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Related: Past Subjunctive - dürfte + past participle + haben vs. hätte + infinitive + dürfen. Somewhat less related: Konjunktiv II with modal verbs

I know that translating German modal verbs to English usually requires some rephrasing when they are negated. For example Wir müssen nicht means "We don't have to" rather than "We must not." I'm wondering if the same thing holds for the subjunctive/''Konjunktiv'', and if there are any subjunctive modals, with or without negation, which have unexpected meanings.

For example, in the German and English versions of the same game I ran across:

''Der Junge hätte nicht mit uns reden dürfen, das ist gegen das Gesetz.''
"That boy should not have spoken to us, it's against tribal law."

The English is a bit ambiguous here, but in context I think it means "That boy was not supposed/allowed to speak to us,..." Translating this into German, I would have gone with ''Der Junge durfte nicht mit uns sprechen, ...'' which uses the indicative. So I'm not sure what the difference is here between the indicative and the subjunctive. Translating the German into (rather awkward) English, I get "The boy would not have been allowed to talk to us,...".

The answer to the first question linked above says something about ''dürfen'' in the past subjunctive having a special meaning. I gather this is referring to meaning 2 in DWDS where it says it can mean something will probably happen. I don't think this is applicable to the previous example but it is another case where a subjunctive modal verb has a surprising meaning. DWDS also lists such a special meaning for ''müssen''. Are there any others I should know about?

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  • I'm unsure, what the problem is. The boy should not have spoken to us, but he did. (So indicative is wrong, this is a hypothecial scenario.) This happened in the past, therefore we see the Konjunktiv I. Other phrasing could use the indicative for the same facts, e. g. Der Junge hat seine Schweigepflicht verletzt.
    – guidot
    Mar 2 at 11:07
  • @guidot: It's Konjunktiv II, isn't it? (Konjunktiv I: er habe ...)
    – HalvarF
    Mar 2 at 12:21
  • @RDBury: "should not have spoken to us" is subjuctive, too, though?
    – HalvarF
    Mar 2 at 12:27
  • @HalvarF: First, you're referring to a comment that I've since deleted since it was confusing even to me. (Sorry.) At this point I'm not really sure what the subjunctive is in English, terminology seems to vary according to source; even different articles within Wikipedia seem to use different definitions. Whatever you call it, I think "should" is indicative, otherwise you'd have to say "would be allowed" or "would not be allowed". "Should" is modal, so it leaves the "speak" part in doubt, but there is no doubt that the boy "should not" speak to us.
    – RDBury
    Mar 2 at 12:48
  • @guidot: The problem seems to be that English and German look at different things when it comes to actual vs. hypothetical. In English, you look at modal verb. There is no doubt whether the boy was allowed to speak to us, and so no "would" is needed and including one would be incorrect. You'd say "The boy was not allowed to speak to us" whether he actually did or not. You'd only use "would" if the "being allowed" part is hypothetical: "If we were outcasts, then the boy would not have been allowed to talk to us." ...
    – RDBury
    Mar 2 at 13:40

1 Answer 1

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I think this is just a case of ambiguity, or polysemy: dürfen usually expresses permission and nicht dürfen a probihition. The latter is possible because the negation has scope over the modal, as expressed by the paraphrase in quotation marks.

Er darf keinen Alkohol trinken.
"Es ist nicht der Fall, dass er Alkohol trinken darf."

Compare this to the English translation, where the modal has scope over the negation.

He must not (is not allowed to) drink alcohol.
"It is necessary that he not drink alcohol."

Note that because English modal verbs are defective, only be allowed to can be used in the past. Two examples with Indikativ Präsensperfekt ("Perfekt") and Konjunktiv Präteritumperfekt ("Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit"; for the IDS terminology, see Konjunktiv und Tempus):

Er hat keinen Alkohol trinken dürfen.
He was not allowed to drink alcohol.

Hätte ich doch nur Alkohol trinken dürfen!
If only I had been allowed to drink alcohol!

However, the difficulty in this case does not arise from the issue of the scope of the negation (nicht dürfen versus must not), nor from the subjunctive. Rather, dürfen plus negation is used here to express a suggestion or a request (see Duden 1b and DWDS 1c).

Du darfst ihn nicht so ernst nehmen.
Don't take him too seriously.

So darfst du nicht denken!
Don't think like that!

The original sentence uses Konjunktiv Präteritumperfekt, i.e. the perfect with the auxiliary in the Konjunktiv II. It is not about permission, but about a suggestion that has been ignored: It would have been a good idea for the boy not to speak to them, but he did in fact speak to them.

Der Junge hätte nicht mit uns reden dürfen, das ist gegen das Gesetz.
The boy should not have spoken to us, it's against the law.

Of course, the sentence in itself is perfectly ambiguous and could also be used to express that a permission would not have existed, if not for a certain condition.

Der Junge hätte nicht mit uns reden dürfen, wenn er nicht der Sohn des Häuptlings wäre.
The boy would not have been allowed to talk to us if he wasn't the chieftain's son.

Two further examples similar to the original (although I am not so sure about the second, which seems almost like an idiom).

Ich hätte nicht so viel essen dürfen, jetzt habe ich wieder Sodbrennen.
I shouldn't have eaten so much, now I have heartburn again.

(Wie war der Urlaub am Meer?) – Das Wasser hätte wärmer sein dürfen.
It would have been nice if the water had been warmer.

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  • Thanks. I was going through DWDS usage examples trying to glean the difference on my own and was starting to think it might be something like this. I think the upshot is that the indicative nicht dürfen is rather strong, translating to "must not", "can't" or "not allowed to" in English, but the subjunctive is much weaker and would probably translate as "should not" or "is not supposed to". Another factor might be that meanings are slightly different in the different translations. In the game, the boy is punished for the infraction, but not too severely.
    – RDBury
    Mar 3 at 17:21

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