I have been struggling with the correct way to express "to do somebody a disservice" in German. In English, this phrase is often used when your intentions are to do something good for somebody, but the actual effect is negative. For example, "Being lenient with the students is doing them a disservice", means that you want to be nice to the students, but actually being too nice means that they don't learn the things they should.

I see a few translations in German, and can't figure out which one expresses the above idea, or how commonly they are used:

  1. Jemandem einen Bärendienst erweisen: "Die Studenten nachsichtig zu behandeln erweist ihnen einen Bärendienst."?

  2. Jemandem einen schlechten Dienst erweisen: "Die Studenten nachsichtig zu behandeln erweist ihnen einen schlechten Diesnt."?

Option 1 seems like the most probable, but a German speaker told me that they have never heard of "Bärendienst" used in this context. Is it possibly an old expression?

3 Answers 3


Der "Bärendienst" ist schon genau der richtige Ausdruck.

jemandem einen Bärendienst erweisen/leisten (in guter Absicht etwas tun, was einem anderen, zu dessen Nutzen es gedacht war, schadet; vielleicht nach der Fabel „Der Bär und der Gartenliebhaber“ von La Fontaine, in der der Bär diensteifrig eine Fliege von der Nase des Gärtners verscheucht, ihn dabei aber tötet)

(Duden Online)

Man könnte ohne weiteres sagen, dass man Studenten einen Bärendienst erweist, wenn man zu nachsichtig mit ihnen umgeht.


"Bärendienst" is somewhat old-fashioned.

"einen schlechten Dienst erweisen" is possible, but also sounds a bit old-fashioned.

I would probably say "jemandem keinen Gefallen tun": "Wenn man die Studenten nachsichtig behandelt tut man ihnen damit keinen Gefallen."


The word "Unfreude" would cover it, but I'm not sure that is already an accepted German word. I used it myself without giving it much thought. It sort of made sense surfacing all by itself in my quadralingual head when the need for it came up. It appeared to be clearly understood strange enough, but someone said it wasn't German.

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