Here is a sentence from Donna Leon's Acqua Alta, Chapter 20:

Als sie Brunetti hinter sich herplatschen hörte, ging sie noch zwei Stufen höher und drehte sich zu ihm um.

The word "herplatsch(en)" is not to be found in Duden Online. Of course, neither is it to be found in Reverso, Pons or Leo. What is the best strategy for someone who is reading to learn German and who encounters such a situation, to understand the meaning?

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    For these kind of composites [DWDS](herplatschen) is the better choice. Usually they at least try to break up that word into reasonable parts. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 31 '20 at 17:21
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    Here is the link to DWDS that @πάνταῥεῖ mentioned. If you can't figure out the parts at all, just ask here. There is a tag single-word-request. – Olafant Jul 31 '20 at 17:42
  • Perfect! Thank you for the insights. – user44591 Jul 31 '20 at 19:02
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    It might be helpful to note that the verb in this sentence isn't "herplatschen", but "hinterherplatschen". The reflexive "sich" is mixing things up a little here ;) And "hinterherplatschen" is constructed from "platschen" similarily to the way "hinterherfahren" is constructed from "fahren". – Henning Kockerbeck Jul 31 '20 at 20:41

In this case Google Translate gives the translation "splash around", which I suppose could be derived from the components, but Google uses it's own database of translations. The larger question though is what strategy to use if the usual references come up dry. First, add dict.cc and DWDS (as mentioned in the comments) to your list of go to references. DWDS has both a dictionary and a usage database, which are both useful depending on the situation. (The first dictionary I go to is Wiktionary, which doesn't cover some of the more unusual words, but it's easy to read and covers most of what you might find out there in the wild.) Also try Google Translate and DeepL; we all know their AI isn't perfect but it can give you a starting point. For technical or specialized words try the German Wikipedia, the trick I often use is to find the article there, then look on the left side of the page for versions of the article in other languages and click on English. You might also try doing a regular Google search on the word. I tried this in this case and it turned up a few old dictionaries, example link. Then of course don't underestimate the power of context. If all that fails then do a search here and ask if nothing relevant comes up. With the internet there are many resources available that didn't exist in the past, so you don't have to just rely on dictionaries nowadays.

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    -1 Herplatschen does not mean to splash around. That would be herum plantschen. Herplatschen means to dabble over here or in the context of above, "When she heard Brunetti following her dabblingly, ...." – infinitezero Jul 31 '20 at 20:06
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    @infinitezero -- Dabble can mean to splash so I'm not sure how 'splash around' is wrong. "When she heard Brunetti splashing behind her, she went two steps higher and turned to face him." is how Google translates the entire sentence, and it seems to make sense unless the story is taking place in dessert or something. Anyway, the question was mostly for advice on looking things up in general with that word as an example. That's what 90% of the answer was about. If Google is wrong about the translation then you'd know more about it than I do, but the point of the question is in the title. – RDBury Aug 1 '20 at 7:27
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    @RDBury: I'd say more context would be needed to decide whether splash around could be a valid translation. However, my understanding is that "splash" implies drops of liquid - whereas I'd say platschen refers to a sound which is often caused e.g. by feet in a puddle, but could also refer to a flat-footed but "dry" sound (similar to patschen, whereas plan(t)schen always implies liquid but not necessarily drops flying - as always, there may be regional or personal differences in usage, though). – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 1 '20 at 15:08

The word herplatschen consists root of the platschen and the prefix her-. Platschen can be found in Duden.

I think you should learn about prefixes. Or at least keep a list of them. When you have a word you can't find, check if it has a prefix and search for the root.

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    Knowing the meaning of the parts does not give me confidence that I thereby know the meaning of the whole. – user44591 Jul 31 '20 at 19:11
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    @user44591 if the meaning of the whole is sufficiently different from the combination, it'll be in the dictionary precisely because of this reason. Good that you're taking caution though. – Glorfindel Aug 1 '20 at 7:57
  • This is the correct answer. I would expand it by mentioning that German also often concatenates words, so something like "Türknauf" or "Stiegenhausabsatz" may or may not be in the dictionary as a whole, but its parts are. – Tom Aug 1 '20 at 8:16
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    When a prefix is combined with a verb in a way not found in most dictionaries, this usually happens analogously to an existing combination. Here the existing combination is hinter jemandem herlaufen. – RHa Aug 1 '20 at 14:04
  • Search for similar words: in your case Duden provides herlaufen and gives the meaning approaching to the speaker (as the prefix her- suggests).

  • platschen on its own is any process giving a similar sound as clapping (cf. German klatschen or as the word sounds when spoken, since it is onomatopoetic) (again see Duden).

So herplatschen combines movement to speaker as well as significant sound generation.

While I understand the reluctance to use this deduced meaning, a native speaker is in no better position. If you argue with some conviction, you can't be disproved easily due to lack of material.

The final resolution, to get hold of an English edition of the same book and look up how it is phrased there, will only be considered in a desperate situation.

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    "platschen on its own is any process giving a similar sound as clapping" you seem to miss the crucial point, that liquids should be involved, mainly water. – infinitezero Aug 1 '20 at 0:25
  • @infintezero: Happy nitpicking! Given that neither the quote (except the Acqua from the book title) nor the Borchert quote from dwds mention a liquid and that Fuß is a significant co-occurrence to platschen, you seem to confuse likelihood with necessity. I also want to point out, that the question does not ask for the meaning of (her)platschen. – guidot Aug 1 '20 at 10:02

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