There are many areas of the German language I struggle with due to the uncertainty of expressing certain nuances of the actual sentiment of the sentence I am trying to express. One of the biggest is having to do with vision. Not vision the noun, but the overall act of experiencing something with your eyes. I'm frequently confused as to whether I should use a German verb/phrase involving: seeing, perceiving, watching, looking at (something specific).

In order to be clear (deutlich), I will give three specific examples. What would a German native say in the following hypothetical examples, to indicate they can't believe what they are seeing?:


Joe is a hiker that has just scaled an immense mountain top at dawn. He is a city boy that has never been in the wilderness before. He gets to the top of the mountain just as the sun is peeking over the horizon, creating a spectacular sunrise. He exclaims:

  • JOE: "I can't believe what I'm seeing!"

Here the speaker is expressing wonder at the beauty and spectacle of nature.


Jane is a doctor with a non-profit organization that provides medical care to undeveloped nations in desperate need. She enters a town that is suffering a lethal viral outbreak. There are literally stacks of bodies around her throughout the town and the population is suffering horribly. She laments:

  • JANE: "I can't believe what I'm seeing!"

Here the speaker is expressing horror at the level of devastation they see.


Hans is an entomologist in the Amazon jungle. He has studied nearly every different insect that is known to man over his long career. But now he as found a brand new insect with an extraordinary anatomy that should be impossible for this species of organism. He cries out:

  • HANS: "I can't believe what I am seeing!"

Here the speaker is expressing disbelief at what his eyes are showing him, in reluctant acknowledgement of the facts they present that contradict his current knowledge as a professional entomologist.


  • Is there a German phrase that works for each of these examples, that expresses the proper topical context and emotional sentiment of each case? Or would each example require a specific, different German verb/phrase?

  • What are the specific syntactic elements for each example as far as the underlying visual mechanics implied in each context? What I mean by this is, how do things vary between the examples as far the focus of the sentence on the object or scene with each case?

I know that German has different verbs that express the general concept of a particular action or scene state, as opposed to a particular action being performed on an object or where the object is going through a specific state change. For example, "brennen (burning)" versus "verbrennen (to burn something to ashes)". Does that general concept also apply here, as far as the focus of each case being the general concept of disbelief/wonder/etc., versus a specific scene element the speaker is looking at/watching?

  • Do you have to use a specific German particle or separable verb? Does that element vary in each case or is it the same? For example, "zeigen (show)" vs. "etw. anzeigen", "sehen (see)" vs. "ansehen (look at something specific)".

  • How do the various verbs affect these cases? For example, with videos/TV I have heard speakers use "gucken (look at)", that troublesome verb that you have to pronounce with a "k" instead of a "g" sound. Any rules of thumb for knowing which verb is best suited to the examples above (assuming I can't use the same one for all three examples).

For me, seeing/perceiving is one of the most complicated topics to express. I find it much easier to read a German phrase that expresses a vision/perception related sentiment and understand it, than to craft a sentence that expresses it in order to speak or write it. I'm hoping with this post to get a feeling for how to express this particular concept of witnessing or watching something that is logically and/or emotionally difficult to accept.

NOTE: As you can see, I'm using EXAMPLE 1 and EXAMPLE 2 to see if there is a common German phrase that expresses the same sentiment despite the stark difference in emotional content of each scene: wonder vs. horror/disgust. Also, if anyone has any historical perspective on how each of the German verbs related to seeing/perception evolved over the years, I'd love to hear about it. Especially any historical elements that might help someone group the verbs into sets where the verbs are both functionally and semantically related (i.e. - they have a common cognitive ancestor).

  • 2
    The language nuances you are looking for may not be apparent in real-life, spontaneous exclamations fitting the respective examples. Are you looking for realistic, spoken / contemporary language, or more 'high German' / written language?
    – fmb
    Jun 23, 2020 at 16:30
  • @fmb - Realistic phrases, as used by a native German speaker. Jun 23, 2020 at 16:43
  • 3
    Unglaublich or Wahnsinn fit all three. I don't think we refer to perception in exclamations like these very often. Jun 23, 2020 at 19:26
  • Not a good match in all cases, but there is "seinen Augen nicht trauen".
    – Carsten S
    Jun 24, 2020 at 9:16
  • Is et denn die Möschlischkeit?!
    – Clijsters
    Jun 24, 2020 at 13:42

4 Answers 4


Some suggestions:

  • Ich fasse es nicht/ich glaube es nicht! (I can't believe it)
  • Das darf/kann ja wohl nicht wahr sein! (This may not /can not be true)

I guess, both exclamations are more typically used in case of a negative surprise.

As hinted by @phipsgabler, in case one a sentence more likely to be used is: Das ist unglaublich schön!


The same English sentence of all 3 examples can be translated as "Ich kann (es) gar nicht glauben, was ich hier sehe."

To express the horror in example 2, "..., was ich hier mitansehen muss.".


In addition to the already posted answers I suggest:

Ich traue meinen Augen kaum

I think it's a bit less used nowadays, but it fits all your examples.


(Not no much an answer as a comment that won't fit in the box.) In any language a good portion of the meaning of a sentence is determined by context. So what you have is an example of a sentence in English which might have three different meanings in three different contexts. But there's no reason that there must then be three different German translations; German uses context too and the same translation can work for all three meanings. It's true that very often you can't translate a sentence in isolation, and you need to use context to get the actual meaning before you can give a proper translation, but going by the other comments and answers, that's not really the case here. Both German and English are expressive languages in which even a simple idea such as "It's raining," can be expressed in dozens, perhaps hundreds or thousands of ways; in English you could go from the colorful and idiomatic "It's raining cats and dogs out there," to the highly technical and specific "We're experiencing a temporary meteorological condition in which liquid water, condensed from vapor in the upper atmosphere, has formed into droplets which have become heavy enough to fall to the ground under gravity." (ty Wikipedia.) So given sufficient skill in the respective languages, you probably could express all three meanings unambiguously in German or English, but generally German and English speakers don't do that kind of thing because context does fill in a lot of meaning and it would be extremely tiresome to both compose and understand such sentences.

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