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I'm struggling a bit with the translation of the German "wessen...dessen..."

To clarify, here's the full German sentence, which is not idiomatic at all, it's just phrased to sound like it is: "Wessen Bier du trinkst, dessen Regeln du achtest"

I've found two possibilities:

"Whose beer you drink, whose rules you respect"

"Whose beer you drink, his rules you respect"

Are they both correct? Which one sounds better? Is there a difference in undertone/connotation?

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    Those two possibilities don't mean the same thing at all. And neither of them is at all idiomatic. Please clarify what the original sentence is in German, and tell us what it actually means. Jun 16, 2022 at 11:53
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    The relevant English construction is He who pays the piper calls the tune. It's syntactically valid, but not really idiomatic in English to say something like Whosoever's beer you drink, his rules you respect. Jun 16, 2022 at 11:59
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    A parallel English construction is whither thou goest, thither go I. It sounds pretty old and it uses strange syntax and morphology. Whither and thither (and hither, for that matter) are part of an old paradigm that English doesn't have any more. We don't use constructions like wessen .. dessen because we don't have that many inflected pronouns, and they're not arrayed in paradigms any more. Jun 16, 2022 at 14:02
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    Welcome to EL&U. Sounds like "My house, my rules"... Jun 16, 2022 at 17:58
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    I’m voting to close this question because it directly involves translation from a second language. Jun 17, 2022 at 15:52

5 Answers 5

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Most of the other options come across as rather stilted, and really betray the fact that they were translated from a different language. If you want to maintain the structure of the original, the rather casual and idiomatic

You drink their beer, you follow their rules.

seems good.

I realize that I've used the word "follow" for achten. "Abide by" is very formal, and "respect" and "obey", though much more casual, still sound like something a teacher would say to elementary school children, and the overall feel of the original sentence seems like a bit of folk-wisdom, so I think "follow the rules" best reflects that feeling.

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You might want to render this saying by using an existing English one, such as the following.

  • Who keeps company with the wolf, will learn to howl.

If you want a literal translation, the first option you consider is not correct, but the second is possibly acceptable.

Another choice of phrasing, more in harmony with usual English phrasing for sayings, could be as follows.

  • Who drinks someone's beer abides by their rule.
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  • It's interesting that you tell me the first version is incorrect, it's the one both google translator and deepl suggest. Just to forestall unnecessary discussion, that's NOT where I originally got it from, I just used the auto translators as an additional source of information. They are actually quite useful to judge the statistical relevance of a phrase or construct, precisely because they are (probably) based on statistically trained neural networks
    – drdeath
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:08
  • @drdeath The reason I discard the first translation as incorrect is that there is no connection betwween the two parts except for a comma. The additional deduction that who is represented by the first "whose" is also who is represented by the second is not provided in the terms; it can be deduced in virtue of the context, but it seems to me that this is not usual in English. (1/2)
    – LPH
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:42
  • @drdeath I do get "Niemand trinkt Bier, dessen Regeln du respektierst" for "Nobody drinks beer, whose rules you respect" from DeepL. However, do not forget that machine translations are not accurate when it comes to idiomaticity and translate what appears as successive snippets as such, without concern for the idiomaticity of the succession. The translation is probably nonsensical in German; the English is, however, not idiomatic. (2/2)
    – LPH
    Jun 16, 2022 at 15:45
  • I am aware of that, but what machine translations are good at is spitting out the most common translation in their training data - and that's how I use them in such cases. They are a good tool, as long as you keep their limitations in mind :-)
    – drdeath
    Jun 17, 2022 at 6:34
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My beer, my rules.

In English, beer drinkers are assumed to be down to Earth. So we need something pithy and unrefined.


If you're looking for a pattern, to make it easier to express wessen - dessen expressions in English in general, the bad news is that it's not possible. The possessive aspect makes it very awkward in English.

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The rather uncommon Whosever rather than whose might help the wessen clause and rearranging the sentence helps with dessen to avoid the Germanic pattern of ending with a verb:

  • Whosever beer you drink, you respect their rules.

However, English would probably use a conditional clause:

  • If you drink someone's beer, you respect their rules.
  • No matter whose beer you drink, you respect their rules.
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  • Do you mean: whosoever?
    – Lambie
    Jun 16, 2022 at 22:53
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    At first I thought the word used in this answer was "whosoever," but that didn't seem to make any sense, and then I noticed that the word was actually "whosever." Jun 17, 2022 at 2:15
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Feb 5, 2023 at 4:08
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From Duden:

Grammatik dessen Genitiv Singular von: der, das

Bedeutung wessen Genitiv von wer und was.

Thus "Whose beer you drink, his rules you respect" is better but it is not idiomatic. English usually uses a conditional for such expressions:

"If you're drinking his beer, you obey his rules"

However, this does not (i) have the generality of "wessen" (ii) offends against the idea that the person with the beer may be female, etc. Thus

If you're drinking somebody's beer, you obey their rules.

or (less accurately but with more parallelism)

If you're drinking their beer, you obey their rules.

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    You could probably be more general and succinct: When you drink their beer, then you obey their rules., or even Drink their beer, obey their rules.
    – hoffmale
    Jun 16, 2022 at 20:56
  • I think the first person would be more idiomatic: "You drink my beer, you follow my rules". If you shun the comma splice (I don't), then insert "so" after the comma. Jun 17, 2022 at 16:33
  • @MichaelKay - I'm not sure where the "first person" comes in... Nevertheless, the German is a saying given as general advice in general circumstances along the lines of "He who pays the piper calls the tune". Yours tends towards being too direct for a translation that captures the nuances.
    – Greybeard
    Jun 17, 2022 at 17:36

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