In English there is a very specific usage of the phrase “What can I do?” that has nothing to do with the literal usage of that question. It’s when that phrase is used as a rhetorical question where the speaker is indicating that there is nothing they actually can do about a particular situation.

Two examples:

  • Jane: Your husband never takes you anywhere. He is always having affairs, and he yells at you night and day. Why don’t you leave him?

    Jill: What can I do? I’m madly in love with him.

  • Less related to relationships, and in this case having the added nuance of expressing helplessness on the part of the speaker, because they are trapped by circumstances:

    John: You have to fire the new chef. The employees hate him. Everything he cooks gets us a one star review from the critics, and some say he’s stealing from the register.

    Joe: I’ve heard, but he’s the son of our main financial backer, without whom we wouldn’t last a week. Keeping his son as the main chef is written into the contract. What can I do?

Is there a phrase in German that is equivalent and is used across different topical context like the way “What can I do?” is used here? Any German idioms that fit this application?

9 Answers 9


You could say something like

(Aber) was kann/soll man/ich machen/tun?

See e.g. https://context.reverso.net/%C3%BCbersetzung/deutsch-englisch/Was+soll+man+machen

  • 9
    In fact, the literal translation is perfectly fine. Jun 8, 2020 at 18:23
  • 1
    Also: Was kann ich schon tun?
    – Bergi
    Jun 9, 2020 at 9:34
  • 1
    Also: "Was willst du machen?" or "Da machst du nichts" (in paticular in dialect e.g. in the Cologne region "Wat willste maache?" - "Da mäste nix"). Like the unpersonal "man" construct, this seems to try to offload the unfulfillable responsibility away from the speaker (but it is not understood to mean actually offloading it to the listener) Jun 9, 2020 at 20:21
  • Für mich klingt "Was kann ich machen?!" sehr seltsam. Ich würde die Phrase immer mit "soll" bilden. / Insofar I think the exact literal translation ("can" -> "kann") is not fine at all.
    – Martin Ba
    Jun 9, 2020 at 22:21

I think there is no ideal translation in German, but some that come close:

Da kann man nichts machen.


Da bin ich machtlos.

would be fitting,

So ist das Leben. (That's life)

would work most of the times, too, or even the famous German word


could be appropriate.

  • 7
    voted +1 for "tja"
    – Ivo
    Jun 9, 2020 at 11:42
  • 1
    Came for "tja", wasn't disappointed! :)
    – SAnderka
    Jun 9, 2020 at 12:13

What comes closest IMO is

Was bleibt mir anderes übrig?

literally "what else is left for me", as in "what alternatives do I have?".

  • 1
    This is the best German idiom in this case. Often heard and definitely a rhetorical question.
    – lejonet
    Jun 8, 2020 at 17:21

I don't agree at all that there's no equivalent in German. On the contrary, it's a notion that Germans, too, are very familiar with and therefore express often. The magic word here is something that doesn't exist in the English language: Flavoring particles. Since they are missing in English, they have to be added in German which translations fail to do in 90% of the cases. You can recognize bad translations from German to English almost instantaneously because the text sounds somehow clunky ("hölzern") and unnatural. The word to use here is "denn". A pretty perfect equivalent would be

"Was soll ich denn machen?" or "Ja, was soll ich denn machen?"

(What a German actually would say is "Was soll ich'n machen? Ich liebe ihn nun mal!"

PS: By the way, in the case of Joe he would say: "Was soll ich denn da machen?"


Not a question, but something you can use in these and some more situations is the phrase pronounced as isso, which comes from ist so "it is like this". (I think using the "correct" variant would sound awkward here. But it also makes this difficult to use in writing.)


This one was not mentioned yet, so this is another option. You could use "keine Wahl" which has a direct translation to "no choice", but I think here in Germany we would use that, maybe as a rhetorical question, but not only.

Jill: Habe ich eine Wahl? Ich liebe ihn über alles.


Jill: Ich habe keine Wahl. Ich liebe ihn über alles.


Joe: ... steht im Vertrag. Ich habe keine Wahl.


Joe: ... steht im Vertrag. Hab ich eine Wahl? / Habe ich eine andere Wahl?


Was kann ich/man machen.
That would work

  • 4
    Welcome to German.SE. Do you think it would be helpful to elaborate a bit more when your answer is usable and maybe when not? Jun 10, 2020 at 14:10

A much overthought bunch of answers thaough appropriate. The most parsimonious and nearest to the intent is "Was kann ich tuen". The rest go into the "gebiet" of idiom, regionalism, and slang.


In German one would say

Da kann man nichts machen.

or - in a more humorous way -

Kannst du machen nix. Musst du gucken zu.

(Note that the second one is grammatically wrong - that's the joke. Not everyone might know that saying but everybody will understand it.)

  • 12
    Ich finde, es ist keine gute Idee, Ausländern ohne Erklärung grammatikalisch falsche Phrasen zu vermitteln, zumal die auch eher selten verwendet wird. -1
    – äüö
    Jun 8, 2020 at 6:23
  • 1
    @äüö Es geht hier aber nicht um Grammatik. Die Frage lautet: Any German idioms that fit this application?
    – Olafant
    Jun 8, 2020 at 11:22
  • 8
    Ich habe "Kannst du machen nix. Musst du gucken zu." noch nie gehört... Aber immerhin 1200 Treffer bei Google.
    – Iris
    Jun 8, 2020 at 12:24
  • @Iris: Ich weiß nicht genau, wo der Spruch herkommt, aber er wird manchmal scherzhaft verwendet. Er hat diesen gewissen Sprechrhythmus, wo du "nix" und "zu" betonst. Das zusammen mit dem gebrochenem Deutsch macht es lustig.
    – äüö
    Jun 10, 2020 at 11:48

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