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Edward L. Homze's Foreign Labor in Nazi Germany (1967) is written in English and contains the following sentence:

In addition, nearly 300,000 Polish prisoners of war were used in the harvest of the 1939-1940 crop.

The source seems to come from Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik (1941) which says the following:

So konnten noch für die Hackfruchternte 1939 rund 300000 polnische Kriegsgefangene, vor allem zunächst im Osten des Reiches, zum Einsatz gebracht werden

A DeepL translation provides the following translation:

In this way, around 300,000 Polish prisoners of war could be used for the root crop harvest in 1939, mainly in the east of the Reich.

The wording went from "were used" to "could be used" which removes the certainty of the sentence. Is it possible the Homze simply mistranslated from the original source or is the machine translation incorrect?

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    Yeah, that's a funny thing both in English and German. "Good news! We were able to cut operation costs by 5%." You were able to? So did you then do it or not? Well, of course you did given that you had the motive and opportuntiy. :) So, in fact, such a sentence implies that you not only were able to, but also did it. The same implication is in play here, I would guess. Jun 16, 2023 at 12:34

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The English "could be used" is possibly slightly more ambiguous than than the German "konnten zum Einsatz gebracht werden" but still ist the translation nearer to the original. It's the past form of "can be used" here in the sense of "are available for work". A more direct translation (and IMHO also more accurate) of the German original might be "could be made use of". My take on the best translation would be: Thus in 1939 around 300,000 Polish prisoners of war could still be made use of for the root crop harvest - especially in the East of the Reich.

From the context it is clear: of course these people were used as forced labour for the crop harvest. Yet these POW as workforce was an offer organized by the state to the individual farmers to mitigate the shortage of labour caused by the forced conscriptions into the military. NAZI Germany was economically much more a free market or capitalist society than a communist one. So each independent farmer had to apply for labour being assigned. Thus from the state view or another observer it is an offering which had to be taken up by the individual farmers: the POW were (made) available for (forced) labour, thus the wording of "could be used" or better "could be made use of".

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    I don't think the information that were used is the correct translation draws from context. I think it is perfectly lucid from the grammatical construction of the sentence. could be used would have to be hätten zum Einsatz gebracht werden können or something along these lines. Jun 16, 2023 at 12:10
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    No, the German "konnten zum Einsatz gebracht werden" is not at all ambiguous here. See @lukeSawck's comment on the question for a perfectly valid English equivalent.
    – Juergen
    Jun 16, 2023 at 17:37
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The original translation has the correct meaning

The German uses a roundabout way of saying that the feat was achieved.

This form also exists in English: Example "Finally the culprit could be brought to justice". Although it says "could" it is clear that he was in fact brought to justice. So a more literal/verbatim translation would probably be: "...could be brought to use...". But the German Text has the clear meaning "they could and were used in this way"

Otherwise the German text would have said something like "So hätten für die ... gebracht werden können" - in English "...could have been used..." to make clear it was an option and not a fact.

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Formally the DeepL translation is absolutely correct, but (as you write) the word "could" seems to qualify the certainty of the statement. In that sense Homze's translation is more appropriate, though it is less literal.

The problem here is that a machine (at the moment) cannot understand the intention of the text. The purpose was to tell a success story. At least partially the "Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik" were part of the propaganda machine of the 3rd Reich.

The message of "So konnten noch ... zum Einsatz gebracht werden" is that it was very difficult to manage the root crop harvest, but nevertheless it was a success due to the use of 300,000 Polish PoWs. Note that in 1939 the German Wehrmacht already had 2.75 million soldiers leading to manpower shortage in many branches of economy.

Therefore the German "konnten zum Einsatz gebracht werden" means something like "it was made possible to use".

So perhaps a good non-literal translation would be

It was made possible to use around 300,000 Polish prisoners of war for the root crop harvest in 1939, mainly in the east of the Reich.

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  • No, the German "konnten zum Einsatz gebracht werden" did not mean something like "it was made possible to use". It means "were used" here. @Falco's answer is correct, this one is not.
    – Juergen
    Jun 16, 2023 at 17:40
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    @Juergen As Falco writes, in the context of the given text "konnte" means that "the feat was achieved". I can't see a big difference to "making it possible". Jun 16, 2023 at 22:16
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As the other answers affirm, the DeepL text is a word-for-word translation whereas Homze's text more effectively captures the essence of the original, rendering the human being's work a more effective translation. These answers give a good cultural accounting of why that is; i.e., why an English speaker would understand the certainty of the action in question, given full context.

I would like to explain why a German speaker would have no doubt about the sentence's meaning, and why it is grammatically correct to translate it into a less-ambiguous English form. Specifically, let's answer

Is it possible the Homze simply mistranslated from the original source...?

No. The sentence "So konnten noch [...] zum Einsatz gebracht werden" means unambiguously that something was definitively made use of in the past, because konnten is the simple past tense of können, and können with this spelling has no other meaning than the literal ability to do something.

The problem arises because German and English handle the subjunctive aspect in fundamentally different ways, to the extent that English speakers barely recognise the subjunctive mood at all -- even though we use it all the time. From Wikipedia:

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as: wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language.

In particular, the English word could serves double-duty as both the simple past tense of can and as a marker for the subjunctive mood. Crucially, when used subjunctively, could is in the present tense.

Contrast "I can do that" with "I could do that" -- the former is an assertion of fact, and usually an offer to take direct action, while the latter is less concrete and more likely to be an opinion, a boast, or a weaker offer of assistance at some future point.

In order to express the subjunctive could in the past tense, we use the auxiliary verb have. "I could have done that" is a subjunctive statement about the past.

So we have a situation where "I could do X" means either "I was definitely able to do X [and did]" or "I am capable of doing X [but might not]", depending on whether it's the past tense of "can" or the present subjunctive marker. Which it is hinges on the overall context, the intentions of the speaker, and the understanding of the listener.

In German, this grammatical ambiguity simply does not exist. When German speakers wish to indicate the subjunctive mood, we use a whole class of verb forms called Konjunktiv II (technically, the second conjunctive declension). In practice, this means we usually use the verbs würden or wären or könnten (the KII forms of werden, sein, and können, respectively) as auxiliaries.

Thus if a German speaker reads "So konnten...gebracht werden", they understand immediately and intuitively that this is the literal past tense of können. If the writer had wished to express the subjunctive mood, they would have written "So könnten...gebracht werden".

tl;dr: DeepL"knows" that konnten is the past tense of können, and it "knows" that können is the cognate of can, and it further "knows" that could is (among other things) the past tense of can, but it doesn't (yet?) "know" the vagaries of the English subjunctive, and so it (mis-)translated the unambiguous German sentence into a much more ambiguous one in English.

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