrain from doing is smoking. As expected, I find "vom Rauchen absehen", "das Rauchen unterlassen", and "auf das Rauchen verzichten". Is there a clear distinction between these three expressions? Perhaps one that can be universally used in phrases such as "Please refrain from moving about while the seat belt light is on" in an airplane, etc.?

Wir bitten Sie das Rauchen zu unterlassen.

Maybe a little old fashioned, but a polite, formal and strict way to say:

No smoking!

I wouldn't say "unterlassen" has a strong connotation of "forgetting" or failing to do something. It's use is more formal and as an obligation i.e. in the legal term "Unterlassungserklärung" which dict.cc translates as "declaration to cease and desist".

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While the others answered your main question ("What is the meaning?"), I would like to point out that a good translation for signage would be to omit the phrase.

"Please refrain from smoking in this area" = "Hier bitte nicht rauchen", "Bitte hier nicht rauchen" or even "Bitte nicht rauchen"

"Please refrain from moving about while the seat belt light is on" = "Bitte bleiben Sie sitzen, solange das Anschnall-Zeichen leuchtet"

All the indirectness that is used in English to express politeness is not needed in German and, in fact, would sound weird.

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Von etwas absehen means you could do it but you don't do it because it would be bad for the people around you.

Angesichts der vielen Kinder sah er vom Rauchen ab.

Unterlassen means you don't do something required:

Sie unterließ es, zum Rauchen nach draußen zu gehen.

The phrase das Rauchen unterlassen is a bit off because of that, it literally means to fail to smoke. In commands, however, this becomes Fail to smoke! and the meaning is a medium-polite Stop smoking!.

Er verzichtete nie gänzlich auf seine geliebten Zigarren.

Verzichten is a very strong word, it means you deliberately miss an opportunity.

Auch eine? (hands over the cigarette packet)

Verzichte. (denies the offer)

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  • Thanks! Es scheint mir, nach dem was du gesagt hast, das "verzichten auf" am besten durch "go without doing something" übersetzt wird. Wenn du etwas möchtest/machen könntest, genau das sollst du in diesem Moment nicht machen. Z.b. "Meine Gefühle über unseren idiotischen Presidänt sind meiner Familie bewusst, aber beim Thanksgiving, werde ich darauf verzichten, eine politische Bermekung einfließen zu lassen." Bitte sag es mir, wenn ich mich irre. Unterlassen liegt am nächsten an "refrain from": "Ihr sollt es untelassen aufzustehen, während das "Sicherheitsgurte Licht" an ist? – Mark Jun 1 '18 at 21:48
  • Actually, after thinking about it more, I think verzichten=forego, or go without. 1. Ich verzichte auf dein Angebot = Ill pass on/forego your offer (?) 2. Ich kann auf diese einmalige Gelegenheit nicht verzichten=I can't forego this once in a lifetime opportunity (?) – Mark Jun 1 '18 at 22:07
  • Ja, das sollte stimmen. – Janka Jun 1 '18 at 22:22
  • Man kann von etwas absehen, ohne dass man von Personen umgeben ist - dieser Umstand ist weder notwendig für das Absehen von etwas, noch ein Hinderungsgrund von Verzicht zu reden oder vom Unterlassen. Ebenso ist ein Erfordernis keine notwendige Bedingung für ein Unterlassen und schließt den Begriff des Absehens auch nicht aus. – user unknown Mar 17 '19 at 1:38
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    Es wurde nach commonly translated as gefragt. – Janka Mar 17 '19 at 1:40

The construction I would use for "refrain from..." is verzichten. This is a posture of "actively" or thoughtfully refraining from doing something.

"Unterlassen" means to omit, and has the connotations of "forgetting" or at least being absent-minded. Technically, you "refrained" but through forgetfulness, not "active" will.

"Absehen" is a bit between the other two. Its real meaning is "not to be seen." Yes, you don't want to do X in front of other people, but you will (or plan to) do it "on the sly" when there aren't other people around.

So "verzichten" is an "unconditional" way of "refraining from" something.

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  • Thank you for your helpful comment. I feel like I may be narrowing in on the meaning, but a few more clarifications will do the trick :) Could it be that "von etwas absehen" is close to "den Drang widerstehen, etwas zu tun"?, so "resist" doing something that you could do/want to do? Or maybe "avoid" doing something? Maybe an example sentence: "Der Moderator hat uns darum gebeten, auf den Beifall zu verzichten, aber es fiel uns schwer, davon abzusehen" The moderator requested that we refrain from applause, but it was difficult to resist/avoid doing so? – Mark Jun 3 '18 at 3:53
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    @Mark: I would "reverse" your examples. That is, verzichten would be "den Drang widerstehen, etwas zu tun." On the other hand, the moderator would ask people to "tone it down," or "absehen." That is to applaud silently or even "invisibly" in order not to be disruptive. – Tom Au Jun 3 '18 at 6:20
  • Indeed, the distant constructs used in English are not expressing politeness when translated to German - They sound just weird. German is much more straightforward. – tofro Mar 17 '19 at 13:25

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