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In conversation with 2 native German speakers, I wanted to translate the sentence:

According to Rule 1, a robot can’t see a human come to harm because of his own inaction.

So I said:

Regel 1 nach darf kein Roboter es lassen, ein Mensch verletzt zu werden, aufgrund seiner eigenen Untätigkeit.

But they corrected me with:

Regel 1 nach darf kein Roboter es zulassen, dass ein Mensch verletzt wird, aufgrund seiner eigenen Untätigkeit.

In support of my choice of wording, I find the following in DWDS:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007 (Filmuntertitel) Wie könnt ihr es lassen, auf den Regen zu starren, verrückt durch die Sterne?

Berliner Zeitung, 28.09.2002 Man sollte es lassen, sie außerhalb der Saison zu verarbeiten.

I would like to know the reason that my wording is wrong, if it is.

3 Answers 3

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Firstly, "etw. lassen" or "es lassen, zu..." are a different meaning (DWDS Meaning 4) that means "cease" or "to not do". So

Man sollte es lassen, sie außerhalb der Saison zu verarbeiten.

means

One should not prepare them out of season.

"lassen" in the meaning of "to let smb. do sth." does not use "zu"; it is used directly with the infinitive. So your sentence would have been

Regel 1 nach darf kein Roboter einen Mensch aufgrund seiner eigenen Untätigkeit verletzt werden lassen. (?)

But this is semantically strange: "A lässt B C machen" usually implies intent from either "A" (forcing "B") or from "B", but in this case usually neither the robot nor the human have any intent of letting the human getting hurt.

This is why they suggested "zulassen" (=allow to happen). "zulassen" is used with "dass". Why not "zu"? "zu"-Infinitives are only used if the subject is clear from the embedding sentence. In the sentence

Regel 1 nach darf kein Roboter zulassen, dass ein Mensch aufgrund seiner eigenen Untätigkeit verletzt wird.*

the subject of "verletzt werden" (ein Mensch) occurs only in the embedded sentence.

I changed the sentence in following ways: The "es" is unneeded, but possible. I would not move a prepositional clause like "aufgrund seiner Untätigkeit" past the verb, and some consider this ungrammatical.

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  • All 3 of these answers have been incredibly helpful, and I wish I could mark them all as answers. It is amazing what one can learn by asking the right question of the right people. But I could only mark one, so it is Dodezv, because not only did he explain the lassen/zulassen choice, but I also learned how to know when to use a zu-clause and when not.
    – user44591
    Dec 21, 2022 at 21:45
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"Etwas lassen" or "etwas bleiben lassen" is different from "etwas zulassen".

"Etwas lassen" means something like "to refrain from doing something" or "to not do something (that was originally planned)":

Sie hatte geplant, im Park laufen zu gehen. Aber dann hat es angefangen zu regnen, also hat sie es bleiben gelassen.
She planned to go running in the park. But then it started to rain, so she let it be.

meaning she refrained from going for a run, she decided against performing the activity.

On the other hand, "etwas zulassen" is more like "to allow something", "to let something happen", "to not hinder something":

Sobald die Auftragslage es zulässt, wollen wir weitere Mitarbeiter einstellen.
As soon as the order volume allows it, we intend to hire more employees.

So in your reference to Asimov, "etwas zulassen" is the correct choice:

Nach Regel 1 darf kein Roboter es zulassen, dass ein Mensch aufgrund seiner eigenen Untätigkeit verletzt wird.

You can actually illustrate the difference quite well with the two other examples you quoted:

Wie könnt ihr es lassen, auf den Regen zu starren, verrückt durch die Sterne?
How can you refrain from staring into the rain, made crazy by the stars?

With "zulassen", the meaning would be

Wie könnt ihr es zulassen, auf den Regen zu starren, verrückt durch die Sterne?
How can you allow it to stare into the rain, made crazy by the stars?

Also

Man sollte es lassen, sie außerhalb der Saison zu verarbeiten.
One should refrain from processing them out of season.

compared to

Man sollte es zulassen, sie außerhalb der Saison zu verarbeiten.
One should allow it to process them out of season.

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Yes, they were right and your translation is wrong. It is not easy, since in some contexts lassen can be used in the meaning you intended, e. g.

Nach Regel 1 darf kein Roboter einen Menschen durch seine Untätigkeit zu Schaden kommen lassen.

(While we have zu here, it is no separated particle of lassen, but a preposition to Schaden.)

Lassen is often used in the sense of unterlassen, actually doing nothing (e. g. ein Telefon klingeln lassen, etwas geschehen lassen). This frequently combines a second verb in infinitive as shown ion the example from Berliner Zeitung.

Note that the Englisch sentence contains a somewhat hidden negation can't. Nicht lassen however has a quite contrary (as opposed to doing nothing) meaning, it describes to prevent something, which may require quite some effort, as in

  • Ich lasse den Nachbarn nicht in meine Wohnung.
  • Das Kind lässt sich nicht die Jacke anziehen.

I see no easy explanation for your grammatical problem, but switching to passive voice of a different subject requires a more elaborate constructs than a comma; the consecutive clause starting with dass is fine.

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