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What is the difference between Mühe und Bemühung? Maybe you need to make an effort (Bemühung) to surmount a difficulty {Mühe}.

4 Answers 4

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Bemühung rather refers to the process of attempting something, whereas Mühe denotes the result of the attempt or the amount of effort that is expended to fulfill the attempt.

For example:

Seine Bemühungen waren vergeblich.
→ His attempts were futile.

Die Mühe hat sich gelohnt.
→ The (amount of) effort has been worth it.


Subtleties:

Notice that Mühe cannot always be substituted by Bemühung, especially when Mühe would refer to a particular effort such as a difficulty:

Er hatte große Bemühung Mühe, die Aufgabe zu lösen.
→ He had great difficulty in solving the task.

In other cases, Bemühung can be substituted by Mühe in order to shift the emphasis from the process of attempting to the amount of effort:

Seine Bemühungen waren vergeblich.
→ His attempts were futile.   (process of attempting)

Seine Mühen waren vergeblich.
→ His efforts were useless.   (amount of effort)

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    Might be worth noting that you can also have Bemühungen without Mühe: “Ihre Bemühungen, das Schloss zu knacken, waren schon nach einer Sekunde erfolgreich; sie öffnete es ohne Mühe.”
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 12 at 8:37
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    @Wrzlprmft I thought of a similar example in the beginning. However, if you read it twice, it sounds contradictory. I think this combination won't show up often because it stresses the sense of both words too much.
    – Ariser
    Mar 13 at 8:00
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I´d say Mühe is a general term for something which requires an effort, whereas Bemühung is used for a particular case of a situation like this.

Examples for the latter:

  • Meine Bemühungen, das Problem zu lösen, waren erfolgreich.
  • Es gab jahrelange, intensive Bemühungen, die Zusammenarbeit im Team zu verbessern.
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Bemühung is an action demanding some effort, the actual objective attempt or performance.

Typically in its plural form Bemühungen is is often used in official language:

The last sentence actually is, in modern parlance, a meme: It says that the employee always made an effort, but does not let us know whether he ever succeeded. In context that amounts to a declaration that he typically didn't.1 The sentence says nothing explicit about the subjective feelings of the employee. This sentence, one of the most obvious examples, has in general use almost achieved proverb status, ironically describing a bad performance.

There is probably some generality to that: In a casual context the word is often used ironically to express a degree of contempt.

For example, one could describe a failure due to incompetence as "seine Bemühungen waren leider nicht von Erfolg gekrönt". The somewhat capricious word choice is an indicator for irony here.

Mühe, by contrast, is the subjective feeling you have performing that attempt.

An old lady, for example, might say "das Treppensteigen mach mir große Mühe", expressing how she feels doing it.

And a headline in the Süddeutsche reports: "Topfavorit Nadal ohne große Mühe in Runde zwei". That is, he didn't break a sweat.

The statement by a prinicipal "Die Schüler geben sich große Mühe" is a completely sincere acknowledgement of their commitment (as opposed to similar uses of Bemühung).


1 The reason that the employee's failure to succeed is only implicated by the glaring omission of the outcome of his efforts is that German labor law forbids employers to write anything negative in the references (which they are obliged to provide). This results in a highly codified phrasing by the authors and reading between the lines by the readers.

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"Mühe" means the effort (necessary to achieve something) itself, "Bemühung" is the act of investing this effort.

"Bemühung" is actually a verb made noun ("-ung") and derived from "bemühen", which means "spending/investing effort". A good english translation for "bemühen" would be "to try [hard]" or "to attempt".

Notice that "bemühen" is reflexive and used with the Akkusativ: "sich|jemanden ... bemühen":

Er bemüht sich. He is trying hard.

Ich mußte ihn bemühen um es zu bekommen. I had to [ask|activate|incommodate] him to get it.

There are also some phrases with "Mühe" / "bemühen":

Etwas "macht Mühe". Sth. [takes|is|means] (a lot of) [effort|work].

Jemand "unterzieht sich der Mühe" etwas zu erreichen. Someone goes the distance to achieve something.

Er hat sich (immer) bemüht. He (always) tried (hard).

Especially the last one is famous because it is about the worst an employer could say about an employee: they are not allowed to say negative things, therefore, if one says he tried without adding he succeeded this implies that he didn't. The implied meaning is "he spent a lot of effort (maybe?) without achieving anything".

Also notice the related "Mühsal" and its adverb "mühselig" - a state of matters where lots of effort have to be spent permanently. "Meine Arbeit ist mühselig." means "My work is a drag."

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