The proverbial agony of choice

On my walks down our main Barmbek-Nord shopping street die Fuhle, I regularly see posters announcing opportunities to meet local, regional and national elected officials and nearly always they mention die Wahl – which in these contexts I interpret as meaning “the vote.” I also walk by a sign outside a bakery on the same street advertising their specials, and often this is 2 or 3 of something Ihrer Wahl – which I then interpret as meaning “of your choice.”

Today on my run, I saw a sign with the phrase große Auswahl – most likely “plenty of choice” in this context – but that I initially parsed (correctly) as “selection” because it combines aus – “from” or “out” – and Wahl. Indeed, in the first meaning given for die Wahl on, die Auswahl is listed as a synonym for die Wahl along with die Selektion

Researching further, I came across the proverb wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual – “the greater the choice(s), the harder it is to decide” or as puts it “to be spoilt for choice.” I like this expression for several reasons. First is that it can be very difficult to make a choice when one is faced with too many appealing options or when one has no good options, and die Qual means “agony” or “torture.”

Secondly, it highlights a phrasal construction that feels very unnatural when translated directly, but is typically German: the wer die Wahl hat portion of the proverb. To translate this without modifying the word order gives you “who(ever) the choice has.” I suppose it might seem like one is being “held” by the choices and therefore one could poetically interpret this first clause to mean someone is “in the grip” of a choice. However this construction is in common use in modern German, not just in proverbs, and thus needs a more straightforward translation. For example, in an article in the June issue of Mobil Das Magazin der Deutschen Bahn, the following sentence appeared under a photo of two women in a tent in an article about cool camping equipment: Wer sich in freier Natur niederlassen will, sollte sich vorher informieren. When I see or hear these wer constructions, I tend to play a little loose and think about the wer as encapsulating something like “If you are the sort of person who…” or “For the sort of person who..” Thus I would translate this is as “If you are the sort of person who likes to set herself up in the wide open countryside, you should get the lowdown [on what’s best/what your options are].” It makes a bit of a mouthful of that wer but it helps to get past the rather un-English word order much more effectively than something “He who wants to settle in the open countryside” ever will.

And while we are in the Wahl family, I want end on another saying that uses this clan’s verb form wählenwählen zwischen Baum und Borke – “to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea” or literally “to choose between tree and bark.” I hope you enjoyed joining me to explore the forest, the trees and the bark that is learning German.

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