How to translate the untranslatable German word Gemeinheit Posted by Sten on Aug 30, 2021 in Uncategorized
Thanks to our reader Rob Prichard for pointing out that die Gemeinheit is a word that is rather untranslatable in our post on the word Multikulti. Never thought about that one as untranslatable! But let’s find out why, and what you might want to translate it as!
What does Gemeinheit mean?
A Gemeinheit is a mean thing somebody does to you. You can translate die Gemeinheit as “meanness”. And while that seems like we’re done with the case, that’s not quite true.
- gemeine Art (mean way)
- gemeine Handlung, Ausdrucksweise (mean act, way of expression)
- etwas Unerfreuliches, Ärgerliches, was als eine Unfreundlichkeit des Schicksals erscheint (something unpleasant, annoying, that appears as an unpleasantry of fate)
You see, while those first two can be defined perfectly well by “meanness” or “disgrace”, and I am sure you can come up with more words that give a similar vibe, the third definition… That’s where we get to the heart of the issue. The first two are used like this:
Mit solchen Gemeinheiten wurde er unglaublich reich.
(With such disgraceful actions, he became unbelievably rich.)
Warum lässt du dir diese Gemeinheit gefallen?
(Why do you put up with this meanness?)
How can we translate the third definition of Gemeinheit?
In his comment, Rob offered “bummer” as a translation. And while I think it describes a feeling that a victim of a Gemeinheit would feel quite nicely (“bummed out”), a Gemeinheit is different. A bummer, as I understand it, can be just something that happens to you, it’s not necessarily something that’s done to you. In fact, if something did a nasty thing to you, the word bummer would probably be seen as a euphemism! Here’s why.
That third definition is used more as an exclamation:
Solch eine Gemeinheit! Als ich bei der Tankstelle war, haben die mir einfach 30 euro zu viel berechnet!
(Such a meanness! When I was at the gas station, they simply overcharged me 30 euros!)
It’s when somebody does a mean thing to you that you might use it. But then, “such a meanness” really, REALLY doesn’t work.
Perhaps the exclamation such a disgrace, popularized by former president Trump, fits it nicely. But I would argue that even that doesn’t really hit the nail on the head. A disgrace implies having done something rather shameful, not mean. And while a Gemeinheit involves some of that, I think it’s main focus is meanness.
Other translations I found:
“It’s a raw deal”
“to play a shabby trick on somebody”
Or, I think, “to do somebody dirty” works well too:
They did me dirty! When I was at the gas station, they simply overcharged me 30 euros!
And I think that gets closest. To say solch eine Gemeinheit! probably only works if you rephrase it and avoid using a translation of that exact word.
And that’s it! If this helped you, or if there are other untranslatable words you encountered or if you have other issues with German language and culture you’d like a clarification for, please let me know in the comments! I’ll meet you there.
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