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This is among the example sentences in Duden for stellen:

die Polizei stellte die Verbrecher

Google translate says it means, in English:

the police caught the criminals

DeepL says it means:

the police confronted the criminals

The two English sentences are significantly different, since confronting and catching are not equivalent. What does the German sentence actually mean?

This example sentence appears in Duden under definition #8: zum Stehenbleiben zwingen und dadurch in seine Gewalt bekommen, which when substituted into the example would translate to:

the police forced the crimanals to stop and thereby got their power.

This sentence does not make the meaning clear in English. The first part of the sentence would be consistent with simply confronting the criminals. But the second part of the sentence would be more in line with actually catching them. If this sentence means that they were actually caught, then would, for instance, the following be valid German:

They caught the fish.

Sie stellten die Fische.

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  • Thanks for editing the question!
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 29, 2022 at 16:14
  • I remember exactly this question being asked before, but I can't find it.
    – RHa
    Sep 29, 2022 at 19:30
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    This meaning is covered in Wiktionary def. 1.3. There it's translated as "to encounter and stop", but I'm not sure that there is any single English word that captures the German meaning.
    – RDBury
    Sep 30, 2022 at 1:32
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    As an aside, a verbatim translation of "in seine Gewalt bekommen" is not to "get their power", but "get into their power", i.e. the police take control of the criminals.
    – meriton
    Sep 30, 2022 at 16:21
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    @RDBury Another possibility is "apprehend", though the fit isn't quite as good. Oct 1, 2022 at 6:17

4 Answers 4

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DeepL got it almost right. "Jemanden stellen" means something along the lines of "to confront someone with the intention and/or the effect to keep that person from evading something / getting away".

Some examples:

Die Polizei stellte die Verbrecher.
The police confronted the criminals (so the criminals couldn't flee the scene of the crime).

Der Oppositionspolitiker stellte den Minister in der Palamentsdebatte.
The opposition politician confronted the secretary in the parlamentary debate (so the secretary couldn't evade the unpleasant topic).

See also the related phrase "sich etwas stellen":

Sie haben es lange vermieden, aber jetzt müssen sie sich ihren Problemen stellen.
They evaded it for a long time, but now they have to confront their problems.

The origin is probably in hunting lingo and/or dog's behaviour:

Der Wolf stellte das Reh und riss es.
The wolf confronted the doe (so it couldn't get away) and killed it.

Der Wachhund stellte den Einbrecher.
The guard dog confronted the burglar (and kept him from robbing the house and/or from fleeing).

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    I don't think "The wolf confronted the doe" is natural sounding in English. The situation is that the doe wants to escape but the wolf prevents her from moving. In that case you might "catch" or perhaps "corner"; if its police and a criminal you might say "arrest". In any case I think the actual translation would depend on the situation.
    – RDBury
    Sep 30, 2022 at 1:51
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    @RDBury I wanted to keep the translations of the examples somewhat uniform, to help convey the meaning of "jemanden stellen". The fact that there's no one-size-fits-all equivalent in English (at least not that I know of) probably caused part of the OPs confusion. I agree that "the wolf caught the doe" would be more natural English, but it would also be more derived from the German expression and therefore not convey the idea of "jemanden stellen" as well, IMHO. Sep 30, 2022 at 8:27
  • "einen Minister stellen" can also mean something very different…
    – Bergi
    Oct 2, 2022 at 0:03
  • @Bergi I'm aware of that, but an opposition party rarely sends a secretary to the governments cabinet ;) Oct 2, 2022 at 9:02
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Neither of the two words are a perfect fit.

die Polizei stellte die Verbrecher

is a stronger statement than

the police confronted the criminals

The latter could be a poor policeman yelling out "Stop, Police!" as he is run over by the gangster's getaway car. The former definitely indicates that the criminals flight is at least interrupted. However, getting into an armed standoff between police and criminals can fall under "stellen"; it is not required for the criminals to be completely subdued.

Overall, "stellen" is one of those verbs which have a lot of meanings that will translate very differently. In this particular case, the usage comes from hunting with dogs. "Der Hund stellt das Reh" means that the hunting dog prevents the deer from escaping, but without bringing it down. The hunter would then shoot it. You can use "stellen" in this sense only where hunting (at least metaphorically) fits. So "den Fisch stellen" doesn't work, because you don't hunt fish.

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Google Translate and DeepL do not know about every nuance in every language. In fact most of the time those systems are guessing based on interpretations from similar words / sentences. You may click the Google Translate / DeepL result to see other suggested translations.

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In your case Google Translate has two English sentences to choose from with their known correct German translations. Google chooses the one it seems to be the best fit, in this case it was the one using caught.

"Sie stellten die Fische" doesn't make sense in German. Important: "stellen" describes some cases of "fangen", but that doesn't mean you may use "stellen" in place of fangen everywhere.

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The correct translation in English usage in this specific context is obviously "apprehend":

to take into custody; arrest by legal warrant or authority:

The police apprehended the burglars.

(dictionary.com)

"Arrest" must be understood literally, cp. arrested development meaning stalled ~ i.e. not making progress.

Part of the problem is a False Scotsmann fallacy: If an apprehended suspect manages to escape from the custodians of the law somehow, one might say police hasn't caught him after all even if they confronted and thought they got it.

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