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I'm new to German and I don't understand why is Präteritum used instead of Plusquamperfekt in this case.

Die Dursleys besaßen alles, was sie wollten, doch sie hatten auch ein Geheimnis, und dass es jemand aufdecken könnte, war ihre größte Sorge. Einfach unerträglich wäre es, wenn die Sache mit den Potters herauskommen würde.

If I try to translate this I obtain

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and that someone could discover it, was their greatest worry. It would be unbearable if the matter with the Potters would come out.

Now, if I were to write this sentence, I would instinctively write

It would have been unbearable if the matter with the Potters would have come out.

To be consistent with the tense of the rest of the sentence, or in German (I think)

Einfach unerträglich wäre gewesen es, wenn die Sache mit den Potters herausgekommen wäre.

What am I missing?

  • Your sentence is correct - apart from the position of "es". It's simply a matter of style and of meaning that is also captured in your English translations (i.e., the Potters are still afraid). – Frank from Frankfurt Feb 18 at 9:23
  • Mmh, this strikes me as a weird and inconsistent use of tenses, the original English is "They didn't think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.", which is the correct tense, while the German version looks more like "they don't think they could bear it..." which is weird given that the previous sentence is in the past tense, the narrator is reporting events from a long time ago. PS: where should the "es" be? And it should be the Dursleys that are afraid, so maybe my sentence isn't correct after all – user2723984 Feb 18 at 9:31
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    Note German is way more sloppy with regards to correct sequence of tenses than English is. Combinations that are just wrong in English are perfectly acceptable in German. – tofro Feb 18 at 9:41
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    @user2723984: a) A closer translation would be something like "Sie dachten, dass sie es nicht ertragen könnten, falls ..." or "Sie glaubten nicht, dass sie es ertragen könnten, wenn ...". The professional translator chose otherwise, for good or bad reasons. The effect of this phrasing seems to be that the reader is drawn to see the situation from the Dursleys' perspective. I'm close to see this sentence in quotation marks. b) It would be "Einfach unerträglich wäre es gewesen...". Alternatively: "Es wäre einfach unerträglich gewesen...". c) My fault! – Frank from Frankfurt Feb 18 at 9:44
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In German, praeteritum is used to retell the current events in a story. See this explanation from Wikipedia:

In literarischen Texten, insbesondere Romanen, ist das verwendete Erzähltempus das Präteritum, das hier jedoch die Gegenwart innerhalb der erzählten Geschichte ausdrückt. In der Erzählung gibt es kein Perfekt – es sei denn, der Roman ist im Präsens geschrieben. Vergangenes wird mit dem Plusquamperfekt ausgedrückt.

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pr%C3%A4teritum

The sentence

Einfach unerträglich wäre es, wenn die Sache mit den Potters herauskommen würde.

is Konjunktiv II Praeteritum. This might not be 100% identical with the tempus/modus of the English original, but it is simply conventional for storytelling in German.

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The start of the passage uses Indikativ Präteritum.

Die Dursleys besaßen alles, was sie wollten, doch sie hatten auch ein Geheimnis, und dass es jemand aufdecken könnte, war ihre größte Sorge.

It then switches to Konjunktiv II.

Einfach unerträglich wäre es, wenn die Sache mit den Potters herauskommen würde.

This is simply indirect speech without an introductory sie dachten. (Note that aufdecken könnte above is also Konjunktiv II and is also indirect speech, introduced by Sorge.)

You suggested using Konjunktiv II des Perfekts.

Einfach unerträglich wäre es gewesen, wenn die Sache mit den Potters herausgekommen wäre.

But that would imply that the concern was a thing of the past. I assume that in the context of the novel, the concern is still ongoing.

I'm not sure English allows reported speech that is not introduced.

Mein Chef hat mich wieder zur Sau gemacht. Ich sei/wär faul und inkompetent.

My boss was giving me hell again. He said I was lazy and incompetent.

I think I was lazy and incompetent would only be understood as an admission of guilt by the speaker and never as reporting the boss's words.

  • English speakers often correct me when I use the past as a subjunctive form. Even if it's allowed by English grammar, people are unaware of it and insist on the use of would. Who am I to correct native speakers? – Janka Feb 18 at 10:24
  • When they discover their error, you can exclaim: Had you but listened to me! – David Vogt Feb 18 at 10:31
  • @DavidVogt, how about changing the wording to: The start of the passage uses Indikativ. It then switches to Kon...? Not to confuse people about tempus and modus more than we already are. :) – Bernd Konfuzius Feb 18 at 10:53
  • I changed it, although it feels like mixed terminology. – David Vogt Feb 18 at 11:03

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