Unit 14: Subjunctive I

3. Challenges of Translation

In each of the sentences we used so far to demonstrate the use of subjunctive I, the conjunction dass (or daß in the old spelling) is included. However, dass is not necessary in German, because the subjunctive I form of the verb in the reported language is the crucial signal to the reader that the statement is a reported one (and the writer does not vouch for its veracity!). Subjunctive I can be difficult to translate into English, since English has no such accuracy of verb moods.

Compare these two different, but equally successful translations of a subjunctive I verb:

Die Zeitschrift berichtete, daß Gase aus der Höhle giftig seien.
The journal reported that gases from the cave are poisonous.

Die Zeitschrift berichtete über die Expedition. Die Gase aus der Höhle seien giftig.
The journal reported on the expedition. According to the report, the gases from the cave are poisonous.

In the first example, the subjunctive I meaning is successfully conveyed by the phrase “The journal reported that [. . .]” at the start of the sentence, remaining directly faithful to the German original. Whereas in the second example, which is broken into separate sentences, the English version had to insert the phrase “According to the report [. . .]”. In such cases, common in longer passages, you need to add English expressions to convey the meaning of German subjunctive I.

Study this example:

Der Kanzler gab gestern eine Pressekonferenz. Er werde morgen nach China fliegen, da ein Abkommen jetzt vorbereitet sei. Im übrigen komme der chinesische Premier nächstes Jahr nach Deutschland.
The Chancellor gave a press conference yesterday. He stated that he will fly to China tomorrow, because a treaty is now prepared. The Chancellor also claimed that the Chinese Premier will visit Germany next year.

As you can see, you may find various ways to translate the subjunctive I mood, but there is no simple, direct way to translate it. You should study how English-language reports like this are phrased in news sources or scientific journals if you would like inspiration for other ways to express this. Some example English approaches that may be useful include:

  • Adverbs such as: allegedly, supposedly, reportedly, purportedly, etc.
  • Verbs such as: said, claimed, reported, stated, expressed, shared, believed, etc.
  • Phrases such as: “according to,” “in the view/opinion of,” etc.

Word Order

Besides using the subjunctive I mood in normal statement word order, as in the above example, German sentences sometimes omit a conjunction that joins two phrases. Since subordinating conjunctions affect word order (see Unit 6), omitting a conjunction can result in a “normal” word order where you may expect something else. For example, these two sentences have the exact same meaning:

Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reise.
Man sagt, sie reise nach Deutschland.


In summary, you will not always see the conjunction dass before all that is reported, nor will you see repetition of the introductory phrase such as Man sagt or Es wurde berichtet. In fact, once it is established that someone said, reported, thought or felt something about a subject, then the subjunctive I mood will be the only signal of whether the statement is a reported one or one presented by the author of the text as true. Carry that signal over into your translation.


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