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Although related to English brave, the German word brav doesn't mean being courageous (any more). It rather has the sense of decency. "Sei brav", for instance, would be translated as "Be a good boy/girl".

I often struggle with a translation for this word. Now I'm trying to find a good translation for "brav aussehen". There's possibly not a single word as it depends on context what brav really conveys, but I'm wondering if there is a word, though.

Example 1:

Im Schlaf sieht er/sie so brav aus.
While asleep he/she looks so __.

This could be said about a child. It kinda implies that it's a naughty child, but while sleeping he/she appears like being a good boy/girl.

Example 2:

Sie mag nicht mehr so brav aussehen.
She doesn't want to look so __ any more.

This could be said about a woman that usually wears plain clothes and doesn't attract men, and who likes to change that.

The opposite, I guess, is in both cases naughty. But is there a word that would fit in both sentences above?

I tried finding German synonyms (lieb, anständig) and translating those. The results are "good", "nice", "sweet", "well-behaved", "decent", "proper". It seems to me that none of these words is a good translation.

For instance, while "good", generally speaking, is a good translation for brav (cf. good boy/girl), I guess it would differently be understood in both sentences above — good-looking or cute, that is.

Other words, like "well-behaved", do only fit in one context. Dictionaries (Oxford, M-W) define that as "behaving in a polite and correct way" and to my mind dressing in plain clothes is neither polite nor correct. And the Urban dictionary doesn't have a definition for well-behaved, so I don't think that any slang definition would apply here.

For the same reasons I dismiss the other words, too.

So, is there a word that would match both contexts? As a matter of course, the sentences do not need to be a verbatim translation; it's fine to rephrase them.


Addendum: In German it's possible to say "brav wirken" in both sentences. Wirken means to appear, to seem. I tried to get to a solution by thinking about this alternative.

The translations then would be

While asleep she appears to be __.
She doesn't want to give the impression of being __ any more.

I feel like the only way to finish the first sentence is "to be a good boy/girl" and I tend to believe that the version with "to look" also requires that and, hence, I'm coming to the conclusion that there's no adjective that would fit the role.

  • The word is well-behaved. As indeed LEO will suggest. – RegDwigнt Oct 21 '15 at 10:57
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    @RegDwigнt That could be an accurate translation, but how often in English would we say of a sleeping child he/she looks so well-behaved? And well-behaved is somewhat archaic. It seems to belong to an era when children were best seen and not heard. I think the usual expression these days would be he/she looks so angelic. – WS2 Oct 21 '15 at 11:11
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    Is no one going to suggest innocent? – Dan Bron Oct 21 '15 at 11:36
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    @RegDwigнt If well-behaved is the word to go with, this would be an answer (contradicting my statement above that this word wouldn't fit) as opposed to be a reason for closing as off-topic. Dictionaries do not suggest that well-behaved would work in the second example. The definition (Oxford, M-W) is "behaving in a polite or correct way". Dressing in plain clothes is neither polite nor correct. – Em1 Oct 21 '15 at 12:31
  • Sounds like "butter wouldn't melt in her mouth". – JHCL Oct 21 '15 at 13:13
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I haven't come up with a single word (I don't think there is one), but I've come up with a construction that I think might work.

You said that wirken means to appear, to seem. One solution would be to use like.

Example 1:

While asleep he/she looks like an angel.

Example 2:

She doesn't want to look like a plain Jane.

What you put after like would obviously depend on what you’re trying to say and there isn't a single word that would cover all situations. But I think it’s a construction that would usually work well when needing to translate brav wirken as you've described it.

  • +1 I agree with "angel" for a child who seems good when they're sleeping, but may be a terror when awake. And I agree that this doesn't work for the plainly clothed woman. – AndyT Oct 21 '15 at 11:00
  • +1 for "looks like an angel". But I'm not sure that plain Jane is the best translation (not that I can think of anything better). – Peter Shor Oct 21 '15 at 11:43
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    Unless I'm mistaken, OP is looking for a single word in English to use for the German word "brav". "Angel" and "plain Jane" are not interchangeable in the OP's sample sentences. – Kristina Lopez Oct 21 '15 at 15:40
  • @Kristina Lopez - that's why my first sentence reads I haven't come up with a single word, but...". I don't think you're going to find a synonym in English. Also, we can't possibly know all the situations in which brav would be appropriate in German. I think the construciton like followed by something (probably a figure of speech) would work. You'd just have to figure out that figure for a given situation, perhaps by asking on this forum. – Graham Nicol Oct 22 '15 at 2:27
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I think that "chaste" works for both examples based on two of the definitions on MWO:

: morally pure or decent : not sinful

: simple or plain

  • I feel like "chaste" is a bit over the top. It suggests too much "not having sex" or "not expressing sexual feelings". A good translation back into German regardless of context would be "keusch" and that's certainly not what I'd like to express. "Eine brave Frau" may express sexual feelings but probably in a very, erm, shy way. (Not the best word but hard to explain in a few words.) – Em1 Oct 21 '15 at 15:07
  • That said, the word "brav" may indeed have the connotation of being virginal when applied to a woman, so it's certainly not that far off. But I can hardly see how this word could be applied to a child. Or does the word maybe cover a wider range as the German counterpart, i.e. is not too strongly related to "not having sex"? – Em1 Oct 21 '15 at 15:08
  • While not the first word in my list to describe well-behaved children, "chaste" in the sense of "morally pure or decent: not sinful" could apply to a child who's otherwise naughty behavior could be considered "full of the devil" or "sinful". – Kristina Lopez Oct 21 '15 at 15:36
  • I hate to be negative but there is no way to use chaste outside of a sexual connotation. Morally pure or decent in the sense of abstaining from sex outside of marriage. – michael_timofeev Oct 21 '15 at 15:48
  • @michael_timofeev, there is a way to use chaste outside of a sexual connotation - clearly, given the additional definitions - but without context, it normally would be associated with abstinence from sex. With context, it is a viable option that fits both of OP's sample sentences. – Kristina Lopez Oct 21 '15 at 16:00
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Translation isn't so much taking each word and converting it to an equivalent as it is finding a similar way of looking at the world and expressing that. This is the problem you're running into when asking for a single word. For example, how do you translate Schadenfreude into English? You can't. You need to explain what the word means. This is similar to trying to explain idioms with a single word.

Brav has many meanings and uses. For example,

Was für ein braver Hund.

means

What a good / obedient / loyal / faithful dog.

Brav has all of those meanings at that same time. Which one is "best"? Depends on the context.

"Jetzt guck doch mal hin, er sieht so brav aus, wenn er seine Hausaufgaben macht."

In this case, brav means well-behaved, obedient, good, dutiful. All of the things that you can associate with a boy doing his homework.

The common thread is well-behaved, but that might not be the speaker's meaning when talking about the dog or the little boy.

When trying to translate

Sie mag nicht mehr so brav aussehen

what is the context? Are you trying to say she doesn't want to be a goody two shoes (the opposite of Tussi in German?). As in

Ich will nicht mehr wie eine Tussi aussehen. Ich will, dass die Leute mich brav ansehen.
(I don't want people to think I'm a bad girl anymore, I want them to think I'm a "good" girl.)

Brav could be used sarcastically

Du siehst so brav aus mit deinem Minirock.

or

Naja, du siehst ja ganz brav aus mit diesem Outfit.
(You look really chaste / pure / innocent with that outfit.)

Of course, the English translation lacks the sarcasm that this has in German.

In a nutshell, you need to give more context, so we can find the right expression because brav means many things. That's why people are struggling to find the right word. "He looks like an angel" is apt, but you can say that in German ("Er sieht aus wie ein Engel.") and it doesn't quite mean brav.

On another note, I encourage you to read Umbeto Eco's book Mouse or Rat? which addresses this subject. (The problems of translation and how some things are a frustrating compromise.)

  • You might consider making this a comment since it is asking for more clarification from the OP. – Kristina Lopez Oct 21 '15 at 16:57
  • Yes, you cannot find a pair of words that is always the right translation. And I'm not really looking for a word that always is the translation for "brav". But there are words that fit in 99%. "Green/Grün" for example. Not only the color, but also in respect to politics, fruits, lack of experience, covered with grass. I was just wondering if there's a word in English that kinda fits the role here for "brav". That's why I gave two examples with quite a different connotation, just to cover the whole range with just two examples. Anyway. – Em1 Oct 21 '15 at 19:19
  • @Em1 I think it best if you stop thinking of translation as "what does this word mean in English / German?" And start thinking about the meaning a sentence has and trying to convert that. You will find that some words do have one to one translations. Brav kind of does but kind of doesn't. Just to give you another example, Chinese has an expression that is used to give people / groups encouragement for difficult things or activitites (加油) which literally means to oil something, but if you try and translate it directly into English in a sentence it doesn't work. – michael_timofeev Oct 22 '15 at 0:14
  • @Em1 if you want to translate those two sentences use "well behaved" or "good" but as WS2 points out "how often in English would we say of a sleeping child...." Also "good" doesn't say much in English so an English speaker will ask "what do you mean by she doesn't want to be good anymore?" – michael_timofeev Oct 22 '15 at 0:20

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