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This sentence appears in Anthony Doerr's Alles Licht, das wir nicht sehen, Aus dem Englischen von Werner Löcher-Lawrence:

Die Amerikaner haben die Deutschen vorm Meer gestellt.

DeepL translates this as

The Americans have defeated the Germans at sea.

but I cannot find in DWDS or Duden any use of stellen that would correspond to this English. To me it looks like it is saying, "The Americans put/stood the Germans at the sea." How does one understand this usage, i.e. what is the most accurate way to understand the meaning here?

For context, I am quoting the entire first part of the paragraph, of which the sentence in question is the last sentence. I do not see how this adds sufficient context to answer my question:

Nachdem Werner gegessen hat, geht er hinauf in die Suite im obersten Stock und stellt sich in die achteckige Badewanne. Er drückt gegen den Fensterladen und öffnet ihn ein paar Zentimeter. Die Abendluft ist eine Wohltat. Unter dem Fenster, auf einer der Befestigungen auf der zum Meer hin gelegenen Seite des Hotels, wartet die große 88-Millimeter-Kanone. Auf der anderen Seite der Mauer, hinter den Schießscharten, geht es zehn, fünfzehn Meter hinab zu den grünweißen Schaumkronen der Brandung. Links wartet die Stadt, grau und dicht. Weit im Osten glüht rot eine Schlacht, die selbst nicht zu sehen ist.

Duden and DWDS discuss the use of stellen with regard to catching or confronting criminals, but I do not see how that meaning applies here. So the suggested duplicate post does not apply.

The original English sentence in the novel is:

The Americans have them pinned against the sea.

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  • BTW, this seems like a better translation of the English: "Die Amerikaner haben die Deutschen vorm Meer gefesselt."
    – user44591
    Jan 28 at 22:46
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    @HalvarF - The English original makes it clear what the intent is. "To pin (down)", in the figurative sense, means to trap into position, making it impossible to move. It's used in military jargon, as well as other contexts. Google comes up with "festhalten" for this, and maybe that would be a better verb than "stellen" here. But "stellen" has about the same meaning so it seems like a reasonable choice. In any case, DeepL's translation back into English is way off.
    – RDBury
    Jan 28 at 23:58
  • @RDBury Yes, this context has been added since I made my previous comment. I have deleted that comment now. I agree "stellen" is a good translation here.
    – HalvarF
    Jan 29 at 7:46
  • See Grimm/DWB „dialektisch jemanden st., regieren, lenken, s. Strodtmann idiot. osnabrug. (1756) 229; Woeste 254ᵃ.“ dwds.de/wb/dwb/stellen#GS44159
    – vectory
    Feb 2 at 21:23

3 Answers 3

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The word "stellen" has several (and very different) meanings and only context tells you which one is intended:

The most common meaning is "to put", but might be replaced by more fitting verbs in translation:

Er stellte das Buch ins Regal. (He put the book onto the shelf.)
Er stellte den Wagen in die Garage. (He drove the car into the garage.)

Notice that "stellen" has a connotation of to "put into an upright position". In the above example the book is expected to stand, otherwise one would use "legen" (to lay).

Most probably you learned the word in this meaning. There are other meanings, though:

The one you encountered in your example is: to put someone (or something) into a position where he/it would want to flee but has no possibility to do so. Depending on context the proper English translation is "to corner", "to confront", "to catch", etc.. It can be used for persons or animals and even inanimate objects like ships as well:

Die Polizei stellte den Flüchtingen. (Police confronted the fleeing one.)
Der Wolf stellte den Hasen. (The wolf cornered the rabbit.)
Die Piraten stellten das Schiff. (The pirates caught the ship.)

Another meaning of "stellen" is "to provide" or "to contribute". What is provided can be either persons (for a certain position) or material:

Der Klub stellt das Spielmaterial. (The club provides the playing material.)
Diese Partei stellt den Präsidenten. (This party "provides" the president, in other words, the president is member of this party.)

Notice that the above example "die Piraten stellten das Schiff" could also mean that the pirates provided the ship (and another party manned it).

There is also reflexive form "sich stellen", which means "to surrender" or "to face":

Er stellt sich der Polizei. (He surrenders himself to the police.)
Er stellt sich dem Kampf. (He faces the fight [and no longer avoids it].)
Er stellt sich der Verantwortung. (He faces the [consequences of his] responsibility.

And, lastly: before one is conscripted into the army there is an examination if one is fit to discharge his duties there. This is called "Musterung" in Germany and "Rekrutierung" in Switzerland but "Stellung" in Austria ("Stellung" being the verb made noun of "stellen").

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  • I would like to accept what you say. But to my mind there is a significant difference in meaning between, being pinned, and, being caught. In the latter case, the party is actually in the custody of the opponent. In the former case, they are not. From what you say, stellen does not make this distinction. Certainly, when describing a war scene, the distinction must be clear.
    – user44591
    Jan 29 at 23:38
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    @user44591: there is no 1:1 translation available, which is why I have tried to explain the meaning before offering some possible translations. See Jankas comment above, which has an arguably better explanation than mine: "Jemanden stellen means that you arrange it so that they must fight you. Or surrender. They can't avoid the fight." Yes, being in the others custody is not directly conveyed by "stellen", but can be implied, which is when "to catch" becomes a valid translation.
    – bakunin
    Jan 30 at 8:17
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Without context I may get the details wrong, but this seems to be meaning 4 in DWDS, just a bit less literal. They caught up with them and engaged them at the sea (or maybe anywhere before they reached the sea, depending on the meaning of “vor”).

Added after you posted additional information: I had assumed that this would mean that the Americans had also engaged the Germans, but this is not the case. My interpretation was from the use cases that I am most familiar with, like: Die Polizei stellte den Einbrecher. In that case you would assume that the police officers did not just stand in a circle around the burglar to preve/nt him from fleeing but that they also arrested him. This is neither in the dictionary definition that I linked nor in the original word meaning “to make stand”, though. So I have to say that the translator made a good choice in using “stellen”.

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The best translation I can come up with for stellen in this context is to confront.

The Americans confronted the Germans at the sea.

Stellen also implies something like pursuing an adversary which to confront doesn't.

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  • This does not seem to correspond to the English being translated. Please see my edits above.
    – user44591
    Jan 28 at 21:29
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    pinned is also possible, but less literally so. When translating prose it's often reasonable to do so more freely to make the text more agreeable.
    – Zac67
    Jan 28 at 22:08
  • So does this mean I can expect to be understood if I use stellen to mean, to be pinned, wherever and whenever? From the responses, it would seem that the translation did not clearly correspond to the English, and really did not make clear sense in German. This is what I am really trying to determine.
    – user44591
    Jan 28 at 22:15
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    The German makes complete sense. Jemanden stellen means that you arrange it so that they must fight you. Or surrender. They can't avoid the fight. Most commonly used: Die Polizei hat den Täter gestellt. It doesn't mean that they have arrested him already.
    – Janka
    Jan 29 at 1:59

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