5 ways to translate the German word 'man'

Sometimes certain German words have many meanings in English depending on the context in which you use them. For example, the German word man.

The German pronoun “man” is used a lot in German. It is one of the false friends because it doesn’t mean ‘man’ (which is ‘der Mann’ in German). Instead it means ‘one’ as in ‘one is not amused’. That sort of ‘one’ isn’t used much in English, but if ‘man’ is common in German, how do you use it? (By the way, man is not written with a capital letter, unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence.)

Here are 5 (+1) different ways to translate ‘man’:

  1. man = one
    ‘Wenn man bedenkt’ = when one considers
    aufpassen, wo man hintritt = to watch one’s step
    länger bleiben, als man willkommen ist = to overstep one’s welcome
    It doesn’t get used for the number one as that is ‘eins’
  2. man = you
    ‘Was kann man in London machen?’ Literally translated ‘What can one do in London?’ or better ‘What can you do in London?’ or ‘What is there to do in London?’ We just want to know generally what people (possibly including us) can do in London.
    Wie sagt man … auf Englisch? How do you say … in English?
    Man weiß nie. = You never know.
    man sieht sich = see you around
    Das sollte man nich tun.  =  You shouldn’t do that
  3. man = we
    ‘Was kann man in London machen?’  as above, but if it’s more meant to us, we might say ‘What can we do in London?’
    Man vergleiche … = Let us compare…
    Kennt man sich? = Do we know each other? This is used with a bit of humour, for example when somebody addresses a stranger with du when they should have used Sie. The other person wants to gently remind them that they shouldn’t do that. On the other hand, it could also be meant sarcastically!!
    Man kennt sich = we know each other (to somebody who is introducing a person to somebody who already knows them)
  4. man = they
    Was kann man in London machen?’ again as above, but you might have friends who want to go to London and you are asking somebody else what your friends might be able to do in London: ‘What can they do in London?’
    man sagt … = They say ..
  5. man in useful phrases
    man beachte etwas =  please note something
    man nehme = take (often used when describing a cooking process and giving the ingredients)
    wie man hört … = I understand (that) …
    man hört, dass … – it is understood that …
    man sagt = it is said…
    man glaubt, dass … = it is believed that …
    man munkelt, dass … = rumour has it that …
    man muss zugeben … = it must be admitted …
    man weiß doch, … = it is well known …
    nach dem, was man hört = by all accounts
    man kann zu Fuß hingehen = it’s within walking distance
    man spricht gut von ihr = she’s well spoken of
    Was du nicht willst, das man dir tu, das füg auch keinem andern zu. = Do as you would be done by. (idiom)
    Wer einmal lügt, dem glaubt man nicht, und wenn er auch die Wahrheit spricht. = A liar is not believed even when he speaks the truth. (idiom)
    Damit lockt man keinen Hund hinterm Ofen hervor. = It’s nothing to write home about. (idiom)
    Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul. = Never look a gift horse in the mouth. (idiom)
    Auf eine dumme Frage bekommt man eine dumme Antwort. = Ask a stupid question, and you get a stupid answer. (idiom)
    Man kann nicht über seinen eigenen Schatten springen. = The leopard cannot change his spots. (idiom)

One more: man in strange uses
man = just (colloquial in the North of Germany, should really be ‘nur. mal’)
Some German feminists don’t like the use of man, because they think it does mean a male person. So they also use the word ‘frau’, again not written with a capital letter to represent a pronoun, but a feminine one.

So, there you have it, one German word and 5 (+1) possible English translations! Who says, German is always difficult?

Bye for now, man sieht sich ☺

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2 Responses to 5 ways to translate the German word ‘man’

  1. Codex Regius says:

    There is one additional use of “man” that you omitted: “MAN tut so etwas nicht”, with a haughtily stretched “man”. Here you may best translate it as, “Posh people don’t behave like that.”

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