a. I have two questions about the phrasal verb 'hold back'.

"You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."

Franz Kafka

See: https://www.google.com/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=%22hold+back+from+the+suffering%22&num=10

It is a famous quote.

I think in (a), 'hold back' means to keep away, not to look at or admit or acknowledge. Is that correct?

And if someone says

b. Hold back the ice.

when ordering a drink, does that mean they want little ice or no ice at all?

Many thanks

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    I don't speak German, but when I checked the link you provide the first book referred to gives two alternative translations of the passage. The first one has hold back (the literal meaning of zurückhalten) and the other withdraw. So, yes, your understanding seems to be correct. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 15:06
  • Thank you so much Kate, for all your kind replies. So the English translation with 'hold back' doesn't really sound natural, does it? I had to struggle with that sentence. Isn't the meaning unclear?
    – azz
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 20:57
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    Why do you suggest that "hold back" can mean "not to look at"? Did you find that meaning in a dictionary? (In general, please cite such things.) Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 22:50
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    I assume the intended meaning is 'not allow yourself to be involved in or affected by the suffering', and hold back from isn't the most natural way of expressing this in English (though, as I said, it is the literal translation of the German word). Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 7:34
  • 1
    You're thinking of hold the ice. Keep the ice, I don't want any ice. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 17:09

2 Answers 2

  1. "Du kannst dich zurückhalten von den Leiden der Welt"

This is a translation from German, so the initial focus should be on understanding the original text.

"You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world"

Probably this would mean "keep yourself away from the sufferings of the world" or "withdraw from the sufferings of the world". Sometimes idioms will take on a meaning which isn't immediately clear from the constituent words, however we can imagine "hold" (having a grip on) and then "back"... keeping something from moving forward. Admittedly, it is unclear because those words more readily apply to the physical world whereas "suffering" is abstract and imaginary. Your guess of "not to look at" is likely correct. Still, it doesn't sound very natural in English.

  1. "Hold back the ice"

One of the standard meanings of "hold" is to remove from a food order.

(imperative) In a food or drink order at an informal restaurant etc., requesting that a component normally included in that order be omitted.
One ham-and-cheese sandwich; hold the mustard.
A martini, please, and hold the olive. - Wiktionary

Therefore, "back" is unnecessary. Just "hold the ice" which means "no ice".


You are overlooking the preposition from. You can stay back or keep back from the edge of the cliff. You're not keeping the cliff back, but yourself back.

Keep back from the campfire or you may singe your eyebrows.

Stay back from the rattlesnake. A six-footer can strike someone three feet away.

The German could be translated:

You can retreat from the suffering of the world ... but that very retreat might be the one and only suffering you are able to avoid.

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