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I was endeavoring to translate the following sentence from Asimov's, I, Robot:

He cast one glance over his shoulder at the blackness of the cliff’s shadow and realized that he had come too far to return — either by himself or by the help of his antique robot.

with:

Er warf einen Blick über die Schulter auf die Dunkelheit des Schattens des Felsens zu und begriff, dass er zu weit hergekommen war, um zurückgehen zu können -- entweder alleine oder mithilfe seines antiken Roboters.

However, 2 native German speakers corrected me with:

Er warf einen Blick über die Schulter auf die Dunkelheit des Schattens des Felsens zu und begriff, dass er zu weit hergekommen war, um zurückgehen zu können -- weder alleine noch mithilfe seines antiken Roboters.

Ignoring, if you can, all other errors that may be present in this translation, my question is, do you agree with their correction and, if so, why? Specifically, beyond personal preferences and subjective interpretations, is there any German grammar that compels one to choose one or the other of the words? Personally, I do not see how there could be any confusion regarding the meaning, in this case, and "entweder" matches the English "either", whereas "weder" does not.

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    The correction is correct and the correction of your friends imho wrong. Either ... or = entweder ... oder. But possibly the English original should already read "neither ... nor" which then correctly translates to "weder ... noch". One can argue though, that one can translate by the probably intended meaning and then correct it in the translation to "weder ... noch". Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 21:32
  • I see the cause of puzzling here in the "doppelte verneinung" which is different in german than in english. To use two times some negotiation in (modern) German cancels its meaning into positive, but in English and many other languages two times negotiation will sum up to a much more negative meaning. (first negotiation would be "to far to return", the second "either", which aggregation would be negativ in english, but positive in german, so german needs to change one of them) But I am not nearly an expert... only native german wikipedia Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 10:29
  • It seems to me that it is just that, English is a bit more flexible in the use of "either...or". It can be used, as in this case, in both positive and negative contexts in English. Apparently, not in German.
    – user44591
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 15:55
  • Another point about your translation: “die Dunkelheit des Schattens des Felsens” is awkward and not even very close to the original wording. A closer translation that also avoids duplicate “des” could be “die Schwärze des Schattens der Klippe”, but I would rather write “die Schwärze im Schatten der Klippe” or simply “den schwarzen Schatten der Klippe”. If you prefer your word choice, “die Dunkelheit des Felsenschattens” also works. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 17:23

2 Answers 2

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I agree with neither the original nor the correction. First, let us move the detached part back in the sentence, so we get, with some omissions,

Er war zu weit, um (ent)weder alleine oder mit dem Roboter zurückgehen zu können

entweder oder

English "either or". "Entweder A oder B" means that exactly one is true, and the other is false and is logically equivalent to "A and not B" or "B and not A". So logically, the sentence would be

Er war zu weit, um nicht alleine und mit dem Roboter, oder alleine und nicht mit dem Roboter zurückzukehren.

It needlessly leaves the possibility "A and B", alleine und mit dem Roboter, (which is impossible) open. This is confusing, because "entweder oder" usually implies a choice, and in this case, there is no choice at all.

weder noch

English "neither nor". "Weder A noch B" means that "A" and "B" are false. So

Er war zu weit, um weder alleine noch mit dem Roboter zurückgehen zu können.

actually means that

Er musste alleine oder mit dem Roboter zurückgehen,

which is certainly not what you want. Additionally, "weder noch" implies a lack of choice, thus he did not want to do either. But because the "weder noch" part was detached, and the above interpretation is blatantly wrong from context, one is led to interpret it the right way, especially since it fits if the first sentence was something like

Er konnte nicht zurückgehen, weder alleine noch mit dem Roboter.

sei es ... oder ...

English "be it ... or ...". This is what I would use. "Sei es A oder B" means "It holds for A and B" and implies there is no choice, so it is a perfect fit.

Er war zu weit, um zurückgehen zu können, sei es alleine oder mit dem Roboter.

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  • Perfect and beautiful!
    – user44591
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 21:54
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    Great reasoning, though as a native speaker I feel like "sei es" requires to be followed by a preposition (can't put my finger on the why, though), which isn't the case in the specific example. I'd use "egal ob ... oder ...", alternatively "ob ... oder ...", "ob jetzt ... oder ..." or "ob nun ... oder ...". Or the complete other way around: "sei es mit dem Roboter oder alleine".
    – orithena
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 5:03
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Yes, I agree with the correction. In the original translation,

entweder alleine oder mithilfe seines antiken Roboters

implies that the person has the option to return either by themselves or with the help of their antique robot. However, in the corrected translation,

weder alleine noch mithilfe seines antiken Roboters

accurately conveys that the person has no options left to return, neither by themselves nor with the help of their antique robot. This more accurately reflects the meaning of the original sentence, which states that the person has realized they have come too far to return.

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