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I have a little rhyme (a book dedication) I need to translate:

Es sei in Ihrem trauten Stübel,
ein kleines Plätzchen mir vergönnt.
Das Buch ist nämlich nicht so übel,
als einem dabei werden könnt.

I'm struggling to understand the last line's grammatical structure - and hence the precise intended meaning. What's the subject of the clause, to what does einem refer, and why's it in the dative? Or is it just for the sake of meter?

2 Answers 2

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The last two verses are kind of a word play. "Mir wird übel" or "mir ist übel" means something like "I'm going to be sick", "I'm feeling queasy".

Ich hätte den Rest von dem Auflauf nicht mehr essen sollen. Jetzt ist mir übel.
I shouldn't have eaten the leftovers from the casserole. Now I'm feeling queasy.

"Dabei" refers to the reason, the activity that makes you feel queasy:

Ich fahre nicht gerne mit der Achterbahn. Dabei wird mir immer übel.
I don't like riding the rollercoaster. I always get feeling queasy from it.

When we translate the last two verses of the poem to more "everyday German", we would get

Das Buch ist nämlich nicht so übel
wie einem dabei werden könnte.

A possible English translation could be

The book, to wit, isn't as bad
as this could make one feel.

It's not really spelled out what the "dabei" refers to. One possible guess would be the image of small dedicated poems like this. They are often seen as quite cheesy and a bit sickeningly sweet, like food that's about to spoil. But this part is mostly guesswork.

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  • Ah, of course, that makes much more sense! Wasn't familiar with the use of dabei with übel. Thanks!
    – ajor
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 22:46
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    I don't see that much guesswork. I'm pretty sure that "dabei" refers to "reading the book". Which would lead to the translation "The book, to wit, isn't as bad; as reading it might make you feel". This also plays with two translations of "übel": "Das ist übel" -> "This is bad" vs "Mir ist übel" -> "I feel queasy/sick in the stomach". Together, it hints that the book is good (using an understatement), but reading the story in the book might make you feel queasy: it might be a horror story.
    – orithena
    Commented Sep 1, 2022 at 10:09
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This phenomenon roots in grammar only, not in style or metrics.

Dative Case

To understand this sentence's grammar, first and foremost you need to know that the predicate (the verb phrase) is jemandem wird übel ("someone gets sick"). As you can see, this requires the dative case and this is why einem is in dative case. That use of dative follows a pattern where dative expresses a subjective perspective, a relation to the subject, most often a certain feeling. Examples of this pattern include:

  • jemandem ist schlecht ("so. feels sick")
  • jemandem ist kalt ("so. is / feels cold")
  • jemandem ist traurig zumute ("so. feels sad")
  • jemandem ist nicht danach [X zu tun] ("so. is not in the mood [of doing X]")
  • etwas ist jemandem zu [Adjektiv] ("sth. is too [adjective] to so."): diese Aufgabe ist mir zu schwer ("this task is too hard for me").

An English correspondence to this use of dative case is the term to someone, which expresses the same sense of subject-relatedness. It feels to me that the English to someone came into existence to express that very same relation when English got rid of the dative case. This idea is backed by the fact that English to is also used in other cases to express a relationship where German uses the dative, namely in when the German dative has the function of a locative. But this is just a personal hypothesis from me, being someone who has no idea about the development of the English language.

The Structure of the Subclause

The subclause als einem dabei werden könnt has no grammatical subject, i.e. no noun-phrase in nominative case. Not every German sentence has a subject, and this is one example of this phenomenon. (In fact, jemandem wird übel was the prototypic example for a sentence without a subject in the grammar lecture I once attended as a student.) The reason lies in the structure of the verb, which has a dative valence, but no nominative one.

Meaning of einem

einem itself is the declined form of the impersonal pronoun. In undeclined form, the impersonal pronoun is man. But this cannot be declined (don't ask me why), so when declined, German uses declined form of einer. At least in some dialects, einer can even be used as the nominative form of the impersonal pronoun. An example:

  • da wird einer ja wahnsinnig ("one just gets crazy over this")

The English correspondence is one.

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  • If one feels better with a subject in sentences like "Einem wird schlecht" one can always insert an "es": "Es wird einem schlecht." On the other hand, it is not surprising that this pro forma pronoun that adds nothing is often omitted. Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 10:49

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