1

In English we distinguish between

It is nothing.

and

It is a nothing.

How is this done in German? I ask because Google Translate and DeepL do not translate

Es ist nichts.

and

Es ist ein Nichts.

differently: It is nothing.

5
  • 2
    How would you describe the distinction that is made in English (examples anyone)? Because my english' knowledge is so low that I stop at the point that there should be a difference, hence I do not know it. Sep 24, 2021 at 15:11
  • The first is not something. The second is something that is really nothing. Hard to be more specific than this. The question arises from translating, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", by Ernest Hemingway, in which he wrote, "It was a nothing that he knew too well." The sentence would have a very different meaning as, "It was nothing..." The next sentence is, "It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too."
    – user44591
    Sep 24, 2021 at 15:32
  • 2
    I think the distinction in English needs more explanation; I'm a native speaker and I find the difference subtle. I'm not even sure I can tell you what Hemingway meant without more context. You might say "It's nothing" if you looked worried and a friend asked you about it, in the sense of "It's not important; you don't have to worry about me." There are other possible meanings though. You might say "It's a nothing" to say it's trivial, unimportant, of no consequence. "That glass you broke was a nothing; we got it for a dollar at a yard sale." There might be other meanings for this one too.
    – RDBury
    Sep 24, 2021 at 16:44
  • 2
    The fact that machine translations tools offer the same translation for two distinct sentences does in no way imply that the two sentences have the same meaning. Furthermore, if you give these tools more context, i.e. "Es war ein Nichts, das er nur zu gut kannte.", DeepL translates a nothingness and Google offers a nothing as a variant (which you get by left clicking on the translation). Use MT responsibly!
    – David Vogt
    Sep 24, 2021 at 19:09
  • "A nothing" in the context of that Hemingway quote would be "ein Nichts".
    – Ocean
    Oct 2, 2021 at 14:38

3 Answers 3

3

There is a clear distinction in German between

a) Es ist nichts

and

b) es ist ein Nichts

with a) meaning the same as the English "it's nothing", while b) would rather mean "void" (like in the great, big void between the stars == das große Nichts zwischen den Sternen) in the sense of the significant absence of anything.

If you want to say that something is of no significance, you'd rather use

das ist eine Kleinigkeit

or

das ist nichts von Bedeutung

in German.

1
  • 1
    In addition, dwds.de/wb/Nichts has two more meanings of the substantive "Nichts".
    – HalvarF
    Sep 24, 2021 at 19:30
1

The pronoun nichts means nothing, i.e. nicht etwas.

The noun "das Nichts" has a number of quite different meanings. The DWDS entry is enlightening. I'll attempt to come up with an English translation, but it's probably better to read the original. I'll leave it to you to compare to the English use.

  1. a) (Philosophy) absolute non-existence, opposite of being and the essent

    b) space that's thought of as empty (e.g. in outer space)

  2. vanishingly small amount, number (of something particular)

  3. (derogatory) person who gets no respect at all, has no social standing

Examples:

Nach Martin Heideggers Vortrag Was ist Metaphysik? gehören das „Nichts“ und das „Sein“ zusammen. Sie sind nicht dasselbe, aber sie bedingen sich und gehören zusammen. Erst durch das „Nichts“ offenbart sich das „Sein“ als eine „Befremdlichkeit“ oder als das „Andere“. (Wikipedia)

Im Jahr 2020 stand das kleine Unternehmen vor dem Nichts.

Es war ein Nichts, das er allzu gut kannte. Alles war ein Nichts, und auch ein Mann war ein Nichts.

Der morsche Balken der Hängebrücke gab nach und Lara fiel ins Nichts.

Der Koch streute ein Nichts von Trüffel über die Pasta.

Lass dich nicht von Tommasino einschüchtern, der Mann ist ein Nichts.

1
  • Do you think it would be useful to map your examples to the given definitions? Or is that impossible? Just because it are more then 4 examples, so order is "not fully sufficient", I'd say. Sep 27, 2021 at 9:08
-4

Actually, it occurred to me that the perfect translation would be:

Er ist eine Null.

In English, "He is a nothing." and "He is a zero." have very similar meanings.

DWDS has many examples of this usage.

4
  • 3
    OP is not asking for er ist but for es ist.
    – Olafant
    Sep 24, 2021 at 21:21
  • Is the meaning of eine Null dependent upon the subject? Not in English.
    – user44591
    Sep 24, 2021 at 21:27
  • 2
    Yes, it is. Es is not just a pronoun but a very special word in German. In the case of Es/er ist ein Nichts the subject is ein Nichts. And also: I don't think that there is no difference between it's nothing and he's nothing in English.
    – Olafant
    Sep 24, 2021 at 22:44
  • The two English sentences, of course, are different because of the different subjects. But "It is a zero," applies exactly the same meaning to It as, "He is a zero," applies to He, in the right contexts.
    – user44591
    Sep 25, 2021 at 1:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.