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I have been told that using the passive voice is generally considered bad style in German, possibly even more so than in English. Because of this, when I find English phrases in the passive voice in my current translation project I am mostly using the active voice with the impersonal "man" to translate them. However I have some passages where I would like to use it, for example:

Unfortunately it is not of much help against magic, nor against being dragged to prison.

This is referring to a magic belt which protects the wearer from harm, with these exceptions. I am thinking of translating it like so:

Unglücklicherweise hilft es viel weder gegen Zauber, noch dagegen, ins Gefängnis geworfen zu werden.

If I use the active voice it would seem more awkward as it would require more words:

Unglücklicherweise hilft es viel weder gegen Zauber, noch dagegen, dass man einen ins Gefängnis wirft.

Is it still considered bad style to use the passive in cases like this?

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    Must be Unglücklicherweise hilft es weder viel gegen Zauber … or better Unglücklicherweise hilft es weder besonders gegen Zauber … and if it's referring to a belt, it's of course er, not es because it's der Gürtel.
    – Janka
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 7:41
  • Stylistically, that sounds like a typical sentence from a Terry Pratchett book to me - in which case the passive voice would probably best convey the original tone ;-)
    – anderas
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 13:49
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    While I have no objections against the use of passive in German here, I think the active construction "... dagegen, dass einen jemand ins Gefängnis wirft." sounds a lot less clumsy than the variant with "man". Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 18:37

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I would not call it bad style to use passive voice in this sentence at all. I do think that the passive voice sentence does sound a bit more dry.

In this case, the active voice alternative has the issue with "man" vs. "einen", i.e. readers need to read the whole sentence until they understand from context who is meant by "man" and who is meant by "einen". The initial guess when coming across "man" would be that it refers to the person with the item (or whatever "es" is).

I would probably use something in-between that avoids the change of POV while at the same time staying at least a bit more personal than the zu infinitive:

Unglücklicherweise hilft es weder viel gegen Zauber noch dagegen, dass man ins Gefängnis geworfen wird.

(I also switched the "viel weder" to "weder viel". I get that you wanted "viel" to refer to both weder-noch parts, but other than in English, using viel before its negation with weder-noch doesn't work well in German.)

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  • Thank you I was staring at "viel weder.." and hating it, but couldn't work out how to improve it. "weder viel .. " sounds so much better! Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 16:58
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Beware of stylistic advice if it is very coarse and general. Style is a matter of judgement in specific cases. What I can see is the following:

  • The passive is less often necessary in German than it is in English because German has freer word order, so you can use word order to background or foreground information. In English, you often need a passive in order to move something to the beginning of a clause.
  • German may have more alternative grammatical constructions, like the impersonal pronouns "man / einen", or also function verbs, e.g. "ins Gefängnis kommen" vs. "ins Gefängnis geworfen werden".

If you can avoid excessive complexity by using such alternative constructions, this is probably seen as better style. Recently, we had another thread involving the English example "I should have been told about that". I proposed to translate "Man hätte mir das sagen sollen" instead of "Das hätte mir erzählt werden sollen" or "Ich hätte das erzählt bekommen sollen." I would agree that the latter is clumsy. Maybe this is because of the chaining of infinitival auxiliaries, or some imbalance with foregrounding/backgrounding, I don't know. But why should the passive as such be bad.

In your example, one could translate: "Leider hilft es nicht viel gegen Magie, und auch nicht dagegen, ins Gefängnis zu kommen." But it is possible that, in your context, you want to highlight the process of "dragging / throwing into prison". Then you would of course say "...dagegen, ins Gefängnis geworfen zu werden". I completely agree that your second translation using active voice is less straightforward. It is less concise, the "man / einen" somehow gets in the way. I think this is because you speak about a means for preventing something, and here, the passive allows you to get straight away to the name of the event that is prevented.

You would think there must be a lot of literature that compares passive use in English and German. If anybody could provide some references, that would be welcome.

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In my opinion, in your example "leider" might be a better translation of "unfortunately" than "unglücklicherweise". Also, "keine große Hilfe sein" might be a better translation of "to not be of much help" than "nicht viel helfen". For brevity, you might replace the "neither/nor" with a simple "or". (By the way: where's the "neither" in the original sentence?) Whether to use "Zauberei", "Zauber" or "Magie" as translation of "magic", depends a bit on the context. For example, in the case of a role playing game, I think that "Magie" might be best. My recommendation for the translation is:

Leider ist es keine große Hilfe gegen Magie oder dagegen, ins Gefängnis zu kommen.

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  • Nor doesn’t requite neither in English. Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 18:17

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