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I can't find how to translate the informal expressions being like/going like, often used in spoken informal English in sentences like these:

  • At first I didn't understand, but then I was like "wait, really?"
  • Everytime I ask you to do something, you go like "no, please, I'm tired"
  • When I did my coming out, people at the table were like, really surprised, you know

I am asking here because the result of online translation services seem to litteral to be true (eg Google Translate gives ..., aber dann war ich wie "Warte wirklich?" for the first one.

I'd additionally like to know whether it is idiomatic for German people to say the equivalent of being like to describe a behavior, of if they simply describe literally the behavior (eg: you go like "no, please, I'm tired" VS you say that you're tired).

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    Do the uses of "like" in your examples carry a meaning in your perception? – Alexander Kosubek Apr 11 at 11:53
  • @AlexanderKosubek I was wondering about that as well. But take into account that the verb would also have to change, if "like" was omitted. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 11 at 13:37
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    @AlexanderKosubek Definitely in 1 and 2. I was "wait, really?" is totally out. But in 3, it's much harder to say what the like is doing (beyond social signaling), and you can leave it out without significantly changing the meaning. (People at the table were really surprised is completely fine.) – sgf Apr 12 at 6:55
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A direct translation which always fits does not exist, in my opinion. Nobody says that "war ich wie" although Google Translate suggests it. One understands it but it feels clumsy or even wrong.
(Eine direkte Übersetzung, die immer passt, gibt es meiner Meinung nach nicht. Dieses von Google Translate vorgeschlagene "war ich wie" sagt kein Mensch. Man versteht zwar, was damit gemeint ist, aber es fühlt sich sehr holprig bis falsch an.)

You would translate the 3 examples as follows:
(Die drei Beispiele würde man z.B. wie folgt übersetzen:)

Zuerst verstand ich es nicht, aber dann dachte ich "Halt mal, wirklich?"

Jedes Mal, wenn ich dich um etwas bitte, kommst du mir mit "Nein, ich bin leider müde".

Als ich mein Coming-out hatte, taten die Leute am Tisch, weißt du, so... wirklich überrascht.

In most cases you choose phrases which express likeness comparison without translating "like" literally.
(Man wählt also meistens Wendungen, die diesen Ähnlichkeitsvergleich ausdrücken ohne das "like" direkt übersetzt zu verwenden.)

If you want to be closer to a literal translation and want to persist on "wie" it works like the following examples, but really take care not getting on the wrong track, which means just a few verbs work together with "wie" or you can use "wie" as comparison word to a noun, respectively:
(Wenn man näher an der wortwörtlichen Übersetzung sein möchte und das "wie" unbedingt mit einbauen möchte, geht das auch wie folgt, aber man muss wirklich aufpassen, dass man sich nicht im Ausdruck verrennt; d.h., nur manche Verben funktionieren mit "wie" bzw. man verwendet das "wie" als Vergleichswort zu einem Substantiv:)

Zuerst verstand ich es nicht, aber dann kam es mir vor wie "Halt mal, wirklich?"

Jedes Mal, wenn ich dich um etwas bitte, kommst du mit Ausreden wie "Nein, ich bin leider müde".

Als ich mein Coming-out hatte, taten die Leute am Tisch so wie wirklich überrascht, weißt du.

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    (Thanks for putting the English and German translations in your answer. Definitely helps those of us learning!) – BruceWayne Apr 11 at 15:04
  • You're welcome. I hope my English is OK. :) – äüö Apr 11 at 15:09
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    Had you not said that, I would have thought you were a native speaker! So ...yes, it's great! – BruceWayne Apr 11 at 15:11
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The construction using "like" is an idiomatic construction in English, that's why it is hard to translate. There is no idiomatic equivalent in German which fits perfectly.

But from a grammatical point of view there is a very similar construction with "so" in German. This construction can be used for introducing a quote, either from direct speech or from thoughts.

It is important to mention, that the level of style of this phrase in German is probably lower than the "like"-phrase in English. For me it is hard to compare the style levels, though, because my knowledge of English is not deep enough.

From my limited knowledge of the English language, I believe that the English phrase would not be considered problematic concerning style. When I learned the "like" construction, it appeared to my ear a as a very informal construction, but I found that its use is rather common in English. But, I am not competent to give a proper estimation on the style level of this construction in english language.

The german construction with "so" would definitely be considered sociolect, I'd say. It is used especially in youth language. It's used also among adults, but it is very low style.

Anyway, be it as it may - the grammatical construction comes closest, that's why I mention this translation.

Before looking at the translations, one more comment seems necessary: I think, the third sentence is actually a different construction than the first and the second: In the third sentence the be like-construction is not used to express an utterance. You can recognise that the third sentence has a different construction, by omitting the "like": in the first and second sentence, it would leave us with an incomplete sentence, but in the third sentence it would just be "they were surprised". That's why the translation of the third sentence with the "so"-construction does not sound idiomatic in German, because it is only to introduce a quote.

The translation of your sentences using "so" would be like:

1.

At first I didn't understand, but then I was like "wait, really?"

Zuerst hab ich es nicht kapiert, aber dann so: "echt jetzt?"

2.

Everytime I ask you to do something, you go like "no, please, I'm tired"

Jedes Mal, wenn ich dich bitte, mal was zu machen, du so: "Nein, bitte, ich bin müde".

3.

When I did my coming out, people at the table were like, really surprised, you know.

*Als ich mich geoutet habe, waren die Leute am Tisch voll so: echt überrascht.

As I said above, the third translation is not idiomatic. The like has a different function here: It does not introduce a quote, but expresses vagueness. Hence a better translation into German would be to use an adjective which expresses uncertainty or vagueness, like irgendwie:

When I did my coming out, people at the table were like, really surprised, you know

Als ich mich geoutet habe, waren die Leute am Tisch wirklich irgendwie überrascht.

Take note that the use of "so" is able to replace the verb of saying or thinking. This is similar to the English construction with "like", where the verb of utterance is also not very important and can be replaced by to be or to go.

The close grammatical parallels and the fact, that the "so"-construction is coming from youth language makes me wonder, if it is an anglicism in German.

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    "like" in this context is a very informal construction. It is widely used, but your description of German"so" (youth language, low style) is exactly how I (60 yo British English speaker) would describe "like". – Martin Bonner Apr 11 at 8:58
  • @MartinBonner Thanks for the hint! I have to admit that I my knowledge of the English language is not good enough to rate the style and tone of the "like" construction. For comparing the style levels of "like" in English and "so" in German, one would need to be proficient in both languages. Which I am not. I have changed my answer accordingly. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 11 at 9:23
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    "so" is really fitting in example 2, maybe also in example 1 ... but I think it's very misplaced in example 3. There, the "like" seems to have a different function as it does not indicate discourse. – O. R. Mapper Apr 11 at 13:45
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    @O.R.Mapper To be fair though, OP's 3 is different from his 1 and 2 as well. 1 and 2 have an idiomatic use of "be like". 3 has "be surprised" with a "like" thrown in. – sgf Apr 12 at 6:52
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    @sgf: Absolutely, and I had been considering writing an according comment on the question. – O. R. Mapper Apr 12 at 6:53
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In an informal spoken context a possible translation can be

so etwas wie

So the example can be translated as

  • ... aber dann dachte ich so etwas wie "Warte, wirklich?"
  • Jedes Mal, wenn ich dich bitte etwas zu tun, sagst du so etwas wie "Nein, ich bin müde."
  • ... waren die Leute am Tisch so etwas wie wirklich überrascht, weißt du.
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    Umgangssprachlich ist es oft verkürzt auf nur "so", mit einer Zäsur nach dem "so", bzw langgezogenem o. Im ersten Beispiel also: »... aber dann dachte ich so ... "Warte, wirklich?"« »... aber dann dachte ich sooo "Warte, wirklich?"« – mtwde Apr 11 at 7:09
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    This is really not idiomatic. And I think it's worth mentioning that in your answer. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 11 at 7:38
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    Kein Muttersprachler würde so reden. – sbo Apr 11 at 8:04
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    @sbo Ich habe hier schon sehr oft Formulierungen oder Grammatikkonstruktionen gelesen, die sich für mich unfassbar falsch anhörten und weit hinter meiner Schmerzgrenze lagen - nur um dann zu lernen, dass es Dialekte und Regionen gibt, in denen das wirklich so gesagt wird und normal/richtig ist. Daher denke ich, dass pauschale Aussagen wie kein/jeder Muttersprachler... äußert selten wirklich zutreffen. – Arsak Apr 11 at 9:35
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    Ich denke auch, dass "Kein Muttersprachler" eine unbeweisbare Behauptung ist. Dennoch kann man hier, denke ich, sagen, dass diese Ausdrucksweise äußerst ungewöhnlich und unidiomatisch ist. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 11 at 15:11
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Freely and inexactly translated. All of it is idiomatic for south Germany:

At first I didn't understand, but then I was like "wait, really?"

Zuerst kapierte ich es nicht, aber dann war es halt wie: "Stopp, ist das wahr?"

Everytime I ask you to do something, you go like "no, please, I'm tired"

Jedes mal, wenn ich dich darum bitte, etwas zu tun, kommt von dir so etwas wie: "Nee, bitte, ich bin müde".

When I did my coming out, people at the table were like, really surprised, you know

Als ich mich outete, waren die Leute am Tisch, nun, wirklich überrascht, du weißt schon.

The word

like

does not carry much meaning. It is often a filler word. Avoid using filler words. If you do wish to translate it by a German word, consider halt. Example: Ich bin halt wirklich überrascht von deiner Frage halt. (Use any of two halts above, but not both, and you're like fine. :-) )

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While your examples fit the question title nicely, I consider them as quite distinct.

Just the 2nd example can be considered as a real sentence, which one could also write down. It would be translated by:

sagst du etwas Ähnliches wie...

The other ones more colloquial, and seem to be a mixture of I don't find a better word, but lets use xxx for the moment (example 1), a filler to save some time finding it (example 3) , which could be "translated" as hmmm and an indication, that the end of the sentence is not a striking continuation of its beginning.

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