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I want to understand the semantic nuances behind the phrase:

"Wenn der Teufel dieser Stadt etwas Böses antun will, lässt er noch einmal so etwas wie die Schlange bauen."

I'm only at the mid A2 level, but the translations I got from the web feel like they are lacking some nuance.

DeepL Translator:

If the devil wants to do something bad to this city, he will build something like the snake again.

Google Translate:

If the devil wants to do something bad to this city, he will have something like the snake built again.

My unease with these translations stems from my (shallow) understanding of "lassen", which in one of its semantic senses carries the meaning of "allow" with it. Is a more accurate translation closer to something like?:

"If the devil wants to do something bad to this city, let him create something like the snake again."

Or is there an even better idiomatic translation of this phrase? Or are the translations from DeepL and Google Translate accurate and if so, which one is better?

If you could, please indicate how "lässt" and "so etwas" affect the sentence semantically then I would appreciate that. (i.e. - explain how they shift the meaning of the sentence from how it would otherwise be understood or felt by a German native compared to how they would interpret the sentence if those worse were not present).

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    Do you have any context for that strange sentence? Anyway, "etwas bauen lassen" should probably be "to have something built" (tough usually I'd prefer deepL over Google) – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 19 at 7:48
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    There are no hidden nuances in this sentence. Someone built something which is now called Schlange and it was bad. If the devil wants again something bad to the city, he would let built something similar again. – Harald Lichtenstein Sep 19 at 8:00
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    For those who are wondering what this is about: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Carsten S Sep 19 at 8:22
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    The original has quotes around 'die Schlange'. To me it makes a big difference, something with the nickname 'the snake' vs. an actual snake. – RDBury Sep 19 at 8:40
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"Lassen" as modal verb can mean "allow" as well as "make something done", but it never means "allow" without an accusative object.

So "Er lässt so etwas wie die Schlange bauen" always means "he will have something like the snake built" while "Er lässt sie so etwas wie die Schlange bauen" can both mean "he will have them build something like the snake" as well "he allows them to build something like the snake".

I guess the reason why it can't mean "allow" is because German tends to explicitly mention the person who actively did something, and if they are merely "allowed" to do what they want, this does not justify not mentioning them.

Regarding not using "lassen": This would mean that the devil himself builds it.

Regarding not using "so etwas": This would mean they building exactly the same "snake".

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"Etwas bauen lassen" in this context has nothing to to with letting the devil do something. "Etwas machen lassen" implies that you order, demand or request that something be done. For example "Ich habe mein Auto reparieren lassen" means "I had my car fixed." So I suggest "If the devil wants to do something bad to this city, he will have something like the Snake built again."

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    Thanks. So you favor the Google Translate version? – Robert Oschler Sep 19 at 15:45
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    The be must be omitted. – Björn Friedrich Sep 20 at 7:29
  • I wasn't sure about that, will remove. – NXP5Z Sep 20 at 9:45
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"let him create" is definitely wrong, as "let him" it is a hortative mood. That would be completely different in German like: "dann solle er doch die Schlange bauen".

I had some difficulty understanding what that snake is even supposed to mean, but I found it here and I fondly remember having been in this complex once at an internship with the EMS, it is a very impressive construction but also very depressive, huge, anonymous. I get the meaning now for sure.

So in that case I can think that "allow" captures some of it. But allow is just permit, and "lassen" is more than that, it has a connotation of contracting, of initiating the activity, quite in the sense of "let's go home" is also more than "allow us to go home".

So I would use the word "let" in my translation as it is the right cognate.

The Google translation is better. But I would use "let" "... then he would let another thing be built like Die Schlange."

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  • Then would a phrase such as "let it be something like the Snake" rather than "let him create" be more appropriate? – Robert Oschler Sep 20 at 17:19
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    @RobertOschler "let it be something like ..." only works if you already have stored a verb "to create" or "build" in the context. But if you have to introduce a verb you need to do what this quote does. – Gunther Schadow Sep 20 at 17:24
  • Thanks. Also, in your post you wrote "dann solle er doch die Schlange bauen". Why is it not "soll"? Is that a verb case I haven't seen before? If so, what is its name so I can look it up? – Robert Oschler Sep 21 at 12:20
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    @RobertOschler, "soll" or "solle", you might have gotten me here. It might be "soll". Probably in contemporary sense "soll" is fine. The thing is, I mix up 19th century style language at times. Remember Götz von Berlichingen, das Götz-Zitat? I think Goethe's version has "kann" but most people remember "Saget eurem Herrn, er solle mich am Arsche lecken". I think it is only in the 20th century that there are so many rules for everything. Before that, adding an -e at the end is pretty common, and sounds quaint. – Gunther Schadow Sep 21 at 16:24

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