A auf B setzen obviously means to place A on B. But I have come across the following passage where it seems to mean to use:

Daneben haben die Forscher einen neuen Weg ausgetüftelt, um während des Experiments die Probe zu beobachten. In früheren Versuchen setzten Forscher hierzu auf Laser, die sichtbares Licht aussenden.

It seems to mean: In previous attempts, researchers used laser for this.

Or am I reading it wrong?

3 Answers 3


There is an important difference between "A auf B setzen" and the example:

Etw. auf etw. setzen is transitive and non-metaphorical. Literally translated, it means "to place sth. on sth." as you pointed out.

But in your example, the verb is auf etw. setzen, which is intransitive and mostly used metaphorically. Its literal translation is "to place [bets] on sth.". Here it means "they used to rely on lasers …" or "they tried to use lasers [in order to] …"

  • That's a good point
    – PBH
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 21:08

This variant of auf etwas setzen means to place a bet on something in non-metaphorical usage. When used metaphorically, it means to try something or to put one's hope in something.

So, although researchers used laser is not wrong as a translation, researchers tried lasers is a more literal translation.

  • "Auf etwas wetten" ist sowohl wörtliche wie metaphorische Bedeutung - das ist ja das Wesen einer Metapher. "Researchers bettet on lasers" ist demnach die bessere Übersetzung weil es ausdrückt, dass die Erwartungen hoch waren, im Gegensatz zu "tried". Auch Briten nutzen Metaphern. Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 20:43

Ich setze alles auf eine Karte.

gets translated as:

I put everything on one card.

Ich setze alles auf rot.

I put everything on red.

This is where physical placing and betting are the same (roulette i.e.).

Ich setze alles auf die "3".

I bet everything on the "3".

It takes some tricks to make google-translate switch to "bet".

In your context this is expressed:

In earlier experiments they had put their hope into special lasers

These Forscher are not gamblers, and the journalist neither. "Setzen auf" has related meanings, not strictly in the betting sense:

Ich setze auf mein Aussehen.

I rely on my looks.

Another translation:

In earlier experiments the basket into which the researchers had put all their eggs was special lasers.

(no gambling, and nothing physically placed on top of these laser machines)

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