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Gandalf's line "You shall not pass!" from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is something of a meme, so I naturally wondered how it was translated into German. This video has the relevant dialog (once at :40, and again at 1:15). Gandalf says "Du kannst nicht vorbei!"

There are a few issues here. First, no infinitive verb with the modal verb. It seems to be common in German to drop "gehen/kommen" from the end when you use a modal verb with an adverb or prepositional phrase indicating direction. So the verb is not actually required here.

Second, the German uses können instead of the future tense as in the English version. To me this changes the meaning somewhat, and the "shall" is significant in light of what happens next. But perhaps this is a matter of interpretation.

What I'm stuck on is why Gandalf uses the 'du' form in this speech. The grammars say that the 'du' form is used for friends and family members, sometimes children and pets. So I would have thought "Sie können nicht vorbei!"

My first idea is that since the Balrog does not speak, it's taken to be some kind of animal. To me, this doesn't fit the story; the Balrog is a kind of demon and is intelligent despite being unwilling or unable to speak in the scene. Plus you don't see many animals wielding whips. My second idea is that Gandalf is being deliberately unhöflich by using 'du'. Perhaps this is to distract the Balrog, bait it into trying to cross the bridge, or just to show his contempt. Are either of these likely or is there another explanation?

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    Translating movie dialog has to respect the syllable structure of the original wording, particularly when the speaker is featured as dramatically as Gandalf here. Therefore, it is often not representative of what an original work in another language would have said. Dec 4 '21 at 9:31
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    The other way round. In the later translation by Krege Sam says Sie zu Frodo, as he's only the gardener. Theres some funny usage due to the translation. Still, as a German, you don't say Sie when you approach a foe. Dec 4 '21 at 12:59
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    My wife assures me that Gandalf used "du" as an intentional affront. Dec 4 '21 at 13:48
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    I can't speak much about German (although my language also has a du/Sie thing), but being polite with the enemy in middle of a death fight doesn't seem appropiate.
    – Pere
    Dec 4 '21 at 22:39
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    "Thou shalt not commit murder" is not some "future tense" thing. If you want to call anything that talks about the future "future tense", you're welcome to do that of course. But it is very confusing to people who actually use that term to mean a synthetic/morphological inflection as we see happen in Latin and her daughter tongues. Germanic languages will not do that even if you ask them nicely—that's "will" deontic not epistemic because they refuse. It is not "future tense". Notice also how "He will have left by now" is actually talking the past not the future. There's no future tense there.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5 '21 at 3:42
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In a fantasy setting it is quite uncommon to use Sie. You would use du or the pluralis majestatis form Ihr

So the question would rather be, why is Gandalf saying

Du kannst nicht vorbei!

instead of

Ihr könnt nicht vorbei!

You are right that animals would be addressed as du in German and, furthermore, that the Balrog cannot be considered an animal. At least I would consider saying Ihr to a powerful evil spirit, so as not to anger it. However, diving into the depths of Tolkien's world, Gandalf and the Balrog go back to the same race (the primordial spirits, Maia). As such, it could be argued that Gandalf is somehow familiar with it (and he knows that the Balrog is to be expected in the mines) and as such chose the du form. In that way he also implies he's on the same level, if not above it, and emphasizes this with his words. Another argument would be that the Balrog was already angered and that it was not really time to use courtesies.

However, this could be deemed too much of an interpretation and the truth could simply be that the translator didn't care much about this particular translation.

To address the question about können:

The way it is emphasized in the movie, it does not mean

You are unable to pass.

But rather

You are not allowed to pass Du darfst nicht vorbei

Which agrees with You shall not pass.

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    I like the idea that Gandalf is emphasizing that he "outranks" the Balrog as Maia. Perhaps the idea was to use this show of disrespect to shake the Balrog's confidence. It's also possible I'm putting more thought into this than the translator did, but I like this interpretation so that's what I'm going with. To me, the "shall" is Galdalf's way of casting magic onto the bridge. If the Balrog tried to cross then the spell would cause something to happen to prevent it, and in fact the bridge collapses. You could also interpret it as denying permission, but that wouldn't make the bridge fall.
    – RDBury
    Dec 4 '21 at 13:39
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    It is interesting that we are discussing the German translation, not the English original text which does not allow to make a distinction between "Du" and "Sie / Ihr". The question is therefore about the translator's interpretation: Why did she use "Du"? Are there any hints in Tolkien's book which justifies the use of "Du" instead of "Ihr"? Dec 4 '21 at 23:07
  • @Kritiker der Elche: I have thought about that myself. I'm making the assumption that the translator knows German better than I do, which isn't hard. And I'm also taking into account that there are a lot of German speaking Tolkien fans who would complain if the translation sounded odd or unexpected. I think all translations add and subtract from the original, and similarly movie versions of books add and subtract from the original, so we're a long way from Tolkien's intent here. Still, I'd like to believe that there is some interpretation of the line that makes sense "in universe".
    – RDBury
    Dec 5 '21 at 2:10
  • I was under the impression that 'du' might be used as a deliberate form of disrespect. Gandalf certainly doesn't care if he angers the Balrog or not; that ship has already sailed.
    – Spencer
    Dec 5 '21 at 12:43
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    Alternative script: Gandalf: "Du ka... sorry... Sie können nicht vorbei!" Balrog: "Well, okay then, if you say so politely. Have a nice trip."
    – JFBM
    Dec 5 '21 at 14:56
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Others have already given good answers, but I thought I'd elaborate a bit more on the difference of "Du" vs "Sie".

The thing is - "Sie" is used when trying to show respect. There is no direct equivalent in the English language, although if I understand correctly, the old-fashioned "thou" used to fill this role1. Instead you could imagine that using "Sie" is like adding a honorific like "Sir" or "Mr". It is used when talking to strangers when you wish to be polite to them, or when talking to superiors.

In contrast, "Du" is the default mode of address. It is not insulting or overly familiar, but it also doesn't add any extra respect. You normally use it for people whom you know personally (family, friends, colleagues, etc) where the respect is already implied and you don't need an extra demonstration of it. You can use it on strangers too, but it becomes very informal. Not impolite, but also not explicitly polite. In English that would be similar to calling someone by their first name, instead of "Mr. Smith" or something.

So, if Gendalf had used "Sie können nicht vorbei!" then it would have sounded like "Sir, you shall not pass!" Kinda weirdly respectful towards someone trying to kill you. :)

1Correction from the comments - it's the other way round. "Thou" used to be the familiar form while "you" used to be the polite, respectful form. However the English language evolved to use "you" for both.

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    This is the correct answer. Translating it as "Sie" would essentially back-translate as "Sir, with all due respect, you can't pass. Sorry, just saying." -- we don't use "Sie" where respect isn't given.
    – Tom
    Dec 5 '21 at 2:30
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    This is good to know. I've noticed that grammars and language courses & textbooks tend to stress polite forms over familiar forms for any language that has both. Presumably this is because they're geared toward travelers, and authors and teachers don't want to get complaints. Polite forms have the advantage of being not wrong, even if they're not completely right.
    – RDBury
    Dec 5 '21 at 3:11
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    I wonder how the times that Tolkien really does thou forms correctly can be accurately translated. He deliberately tells us in his guise as pseudo-translator: "In one or two places an attempt has been made to hint at these distinctions by an inconsistent use of thou. Since this pronoun is now unusual and archaic it is employed mainly to represent the use of ceremonious language; but a change from you to thou, thee is sometimes meant to show, there being no other means of doing this, a significant change from the deferential, or between men and women normal, forms to the familiar."
    – tchrist
    Dec 5 '21 at 3:34
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    "in the English language the old-fashioned "thou" used to fill this role" - from my understanding, it's the other way round. Du = Thou and Sie = You, only the usage evolved differently.
    – Bergi
    Dec 5 '21 at 14:51
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    @Bergi - Ahh, I think you are right. My bad, I'll correct it!
    – Vilx-
    Dec 5 '21 at 17:06
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In the German translation of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" one does nowhere find the modern polite form Sie, but the old-fashioned Ihr. Why is that? I think the use of Ihr wants to indicate that all this happened a very long time ago.

The phrase Du kannst nicht vorbei! is taken from Margaret Carroux's German translation of Tolkien's books. See Band 1 (Die Gefährten), Buch 2, Kapitel 5 (Die Brücke von Khazad-dûm). In the Klett-Cotta Edition from 1987 you can find it on p. 399.

In my opinion it would have been better to say Du kommst nicht vorbei instead of completely omitting the verb kommen. Anyway, your main question is why the Balrog is geduzt by Gandalf. The books definitely uses both Du and Ihr to adress persons (i.e. human beings, hobbits, elves, dwarfs) and so do the films. See here, for example "Ihr seht viel, Eómer, Eómunds Sohn, zu viel". Even Samweis uses "Herr Frodo" and "Ihr".

I suspect that other creatures are never adressed by the polite "Ihr", especially if they belong to the "evil empire": They do not deserve respect or reverence.

Update:

Here is the English original text:

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.
'You cannot pass!' he said.
With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.

This explains the translation Du kannst nicht vorbei .

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    I noticed watching the German version of The Witcher that they used the "Ihr" form a lot, not just to royalty but to anyone who wasn't obviously a criminal. I'm not surprised that Sam would ihrzen Frodo; though they are friends they are definitely in a master/servant relationship. I think they even play this up in the movies by giving Sam a West Country accent while Frodo uses Received Pronunciation. The idea that the "good guys" would use du with the bad guys goes with the idea that Gandalf was showing contempt, or at least disrespect.
    – RDBury
    Dec 4 '21 at 13:45
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    Re the update: You're right, the book uses "can" instead of "shall". There are many other differences: In the book Gandalf says the line four times, not just twice; Aragorn and Boromir start to rush toward Gandalf, but in the movie they hang back; and the list goes on. I was assuming that movie translation would be from the movie dialog and not the book, though it seems likely now that Carroux's translation had at least some influence.
    – RDBury
    Dec 5 '21 at 2:45
  • RDBury More than that, Frodo is always "Mister Frodo" to Sam. That's simply a direct translation. Today we (mostly) don't have a culture of servants, so we find it hard to understand the relationship between an employer and their personal servant, which is very close but not equal.
    – Graham
    Dec 5 '21 at 11:02
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tl;dr: The typical textbook statement "Du is for friends and family" is only a half-truth which applies to typical everyday situations. Originally it is simply the direct and unadorned form of address. Its use in this situation is entirely proper, and a polite form would be grossly misplaced.


In this specific scene I see a couple of reasons Du is used:

  • Du is the most direct and natural form of address. It is the equivalent to the archaic thou, except that it prevailed in German everyday use. Thou shalt not kill ("Du sollst nicht töten!") is the most direct order, devoid of any considerations of form or politeness. Interestingly Du/thou is used when speaking to God as well, indicating that it does not imply talking down to someone: "Gott, mein Gott, warum hast Du mich verlassen?" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") Neither in English nor in German is this impolite or does this imply being friends. It is rather "a-polite": Not concerned with politeness. And Gandalf is similarly direct here.1
  • Ihr or Sie conveys respect which Gandalf surely does not have, and politeness which would be misplaced here. You would only be polite if you wanted to preserve a smooth social relationship with somebody.
  • Du may indicate a certain acquaintance. I'm not a Lord of the Rings expert but it looks as if both Gandalf and Balrogs were Maiars, immortal angelic beings. Gandalf is talking to a peer here.

A side not to "Sie" vs. the archaic "Ihr" (a side note because neither of them was chosen here ;-)): The respectful pronoun Sie replaced Ihr only in modern times — that's why it is often not used in Fantasy settings which typically are set in a pre-industrial world.

Translations of Tolkien into German are subject to passionate debates by fans. The most modern translation by Wolfgang Krege uses Sie instead of Ihr, arguing that Tolkien essentially translated imagined extinct languages used by the protagonists into English as used in the 1940s, and that a modern translation should do the same for their target language, using whatever polite form of address is contemporary. That decision was much criticized.


1 Side note: Modern English is already using the polite plural form that has become archaic in German ("you" = "Ihr")! An increase in politeness must be conferred by other means, e.g. the ubiquitous "Sir" used to address customers, at least in the U.S. "Excuse me, Sir, you cannot pass here!" ;-) Why Tolkien didn't let his protagonists use the archaic Thou throughout is another question. The plain answer may be that the protagonists used a different language altogether which was "translated" to (then) modern English anyway, supporting Krege's German translation approach.

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  • German speakers seem to be much more comfortable with "Ihr" than English speaker are with "thou". Plus "Ihr" is still used in modern German; it's just restricted to nobility. (I've even seen it in futuristic science fiction.) While the English version is in 1940's language, Tolkien still avoids any slang or words that would seem out of place in a medieval setting, For example he uses "dwarves" instead of the more modern sounding "dwarfs". So while there is an argument for using "Sie", I can see why it would be avoided by most translators. It's interesting that there are exceptions though.
    – RDBury
    Dec 6 '21 at 4:52
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    @RDBury "Sie" is like the store clerk's "Sir" -- English does not have the possibility to express politeness with the pronoun because you ("Ihr") have made the polite form the default and thus through inflation devalued your linguistic capital. Now you must add a polite title to be even more polite than the default :-). Dec 6 '21 at 5:00
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In addition to what was already written by others about the whole respect thing, I'd like to mention another aspect: Siezen is a relatively recent thing in German, being placed around the late 17th century.

The whole concept of a Höflichkeitsform codified in German vocabulary rather than, let's say, non-verbal communication, is not that old in terms of a fantasy setting like LotR; the same Wikipedia article places the first written occurence of "Ihr" in the year 865 CE. More importantly, it was only introduced so that people from higher strata of society could feel good about being appropriately (as per them) brown-nosed by the lower classes. So why would Gandalf address Balrog with "Sie" or "Ihr"? "Du" is the only pronoun that makes sense.

By the way, of all people, Goethe is reknowned/infamous for subtly insulting people he didn't like or who'd given him trouble previously, in written formal correspondence by doing small things wrong, e.g. misspelling a greeting or not writing straight and level, sometimes even by choosing the wrong formal greeting on purpose. As an intelligent and learned man, he must have had a knack for sarcasm and gentle mischief. That's how I personally always imagined Gandalf, too.

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    865 CE is actually very old for texts in the German language.
    – Jan
    Dec 6 '21 at 9:54
  • It's not very old at all for fantasy settings though. That's how I meant, but that's not at all how it reads. Bummer. I'll try to rephrase, thanks! (Edit: better now?)
    – Sixtyfive
    Dec 6 '21 at 10:05
  • A bit long now for my taste
    – Jan
    Dec 6 '21 at 10:29
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    The English "thou" form only started to be replaced by "you" in the 17th century. It's actually still used in some rural varieties of English, but I assume it's dying out under the influence of modern media. But Tolkien still used "you". (I'm pretty sure Tolkien could have written the entire novel in Old English if he'd had a mind to.) Perhaps the issue was that "thou" is associated with the Elizabethan era and out of place for use in the distant past. Better to just use modern language whenever it makes sense. It sounds like Goethe and Gandalf would have had a lot in common.
    – RDBury
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:30
  • Interestingly, there has been trend among younger people in some parts of German societies, for a couple of years now, to do away again with "Sie" - perhaps as part of a desire to doing away with societal classes. There's even a few who can get offended at being "siezed" and prefer being "duzed" as well as "duzing" others.
    – Sixtyfive
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:45

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