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How do you translate 'to have something in the palm of your hand' into German as an idiom? The English would mean to be in control of something.

I was told 'in seiner Handfläche haben' is too literal, but they didn't provide an alternative either.

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    A phrase with similar meaning would be "etwas im Griff haben". It can mean something like "to have control over something", but more like "to have a grip on something", "to have a handle on something", not "to have something in the palm of one's hand". Nov 17, 2021 at 16:04
  • @Henning Kockerbeck: dict.cc lists jdn. fest im Griff haben. It also lists the more literal jdn. voll unter Kontrolle haben. The Wiktionary entry is here but it only lists a translation into Italian. I'd be glad to add a German one if there is agreement on what it should be. I don't think the idiom is very common, at least not any more.
    – RDBury
    Nov 17, 2021 at 17:58
  • @RDBury To me, it increasingly looks like there's an important difference whether we're talking about a person or an object in the palm of somebody's hand. Aleks asked about something, but from my experience the English phrase is mostly used as "to have somebody in the palm of your hand". In German, "etwas im Griff haben" is much less sinister than "jemandem im Griff haben". Nov 17, 2021 at 18:08
  • Please provide a full sentence. Idioms can translate different depending on context. Nov 18, 2021 at 9:46
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    @BrianB Then it would mean something like "Ich hatte das Geschäft schon in der Tasche / in trockenen Tüchern".
    – Paul Frost
    Nov 19, 2021 at 9:22

4 Answers 4

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There is a similar figure of speech in German, which just leaves out the palm:

es in der Hand haben

It is usually used in statements such as "Sie hat es in der Hand." or "Du hast es in der Hand.", and it means it is up to <subject> how "it" will continue.

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    The connotations of the two phrases are a bit different, though. "To have something in the palm of your hand" has quite a dark vibe of control and domination. "Etwas in der Hand haben" speaks more of agency. The meaning is something like "it's up to you", "it's your choice (and nobody elses)". If you use either phrase with a person instead of an object, the meanings are closer. "Er hat seinen Nachbarn in der Hand" is relatively close to "He has his neighbor in the palm of his hand". Nov 17, 2021 at 16:01
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    This sounds the English "to have it in hand", but though they are literal translations of each other, I have the impression that the meanings are different.
    – RDBury
    Nov 17, 2021 at 17:42
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    @HenningKockerbeck Thank you for the examples. But isn't in these "in der Hand haben" the adequate translation? "Jetzt hat sie die Firma (völlig) in der Hand"? And doesn't "Sie hat jemanden in der Hand" an extortionate touch?
    – Paul Frost
    Nov 17, 2021 at 18:17
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    @PaulFrost As noted in the comments to the question, I'm getting increasingly convinced that in German there's a significant difference between "etwas in der Hand haben" (more neutral) and "jemanden in der Hand haben" (as you mentioned, with an extortionate touch). I see "etwas in der Hand haben" like for example "Er hat es jetzt selbst in der Hand ob er den Job bekommt oder nicht" ("it's in his own hands"). Nov 17, 2021 at 18:24
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    @HenningKockerbeck It would be worth to present your thoughts in an official answer.
    – Paul Frost
    Nov 18, 2021 at 0:50
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Aleks is asking about "to have something in the palm of one's hand", but to my knowledge the English phrase is typically used as "to have someone in the palm of one's hand". In German, there are similar phrases, but their subtext differs significantly when you use them with a person or an object.

O. R. Mapper already mentioned "etwas in der Hand haben". When used with an object, this phrase has a more or less neutral subtext. The meaning is something like "it's up to you", "it's your choice", "it's in your own hands".

Er hatte es jetzt selbst in der Hand, ob er den neuen Job bekam oder nicht.

When used with a person, the phrase has a significantly darker, almost extortionate vibe:

Sie kannte das kleine, schmutzige Geheimnis ihres Nachbarn. Damit hatte sie ihn völlig in der Hand.

There's a similar situation with the phrase "im Griff haben". Used with an object, "etwas im Griff haben" means something like "to have control over something", "to master something":

Zuerst hatte sie Schwierigkeiten mit der neuen Maschine gehabt, aber nach einigen Tagen hatte sie alles im Griff.

When used with a person, it also gets somewhat sinister:

Der persönliche Referent hatte den Senator völlig im Griff. Der Senator würde nie etwas tun, wovon ihm sein Referent abgeraten hatte.

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    "When used with a person, it also gets somewhat sinister:" - but not always. "Der Lehrer hatte den wilden Schüler im Griff." is not sinister. Nov 18, 2021 at 16:32
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Either one of these invokes the same image:

  • "Es in der Hand (zu) haben" - to be able to influence it, to decide it, to do it ...
  • "Es im Griff (zu) haben" - be on top of it, be able to do it; it is easily done

The first is more in the context of being responsible or being allowed to do/decide/control something. The latter is more about ability and does not have the aspect of permission or control.

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After reading through the comments I agree that the German translation "Es in der Hand zu haben" might be a little too weak. I guess most of the time it fits but here are some other possibilities:

  • etwas/ jemanden fest unter Kontrolle haben
  • die Zügel in der Hand haben
  • etwas/ jemanden in der Mangel haben

I feel like there is more but I cant think of it right now.

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