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I'm recently trying to understand the lyrics of the Opera "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" by Mozart. In Act 1, Osmin's Aria "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" (one example text and English translation can be find here https://www.opera-arias.com/mozart/die-entf%C3%BChrung-aus-dem-serail/solche-hergelaufne-laffen/)

I'm interested in this line:

"Mag ich vor den Teufel nicht"

I can understand that the meaning is related to something like "I don't like", "Mag ich nicht", but I don't understand the phrase "vor den Teufel" in this sentence.

What could be a good translation of this? Is this an archaic usage? (I know this text is from 18th century which must contains stuff that is not used today)

Any explanation would be really helpful!

Thank you in advance!

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  • What would also be helpful is the time in the video where the statement you are asking is made. Nov 29, 2023 at 10:06
  • @SwissCodeMen - It's right at the start isn't it? Per the libretto on the same site: "Solche hergelaufne Laffen/Die nur nach den Weibern gaffen,/Mag ich vor den Teufel nicht./Denn ihr ganzes Thun und Lassen/Ist, uns auf den Dienst zu passen,/Doch mich trügt kein solch Gesicht."
    – RDBury
    Nov 29, 2023 at 11:22

3 Answers 3

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Meaning of vor

vor is archaic here and would be für in modern German

für and vor have been used interchangeably, both with the meaning of Latin pro. Two examples:

Petrus aber stund draussen fur der thür. (John 18:16, according to the translation of the Bible by Luther 1545)

(This is the wording Bach still used in his St. John Passion.)

In modern German, it reads:

Petrus aber stand draußen vor der Tür. (Adaptation from 1912)

Another example from Immanuel Kant, using vor where modern German would use für (we say für etw. halten nowadays):

Allein daß diese Regeln den allgemeinen und letzten Grund aller vernünftigen Schlußart enthalten, erhellet daraus, weil diejenige, die sonst bis daher von allen Logikern vor die erste Regel aller Vernunftschlüsse gehalten worden, den einzigen Grund ihrer Wahrheit aus den unsrigen entlehnen müssen. (I. Kant, Die falsche Spitzfindigkeit der vier syllogistischen Figuren)

Literal Translations of the Phrase

The phrase would literally be translated as "I don't like it for the devil", meaning something along the lines of "Hell no, I don't like it at all". In modern German, there is an expression um's Verrecken nicht ("not for croaking") with the same meaning ("no way", "not in any case") and um in this expression and für / vor in your quote have the same function.

Meaning of für in this Construction

I cannot explain the reason why für / um is used in these construction very well. There is a sense of reciprocity involved, but it does not mean "I wouldn't like it (even) if I got the devil in return for it", I think it is more like "Devil forfend I should like it".

(As a sidenote, um and für appear to be somewhat interchangeable in German -- for instance in modern day Austrian German, um is actually used in the sense of German German für: Du kannst meine alte Waschmaschine um 100 € kaufen. in Austrian German would be Du kannst meine alte Waschmaschine für 100 € kaufen. in German German).

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    +1, especially for mentioning how vor is archaic for für. These were often used interchangeably, f.i., by Luther, and up to the age of Kant (which is to say, Mozart's time).
    – marquinho
    Nov 29, 2023 at 23:27
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    @marquinho Thanks for the hints, I added two examples to strengthen the claim. Nov 30, 2023 at 5:13
  • IMHO, the combination "für den Teufel" + "nicht" is akin a double (=strong) negation of our modern "für's Leben gern." Dec 13, 2023 at 19:00
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It's a simple intensifier. The mention of "devil" indicates that it's a strong intensifier, but the literal meaning is arbitrary, just as something "hellishly" difficult doesn't actually have anything to do with brimstone or mortal sins.

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It's difficult to say what this really meant, and it's possible that this was an idiom with bleached meaning same as todays auf den Tod, etwas auf den Tod nicht ausstehen können, or um Gottes Willen and bei Leibe nicht (thus @Killian Froth before me).

These are adverbs which mean "very much", "not at all", depending on context. As another example, auf Teufel-komm-raus is an adverb with more specific meaning. So auf, um and bei seem well precedented to me, but vor is illusive, except vor allem /vorall'n "even, of course".

As in English:

I can't stand them for [no] shit.

It is possible that vor den is hypercorrect and that the preposition may be a reinterpretation of a completely different phrase.

The expression seems to feature negative concord with devil, which is ambiguous when interpreted as intensive.

Hypothesis: related to vermögen1, thus *ich [ver-]mag sie _ den Teufel nicht. This would be important for the stress pattern as the Focus is on the negation, accordingly stressed. That's not usually the case with adverbial phrases like that in modern German. How very poetic.

1: cf. Grimm vermögen 2. jmd. habhaft werden, "= mögen" https://www.dwds.de/wb/dwb/verm%C3%B6gen

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