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There is a question on another stackexchange site about the meaning of zurückhalten in this quote (an aphorism by Franz Kafka):

Du kannst dich zurückhalten von den Leiden der Welt, das ist dir freigestellt und entspricht deiner Natur, aber vielleicht ist gerade dieses Zurückhalten das einzige Leid, das du vermeiden könntest.

The translation was:

"You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."

I believe there is a problem though. In English "You can hold back from the suffering of the world" does not sound idiomatic. For me as an English speaker "hold back from suffering" is quite unclear.

A question for a German speaker is "Du kannst dich zurückhalten von den Leiden der Welt" a normal ordinary German sentence? When you hear it do you think "That is not ambiguous, it is very clear." ?

Also.. the second sentence seems to equate "holding back" itself with "suffering". I would imagine that avoiding suffering is not suffering. How do you interpret it?

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  • Maybe "sich etwas entziehen" is more fitting? Aug 27, 2023 at 15:42
  • Is there a somewhat well-known source for this sentence or text? It doesn't read like it's recent - except if it is from someone trying to use a rather dated or elated or flowery style of speech / text. The context might help to interpret it as well. Aug 27, 2023 at 16:08
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    It is an aphorism by Franz Kafka and I don't believe there is more context. aphorismen.de/zitat/5342
    – Sam
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:14
  • To my understanding of English, another translation would have been "you can restrain yourself from the suffering of the world...this very restraint is the one suffering you could have avoided." Sich zurückhalten in DWDS: sich dazu zwingen, etw. nicht zu tun, Merriam-Webster restrain: to prevent from doing...something
    – ccprog
    Aug 29, 2023 at 18:19

2 Answers 2

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It's not idiomatic in German either. Zurückhalten literally means to hold back in German as well. More idiomatic would be Du kannst Abstand halten von den Leiden der Welt …

But main point about the saying is that doubling of zurückhalten. As the second Zurückhalten isn't replaceable by anything but Zurückhaltung, which would also be a bit more idiomatic in this context.

So Kafka had chosen zurückhalten for both explicitely for creating that doubling. And that's the whole secret.

The meaning of the aphorism is quite clear to me: It's Leben heißt Leiden and if you chose to minimize your exposure to suffering, you can only do that by minimizing your living. And you probably don't want that.

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  • You are probably right about the interpretation, including Leben heißt Leiden, although when I read the words of the aphorism, I can't decipher that. :-)
    – Sam
    Aug 28, 2023 at 1:07
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The relevant sense of "sich zurückhalten" (the reflexive verb) seems to be "to back off" (choosing from the proposals on leo.org), or maybe "to stay away". For my kind of German, "sich heraushalten" would be slightly more idiomatic, but Kafka's German may be different, it is from Prague and from a century ago... For me, "sich zurückhalten" is rather "to refrain from doing something", but perhaps the author actually wanted to include this association? The following nominalised infinitive "Zurückhalten" drops the reflexive, this is normal, I assume that it is the sense of the reflexive verb here, too.

The last sentence is not easy to comprehend, but I don't think this is any different in the English and the German versions. Your summary seems correct to me, and Kafka does say what you say you find paradoxical.

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