The Unassuming Bei: Prepositional Versitility

Jesus Christ and all the saints, Mary, Jospeh, Allah, Buddah and Vishnu – is there a more versatile word in the German language? Well, probably, there is – but, we are going to look at this one and dig beneath the surface to begin a journey of understanding. Bei is perceived by most as a boring connecting word that requires little thought and the translation of which is lacking in complexity, which often leads to translators not giving it the amount of attention, or even respect, that is required to ensure it is rendered correctly.

Seemingly unassuming, the German preposition bei is utilized in many different ways. Understanding its meaning in context is incredibly important, but because of its similar sound and occasional equivalent meaning of the English “by,” it is often glossed over by translators and editors alike. However, this three-letter word has the potential to wreak havoc when not properly respected. For this reason, it is important to understand the meaning of this preposition in context before brushing it aside as a simple expression of time, location, or direction of a preceding phrase.

One of the criticism of language education, at least in the United States, is the idea that language is akin to simple math – addition and subtraction. Though this link is not untrue, language is not finite and despite the desire for all language to be proscriptive, this simply cannot be enforced. Interestingly enough, however, it is in the plethora of meanings that can be assigned to prepositions, conjunctions, and other linking grammatical units that are the nearest to proscriptive that one can get with any hope of such proscription of language being legitimized or enduring.  The initial focus of learning a language is on understanding tenses, irregular forms of verbs, and idiomatic expressions, and building vocabulary by memorizing one-to-one equivalencies between the languages at the word level. If one studies for long enough, though, it becomes quite clear that language is more like algebra with tons of variables and different ways to get to the same result. While this is important, one must also spend a fair amount of time accepting the fact: there is no one-to-one equivalency for any preposition between two languages.

When I studied German I distinctly remember that my professors in college expressly taught me that bei should be thought of as the second way that German speakers express the concept of “with.” That was it – no more explanation. Post-lecture my friends and I (the other language nerds) would giggle and really wonder why German speakers needed 2 words for “with.” Was one superior to the other? Well, not really, it just seems one is more common, mit, and the other less common, bei. has outlined the basic meanings of bei and gives very clear and concise examples of its everyday vernacular use – very often meaning “at,” “during,” or “near” and, yes, even “by.”


Ich bin bei Mutti.

I am at Mom’s.

Die Bettdecke ist günstiger bei Macy’s

The duvet costs less at Macy‘s


Bei Fastenzeit hat meine Familie kein Brot gegessen.

During Lent my family didn’t eat any bread.


Wartet der Reiseleiter bei dem rechtem Eingang des Bahnhofs oder dem linken?

Is the tour guide waiting near/by the right entrance to the train station?

With (#2)

Ein Anwalt für Mietrecht hilft bei Streitigkeiten zwischen Mieter und Vermieter?

A tenant law attorney helps with disputes between renters and landlords.

As a translator working in the medical field where I am encountered by a significant amount of patient medical reports, I found myself in a bind one day when the English I was translating just didn’t make any sense. Though I followed what I knew to be the translation for bei it just did not work, and I refused to send nonsense English to my client.

The most popular English equivalents of bei may not be particularly fluent sounding if used directly in a translation itself. This, of course, is simultaneously the bane of the translator’s existence as well as the coolest thing about being a translator (granted, it might only be me who finds this cool). So, in order to make a translation sound fluent in the target language, it is important to really hone in on the conceptual meaning.

inclusion within something abstract or non-finite

Weltweit tritt Asthma bei Kindern am häufigsten in Australien, Neuseeland und Großbritannien auf, am seltensten hingegen in Entwicklungsländern und osteuropäischen Regionen.1

Globally, asthma in children most often occurs in Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, but is least common in developing countries and eastern European regions.

Lebensgewohnheiten und -umstände scheinen bei der Entwicklung der Krankheit eine große Rolle zu spielen.2

Lifestyle and environment seem to play an important role in the development of the disease.

Bei unter 75-jährigen Menschen spielen insbesondere die extrinsischen Risikofaktoren eine bedeutende Rolle.3

For people under 75 years of age external risk factors play a particularly significant role.

in conjunction with, but not the direct cause of

Ältere stürzen besonders häufig bei alltäglichen Aktivitäten, meist ohne das Bewusstsein zu verlieren und ohne Einwirkung äußerer Kräfte.4

It is particularly common for elderly people to experience a fall in conjunction with everyday activities, usually without the influence of external forces and without losing consciousness.

Elderly people fall rather commonly in the course of every day activity, most often there is neither an external force which causes this nor do they lose consciousness.

as a result of; being caused by;

Besonders gefährlich wird ein Raucherbein bei einem akuten Verschluss eines arteriellen Gefäßes.5

Caused by an acute occlusion of an arterial vessel, “smoker’s leg” is particularly dangerous.

Radikale Mastektomie bei Brustkrebs ist die vollständige Entfernung der es mit der Haut, des Pectoralis major Muskelfaser aus der Achsel-Lymphknoten und infraklavikuläre Regionen.6

Radical mastectomy due to breast cancer consists of the complete removal of the breast, its skin, and the pectoralis major muscle fibers from the lymph nodes of the axilla and the infraclavicular regions.

Hab mir auch erst Sorgen gemacht weil die Symptome wirklich ganz wie bei meinem Pneumothorax waren

I’m seriously worried because the symptoms were really completely like the ones I had because of a collapsed lung.

to indicate suitability

Beispielhaft erwähnt sei die Anwendung des prototypischen Cholinesterase-Inhibitors Physostigmin bei diesbezüglichen Komplikationen mit nichtnarkotisch wirkenden Akut-Sedativa.7

An example of this is the use of physostigmine, a prototypic cholinesterase inhibitor for complications associated with non-narcotic acute sedatives.

Too often, L2 speakers and translators have this problem – we strive subconsciously to make the teacher who taught us happy by using their one-to-one equivalency. This is also impacted by the x-phile (germanophile, sinophile, etc.) attitude of many language teachers and students. This attitude leads to us to try to maintain the source language character or culture in the target language. Despite this desire, the common outcome is a target language translation that at best sounds odd and may be frustrating to read, and, at the worst, like near-nonsense in the target language. Avoiding the nonsense is possible though, one must remember the skopos of their project, which in most cases is to render a target translation that is both linguistically and culturally fluent.

The purpose of translation is not to necessarily place the source or the target above one another, but to accurately render the concepts of each linguistic paradigm equivalently and fluently. Clients are most often less concerned with how much a person loves a certain culture and more concerned with realizing their business goals that underly their need for translation in the first place. Mistranslating a preposition like bei can actually create significant problems.  Thus, the common words require more attention to ensure they are accurately rendered and provide the correct information of relation that was intended by the original author.

Here is another way to think about it. German is full of what many non-German natives would describe as quite interesting and ostentatious compounded words that have lots of components to them on the surface, like Kaftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung (motor vehicle liability insurance). However, usually with such large words, there is no deeper meaning. They are the Kardashians of words, as it were. However, it is the humble and common words that have the most impact.  Think of words like bei like Meryl Streep – modest and versatile.

  2. Ibid.

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