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This is similar to another question, but that one involves the nominative and accusative cases. There is also a question here which seems to be related but it's in German and I'm not sure that I understand it completely.

The example I came across is Ich kaufe meiner Freundin Schmuck, which was intended to mean "I'm buying my girlfriend jewelry." But when I ran it through Google translate it came back as "I buy my girlfriend's jewelry," which has a very different meaning. The problem seems to be that meiner Freundin can read as dative or genitive, there is nothing in the inflection of either word which distinguishes the cases. The word order doesn't really help either (as it might be in nom. vs. acc.) since both interpretations follow the normal order. Is there is a preferred interpretation for this kind of sentence? Is this situation unusual or do I have to keep checking every time I use a feminine noun in the dative that it can't be interpreted as genitive. (This example came up randomly; I only noticed the other possible meaning when I put it into Google translate.) Finally, what is the most natural way of resolving the ambiguity? I can see two options, first to rephrase using an article: Ich kaufe meiner Freundin ein Schmuckstück, and second to rephrase with a prepostion: Ich kaufe Schmuck für meine Freundin.

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The gist of it is that googles automatic translation looks like it was trained on the corpus of public domain, i.e. about hundred years old books.

Nobody talks like that, perhaps because it would be ambiguous under the theoretically free word order. In practice, there are idiomatic preferences.

Ich kaufe Schmuck meiner Freundin

  • I buy jewelery of my girlfriend

Ich lese Bücher meiner liebsten Autoren

  • I read books from my favorite authors

Notwithstanding further ambiguity because of definiteness and countability, the burden usually lies on the determiner to set focus. With a definite article, den Schmuck meiner Freundin would be preferred. That is not available whenever the direct object is indefinite. This is no strict requirement, so the worse ambiguity here would be whether die Bücher der Autoren meant all the books, whether the determiner phrase is deictic or demonstrative, relative, etc.

Vice-versa, as you correctly suggested, the determiner meiner does take precedent so that the girlfriend has to be taken as the direct object, so to speak.

Ich kaufe meiner Freundin Schmuck

  • I buy my girlfriend.ACC decoration
  • I buy jewelery for.DAT my girlfriend

Ich lese meinen liebsten Autoren Bücher

  • I read my favorite authors.ACC books
  • I read books to.ACC my favorite authors

Disaimer: This is my personal native spoken intuition.

In fact, cases like Martin hat Anne immer sehr gemocht simply have no unique solution (we have many threads about those already).

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  • I had a feeling the genitive version might sound dated, and you're probably right that Google's training data isn't representative of modern, conversational German; I'll have to keep that in mind along with all the other caveats one must keep in mind when using automatic translators. I knew that the genitive attribute can come before or after the noun, but I didn't know after was preferred; that certainly helps. I can usually find out what's strictly correct from grammars and dictionaries, but it takes a native speaker's "intuition" to know whether anybody actually "talks like that". – RDBury May 11 at 3:00
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Indeed, the sentence can be interpreted in two ways. However, the translation that Google provided is very old-styled and hardly used in spoken language.

I don't think that anybody would use this meaning, unless in a poem or a very lyrical piece of text. But then, it will be obvious by the context. So usually, I don't think that it will be misunderstood.

If you want to be 100% sure, rephrase the the sentence, both of the options you suggested are totally fine, but I don't think it's necessary, at least in most of the cases.

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There is a grammatical ambiguity.

However, most would understand it as dative, buying for the girlfriend. I first had to verify whether it really could be interpreted as genitive. So in my opinion, there is no need to rephrase it. But I would prefer " Ich kaufe Schmuck für meine Freundin."

To express that you want to by from your girlfriend, I would use one of these.

Ich kaufe den Schmuck meiner Freundin.

The following would imply some of the jewellery, while the original would imply all. Also, in this case the girlfriend might not be the owner, but selling for someone else.

Ich kaufe Schmuck von meiner Freundin.

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In probably any language, context is very important. Sentences can be ambigous, especially if you look at them isolated. In those cases, you need to use your knowledge about the situation, about the current topic of the conversation and so forth, to decide which meaning has been intended. That knowledge is "stored" in the context.

Let's look at your example sentence in two different (small) contexts:

Meine Freundin hat nächsten Monat Geburtstag, und ich möchte ihr etwas besonderes schenken. Also kaufe ich meiner Freundin Schmuck.

in contrast to

Meine Freundin braucht dringend Geld, und die alte Halskette von ihrer Oma trägt sie sowieso nicht mehr. Also kaufe ich meiner Freundin Schmuck.

You'd probably agree that with the additional information from the context, it becomes clear(er) which of the "technically possible" meanings is intended.

In this example, it additionally feels quite outdated and/or overly formal to read "meiner Freundin Schmuck" as genetive.

Such ambiguities don't only occur with this grammatical construction, they can basically occur anywhere. For example, look at the sentence

Der Hund bellt den Besucher an. Ich gehe deshalb mit ihm nach drinnen.

In this sentence, it isn't immediately clear who the "ihm" refers to. You'd need more information from context to decide.

As a side note, in other languages the context can be much more important than it already is in German (or English, or French, or...). For example, in Japanese the subject of a sentence is commonly omitted, and the conjugated verb doesn't indicate the person. So you have to decide from the context, whether 「大きです。」 means "I am big" or "You are big" or "They are big" (or even "She will be big", because Japanese doesn't have a grammatical future tense).

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  • Yes, context is important to determine meaning, if only because most common words have multiple meanings, even when you don't count homophones. But as a learner it's sometimes difficult to tell when an alternate meaning could sound natural enough for the sentence to be misinterpreted, even if the context is known. Sometimes ambiguity is deliberate, for example when Van Morrison sings "We were born before the sun/son" it can mean "in view of the sun" or "previous to the son"; both meanings have various connotations and Morrison seems to have had most of them in mind. – RDBury May 11 at 1:53
  • PS. I took a bit of Japanese (a very small bit) and I did learn about the Japanese habit of dropping nearly anything in a sentence that's implied by context. You make a good point though that German is not the worst offender with this kind of thing. I'm thinking English and German rank about the same. A lot depends on the register as well, for example technical jargon tends to put a high priority on making the meaning unambiguous, even at the cost of readability. – RDBury May 11 at 2:23

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