3
  • Direct speech:

    Kurt hat mir am Telefon gesagt: »Wir unternehmen einen Ausflug.«

  • Indirect speech:

    Kurt hat mir am Telefon gesagt, er unternehme einen Ausflug.
    Kurt hat mir am Telefon gesagt, dass er einen Ausflug unternimmt.

  • English translation of indirect speech:

    Kurt told me on the phone that he makes a trip.

The above sentences I took from the this post.

My question is about given English translation: “he makes a trip.” I generally see if the reporting verb (gesagt) is in past tense, then the present tenses of the direct are changed into the corresponding past tense, for example:

Hans sagte, er sei 30 Jahre alt.
Hans said he was 30 years old.

However, the given English translation is in present tense; why is it?

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The grammatical phenomenon in question is called backshifting. For reported speech, it means that the tense of what is reported is dictated by frame of the reporter (who tells that something was spoken) and not in the frame of the speaker. For instance, if like in your example the report happens in the past, the tense of the report shifts back one step (as compared to direct speech). English has this for reported speech; German doesn’t. In German, the tense of reported speech is dictated by the frame of the speaker.

Thus, the correct translation of your example would be:

Kurt told me on the phone that he made a trip.

Since this difference in backshifting is not very prominent in real life and teaching English as a foreign language, many native speakers of German do not know about it, let alone apply it correctly all the time. As the author of your example was a native speaker of German, I assume he just made a mistake.


For fun and another example, we can look at the English sentence in question:

Kurt told me on the phone that he makes a trip.

First let’s ignore for the sake of the example that makes may refer to the future (of reporter’s frame) and that you probably would rather say something like:

Kurt told me on the phone that he was going to make a trip

Due to backshifting, makes in the example means that the trip alleged by Kurt happens now (in the time frame of the reporter), and thus after Kurt has told the reporter on the phone. An example containing all this information with direct speech would be:

Kurt hat mir am Telefon gesagt: »Wir werden am Dienstag einen Ausflug unternehmen.« Heute ist Dienstag.

… and with indirect speech (using the subjunctive I of the future):

Kurt hat mir am Telefon gesagt, er werde heute einen Ausflug unternehmen.

Note that in German we need additional references to capture the exact point in the future (from the speaker’s time frame). Otherwise the trip could happen at any point after the phone conversation: before, simultaneously or after the time frame of the reporter.

  • +1 Es ist schon einmal eine tolle Leistung, das Problem des Fragestellers erkannt zu haben! Aber He makes a trip ist doch Quatsch. Auf Englisch würde es heißen: He is going to make a trip. He said he was going to make a trip. Es sei denn, es handelt sich um eine Gewohnheit, dann wäre es: He makes that trip every day. He said that he makes that trip every day. – David Vogt Jan 12 at 10:08
  • @DavidVogt: Aber He makes a trip ist doch Quatsch. – So hart würde ich das nicht sehen (aber das ist dann wirklich eine Frage für English Language & Usage)), aber Du hast Recht, dass es nicht sehr idiomatisch ist (worauf ich jetzt hinweise). – Wrzlprmft Jan 12 at 10:15
  • Die wichtige Erkenntnis ist, daß es im Englischen backshift gibt und im Deutschen nicht. Das kommt klar rüber. Was ich noch nicht ganz verstehe: Was ist denn die direkte Form von Kurt told me on the phone that he makes a trip? Bei Formen wie I will make a trip, I am going to make a trip, I am making a trip, I may make a trip is klar, wie sie backshifted aussehen. Aber wenn Kurt das Präsens benutzt haben sollte, um über die Zukunft zu sprechen, dann wäre das doch einer der wenigen Fälle, wo es keinen backshift gibt? – David Vogt Jan 12 at 11:18
  • @DavidVogt: Erstmal redest Du gerade von der indirekten Rede. Die Zeitform makes ist also nicht notwendigerweise diejenige, die Kurt benutzt. So oder so wird es kompliziert und hängt davon ab, wie weit in die Zukunft die jeweilige Aussage reicht. – Wrzlprmft Jan 12 at 15:15
  • Was kann Kurt denn außer makes benutzen, damit bei der Wiedergabe He said he makes the trip herauskommt? – David Vogt Jan 12 at 15:40
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You may use both present and past tense for the reporting verb. It all depends on what you want to convey. Be careful about the perfect tenses. Unlike almost all other situations, German Perfekt is in the present here:

Hans sagt, er sei 30 Jahre alt.

Hans hat gesagt, er sei 30 Jahre alt.

Hans is right next to me. He cannot talk German to you, so I translate what he just said, as it was the present. The reported speech for Hans' direct speech “I am 30 years old.” has to be in Konjunktiv I nevertheless.

Hans sagte, er sei 30 Jahre alt.

Hans hatte gesagt, er sei 30 Jahre alt.

Hans said this a while ago. The reported speech for Hans' direct speech “I am 30 years old.” has to be in Konjunktiv I still.

Of course, if you wrote a story, the main tense is past tense, so you can only use that one.


Sorry about the mess. Unlike English, the use of German tenses doesn't follow strict combination rules but semantics. It's the greatest struggle for German speakers when they learn English. We always use and combine English tenses wrong, though the English rules are simple. Simple rules are an alien concept to German speakers.

  • I have one another doubt. Can I use sie instead of er like "sie unternehmen einen Ausflug.? – Tgth Jan 11 at 5:56
  • Which sie? A group or formal you? – Janka Jan 11 at 5:59
  • A group (they) not a formal you. – Tgth Jan 11 at 6:02
  • Hans sagt, sie unternähmen einen Ausflug – Hans is right next to me. He cannot talk German to you so I translate what he just said: “We go/are on a trip.” – Janka Jan 11 at 6:06
  • This verb unternehmen in indirect speech is tricky itself. It's a sein, tun or machen in disguise. Very elaborated code. If you talk like this, people expect you to have an excellent command of German. – Janka Jan 11 at 6:08

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