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I know we get a lot of requests here for translations of idioms and expressions, and many times they don't exist. (Something I often point out myself.) But I thought this might deserve some discussion anyway. First, this is a phrase I associate with programming. For instance you've got a really messy section of code, the logic is more complicated than it needs to be, and it's not at all clear by inspection how or why it works. Usually these are created by a series of "quick and dirty" fixes, small changes that sacrifice programming quality for the sake of repairing a problem as quickly as possible. So there's a temptation to rewrite the poorly written code to clean up the logic and make it easier to understand what the code is actually doing. But it's often a mistake to start on such a code improvement project because it's unlikely to actually improve performance and may, in fact, introduce problems that weren't there before. It's usually when the new problems appear that you realize should have followed the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" advice. Obviously one should not take the advice in all situations though; it's not a good idea to wait until your brakes are scraping metal on metal before you get the pads replaced. Also, programming isn't the original context; apparently it was first popularized by Bert Lance, a former cabinet member in the Carter administration.

Wiktionary gives four translations of the phrase, but they're variations on the first one: "man soll nicht reparieren, was nicht kaputt ist". Translating this back into English: "one shouldn't repair what isn't broken". I'd argue that while this gets to the technical meaning, it doesn't really capture the original English version. For one thing, the English uses highly nonstandard and colloquial language, "ain't" instead of "isn't", "broke" instead of "broken", "fix" instead of "repair". I'm pretty sure Bert Lance spoke better English than that. Translating it into flawless Standard German doesn't really capture the "I might not know grammar, but I do know this, and so should you" feeling conveyed by the original expression. More importantly, the nonstandard language allows for a pithiness that may not be possible otherwise. It sounds like you're compressing a lifetime's experience into seven single syllable words.

A similar phrase in English is "leave well enough alone", and Wiktionary translates this as "das Bessere ist des Guten Feind". At first I thought this sounded like a good candidate but I gather from DWDS that the meaning is kind of the opposite, more like "good isn't good enough if there is something better". I think this is a word for word translation of "perfect is the enemy of good" which means something very different from the German. I interpret it as something like "Don't spend years trying to make something perfect when you can make something good in a few hours."

So there are several aphorisms in English which express the same general idea; perhaps "don't gild the lily" is another one. But I couldn't find something similar in German other than direct translations from the English.

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    There is a German idiom for the same thing: "never change a running system". Unfortunately, it's in English.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 21:48
  • Another, similar idiom is "Rien ne dures que le provisure" - unfortunately it's in French, and pretty probably there are at least 2 misspellings in there. Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 22:14
  • @DonQuiKong - That has a Wiktionary entry, and indeed it's listed as a pseudo-anglicism -- it appears to be English but isn't.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 22:42
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    @userunknown: I know this in German as "Nichts hält länger als ein Provisorium.", though I'd argue it is at best remotely similar. For starters, this one doesn't recommend any course of action. Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 0:06
  • Yes, it's a German idiom. But it's in English so I guess it's still not what you are looking for. But it's actually used in German conversations.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 7:36

6 Answers 6

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You already found the answer: There is no German idiom, that for 100% matches exactly that English phrase. So the best you can get, is this:

Wenn's nicht hin ist, dann reparier's nicht!

Here hin is used as a colloquial synonym for kaputt, beschädigt, defekt (broken, damaged) and the two pronouns »es« are merged to the preceding words, as is often done in colloquial German (wenn es → wenn's; repariere es → reparier's). But I wouldn't claim, that this sentence has the status of a Redewendung, that someone would add to a list of German phrases. It's just a translation of the English phrase in colloquial German.

But German has another word, that would fit well to similar situations, but it's just a word (a verb) and not a whole phrase:

verschlimmbessern

This word is a blend of verschlimmern (to make worse) and‎ verbessern (to improve). So it means: to make something worse by trying to improve it.

You usually use verschlimmbessern when you judge an improvement that already has been made, and realize that things became even worse. It is rare (but not impossible) to use this word in an advice or warning before someone tries to improve something.

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  • Nice word to learn! Some day someone will ask on the English Language exchange what a good one-word translation for verschlimmbessern is and the answer will be that there isn't one but there is a phrase that doesn't quite fit but covers a similar idea. Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 22:13
  • "Verschlimmbessern" seems applicable in similar situations, but as you said, it's a verb and not a proverb. On the other hand, I don't know of an English equivalent of "verschlimmbessern" other than to write out "damage while trying to improve". The closest I could come up with is "the cure is worse than the disease".
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 0:09
  • PS. I just saw a video with a native German's take on the US opioid crisis. It struck me that the there has been a lot of "Verschlimmbessern" going here, from Nixon's "War on Drugs" to doctors prescribing opioids for relatively minor pain. It was pretty much the same with Prohibition. Perhaps English really needs a word like "Verschlimmbessern".
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 8:55
  • "I fixed it until it broke"?
    – Kroltan
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 10:47
  • As usual, the hardest part of asking a question here is deciding which answer to accept; it's almost always a community effort. This seems to be the winner in terms of being the most informative overall though.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 15:57
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I don't know of an idiom that would exactly translate to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". May be that's why German engineering is known for improving things constantly, sometimes beyond perfection towards a not really desirable state :). You could try a literal translate, but that would not turn out as an idiom.

Notably, there is also no real German expression for overengineering (we tend to use the English expression, if at all).

We do, however, have (colloquial) expressions that denote the potential outcome of not following the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule gone wrong, like kaputtreparieren, an action where the repair made the state of the (maybe not even broken) thing even worse. Verschlimmbessern would be another one.

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  • 'kaputtreparieren' ist mir noch nicht über den Weg gelaufen - aber es ist natürlich sofort verständlich. Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:16
  • @planetmaker - Verschlimmbessern does seem to be more common, and it has an entry in DWDS.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 23:04
  • I suspected there might be some kind of cultural difference to account for the saying existing in one language but not the other. An example I've heard comparing American and Japanese culture is that Americans say "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" but the Japanese say "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down". You hear a lot about "continuous improvement" in American companies as well, but it's often more talk than action.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 23:43
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    @RDBury: It's more common, but it has a somewhat different meaning. You can "verbessern" something that is already good (though not optimal). If the result ends up worse than the original state, "verschlimmbessern" has happened. In contrast, when you repair something, it's assumed that there is some flaw. Thus, there is a legitimate need to execute a repair, just that this activity results in a worse state than before. This is "kaputtreparieren". Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 0:11
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It's not idiomatic in German (yet) but a snappy equivalent phrase is for example:

Ist es nicht hin, mach es nicht heil.

with the corollary

Sonst machst du hin, was heil ist.

  • hin – passed, defective
  • heil — functional

If you want to put that as dialectal German, it would come out for example as:

Isses nich hin, maches nich heil.

Sonst machste hin, was heil is.

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    I like the phrase "Ist es nicht hin, mach es nicht heil." It's concise, there are no polysyllabic words, it has symmetry of meter, and there is even a bit of alliteration between the "hin" and "heil". It's kind of a variation on Hubert Schölnast's translation, but I think it's an improvement.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 0:34
  • It is a nice invention indeed, but I feel we should not try to make up non-idiomatic "proverbs" here.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 2:57
  • @Jonathan Scholbach - Right. If you could make up proverbs then you should probably sell your talents to some ad agency. I'm happy to just get an improvement over what's currently in Wiktionary; I don't think it's a high bar. Speaking of which, I went ahead and added this version to the Wiktionary entry.
    – RDBury
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 8:37
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Most people will use the english phrase

never change/touch a running system

with the same idea of your phrase, and is perfectly understood in a business context, and also has the same "informal" feeling, as its in english :)

If you really wanted something german you could say:

Bewährtes Bewahren

Might translate to something like

keep that which is proven to work

I've seen this tossed around in business context, when people suggested some improvements on things that don't really need change.

But more often it's used when designing something anew when deciding if some parts of the old system/code/principles should be kept for the new system/code/principles.

Also, while its a cute two word combo as the two words are almost the same, its not really informal, and sounds very "altbacken" (old) For me, the phrase sounds like something a beer ad in the 80s could use or something you would see on an marketing poster for the conservative party CDU.

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Generally one could say

Ohne Not nichts unternehmen
(Do nothing without necessity)

where »ohne Not« is idiomatic.

»Du lebst seit Jahrzehnten in Niedersachsen, willst du auch Deutscher werden?«
(You have lived in Lower Saxony for decades, do you also want to become German?)

»Ohne Not kein Gang zur Behörde.«
(No going to the authorities unless necessary.)

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Redensartenindex has no entries for "reparieren" or "beheben", which is how they translate fixen², incidently.

"Brechen" is not metaphoric and unlikely to lead to good results. The index only has zu Bruch gehen. Kaput has no entry either.

Without idiomaticity one might say,

Fass das nicht an, bevor es noch kaput / zu Bruch geht

Interestingly, ain't seems to begin as a contraction of am not, but it has a side of have not: “As a contraction of have not and has not, ain't derives from the earlier form han't, which shifted from /hænt/ to /heɪnt/, and underwent h-dropping in most dialects.” (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ain't#Etymology)

We never say * ja wenn es nicht gebrochen hat. We say what doesn't kill me makes me stronger ("was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stark").

It is obvious that English brook, the regular cognate to German brauchen, has largely passed out of usage. For example, "Can you break a twenty?" may belong here: can you do me a favour, if you could use a large bill, trade me your small change?, ie. brauchst du ...?

The meaning is conveyed by to break in (new shoes, a young horse), cp. German anbrauchen, more often anbrechen, but chiefly verbrauchen, never ever to be confused with verbrechen, Ehebruch.

In this view, there is only one plausible cognate to fixen, left to the imagination of the inclined reader, which explains why there is no German cognate of the phrase in living memory. German Fixer "heroin junky" might relate to this.


In addition, the noun Ger. Brauch ("custom, tradition") presents problems. Traho as well as alt-her-ge-brachtes might suggest a relation to bringen, to say the least (compare hand-me-downs).

Therefore one might say:

Wenn es nichts bringt, dann lass es halt

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