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When I attempted to translate:

It’s been giving me a case of nerves, or it would if I let it.

to 2 native German speakers by saying:

Das gab mir einen Fall der Nerven, oder es würde, wenn ich es ließe.

I was told the "einen Fall der Nerven" was a phrase with no understandable meaning in German. My question is, why not? Given that that phrase may have never previously appeared anywhere in German literature, why is it impossible for Germans to imagine an understanding of it anyway?

In English, were I to read something like, "That handed me a bag of nerves," even though I have never seen such a phrase, I would be able to find a meaning for it within the context it was written. But Germans do not seem to do this. I find this particularly surprising, since the phrase

geht jmdm. auf die Nerven

is well established in German, is along the lines of meaning that "einen Fall der Nerven" might have, and would seem to suggest how one could extrapolate to other meanings. Is my experience in this regard simply not reflective of reality, or do Germans actually treat their language that much differently than English speakers use English?

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Das gab mir einen Fall der Nerven

Indeed, I would not understand this, either.

I think the reason is not so much that German native speakers do not extrapolate or assume language to be rigid in general, but that elements of this particular phrase are close to other expressions than the intended ones, thereby leading to confusion.

Let's look at what I mean one by one:

ein Fall

This word has multiple very different meanings in German, in particular:

  • a case, similar like in English, talking about an occurrence of something, e.g. medical or criminological
  • a drop, the action of falling

ein Fall der/des ...

When I read "Fall" coupled with an (inflected) definite article like this, I kind of assume the less abstract, second meaning to be the intended one. "Ein Fall der ..." - ok, something has fallen down.

Curiously, had you translated a bit more word-by-word, you would have arrived at "ein Fall von", which might have rendered the phrase slightly more comprehensible in German. "Ein Fall von ..." is commonly used in German to refer to the concept "a case of ...".

gab mir einen Fall

This is confusing because in German, "jemandem einen Fall von ... geben" sounds like "assigning" the case to someone. This might be a case of a certain medical condition assigned to a given doctor, or a criminal case assigned to a commissioner, but the target of "geben" is the one handling it, not the victim.

Typical verbs to express what happens to the affected person with respect to the "case of something" would be rather "werden" (because the person is or becomes the case), "haben", or "erleiden".

ein Fall der/von Nerven

Lastly, it is not quite clear what "Nerven" is meant to express here. As the full expression is not a set one with a fixed meaning, we can only go by the word "Nerven", and that is used in multiple meanings again:

  • It can mean something like what you wanted to express, that someone is really unsure/nervous about something - the words "schwache Nerven" and "Nervenbündel" point into that direction, or, as suggested by Henning in his comment, "jemandem flattern die Nerven" or "mit jemandem gehen die Nerven durch". IMHO, while well established and comprehensible, these latter two expressions are almost a bit "colourful" and maybe not in everyone's active vocabulary.
  • It can also mean that someone is annoyed by something, as in "something gets on someone's nerves" - "etwas geht jemandem auf die Nerven", for which there is also a single verb: "etwas nervt jemanden". These expressions are extremely common.
  • At the same time, it can also mean quite the contrary, that someone is especially bold or brazen. To my knowledge, this is expressed with a singular in English, like in "someone has the nerve to do ...", but in German, it's the plural in this case, as well, typically in the exclamation "Der/Die hat [vielleicht] Nerven!"

Outside of the last phrase, it should be noted that "Nerven" is pretty much neutral. "Nerven" simply are a part of the body, which is neither good nor bad. Therefore, "ein Fall von Nerven" doesn't quite work, either, because you expect something "problematic" or at least "noteworthy" when there is a "case of something". "Ein Fall von schwachen Nerven" would be clear, but "ein Fall von Nerven" sounds just incomplete.


In all, encountering a phrase for the first time is, in general, okay and the meaning can often be deduced from the individual parts in German. But in this particular case, most of the individual parts can have mulitple meanings, sometimes even contrary ones. Thus, it is quite hard to find out what it is supposed to mean.

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  • Yes, without context (what is "it"?) this can't be translated and the first part and the second part are contradictory. Perhaps: "Es hat mich genervt, oder hätte es, wenn ich es gelassen hätte." or "Es hat mir keine Ruhe gelassen ..." or "Es hat mich nervös gemacht ..." or ...
    – user6495
    May 25, 2023 at 4:50
  • These comments have provided me with a host of new ways to understand the German language -- ways that I have never found in any other source. Thank you.
    – user44591
    May 25, 2023 at 16:41
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would seem to suggest how one could extrapolate to other meanings.

Das gab mir einen Fall der Nerven,

I couldn't. There's too much unusual phrasing in this. It's gibberish. Knowing what it should mean from English, you first had to replace it gave me by ich habe bekommen.

Da habe ich einen Fall der Nerven bekommen.

Oooo! You mean Anfall, right?

Da habe ich einen Anfall der Nerven bekommen.

Okay, let's get rid of those nerves altogether.

Da habe ich einen Anfall bekommen.

That's perfectly understandable.

  • a case of nerves — der Anfall
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  • Overall, I like your explanation, but I think the fact that Fall and Anfall sound similar is a bit of a coincidence here. May 24, 2023 at 20:18
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    I'm not sure "Anfall" is a good choice here, as the term has mostly medical connotations. It would be more akin of a "seizure" or an "attack" of some kind, while "a case of nerves" is as far as I know much less severe. A better fit might be something like "mir flattern die Nerven" or "(mit) mir gehen die Nerven durch". May 24, 2023 at 20:51
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    "Fall" can often be translated as "case", just not in this, er, case. I gather that with a disease you'd normally use a verb "erkranken" but that doesn't seem appropriate here. I would translate "Anfall" as attack, and while an "attack of nerves" is a common phrase, I don't think it quite has the intended meaning. The phrase "a case of nerves" is rather idiomatic, so translating word for word will lead to misunderstandings. I'm thinking just say "nervös" in German.
    – RDBury
    May 24, 2023 at 20:59
  • @RDBury: Oh, "case" could indeed be translated as "Fall" also in this case (i.e. the case of being "nervös" about something) - it might not be the most idiomatic thing to do, but it would be comprehensible for a German speaker. What does not work, however, is the combination with the particular words "der Nerven"; I have tried to elaborate on this in my answer. May 24, 2023 at 21:10
  • @HenningKockerbeck I think it's the perfect choice here. It sure is a medical term. But it is quite commonly used in every day language like here illustrated (which then means less specifically a nervous breakdown) . Boah, bei dem dauernden Geschrei und Gezänk krieg' ich hier gleich 'nen Anfall! May 26, 2023 at 6:41
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The phrase "giving a case of nerves" is an idiomatic expression, unless you can explain that you are "given" a "case" of "nerves". I assume you were already born with all your nerves.

As such, you can't assume that the same sequence of arbitrary words will have the same (or any) meaning in another language.

Regarding the second part of your question, of course people can guess the meaning of a sentence, but this guess can be right or wrong. More context make a correct guess more likely.

You could also write the English sentence as

I nervous if let.

As far as I know, this is not correct English, but readers might guess the meaning.

When you read that something "handed a bag of nerves", you know that the writer doesn't know English idioms.

I also think you are confusing two parts of the reaction of your German audience. They are correct to say that your translation to German doesn't make sense. That doesn't mean they can't guess what you want to express.

The phrase "geht jmdm. auf die Nerven" is also an idiomatic expression that can't be explained from the words used. You wouldn't say "walking someone on the nerves" in English.

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From my point of view the problem derives from the substantive Fall. While it has many meanings (similar to case, but especially including the downfall meaning), none of it seems to direct towards your intended meaning. Anfall or Schlaganfall share the stem, but don't combine easily with Nerven.

Danach war ich ein Fall für die Klapsmühle.

is the closest somewhat established usage of Fall I came up with and it provides no clue how to handle your translation either.

So in my opinion you had better chances to be understood by resorting to a meaningless or filler substantive as Dings:

Das gab mir ein(en) Dings der Nerven...

avoids red herrings and while not winnig any prizes for style it has a better chance of transmitting at least the idea.

So no, I don't think the observed non-understanding is explained by reduced willingness of the recipient, it just misses to provide any useful trigger.

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