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Can anyone explain how the word zwar is generally used? I see it a lot and it doesn't seem like it usually translates very well into English, if at all. Here's an example sentence:

Frage: Hat man heute Geburtstag?

Antwort: Ja und zwar mein Bruder

Does it mean something like "namely" in English? It would sound strange and very formal to say "Yes, namely my brother."

Does zwar have any other important usages?

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  • 6
    Aside: The question "Hat man heute Geburtstag" is a bit strange. You'd rather ask "Hat heute jemand Geburtstag"
    – Em1
    Jun 6, 2013 at 6:47
  • 1
    Ok, I took the question directly from an episode of "Der kleine rote Traktor" but it's definitely possible that I heard it wrong
    – kokirii
    Jun 6, 2013 at 13:30
  • It is strange, but not so uncommon. In student dorms, around noontime, after a big party, you could e.g. hear "Kann man schon wach sein?" or "Kann man schon fit sein?" It doesn't directly address a specific person, but is tongue-in-cheek judgement of the general circumstances. May 4 at 22:44

6 Answers 6

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I guess in this case "namely" is the closest thing you'll find. But there are other situations where you would translate it to something completely different:

"You'll be in trouble, in fact in deep trouble." = "Du bekommst Ärger, und zwar gehörigen."

"..and rightly so!" = "..und zwar mit Recht!"

Using it as an amplifying word to underline or specify some condition is the most common use I would say.

In addition to that you can use it similar to the word "though" in some cases:

Though I remembered his birthday, I didn't call him." = "Zwar erinnerte ich mich an seinen Geburtstag, doch ich rief ihn nicht an."

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    I’d say the main usage is the combination “zwar … aber”, where it indicates that some kind of reservation is following: Ich habe zwar an seinen Geburtstag gedacht, aber ich habe ihn nicht angerufen.
    – chirlu
    Jun 6, 2013 at 1:32
  • Is there any difference in your last example between "zwar" and "obwohl"?
    – kokirii
    Jun 6, 2013 at 14:15
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    The last example could use "obwohl" as well: "Obwohl ich mich an seinen Geburtstag erinnerte, rief ich ihn nicht an."
    – Landei
    Jun 7, 2013 at 9:01
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The answer of @hcrudolph is correct, I just want to put in another way:

Zwar is used as an adverb or conjunction, respectively. This word goes (almost) always along with und or aber.

The collocation zwar...aber indicates that the statement in the main clause is (somewhat) contrary to the statement in the subordinate clause. In these cases you can translate it with although.

Zwar klingt das unglaubwürdig, aber es stimmt wirklich.

When zwar has the antecedent und, the closest translation is indeed namely. You add a specific description of what has been said before. In German you can often use nämlich, too, which is not a false friend in this case.

Ich spreche zwei Sprachen, und zwar[=nämlich] Deutsch und Englisch.

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My 2 cents as a native English speaker:

In my observations, zwar usually seems to fill the same role as the English indeed / in fact.

Quick note about these two terms:

Indeed and in fact are roughly synonymous in that they both pretty much amplify something in the same manner that zwar does, except have slightly different connotations. Indeed usually leans toward reinforcing something that has already been established, while in fact leans more toward introducing a new concept, possibly also contradicting an already-established concept.

Deciding which one to translate zwar to depends on the context of the conversation.

To translate some of the examples given in fellow answers & the OP:

Ja und zwar mein Bruder

Yes, my brother in fact does!

Zwar erinnerte ich mich an seinen Geburtstag, doch ich rief ihn nicht an.

I did indeed / in fact remember his birthday, though I didn't call him.

Zwar klingt das unglaubwürdig, aber es stimmt wirklich.

It indeed sounds incredulous, but it's actually correct.

Du bekommst Ärger, und zwar gehörigen.

You'll be in trouble; you will indeed.

The biggest stretch for this is when it means "namely":

Ich spreche zwei Sprachen, und zwar Deutsch und Englisch.

I speak two languages, and they're in fact German and English.

That sounds a little odd, and "namely" would certainly be preferred. But it's still not even completely wrong. It can work much better if you were already talking about the subject with someone and thus use indeed instead.

NB:

Translating is of course a complicated process with many factors, and you'll very rarely get a 1:1 "perfect" translation for any word, and I do not claim such in this answer. For most of the translations I've provided I'm sure there are "better" versions, and I do not claim that indeed / in fact is always the "best fit" when translating zwar. However, I've merely noticed that it helps to mentally map to a similar concept in your native tongue. At least for me personally, when I encounter zwar in a sentence, I start with one of these two as a launching point for my brain, and from there on it becomes much easier to deduce the meaning and, subsequently, translating to a roughly equivalent, less awkward form is a simple task.

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Looking at the etymology of "zwar" we may find a clue why the translation to English is so divergent.

Die meist adverbiell gebrauchte präpositionale Fügung ahd. zi wāre ‘in Wahrheit, wahrhaftig, in der Tat, freilich’ (8. Jh.), mhd. ze wāre, zusammengezogen zewāre, zwāre ‘wahrlich, fürwahr’, frühnhd. zwar (15. Jh.) DWDS

As seen above this prepositionally used adverb derives from "wahr" (true, real, veritable, actual) which orginiates from Latin verus. Other than in German the Latin root only survived in the English "very" which today has a different meaning to the German wahr.

Still, the meaning of "zwar" does have the connotation of "being in reality, in truth" but in English this is expressed by different means as was nicely shown in the other answers here. The closest there may be "in fact".

Other English translations of "wahr" do have etymologically related German counterparts (true - "treu", real - "real", veritable - "veritabel", actual - "aktuell") but there is either a considerable shift in meaning, or they found their way in to German very much later than "zwar".

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  • "wahr" does not derive from Latin "verus" but it is related as it originates from the same Indo-European root.
    – RHa
    Dec 15, 2017 at 8:58
  • @RHa - nun ja, irgendwo haben alle indo-europäischen Sprachen (dazu gehört auch Latein) ihre Wurzeln eben dort.
    – Takkat
    Dec 15, 2017 at 9:30
  • @Takkat Du sagst, verus ist eine Großmutter von wahr. RHa sagt, die beiden Worte sind Großkusinen. Das ist ein Unterschied. May 4 at 19:37
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There are a lot of answers already, but I think none of them really nails it. This is an attempt to be more clear. It overlaps with most of the other answers, but I hope it adds some clarity.

Modal Particle

zwar is a so-called modal particle. That means that it does not add something to the logical value of the statement (any true sentence will stay true if zwar is added, any false sentence will stay false), but expresses the attitude or judgment of the speaker.[That is why the answer of Ioannis that you could just omit it in translation is partly correct, by the way.] The linked Wikipedia article has more information on the notion.

zwar in Two Different Constructions

Besides that, it is most important to note that there are two different uses of zwar. They can easily be differentiated based on syntax:

  1. The most common use is when used in a parataxis (a connection of two main clauses), with an adversative conjunction (a conjunction expressing opposition) in the second main clause, such as (most often, the prototypic use case) aber or doch (or jedoch):

Ihm waren die Problem zwar bekannt, aber er ignorierte sie.
Ihm waren die Probleme zwar bekannt, doch er ignorierte sie.
Ihm waren die Probleme zwar bekannt, jedoch ignorierte er sie.

Word order can differ:

Zwar waren ihm die Problem bekannt, aber er ignorierte sie.
Zwar waren ihm die Probleme bekannt, doch ignorierte er sie.

This construction, zwar ..., aber ..., can be translated as allthough ..., but ...:

Allthough he knew the problems, he (just) ignored them.
He knew the problems. He (just) ignored them, though.
He knew the problems. But he ignored them.

  1. The other use case is the one in your example. This is the less common use case. It is when zwar is used in combination with und, forming the construction und zwar.

Heute hat jemand Geburtstag, und zwar mein Bruder.
Today is someone's birthday, namely my brother's.

The construction und zwar can be translated as "indeed", "in fact", "namely".

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If in doubt, it is better not to translate the word "zwar" into the English language. It is never wrong. The word "zwar" makes an Endorsement and a connection to what it is said before, which usually was a question. It can be translated together with the word "und" in "und zwar" using words such as "in fact", "indeed", "actually" etc., or, if a sentence begins with the word "Zwar", it can be translated using the word "Although". The sentence "Ja und zwar mein Bruder" can be transalted as "Yes, and actually my brother" or, leaving the word zwar untranslated, the sentence can be translated as "Yes, my brother".

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