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I keep encountering incidents that feel to me like unwarranted insistence by German speakers to limit the flexibility of the language. I can imagine these questions may be annoying to some native German speakers, and I apologize in advance for that. But here is another example that I encountered recently.

I was attempting to translate:

You say he’s gone wrong. Do you know how he’s gone wrong? No! Do you know what shape this wrongness takes? No!

Du erklärst, dass er schief gegangen ist. Weißt du, wie er schief gegangen ist? Nein! Weißt du, welche Form das Schiefgegangene nimmt? Nein!

and I was told that the use of nehmen in this context is unquestionably wrong and was corrected with:

Du erklärst, dass er schief gegangen ist. Weißt du, wie er schief gegangen ist? Nein! Weißt du, welche Form das Schiefgegangene annimmt? Nein!

Now, I concede that all the examples I could find in DWDS associate Form with annehmen and not nehmen. So, I concede that conventional German requires annehmen and not nehmen here. But is this use of nehmen actually wrong, or simply unconventional?

If you look carefully at DWDS's entry for nehmen these examples can be noticed:

etw. verwenden, aufbringen etw. beanspruchen Beispiele: umgangssprachlichsich [Dativ] frei nehmen gespreizter nahm Gelegenheit, seinen Vorschlag anzubringen

It seems like taking the opportunity to do something, is similar in action to taking the form of something.

The DWDS entry includes this section that is even headed by annehmen:

etw. annehmen Beispiele: nehmen Sie meinen allerherzlichsten Dank! sie wollte keinen Dank nehmen von jmdm. Rat nehmen er nahm, was sich ihm bot

Finally, under section 18: etw. nach einem Original aufnehmen, festhalten

Beim Nehmen der Formen von der natürlichen Vorlage [zum Herstellen eines Gipsabgusses] [ Urania1959]

So, why would these 2 native German speakers be so adamant that nehmen was wrong in this context? Or is this just showing very little tolerance for the unconventional?

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    "Form annehmen" means something specific and "Form nehmen" means something specific. "Form nehmen" is never used for your first example. It's two different expressions. May 31, 2023 at 21:02
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    How correct would "Do you know what shape this wrongness takes up?" sound to you in English? May 31, 2023 at 21:31
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    Your quoted example from DWDS and most others under 18. sound quite unusual to my ears and would employ a different verb in modern German: "Musik aufnehmen", "ein Motiv auf Farbfilm aufnehmen", "einen Abdruck abnehmen", "beim Abnehmen der Formen von der Vorlage". Taken literally, "eine Form nehmen" means "to take a mould" (as in "to pick up a cookie mould" or "to steal a sand mould from another child"). It does not mean "to take shape" as in your example. May 31, 2023 at 21:36
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    You have to live with the fact that English condenses far more meanings into homonyms than German does. Translating from English means expanding those homonyms with the help of a dictionary. That's tiresome. Learn the German collocations instead.
    – Janka
    Jun 1, 2023 at 3:11
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    I get the impression that the rigid thing here is not the German language but the desire to be able to translate word for word without context and assuming that expressions do have exact 1:1 translations including all connotations Jun 1, 2023 at 6:00

2 Answers 2

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You say he’s gone wrong. Do you know how he’s gone wrong? No! Do you know what shape this wrongness takes? No!

First off, "gone wrong" is idiomatic. It doesn't mean "walking in the wrong direction", but rather "having an untrue or wrong opinion or conviction" or somply "failed". If an experiment "goes wrong" it has an unexpected and undesired outcome. Therefore "schiefgehen" (it is "schiefgehen" [to fail], not "schief gehen" [walking lopsided]) is a fitting translation for an experiment but not a person.

A possible translation would be "schiefgelegen haben", but that is very informal. "Unrecht haben" or maybe "im Unrecht sein" is perhaps the best (and most neutral) translation.

Another point of objection is this translation of "(this) wrongness":

das Schiefgegangene

But you are not talking about a (material or immaterial) thing, but a process (of being wrong). Therefore the translation should be "das Schiefgehen" (the act of being wrong) instead of "das Schiefgegangene". If you accept my translation of "Unrecht haben" it would be: "das Unrechthaben" instead of (analogous to your construction) "das Unrecht".

Finally "nehmen" vs. "annehmen". In this context "(eine Form) annehmen" means to turn into (a certain form), to transform (into sth.) or to morph. This is a valid translation. "Nehmen", on the other hand, means "to take" and is simply wrong. But maybe you want to express how this going wrong becomes apparent? For this, I would rather use "sich äußern".

Here is an attempt at a translation putting these pieces together:

Du sagst (erklärst?), er wäre im Unrecht. Weißt du, auf welche Weise er im Unrecht ist? (Weißt du, warum er im Unrecht sein sollte?) Nein! Weißt du, auf welche Weise sich dieses Im-Unrecht-sein äußert? Nein!

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I'm not going to try to get into the specifics, but if you're just learning then "unconventional" probably means wrong. If you're an experienced jazz musician you can get away with using blue notes because you know when it sounds natural to include them. If you learning the piano and play the wrong note it just sounds wrong, and arguing that you were being "unconventional" is not going to convince anyone. It's the same for language learners; you need to be a native speaker or a achieve a very high level of fluency to use unusual phrasing and still sound natural. It can be frustrating because it's usually not a matter of being able to state the problem in terms of dictionary meanings and grammar rules; you just have to develop an "ear" for what sounds correct.

An example in music that springs to mind is a "melody" that's just a single note played over and over. When you or I do it it sounds silly, at best an imitation of Morse code. When Antônio Jobim does it (Samba de uma Nota Só aka One Note Samba) it's music.

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  • I must say, I find this point of view very judgmental -- a point that is repeatedly emphasized by reference to the "naturalness", or lack thereof, of the speech. I think it is possible to give a beginner the same latitude to experiment as a recognized authority. One may not like what the beginner produces as often, but the creative process does not need to be restricted by anyone's prejudices.
    – user44591
    May 31, 2023 at 23:55
  • The question, in this case, is whether the bad translation has produced a wrong translation or an unconventional one. What I hear you saying is that it depends upon who is doing the translating, which is what I have heard from other Germans. My impression is that this point of view is much more common among Germans than English speakers, at least where I am. Someone learning a language will take much longer to achieve a level that sounds "natural" than a level that he/she can be understood. Positive feedback is essential at both levels.
    – user44591
    May 31, 2023 at 23:57
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    @user44591: "What I hear you saying is that it depends upon who is doing the translating" - that is not at all what I read in this answer. As is explained, 'you just have to develop an "ear" for what sounds correct'. A beginner typically has not mastered this yet. They have the very same "right" to be creative with a language as someone who has lots of experience with the same language, but the beginner is exceedingly likely to end up with something that is unidiomatic or even incomprehensible, when the experienced person would find a creative yet suitable way to put it. Jun 1, 2023 at 7:51

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