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I pasted the following sentence into DeepL:

Can I ask you how to get to that station?

and it churned out the following translation suggestions:

Darf ich fragen, wie man zum Bahnhof kommt?
Darf ich fragen, wie Sie zum Bahnhof kommt?

In both of these, the translator refrains from using infinitive in the dependent clause and instead, as far as I'm concerned, introduces additional subjects "man" and "Sie". Should I take it to mean that it is not grammatically correct to use infinitive in indirekter Fragesätze, and a workaround in the form of an additional subject is the only pertinent option?

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  • That odd how to construction is an English peculiarity. It does not exist in German. Replace it with how I and see how German suddenly resembles English.
    – Janka
    May 22, 2023 at 12:52
  • 1
    @Janka that is the answer, isn't it? May 22, 2023 at 13:29
  • My answer is not about German though.
    – Janka
    May 22, 2023 at 14:56

1 Answer 1

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There are many tiny issues.

  1. English "station" is not always German "Bahnhof".

    A Bahnhof is a large building with a waiting hall and counters where you can buy tickets and very often also some stores where you can buy food, drinks and newspapers. But most important: It's only for trains (vehicles running on rails). But the English word "station" can also mean a small bus stop with nothing else but a pole with a sign on it. Later is a Haltestelle in German. For both, Bahnhof and Haltestelle, you can use the German word Station. (Note, that the German pronunciation is different from the English.) If you know, that there is a waiting hall, and that it's a train station then "Bahnhof" is preferred. If it's just a tiny bus stop, then use Haltestelle. If you're not sure, use Station.

    In bigger cities there are often also stations where many bus lines have their final station. Such places are sometimes called Busbahnhof although Bus (English: bus) and Bahn (English: train) in one word is technically a contradiction. But such stations are too big to call them Haltestelle as you usually do with each bus stop. But because it's similar to a Bahnhof but just for busses instead for trains, we use Busbahnhof in such a case.

  2. Different usage of pronouns in English and German

    In theory:

    • Can I ask? (without personal pronoun) = Darf ich fragen?
    • Can I ask you? (with personal pronoun) = Darf ich Sie fragen? Darf ich dich fragen?

    But while you prefer the version with pronoun in English, the opposite is true in German. So, this is a better match:

    • Can I ask you <actual question>? = Darf ich fragen, <eigentliche Frage>?
  3. "how to + infinitive" is not "wie zu + Infinitiv" but "wie man + Verb in 3. Person singular"

    This is a typical beginners error:

    Please show me how to open this box.

    wrong: Bitte zeige mir, wie zu öffnen diese Schachtel.
    correct: Bitte zeige mir, wie man diese Schachtel öffnet.

    Also possible and correct, but rarely used by native speakers:

    Bitte zeige mir, wie diese Schachtel zu öffnen ist.

  4. The German word "man"

    This is a generalizing pronoun. Generalizing pronouns are similar to personal pronouns and to indefinite pronouns, and sometimes generalizing pronoun are classified as subtypes of these classes, but in modern linguistics generalizing pronouns are treated as a distinct class (not a subclass of other pronoun classes). German has two of them:

    • man (if used in nominative case)

      Das weiß man. (This is known.)
      Man lernt nie aus. (You never stop learning.)

    • einen/einem (if used in accusative or dative case)

      Das raubt einem den Verstand. (It takes your mind away.)
      Michael kann einen zum Lachen bringen. (Michael can make one laugh.)

    English has no distinct generalizing pronouns. What comes closest is the pronoun one, but in English language, the pronoun you is often preferred, because in English one often sounds too formal. So it's hard to translate man/einen from German to English, but it's also hard to translate sentences correctly from English to German that would require these generalizing pronouns in the German translation.

    Here is an example:

    How do you open this box?

    If you want to know how the one specific person you are talking to opens this box, this is in German:

    Wie öffnen Sie diese Schachtel?
    Wie öffnest du diese Schachtel?

    So, you use a personal pronoun, because it refers to a specific person. But when you just want to know how to open the box, regardless of who opens it, then in German a personal pronoun is the wrong choice (while it's the preferred version in English). Then you need a generalizing pronoun:

    Wie öffnet man diese Schachtel?

    When you translate this sentence back into English, you have these possibilities:

    1. How to open this box?
    2. How does one open this box?
    3. How do you open this box?

    #1 uses no pronoun at all. If such a construction is possible, it is often the best choice.
    #2 sounds formal and is rarely used in spoken English.
    #3 is ambiguous. (Does the speaker mean the person they speaks to, or do they mean the general case?)

    Note, that in German you also can use the pronoun du in a generalizing manner. This is similar to the English you, but in German usually man is preferred:

    Als Politiker musst du manchmal auch unliebsame Entscheidungen treffen.
    Als Politiker muss man manchmal auch unliebsame Entscheidungen treffen.

    As a politician, you sometimes have to make unpopular decisions.
    As a politician, one sometimes has to make unpopular decisions.

    But other as usually possible, this generalizing du cannot be transformed in the formal form Sie. If you do so, you loose any generalizing meaning:

    • clearly generalized:

      Als Politiker muss man manchmal auch unliebsame Entscheidungen treffen.
      Um die Schachtel zu öffnen, muss man diesen Knopf drücken.

    • ambiguous; interpretation depends on context:

      Als Politiker musst du manchmal auch unliebsame Entscheidungen treffen. (Tendency to generalized interpretation)
      Um die Schachtel zu öffnen, musst du diesen Knopf drücken. (Strong tendency to personal interpretation)

    • clearly personal (not generalized):

      Als Politiker müssen Sie manchmal auch unliebsame Entscheidungen treffen.
      Um die Schachtel zu öffnen, müssen Sie diesen Knopf drücken.


All in all, this is the best translation:

Can I ask you how to get to that station?

Darf ich fragen, wie man zum Bahnhof kommt?
Darf ich fragen, wie man zur Haltestelle kommt?
Darf ich fragen, wie man zur Station kommt?


This solution is wrong:

Darf ich fragen, wie Sie zum Bahnhof kommt?

Because this is in English:

May I ask, how she comes to the train station?

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  • 2
    +1, but point 1 is unnecessary and bloats the question. May 22, 2023 at 20:17

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