In German, the noun "sand"1 has a verb form, versandet, which is used to express how items get completely lost in the bureaucracy of administration, and even are not done at a later stage. Is there a direct English equivalent of this verb? Failing that, what's the closest idiom?

I am trying the following translation:

  • German: Die Anfrage ist im Gebtriebe der Bürokratie versandet.
  • English: The request got lost in the bowels of the administration.

But I am not happy with it because my impression is that the verb got lost expresses that something unexpected happened, whereas the original German meaning is that the administration is not properly functioning. Also, I want to make it clear that the problem is not with the request - it's not getting lost because it's too complicated or anything like that.

1 Yes, it's exactly the same word, with the same meaning, in German and English

  • Hi Cookie Monster. Translation is off-topic here. You can, however, reword your question such that it works as a single-word request. Then you can still go ahead and mention the exact equivalent in another language, but the key is that the question must still work with that bit removed.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 10, 2012 at 20:50
  • Alternatively, you can try German Language and Usage.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 10, 2012 at 20:52
  • 5
    The point is, GLU is full of people who speak both languages. ELU is not. GLU handles translation questions routinely, whether from English into German or the other way round. ELU does neither. But I'm not here to coerce, just to list options.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:16
  • 1
    A few suggestions: linguee.com/german-english/translation/versandet.html
    – stacker
    Sep 11, 2012 at 10:38
  • 1
    Have you tried a German-English dictionary? dict.leo.org gives some suggestions. You should also be able to start a discussion there in their forum to get more of a nuanced answer (they have a lot of good people with translation advice in both directions).
    – Mitch
    Sep 11, 2012 at 15:42

16 Answers 16


How about "got buried" as a translation?

  • Maybe "got buried" is use for "versanden". But it evokes a different picture for me, more dramatic than "versanden". Like suddently an earth quake happened. But "versanden" is more like a dune moving.
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 20:43
  • Cookie Monster: funny - that's not the impression I get from the term. Still, I don't know of a better term. Sorry!
    – Billy
    Sep 10, 2012 at 20:57
  • I guess the closest to "versanden" is not a dune moving, but a river slowly filling with sand. So the many requests that are not handled by the administration are the little grains of sand that slowly fill the river.
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:03
  • 1
    @CookieMonster: sorry, I wasn't clear. I agree with your understanding of the connotations of "versanden", but not of "get buried" (which I have also understood to be slow and incremental).
    – Billy
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:04
  • 1
    +1 This is a good answer. Your description of the connotations of "versanden" are the same connotations I have with "get buried" as an English speaker.
    – alcas
    Sep 11, 2012 at 2:07

As a few others have mentioned, we often use the swamp as a metaphor for bureaucracy. (swamp, bogged down, etc.)

You might like the word mired. Mire means a swamp, or patch of boggy ground. If something is mired it is stuck in the mud. Thus:

The request was mired in bureaucracy.

Or, if you want to emphasise its essential bogginess:

The request was mired in a fetid morass of red tape.

(red tape means troublesome, excessive bureaucratic procedures)

  • I like mired. But fetid means (re)productive and doesn't belong in the same sentence as bureaucracy. Sep 11, 2012 at 2:16
  • 2
    @ChrisCudmore: No, it's derived from Latin fetidus ("stinking"). See also f(o)etor as in foetor ex ore ("bad breath"). Sep 11, 2012 at 10:02
  • @TimPietzcker really makes you wonder about fetuses
    – No Name
    Apr 28 at 23:06

Although it's not an idiom per se, describing the swamp or morass of an administration creates a nice metaphor.

If you're specifically describing a sort of inefficient bureaucracy, then the phrase "red tape" certainly applies, as well.

  • Can this be used as a verb, like getting red taped? What is the meaning?
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:08
  • 1
    Reading the red tape link, this evokes to me rather an overly precise and thus slow administration, but not a defunct administration. The red tape seems to stem from bundling a lot of documents that are needed for this precision. Reminds me of the Brazil film, especially the scene where somebody disappears in a little tornado of paper. Not sure whether this matches "versanden", since "versanden" does not imply extra precision.
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:21
  • 1
    @CookieMonster As a verb, you would say "caught up in red tape" or "covered in red tape". Also, I think "Brazil" is the epitome of "red tape" (great film btw). I would not put too much emphasis on the "precision" aspect, though. Looking at the Merriam-Webster definition gives better context: "official routine or procedure marked by excessive complexity which results in delay or inaction" (my emphasis).
    – Zairja
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:56
  • 5
    I've heard the verb "mired" used in this context as well, usually with the swamp metaphor. Sep 10, 2012 at 22:25
  • 1
    +1 a common idiom is tied up in red tape.
    – bib
    Sep 12, 2012 at 3:01

Caught up in red tape

is certainly idiomatic but relates more to delays rather than total losses.
To imply that something never makes it out of administation due to excessive bureaucracy and regulations you could say

it got buried under a mountain of red tape

  • 2
    'The request was drowned in red tape' also common
    – JamesRyan
    Sep 11, 2012 at 10:26
  • 1
    "tangled in red tape" is my personal favorite.
    – zzzzBov
    Sep 11, 2012 at 18:32

If you're of a literary inclination and the audience is suitably well-read, I think this might be a good excuse to use the word Kafkaesque, e.g.

The request disappeared into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

There's also an obvious Orwellian alternative:

The request vanished down a memory hole.


Google Translate suggests

The request is bogged down in the gears of bureaucracy

but using gears isn't very idiomatic. How about

The request is lost in their bureaucratic machinery
The request has been swallowed by their bureaucracy

or something else using bogged down, or even buried as Billy suggests? (I upvoted that; buried is idiomatic.)

  • 1
    Bogged down sounds to me as if the request was complicated or so, and was therefore refused. But idea is that it is a simple request, and that all these simple request have the faith of getting lost, since the administration is not functioning.
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:04
  • 1
    No, bogged down means stuck in a bog; progress is difficult if you are continually sucked in.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:06
  • Oki Doki. Sounds good.
    – user9243
    Sep 10, 2012 at 21:09
  • 1
    Swallowed is actually quite good. It has the connotation that the administration is no longer under the perfect control of the people in it, and it has become a creature of its own with its own unpredictable, incorrect behaviour, such as eating requests. Sep 11, 2012 at 1:00
  • I don't think something can get "bogged down in the gears" - sounds like a mixed metaphor. Sep 11, 2012 at 9:10

To capture all the elements of the original German, I think you need something like:

lost in the quicksand of a dysfunctional bureaucracy

which is not (AFAIK) an established idiom, but should be comprehensible to most English speakers.

Quicksand is a rather elegant word which has its roots in a Middle-English word for "living", "quyk", which still survives in its old meaning of "lively" or "living", rather than just meaning "rapid", in one or two corners of modern English, like "quicksand" and "cut to the quick" (cut to the living tissue)


lost in the shifting sands of a dysfunctional bureaucracy

"shifting sands" is a known idiomatic phrase, and I think captures something of the essence of "versandet"


Depending on your exact problem , you might be getting the run-around...

Informal deceitful or evasive treatment of a person (esp in the phrase give or get the run-around)

This usually applies to the situation where one is continually referred from department to department by people whose objective is to get rid of you rather than solve the problem.


The request got lost in bureaucratic sand

would be lovely (it's a great idiom even with sand as a noun). It's not a common idiom at all, but I think it's still clear as a metaphor.


I think all OP needs to do is change the ancillary verb...

The request was lost in the bowels of the administration.

Using "got" casts "the request" as an "active agent", that lost its way, got itself lost. Using "was" implies that something else (the bureaucracy) failed to track and process the request. In support of that got/was distinction, consider...

"I got/was comfortable" ("got" implies I did something to become comfortable).

"I got/was shaved this morning" *("got" implies "I shaved myself", where "was" implies "someone else shaved me").

I think that small change is in the spirit of typical British understatement, and is quite enough to imply that the bureaucracy was actively at fault, rather than that the request unexpectedly and atypically happened to run into some "bad luck".


At Zoot's urging, I offer the amusing idiom fall between the cracks, or alternately the more-easily-understood fall through the cracks. The meanings of the two phrases are about the same: “to get lost or be forgotten, especially within a system [eg] It seems that important information given to the police may have fallen through the cracks.” These idioms are slightly contrary to versandet in that they suggest dust or sand filtering away through holes in the system, rather than infiltrating into the gears and workings of a system.

Some other terms to consider: dustbin (“bin for holding rubbish until it can be collected; a garbage can”) or dustheap (“a pile of refuse” or “a category of forgotten items [eg] the dustheap of history — New Republic”) may be used as in “Their case fell into the bureaucratic dustbin” or “Their plea lay lost upon the bureaucratic dust heap”. Also sweep under the rug/carpet (“to conceal something in the hopes it won't be discovered by others; [eg] "The president tried to sweep the embarrassing incident under the rug"”) may be used as in “The bureaucrats swept all the information under the bureaucratic rug”. Verb fritter (“To occupy oneself idly or without clear purpose, to tinker with an unimportant part of a project, to dally, sometimes as a form of procrastination”) may apply: “The end-of-September deadline arrived before the purchasing department left off frittering with the proposal.”


While I think the equivalent English idiom is the metaphor of the swamp, with Pitarou's "mired" working equally well in the mixed metaphor "mired in the bowels of the bureaucracy", you may be able to retain part of the German idiom by transforming it into something like:

The request is adrift in the sand dunes of the bureaucracy.


The request has gone adrift in the sand dunes of the bureaucracy.

I can't think of a way of retaining both "sand" and "bowels" without resorting to a poetic style that isn't present in the original. At best, You'd end up with something like "the request is adrift in the bowels of the bureaucracy", and adrift by itself will imply a in naval context rather than a desert one.


It could be that "versanden" is the short form of "im Sande verlaufen". Which would be translated into "to run off into sand".


Or maybe translated into "fizzle out".


But I am not sure how to form the whole sentence then.

  • 1
    Im Sande verlaufen means to fail. Versanden, on the contrary, means to stop. Your use of versanden is figuratively regarding the "main definition" to fill with sand where your sand is the mass of other stuff. Thus, neither to run off into sand nor to fizzle out would fit in your context.
    – Em1
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:01
  • 1
    There is also "in den Sand setzten". This is typically used for projects that fail, emphasizing the loss. But it is not exactly the same as "im Sande verlaufen", which means gradually stop and/or fail I guess. Meanwhile I found an example sentence with "fizzle out" that matches "versanden": here: linguee.com/german-english/translation/versandet.html
    – user9243
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:08
  • 1
    These linguee translation are really not good. The fizzle out example on that page has a completely different meaning to the one you introduced in your question. I wouldn't recommend you to use fizzle out here.
    – Em1
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:14
  • I find (via the idioms.thefreedictionary.com): Fig. to fade or become ineffectual gradually, and Fig. [for an item in a fireworks display] to fail to operate properly, often producing only a hiss. Why do you think this doesn't match? This looks extremely close to me. P.S. English has a very large vocabulary, so its very natural for me that there are many matches.
    – user9243
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:17
  • 1
    "fizzle out" means probably "verpufft" in German, which uses another metaphor than sand I agree.
    – user9243
    Sep 11, 2012 at 12:24

I'm a native dutch speaker and we have the same word, verzanden.

The best english equivalent with that meaning is stranded.

Swamped kinda gives an overwhelmed sense, bogged down is that it encountered difficulties

  • German: Die Anfrage ist im Gebtriebe der Bürokratie versandet.
  • Dutch : De aanvraag is in de bureaucratische molen verzand,
  • English: The request has stranded in the workings of bureaucracy

  • strand 1 (strnd) n. The land bordering a body of water; a beach. v. strand·ed, strand·ing, strands v.tr.
    1. To drive or run ashore or aground.
    2. To bring into or leave in a difficult or helpless position: The convoy was stranded in the desert.
    3. Baseball To leave (a base runner) on base at the end of an inning.
    4. Linguistics To separate (a grammatical element) from other elements in a construction, either by moving it out of the construction or moving the rest of the construction. In the sentence What are you aiming at, the preposition at has been stranded. v.intr.
    5. To be driven or run ashore or aground.
    6. To be brought into or left in a difficult or helpless position.
  • Strand is a transitive verb; in your 'English' bullet it needs to cast in the passive voice. Sep 19, 2012 at 21:11

I propose

lost in the shuffle

[The Free Dictionary]


The commonest collocation for the case of something's being lost without trace is "Lost in the mists of time" but the two noun can be varied as is shown in Google Ngrams Thus we would have:

"Lost in the mists of bureaucracy"

Or more graphically,

"Lost in the swamps/jungle of bureaucracy."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.