How to “turn” in German

Written By: Emanuel Updated: March 26, 2024

 

Hello everyone

and welcome to our Word of the Day.
And this time, it’s actually an English word at the center, because today we’ll talk about

How to say “to turn” in German

Because there are quite a few options which are (of course) not to be mixed up, and there are also some usage quirks you absolutely wouldn’t want to miss because they’re so much fun and a great reminder why it’s such a great choice to learn German.
It’s almost as if you’re doing chores, except you don’t even really make progress.
“Emanuel, I think you just said the quiet part out loud.”
Oh… uh… maybe.
But anyway, so today is all about the different translations of to turn. We’ll first talk about the main word drehen and those super fun usage quirks I just mentioned. Then, we’ll explore the various prefix verbs of drehen and after that, we’ll check out some important contexts where to turn DOESN’T translate to drehen, and which words to use instead.

So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s get it!!

“drehen” as “to turn”

drehen is the main translation for to turn and with a bit of mind bending, we can also see that they’re related. I mean…

turn – turen – duren – dren – dreen – drehen

Not exactly “super obvious” but it kind of makes sense.

For those of you who are curious – the origin of the family is the insipidly ancient Indo-European root *tere (link to my entry in my dictionary), which was about rubbing and turning. Maybe think of drilling sticks to make a fire or rubbing grain to remove the husk. This sense is still visible in offspring like thresh and more figuratively in the German drohen (to threaten), which comes from a sense of squeezing, rubbing, putting pressure. But in most of the descendants, the sense of turning is more dominant, like in to throw, thread or drill.

You can find a bit more about this family in my dictionary, if you’re interested. Here’s the link: The Family of *tere.

But now let’s get to drehen and how to actually use it.

Because there’s one big difference to to turn – not in terms of phrasing but in terms of meaning.
If we talk about turn something, so if we have a direct object, then the two verbs work the same.

  • Ich drehe den Stuhl zum Fenster.
  • I’m turning the chair toward the window.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

However, if we talk about turning ourselves, then there’s a difference.

  • The world is turning.

This is fine.

  • Die Welt dreht.

This is not.

Like… it might be hard to believe for an English speaker, but to a German native speaker it sounds REALLY incomplete. Like… “What? What is the world turning?”
The thing is that drehen ALWAYS needs a direct object so in these contexts, in German you need a self reference.
“I LOVE self references.”
We know, German, we know.

  • Die Welt dreht sich.
  • The world is turning.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And because it’s a direct object it’s of course accusative.

  • Ich drehe den Kopf nach links.
  • I turn my head to the left.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich drehe mich nach rechts.
  • I turn “myself” to the right.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

So turning something or turning oneself, but not just turning. Not difficult in theory, but of course it’ll take a while to get used to it.
Actually, let’s do one more example real quick with past tense, so you’ve seen that as well.

  • Früher hat sich die Sonne um die Erde gedreht, aber die Echseneliten haben das geändert, da sie den Fahrtwind einer sich bewegenden Erde brauchen.
  • In the past, the sun revolved/turned/rotated around the earth, but the lizard elites changed that because they need the airflow of a moving earth.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I saw a video about that on YouTube by the way and I’m really wondering why they don’t teach us that in schools. What are they hiding. I’ll do more of My Own Research™ later when I’m not sober anymore.

But yeah, so the first big difference between drehen and to turn is that drehen always needs a direct object, so you either drehen something or you drehen yourself.

However, the word drehen alone is actually not all that common. Because most of the time, it comes with a prefix.

The prefix versions of “drehen”

The pure concept of turning is nice, but it’s also kind of vague and in both German and English (and I’m sure other languages as well) it’s quite common to add some sense of direction to it. This can of course be a concrete thing, like “turning toward the door”, but it can also be just a pure direction like turning around or turning back.

And while in English, you add the direction as a separate word, in German it’s done by…. prefixes.

  • Thomas dreht den Stuhl um.
  • Thomas turns the chair around .
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria hat sich umgedreht und ist weggegangen.
  • Maria turned around and walked away.
    (turning herself around – body or head)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Weil das Wetter schlecht wurde, mussten wir umdrehen.
  • Because the weather got bad, we had to turn around.
    (No self reference needed here because the focus is on “going back” , not on actually turning an object.)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

umdrehen is probably the most common one, but there are more.
Some are pretty literal like aufdrehen or zudrehen

  • Meine Katze kann den Wasserhahn auf- und zudrehen.
  • My cat knows how to open and close the tap.
    (Lit: “turn open, turn closed”… the meaning comes from the old turning taps. Nowadays, “aufmachen” and “zumachen” are equally as common.)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Ich habe versucht, die Glühbirne rauszudrehen, aber das ging nicht.”
    “Die ist zum Stecken, nicht zum Drehen.”
  • “I tried to screw out the light bulb but it didn’t work.”
    “It’s for plugging, not screwing.”
    (not sure if this is idiomatic in English)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wenn ich die Zeit zurückdrehen könnte (singing)
  • If I could turn back time.
    (“zurückdrehen” is actually pretty much only used for time. Not for the body or travel)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And some are a bit more on the figurative side. Like verdrehen for instance which is about “turning in a wrong way” or durchdrehen, which can be what wheels do when they don’t grip the road, but which is also a common word for “losing it”. Like… your gears in your head lose grip and start spinning wildly.

  • Politiker verdrehen leider oft die Wahrheit.
  • Politicians unfortunately often twist the truth.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich habe mir gestern beim Nextflix-Abend den Fuß verdreht.
  • I twisted my ankle yesterday at the Netflix evening.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Als Maria nach dem Urlaub gesehen hat, wie die Küche aussieht, ist sie durchgedreht.
  • When Maria saw the kitchen after the vacation, she snapped/lost it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And then let’s also mention andrehen, which is a colloquial word for “making someone have something they don’t really want”.
Like… think of a sales person who talks you into buying some crap so you don’t actually really need it.

  • Der Typ hat die komplette Zeit im Skilift versucht, mir eine Skiunfallversicherung anzudrehen.
  • The guy tried the entire time in the ski lift to sell me a ski accident insurance.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Where does this meaning come from? I don’t know, but it kind of feels fitting. Like someone trying really hard to mount something onto you.

Anyway, so those were the prefix versions of drehen and in terms of to turn, the number one you need is (sich) umdrehen, which is German for the idea of turning around.

But now let’s … ahem… turn our attention toward the instances where to turn DOESN’T translate to something with drehen.

And the most important context is probably traffic.

“turning” in Traffic in German

There are two main types of turning in traffic. The first one is turning in a direction, like turning left or right and the proper word for that in German is abbiegen.

  • Ich biege gleich links ab.
  • I’ll turn left in a second.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mist, ich glaube wir sind zu früh abgebogen.
  • Damn, I think we turned too early.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • In 200 Metern links abbiegen auf die A111111 Richtung Zauberwald.
  • In 200 meters, turn left onto the Autobahn 111111 to Zauberwald.
    (this is NOT the proper way to say the number in German, it’s the magical way)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wie ich im Zauberwald gelandet bin? Ich bin einmal falsch abgebogen und bumm… auf einmal war nur Wald um mich und Elfen und sprechende Eichhörnchen.
  • How I ended up in the magical forest? I took one wrong turn and boom… all of a sudden only forest around me, and elves and talking squirrels.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Why abbiegen? Well, biegen means to bend, so abbiegen is kind of what the road does. That would also explain why abbiegen is NOT used for ships and planes, because there are no fixed lanes there.
Anyway, so abbiegen is for turning in a direction when you go on a road, and that works for driving but also for walking and cycling.
And using drehen in this context would sound REALLY weird and possibly be understood as a full turnaround.

Which brings us to the other important turning in traffic – the turning around.
And here, we have two types.
The first one is turning around in the broader sense of going back to where you came from.
Here, we can use umdrehen, but the one that’s maybe even more idiomatic is umkehren.

  • Die Straße wurde so schlecht, dass wir umkehren mussten.
  • The road got so bad that we had to turn around (and go back).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And the other type of turning around is the actual act of turning around the vehicle and while umdrehen can work, the proper term for that is wenden. That’s what your satnav will tell you when you just took a wrong turn.

  • Bitte wenden.
  • Please turn around.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Straße ist so eng, dass ich nicht wenden konnte.
  • The street is so narrow that I couldn’t turn around.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And if you’re now like:
“Wait a minute… wenden? Like verwenden? To use? What is going on here??”
then I have good news for you because I have just the article you need, where I cover wenden and verwenden and much more. Oh and I have one for kehren as well. I’ll leave the links below.

But first, let’s wrap up this article with a look at a few more instances where to turn doesn’t translate to drehen or umdrehen or anything with drehen.

Other Contexts When “to turn” doesn’t mean “drehen”

So the English verb to turn has done quite some “exploring” about what’s possible with that basic idea of turning and drehen hasn’t really done that, so there are quite a few contexts where using drehen as a translation would be VERY confusing.

The first one is turning in a sense of going to or targeting.
It’s a bit hard to paraphrase actually, so let’s try with examples maybe.

  • I often turn to Maria for advice.

And the proper word for that in German is wenden. Or I should say sich wenden, because we need a self reference here.
“I LOVE self refere…”
We know, please be quiet, German.

  • Ich wende mich oft an Maria für Rat.
  • I often turn to Maria for advice.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Sie können sich jederzeit an unseren Kundenservice wenden, sollten Sie Fragen haben.
  • You can always turn to, reach out to our customer care team, should there be any questions.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Would drehen work, too? Well, grammatically it would be correct, but it would sound like you’re literally turning your body or head around.

Next, there’s to turn in the sense of directing something, like turning your attention or turning one’s gaze. And the proper German word here is richten. So essentially, German doesn’t think of this as “turning” but rather as directing.

  • Lasst uns unsere Aufmerksamkeit auf das Hauptthema richten.
  • Let’s turn out attention toward the main topic.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Then, we have to turn in the sense of becoming. Like turning 30 or turning yellow. And the proper word for that in German is of course werden.

  • Thomas wird bald 43.
  • Thomas will turn 43 soon.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Im Herbst werden die Blätter gelb.
  • In fall the leaves turn yellow.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And here, using drehen would not be understandable at all. I mean, it’s not like the core idea of turning doesn’t make sense for this theme. It does. But drehen just sounds much too literal. Like… maybe it’s better to think of drehen as to rotate. At least, that’s how it would sound like if you used it in the examples we just had.

But anyway, last but not least, there are some fixed phrasings like information turning out or turning in a paper and those aren’t translated with drehen either.

  • Beim Meeting hat sich herausgestellt, dass wir eigentlich hinter dem Zeitplan sind, nicht davor.
  • At the meeting it turned out that we’re actually behind schedule, not ahead.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich habe gestern meine Hausaufgaben abgegeben.
  • I turned in my homework yesterday.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Dieb hat sich gestellt.
  • The thief turned himself in.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But as you can see in the second two examples, the translation varies even for one expression depending on the context, so I think it’s better to slowly pick up over time one by one. There really isn’t a logic or system here that you could use to help you and the only thing they have in common that they don’t work with drehen.

Because drehen overall is just way more literal than to turn and almost always involves an actual rotation.

And I think this is where we’ll actually wrap it up for today.
I’m sure I have forgotten quite a few phrasings, but let’s leave those for the comments.
The two main takeaways are that drehen is quite literal and mostly involves rotation, and that it (almost) always needs a direct object. So you drehen something or drehen yourself. And if you remember more than that… well perfect!

I think this is actually a good topic for a bigger exercise, so we’ll probably do that next week.
Meanwhile, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
Oh and if you have any other ideas for a good “How to translate”-topic, let me know :).

I hope you liked it and I’ll see you in the next one. Bye!

Go to the quiz right now:

How to turn in German – The Exercise

 

further reading: 

 

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