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How to translate the idiom - "at the bottom of the food chain" into german :)

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  • @BjörnFriedrich This time, the online dictionary actually got it right ;) See, for example, here or here or here. Idioms don't always make sense, especially when the science the were once based on gets revised. Sep 20 at 9:06
  • @BjörnFriedrich Well you can take it from me as a native English speaker, if you prefer :-) I used this phrase just the other day, in fact. Sep 20 at 9:08
  • In what context is the phrase used? In a text about ecology or about another topic, e.g. social hierarchies?
    – David Vogt
    Sep 21 at 11:10

4 Answers 4

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A usual formulation is

  • Am unteren Ende der Nahrungskette
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  • The meaning of this idiom does not translate directly - other than in biological context this idiom addresses the pecking order. Sep 23 at 13:17
  • Die meisten Nahrungsketten, die ich kenne, sind horizontal orientiert. Da ergibt oben/ unten keinen Sinn. Orientierungsunabhängig wäre sowas wie am Anfang/ Ende. Das war ja auch meine (bereits gelöschte) Kritik am Englischen bottom of the food chain, bis ich eines Besseren belehrt wurde, weil es dort wohl idiomatisch sei und man sogar über vertikal orientierte Nahrungspyramiden food chain statt food pyramid schreibt. Im Deutschen ist das aber nicht so, da unterscheidet man sehr wohl Nahrungspyramiden von Nahrungsketten und muss die korrekte Orientierung mit bezeichnen. Sep 23 at 13:20
  • @BjörnFriedrich Searching in Google for "Am unteren Ende der Nahrungskette" yields approx. 11.400 results. In my opinion this supports the answer. Sep 30 at 15:44
  • @KritikerderElche, searching Google for "Ich freue mir" yields 21.000 results. Still, it's wrong. To cut the matter short, a Google search is never a valid way to prove something. Sep 30 at 18:24
  • @BjörnFriedrich You are right, a Google search does not prove anything. I said it supports the answer which is not the same as it proves the correctness of the answer. And there is a difference between your example and the answer: "Ich freue mir" is grammatically incorrect, and even it is used it remains wrong. The phrase "Am unteren Ende der Nahrungskette" is grammatically correct, but could of course be an exotic ckoice of words. But iIf you look at the search results you will see that this not the case. Oct 6 at 0:40
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Depending on the context, ganz unten/niedrig in der Hackordnung may fit. It refers to somebody or something ranking lowest in some hierarchy. Literally it means at the bottom end of the pecking order.

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  • This is the best translation in regards to anything but the biological context. Sep 23 at 13:19
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In German, we often don't express how the food chain is oriented in space. So we don't speak of "top" or "bottom" of the chain, but about the "beginning" ("Anfang") and "end" ("Ende") of the chain.

At this point, it's probably useful to distinguish between the ecological term "food chain" / "Nahrungskette" and the more generally used idiom derived from that.

If you're talking about the ecological term, the "Ende" of the food chain is commonly seen as what would typically be the top of the food chain in English:

Fleischfresser stehen am Ende der Nahrungskette.
Carnivores are at the top of the food chain.

Conversely, the "Anfang" corresponds to the bottom of the food chain in this context:

Plankton steht am Anfang der Nahrungskette.
Plankton is at the bottom of the food chain.

Sometimes, the chain is also seen as having two endings, so it's specified which is the upper end and which is the lower end (here we're talking about up and down again ;) ):

Fleischfresser stehen am oberen Ende der Nahrungskette.
Carnivores are at the upper end of the food chain.

Plankton steht am unteren Ende der Nahrungskette.
Plankton is at the lower end of the food chain.

As an aside, the ecological term "Nahrungskette" or "food chain" is mostly seen as oversimplified, because the actual interdependencies are rarely a linear chain. The more current term would be a "Nahrungsnetz" or "food web".

There's also the related concept of a "Nahrungspyramide" or "food pyramid" ("ecological pyramid", "trophic pyramid" or other terms). While a "Nahrungskette" or "Nahrungsnetz" is focused more on the quantitative aspects ("who eats who"), a "Nahrungspyramide" is focused more on the qualitative aspects ("how much energy goes from one stage to the next").

After all those preliminary remarks, we can get to the answer to the actual question, namely the derived, more general idiom "to be at the bottom of the food chain". This idiom means something like "to occupy in a social hierarchy the position of least importance or power":

In his high school class, he was at the very bottom of the food chain. All the other students bullied him.

If you're talking about this idiom, the German equivalent works exactly the opposite way than what we've seen for the ecological term above. Here, the "bottom" in English generally corresponds to the "Ende" of the chain. So, the example from above could be translated as

In seiner Klasse in der Oberschule war er ganz am Ende der Nahrungskette. Alle anderen Schüler schikanierten ihn.

Some "real life" examples of this usage are

"Die Aktionäre stehen am Ende der Nahrungskette, sie sind die letzten, die Geld aus der Insolvenzmasse bekommen"

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Am Ende der Nahrungskette (speaking of an exploited worker)

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Kassaei malt schon seit einigen Jahren ein düsteres Bild von seiner Branche, auch dieses Mal: "Werber stehen am Ende der Nahrungskette". Sie hätten ihren Ruf und ihre Relevanz von einst verloren.

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Kritk an Corona-Politik: Musikverein sieht sich „am Ende der Nahrungskette“ (typo not corrected ;) )

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    Well, we do care how the chain is oriented (which you mentioned yourself just two comments ago). Plants tend to live "am Anfang der Nahrungskette", while humans live at the end.
    – tofro
    Sep 20 at 12:40
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    @tofro I meant we don't care how the chain is oriented spatially, whether it's horizontally or vertically or in some other fashion. I edited my answer to make this clearer. Sep 20 at 13:43
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    But the bottom of the food chain corresponds to Anfang der Nahrungskette.
    – David Vogt
    Sep 21 at 9:15
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    Oh boy, it's learning curve all over again. However, the answer should definitely include some examples and also talk about differences in usage.
    – David Vogt
    Sep 21 at 11:12
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    I revised and extended this answer. A lot of the confusion seems to stem from the fact that in German we use the term "Nahrungskette" in two ways: If we're talking about the ecological term, the "Ende" of the chain is the top ("Der Mensch steht am Ende der Nahrungskette"). If we're talking about the more general idiom derived from that, the "Ende" of the chain is the bottom ("In der Firma war er ganz am Ende der Nahrungskette"). Sep 23 at 9:50
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In German you can say

am Anfang/ Ende der Nahrungskette
(at the beginning/ end of the food chain)

or

ganz unten/ oben in der Nahrungspyramide
(at the bottom/ top of the food pyramid)

There are three things to consider here.

First: A Nahrungsnetz (food net) may be a more adequate metaphor than a pyramid or a chain to express reality.

Second: Below the question, some commentators argue that the mixing of the two metaphors (bottom of the food chain) was indeed idiomatic in English. In German, however, mixing them would sound odd, i.e., you don't say oben in der Kette or something like that, because oben/ unten are vertical orientations and most (but not all) food chains are oriented horizontally. Therefore, in German, the orientation independet terms am Anfang/ Ende are preferred for chains.

Third: A comment below this answer suggests that there may be a misunderstanding between the terms Ernährungspyramide (a dietary compilation of food products) and Nahrungspyramide (a trophic hierarchy showing the relationships of organisms feeding on each other), probably because both are translated into English as food pyramid. That Nahrungspyramide is the correct German term in the context considered here, I attached an image from the Lexikon der Biologie on spektrum.de:

Image of a Nahrungspyramide from the Lexikon der Biologie, spektrum.de

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    I don't agree with you about the "Nahrungspyramide". To the ebst of my knwoledge, the image of a pyramid for food is to describe the different food types and teh amount they should make up in a healthy diet, but not the food chain.
    – Burki
    Sep 23 at 11:56
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    @Burki, what you are referring to is an Ernährungspyramide. A Nahrungspyramide shows the succession of organisms in an ecosystem at different trophic levels (food relationships). I added a paragraph about this misunderstanding. Sep 23 at 13:08
  • "Nahrungsnetz" mag gelegentlich besser abbilden, was der Fall ist - gebräuchlich ist es aber überhaupt nicht, während "Nahrungskette" prävalent ist. Die Grafik illustriert eine Pyramide mit einem Dreieck? Bei dieser ist das gemeinte Ende dann der Boden der Pyramide. Sep 23 at 18:12
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    You are right. I was thinking about "Ernährungspyramide". Yet, i think people are quire used to "Nahrungskette", nur "Nahrungspyramide" appears to be something a specialist might say. I am fairly sure a lot of people would misunderstand it the same way i did.
    – Burki
    Sep 26 at 13:44

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