Theological German   Dr. Thorsten Moritz 

Native German speaker, published scholar, theology & hermeneutics professor and Ph.D. adviser with extensive university and German teaching experience. Email me.

Hands on

 This section will mostly give hands-on examples of how to understand and translate a    German  sentence. The examples will most be drawn from student requests for help. Feel free  to submit any sentence you are having trouble with. I will post explanations, solutions and  translations right here. If you need more extensive help, consider booking a tutorial.

The following is a sentence from Claus Westermann's monograph on Heilsworte. The student asked me to help identify some grammatical features. I tagged the text for her (it looks a little messy). Here's the link:

Westermann 1

Translation strategy:
(1) Find the 'backbone' (=main clause) of the sentence. In this case, the finite verb that indicates the main clause is "ergibt sich". The subject to go with that is "die Schwierigkeit". 

(2) Since the main clause established so far needs an object, let's look for it. It's introduced by the "daß-clause". However, that clause is interrupted by another subordinate clause ("welche..."). That one is also immediately interrupted by yet another subordinate clause that starts with the relative pronoun "die...". So, what do we do?

(3) We expect the last of the subordinate clauses to be completed first. It's like concentric circles, with the innermost circle typically being completed in the middle of this long sentence ("die... sind."). The second-to-last is completed next ("welche der Heilsworte...auch von diesen Propheten gesprochen wurden"). Finally, we find the missing piece that goes with the first subordinate clause ("daß die Frage... bis heute nicht geklärt ist.").

The finished translation reads as follows:
 "But this raises the difficulty that the question, which of the salvific words transmitted in the book of the Prophet Isaiah or Hosea were actually spoken by these prophets, remains unresolved to this day."

 Here is a flow chart type approach to making sense of complex German sentences.
 It's not foolproof (nothing is in language), but if you learn this sequence, for - let's    say - an exam setting, you will do a whole better than if you hadn't. I have had  students come to me and tell me that they took a class somewhere, but failed their  university's language exam. Quite often all that was needed was the info below and  a few hours of guided practice.

 The points below assume basic German. If they make little sense to you, book a  class or a tutorial by Skype or Zoom with me. 

(1) How many clauses in the sentence? Identify how many clauses there are.

* Check for interrogatives, conjunctions, commas, relative pronouns, fragments

(2) Classify: Which are the main clauses? Which are dependent? Any fragments?

* Are any of the conjunctions you find subordinating or coordinating?

* Find the finite verb(s) - second position?

* Participles/infinitives? - end of clause(s)?

* Any reflexive verb forms? Any separables?

Do the following for each main clause (and later for each sub-clause):

(3) Account for modal verbs and/or auxiliary verbs – [finite verbs, infinitives or participles]

* Determine tense, voice and mood

(4) What are the main verbs [separables? finite, infinitive or participle?] and their subjects?

* Nominatives (Nouns? Pronouns? Names? An entire clause as subject?)

(5) What objects are there?

* Predicate complements (using a verb form of ‘to be’)

* Direct (accusatives)

* Indirect (datives)

* Prepositional (clauses or phrases)

* Genitives (within other object phrases or as part of the subject)?

* Any cases that are triggered by particular verbs or prepositions (rather than syntax)?


(6) Provisionally translate the clause as far as you can. Establish the main clause(s).

* Note that main and subordinate clauses are often interrupted multiple times (commas!).
* The last subordinate clause to be introduced is often the first to be made complete.
* Often, the main clause is the last one to be completed, near the end of a sentence.

(7) Is there an overloaded adjective construction? 

* Typically involves either two sequential determiners
* Or a determiner followed by a prepositional clause with an adjectival participle

(8) Any adjectives (attributive or predicative) not accounted for?

* Which nouns are they defining? Or are they adjectives used as nouns?

(9) Any adverbs or adverbial phrases?

* What are they defining? Other verbs? Adjectives? Adverbs? Clauses?

(10) Any ‘zu + infinitive’ constructions at the end of any clauses to complement a prior verb?

(11) Other components not yet accounted for? Check for idioms on

(12) Incorporate elements 7-11 in your provisional translation.

Apply steps 3-12 to any remaining clauses.

(13) Check if all clauses/components are properly related to each other.

(14) Fine-tuning: Eliminate 'woodenness' – catch the speech-act, not the literal meanings.

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