Luzern (Tolstoy's book)

In einer Pause, als der Sänger sich räusperte, fragte ich den Lakaien, wer der Sänger sei und ob er oft hierher käme.
»So an die zwei Mal im Sommer«, erwiderte der Lakai. »Er ist aus dem Kanton Aargau, er zieht so bettelnd umher.«

My question is how is "So an die" working?

  • 1
    While the answers translating "so an die zwei Mal" as something like "about two times" are completely correct, it might be of interest that the "an" is meant like on a scale in this case. Imagine a person who's "an die zwei Meter groß", "close to two meters tall". So a more literal (but not very natural) translation would be that the singer comes around "close to two times in summer". Sep 23, 2019 at 19:14
  • What if one wanted to say: About once in Summer "So an das einmal im Sommer"? Sep 24, 2019 at 15:46
  • With "once" you probably wouldn't use the article, so something like "so einmal im Sommer" or "an einmal im Sommer" could work. But to me, the whole concept feels weird with "once", regardless if it's in German or English: You either go some place (once), or you don't. To be vague that way, maybe I went there one times, maybe zero times, feels weird. It makes more sense with higher numbers, even if we're just talking two or three. Sep 24, 2019 at 19:04

3 Answers 3

  • German so
    In this context (for both instances of so) this is an untranslatable modal particle (also in Wikipedia). The best way to translate it is to ignore it.
  • German an
    English about (in this context)

Full translation:

During a break, when the singer cleared his throat, I asked the footman who the singer was and whether he came here often.
"About twice the summer," said the footman. "He's from the Canton of Aargau, he's moving around begging."

  • But how can the German so be ignorable if the sentence also works without an die? »So zwei Mal im Sommer« is equivalent to »An die zwei Mal im Sommer«.
    – Philipp
    Sep 23, 2019 at 19:23
  • 3
    @Philipp "So zwei Mal im Sommer" and "an die zwei Mal im Sommer" have very slightly different meanings or, at least, origins. "So zwei Mal" means something like "about two times", maybe one time, maybe three times. "An die zwei Mal" harkens back to a literal scale where the measured value almost reaches the marking for "two". You might relate the "an" to something like "heranreichen". Therefore, "an die zwei Mal" means rather "one or two times", less "two or three times". As I said, the difference is very subtle, and most of the time the two prases can be used interchangeably. Sep 23, 2019 at 19:29
  • @Hubert Ich nehme an, das "twice this summer" ist ein Flüchtigkeitsfehler und Du wolltest eigentlich "the" schreiben, aber da es trotzdem ein inhaltlicher Eingriff wäre, möchte ich da nicht einfach drübereditieren. Sep 23, 2019 at 23:26
  • @Philipp: There are two kinds of a sentences meaning: Proposition and illocution. Proposition is what makes a sentence true or false. A proposition can be proven and can be contested. But the illocution of a sentence is something that is part of the pragmatic meaning. (Pragmatic is the meaning that comes from the listeners interpretation.) The illocution of a sentence is the mood that the sentence expresses and how it affects the listener. Modal particles only carry an illocutional expression. They do not modify the proposition. ... Sep 24, 2019 at 5:48
  • ... So, ignoring modal particles doesn't change the meaning of the sentence, you just loose information about the mood that is carried with the sentence. English doesn't have this feature, and spoken German is a language that makes excessive usage of modal particles (they are way less often used in written German). And because they do not change the propositional meaning of a sentence, the best way to translate them is to ignore them. See also: Wikipedia and FluentU Sep 24, 2019 at 5:56

"My question is how is "So an die" working?"

The same way as (in) etwa does:

»(In) Etwa zwei Mal im Sommer«, erwiderte der Lakai. »Er ist aus dem Kanton Aargau, er zieht so bettelnd umher.«

About 2 times per summer


In this context "an die zwanzig" means approximately "nearly, close to twenty". It's different from um "around", but either way, both mean "not exactly". In the same manner "so" can be used alone, "so zwanzig".

The combination of both "so an" is peculiar, but hardly unique; Many such modal collocations exist and they mean whatever I want them to mean; That is, if I wanted to be precise I'd better choose another expression.This could in principle allow for various reinterpretation to have happened and invitesbspeculation. First of all note that approximately "ad-prox-imate" reflects the same idea and "they are at two times a year now" implies a potential for increase, even.

Other instances notwithstanding, I'd compare this "so" to Eng "say" ("e.g.", "not precisely") as in "twenty eggs say", "suppose you had some eggs, say twenty", but we have as well "sagen wir zwanzig", while "so" has a general proto-indo-european etymology in *so. I'm just not sure whether this collocation had any cognates. So a few further notes may help to extract my understanding of it:

I suppose that's an orphaned variant of subjunctive "sein", Old English "sea", but I'm not so sure; also compare some and perhaps selbst "even".

It's notable that "an die" requires an article, but a sole "so" doesn't.

It's also notable that "so an die 20, 30 Mann" modulo the numbers is a fixed expression as the primary example of the collocation that is otherwise quite rare (therefore cp. "some" and "assembly"). If "an" in this expression derived from "Ahn", then could "so Ahn" mean "the men by themselves, without further ado", "ohne Anhang, ohne entfernte Verwandte"? I don't know. In contrast, other pronouns in similar positions are not rare ("gegen fünf Uhr", "nach drei", "unter zehn").

We also see also "Es fühlt sich so an wie ...", next to "~ an wie" "~ an so wie" etc, in which "an" is part of "anfühlen" (cp "em-pathy", and "empfehlen"?) while "so" is a determiner, or interrogative particle; "so ... wie" may bracket an expression (an outfix operator like "as ...as", or Fr "ne ... pas"), so "so an die fünf mal wie ..." is imaginable.

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