I encountered this phrase in the novel All Quiet on the Western Front:

He has buried his face in his hands, his helmet has fallen off I fish hold of it and try to put it back on his head.

What does "I fish hold of it" mean here?

  • 9
    As you must be aware, this book is translated from the German. Fish hold of isn't particularly idiomatic English. Presumably the narrator reaches down to pick up the fallen helmet. Sep 12, 2022 at 8:19
  • It looks weird the way you bold it, because they are just two words that happen to be next each other in the sentence. If you treat them as a unit, that would certainly be weird. But they are not a unit---it is just a verb, followed by a noun. I would probably put it something like "after fishing for a hold on it, I put it back on his head", but I don't think inflecting the verb is mandatory, nor the preposition, nor the article. But with none of those things, it does invite confusion.
    – jjanes
    Sep 13, 2022 at 1:29
  • @jjanes I think the preposition is mandatory, because "to fish" in this sense is usually considered intransitive, so can't be directly followed by a noun. Your expansion to "fish for a hold" reads a lot more naturally for that reason.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 13, 2022 at 6:40
  • 2
    This is just a bad translation, there are many choices of idiom which match the feel of the German without being weird. I scoop it up, I scoop hold of it, I reach down for it. Sep 13, 2022 at 9:56
  • 1
    As a counterpoint to those saying this is a bad translation, I grew up in central Pennsylvania (lots of German language influence) and this phrase sounds completely natural to me.
    – SeamusJ
    Sep 14, 2022 at 16:54

5 Answers 5


"Fish hold of" is unidiomatic as a verb — I can't find another source in Google Books that uses it. It seems like it's some combination of "fish for" (NOAD: "search, typically by groping or feeling for something concealed") and "grab hold of".

I believe the quote in the question is from Arthur Wesley Wheen's translation. The translation by Brian Murdock uses different words:

He has pressed his face into his hands. His helmet has rolled off. I reach for it and try to put it on to his head. He looks up, pushes the helmet away and huddles in under my arm like a child, his head against my chest.

  • I am not a fan of Murdock's translation either to be honest, as sounds quite limp. I would personally go for ''I reach down for it'', ''I scoop it up'' or ''I scoop hold of it'', as this sounds closer to the German without being strange. In fact, ''I scoop hold of it'' is almost the same except for one word. Sep 13, 2022 at 10:01
  • 7
    "scoop hold of" definitely doesn't sound idiomatic to me
    – Mohirl
    Sep 13, 2022 at 13:58
  • @Tom , the thing is, you never, ever, ever, ever translate idioms. Ever. Never, ever, ever. Never! This is the first thing they teach you in Novel Translation School. :) There are a zillion self-evident examples of this. In English we have the tooth fairy, in France they have a little mouse. It's literally "a mistake" by the translator. An editor should have picked it up and fixed it.
    – Fattie
    Sep 14, 2022 at 12:46
  • 2
    But......you can use an idiom which has a similar ''flavour'' or ''spiciness''? Obviously I'm not saying it's literally the same, otherwise a reflexive verb would completely change meaning when translated. This explains why I have started to find a lot of disparities between the ''feel'' of a novel in the original language and the translation. Sep 14, 2022 at 13:29

There is no such expression in English. This is an unusual translation from the original German

Ich fische ihn heran

I would have translated this as "I fish it up", but the translator went another way. It strikes me as a portmanteau phrase between "fish up" and "grab hold".

  • I completely agree, I was just about to post a further comment about it being a portmanteau phrase, but you beat me to it! Sep 12, 2022 at 14:09
  • 4
    @Andrew idioms.thefreedictionary.com/fishing+up
    – Esther
    Sep 12, 2022 at 17:52
  • Forget fish, go with grab.
    – Lambie
    Sep 12, 2022 at 18:39
  • 4
    @Andrew It wouldn't have come to my mind, but it fits the pattern of "fish out", "fish for", "fish around", etc, which "fish hold of" certainly doesn't.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:59
  • 1
    @Esther never heard of it
    – Andrew
    Sep 12, 2022 at 21:20

"To fish hold of" something means to pick it up. Often it implies that the object may be in an awkward place so some effort may be needed. It is a BrE colloquial expression.

This passage appears to have been taken from a translation of the original German text by A.W.Wheen. There are many postings of the PDF of this English text on the internet, I found the passage in Chapter 4 page 29 of this one. It has been suggested in the comments that the phrase is an error in translation but Wheen was an Australian, a native English speaker. The text was published by Fawcett Crest Books in the USA. As noted in the various comments to answers here, the phrase has other plausible translations.

  • 5
    Though I've never heard "fish hold" used in the Americas, "fish out" is a common expression there, with similar meaning, i.e., to grab hold of something entangled (as in a net) and/or out of sight (as a fish below water). Sep 11, 2022 at 23:44
  • 14
    "to fish for something" I know.. I don't know "to fish hold"
    – James K
    Sep 12, 2022 at 5:30
  • 14
    Whose translation? I've never heard "to fish hold of", though "to fish around for" or "to fish (something) out" are common. [UK] NGram's only examples of 'fish hold of' are to do with the fish hold of a fishing vessel: where the fish are held. Sep 12, 2022 at 6:42
  • 8
    @PeterJennings It's not correct to say that it's a British colloquial expression though, because it simply isn't. It's something which British people can fairly easily understand as a mangled version of a colloquial expression, most likely as the product of a translator who was not British.
    – Graham
    Sep 12, 2022 at 11:52
  • 7
    I've looked for "fish hold of" in all 17 corpora at ttps://www.english-corpora.org. There are in total two matches. One is this particular text. The other is a different parse (" prior to off loading a full fish hold of Gulf menhaden"). So I would say that, apart from this perverse translation, the phrase does not exist in English.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 12, 2022 at 14:40

Almost all of the English editions are using the 1929 translation by A. W. Wheen, in which this passage reads:

He has buried his face in his hands, his helmet has fallen off. I fish hold of it and try to put it back on his head.

Other English translations do exist, however. Here's a 2012 print of a 1994 edition whose frontispiece says the translation is (c) Jonathan Cape but whose dust jacket attributes to translation to "Brian Murdoch, Professor of German at Stirling University":

He has pressed his face into his hands. His helmet has rolled off. I reach for it and try to put it on to his head.

Here is a 1995 translation ("abridged and adapted by Earle Rice, Jr.") in simplified English possibly aimed at older children:

He has covered his face with his hands. His hard hat has fallen off. I grab hold of it and try to put it back on his head.

If the Wheen translation is not understandable, perhaps one of these other translations might suit your needs.

  • 4
    "Jonathan Cape" is a publishing company, not a person; they're claiming corporate ownership of the copyright, so there's no contradiction in also crediting a specific individual for creating it.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:53

"I fish hold of it" means "I fish to catch hold of it"

You can catch a fish, and you can also catch an object.

Catch > to take hold of something, especially something that is moving through the air

From > https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/catch

  • 1
    It looks like you're simply adding a word, and then defining that new word. That's not really an answer..
    – Joachim
    Sep 13, 2022 at 23:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .