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I've come across the word Riesendurchfall in a text I am translating, but can't find any suggestion for a translation other than the literal (which I can't see working in English). Is there a more idiomatic usage of this phrase, in which case I could find a more appropriate English equivalent, or should I be translating literally?

The sentence is: "Ich lernte ihn kennen kurz vor dem Riesendurchfall, mit dem seine glanzvolle Karriere begann. Das war die Aufführung von "Vor Sonnenaufgang" in der Freien Bühne."

The person in question is Gerhart Hauptmann, and this is a reference to the premiere of his play "Vor Sonnenaufgang". It was a big success but also controversial due to its naturalistic style. The premiere is remembered for the presence of Dr Isidor Kastan who waved his obstetric forceps around in protest.

(The third potential option in terms of translation, of course, is that the use of Riesendurchfall is some kind of contemporary cultural reference I am not picking up on.)

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    What is the source of the sentence?
    – Paul Frost
    Jan 23 at 0:31
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    Pile of poo - rather a pond than a pile Jan 23 at 13:54
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    @BjörnFriedrich - simple typo, my bad! Corrected.
    – ajor
    Jan 23 at 23:16
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    Where does the text come from? Is it possible it was obtained by some OCR software that erroneously wrote it that way? Jan 24 at 8:19

4 Answers 4

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The word "Riesendurchfall" is really uncommon and it seems to be created by the author, perhaps to suggest an ambiguous interpretation.

"Riesen" means something like "big, giant".

"Durchfall" usually means "diarrhea", but it is also the nominalization of the verb "durchfallen" which means to fail in this context.

Therefore you get the interpretations

  1. massive diarrhea (suggesting that the play was crap).

  2. big fail.

You write "It was a big success", but none of the above interpretations fits to this statement. I conjecture that the sentence was written by a detractor (... controversial due to its naturalistic style).

Update:

The premiere of the play was on October 20, 1889. In the linked article from Wikipedia one can read

Uraufführung, mit tumultartigen Reaktionen von Zuschauern, machte den Autor [Gerhart Hauptmann] bekannt.

This suggests that the play was met by boos from the audience; it was a big fail.

In contemporary German it usual to say that "Die Aufführung ist durchgefallen" or "Das Stück ist durchgefallen", but the use of the nominalization "Durchfall" does not seem to be popular any more. The only relatively recent example I could find is the review Kipphardts Durchfall by Hellmuth Karasek which appeared in DIE ZEIT on May 19, 1967.

However, in the 19-th century it was quite common to use "Durchfall" in this context. Here are some examples.

  1. In Recensionen und Mittheilungen über Theater und Musik from 1861 one can read on p. 563

Hamburg. - Das Thalia-Theater brachte nach dem unvermuteten Durchfall von O. Ludwig's "Erbförster" vier einaktige Novitäten ...

  1. In Rudolf Presbers book Vom Theater um die Jahrhundertwende which appeared in 1901 one can read on p. 161

Der "Vielgeprüfte" von Wilhelm Meyer-Förster ist in Wien durchgefallen. Es war sogar, was man so sagt, ein "böser Durchfall". In Berlin ist er beinahe durchgefallen. Also ein "guter Durchfall".
Der Wiener Durchfall is zu begreifen, denn es sind durchaus preußische Zustände, die da geschildert, gegeißelt, belächelt werden.

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  • I suppose by success I mean more the work as a whole than necessarily the premiere event itself, so not necessarily contradictory - for what it's worth this was written by a friend and admirer of Hauptmann. Thanks for your help :)
    – ajor
    Jan 23 at 23:14
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  1. In the context of a theater production, the verb durchfallen means "to fail", "to fall flat" in the sense of "to find no appreciation by the audience (or the critique)".

Here are two examples for this use:

Vor zehn Jahren am Londoner Royal Court Theatre war das Stück (Originaltitel: "The Faith Machine") des jungen Autors und Schauspielers Alexi Kaye Campbell bei der Uraufführung durchgefallen [...][Nachtkritik.de]

Translations of the quote

The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster.

by Oscar Wilde read like this:

Das Stück war ein großer Erfolg. Nur das Publikum ist durchgefallen.[gute-zitate.de]

  1. So, this use of Riesendurchfall, playing with the second meaning of Durchfall ("diarrhea"), indicates that the author of these lines wants to express that the play itself or at least its staging was bad.

  2. I think in your context, Riesendurchfall could be translated as complete disaster.

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  1. "Durchfall" has (at least) two distinct meanings in German: the common one is "diarrhea", as has been already meantioned. The second one is a (spectacularly) failing theatrical piece. Possible translations would be "(big) fail" or "(box office) bomb" or the like.

The second meaning is derived from a possible meaning of the verb "durchfallen": "to fail" in the context of an examination or test.

Ich bin bei der Englisch-Prüfung durchgefallen. - I failed my English test.

Das Stück fiel bei der Premiere durch. - The piece/production bombed at the opening.


  1. Adding "Riesen-" ("giant-") to a word to express "bigness", "spectacularity", "exceptionality" or the like is a common device in German. i.e. "ferry wheel" = "Riesenrad" or:

[...] Hallo! Ist dort das Reisebüro für Zirkuspferde? Ich möchte das Riesenroß persönlich sprechen. [...] (Erich Kästner, Der 35. Mai oder Konrad reitet in die Südsee)

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That's not idiomatic at all, even the use of "Durchfall" in this way is not common.

One could argue that it's a play with word to some kind with the ambiguity of Durchfall (fall through) and Durchfall (diarrhea). The usage as fall-through is not common and usually this only exists as verb in the form "durchfallen".

To me this play of word makes especially sense as it was the start to a successful career.

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  • Do you mean to fall through a hole, or to fail something? Jan 24 at 8:17
  • It is common to say "Eine Theateraufführung ist durchgefallen", when the audience or the critiques did not like it. Jan 24 at 8:19
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    @jonathan.scholbach yes, the verb use common, but the nominative / noun use is not. That's exactly what I write in the answer: The usage as fall-through is not common and usually this only exists as verb in the form "durchfallen" Jan 24 at 9:26

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