Translating the Past Tense of English to Spanish

Spanish Past Tenses Reduce Ambiguity

Cuando era niño fui a Disneyland. (When I was a child I went to Disneyland.). Photo by Glen Scarborough; licensed via Creative Commons.

When translating from English to Spanish, you often need to figure out first what the English sentence means. That's especially true when translating the simple past tense of English. Let's take a simple sentence in English and see if we can figure out what it means:

  • When I was a child I went to Disneyland.

Does that sentence refer to a particular trip I took to the Magic Kingdom? Or does it mean that I frequently went there, much as I might say that when I was a child "I went to school"? Without any context, the sentence is ambiguous, isn't it?

In Spanish, we don't have that ambiguity.

That's because Spanish has two simple past tenses. Those two tenses are the preterite (el pretérito) and the imperfect (el imperfecto). Note that the difference is suggested by their names. The imperfect tense is "imperfect" in that it is incomplete or not taking place at a particular time. The preterite, on the other hand, generally refers to an action that took place at a particular time.

Let's look at two possible Spanish translations for the sentence at the beginning of this lesson. First, the preterite:

  • Cuando era niño fui a Disneyland.

Since the second verb in this sentence (fui) is in the preterite, it refers to an action that took place at a specific time. Therefore, in English, it would be said in the context of a particular time, such as in "On our vacation when I was in fifth grade I went to Disneyland."

  • Cuando era niño iba a Disneyland.

Since iba is the imperfect, it refers to an action that took place at no particular time. An example of how this might be used in English would be to say "When I lived in Southern California I (often) went to Disneyland."

Frequently, the imperfect form is translated as "used to." The above sentence could be translated as "When I was a child I used to go to Disneyland." The imperfect form also can often be translated in the "past tense of to be + _____ing" form, indicating an action in progress. "When I lived in Southern California I was going to Disneyland often." Here are some example sentences of the two tenses:

  • Ayer (a specific time) llovió (preterite). Yesterday it rained.
  • Iba (imperfect, no definite time) a ir a la piscina, pero llovía (imperfect, no definite time, activity in progress). I was going to go to the pool, but it was raining.
  • Cuando yo comía (imperfect, no specific time, action is incomplete), mi amigo me llamó (preterite, an incident that happened and was completed at a specific time) por teléfono. While I was eating, my friend called me on the phone.
  • Cuando yo comía (imperfect, no specific time, action is complete), yo charlaba (imperfect, no specific end of action) a mis amigos. While I was eating I chatted with my friends.
  • Cuando él hablaba (imperfect, no specific time, action in progress), tropezó (preterite, a completed action) con la alfombra. While he was talking he tripped on the carpet.

Another way to distinguish the two verb forms is to think of the preterite as definite and the imperfect as indefinite. Still another way of thinking about it is that the imperfect frequently refers to the background in which some other action takes place. Cuando yo era (imperfect, background of the second clause of the sentence) pobre, compré un Volkswagen. When I was poor I bought a Volkswagen. This is why references to past times require the imperfect. Eran las dos. It was 2 o'clock.

Sometimes a verb can be translated using a different word depending on whether the preterite or imperfect is used.

  • Conocí a María. I met María.
  • Conocía a María, I knew María.

Meeting María took place at a definite time, but knowing her did not. This concept is explained further in our lesson on using the past tense with certain verbs.

Keep those distinctions in mind and you'll be able to keep the tenses straight.

Additional Notes:

Other past tenses: To be technical, Spanish has two simple indicative past tenses, the tenses that we usually think of when we talk about the past tense in English. Some other Spanish verb uses could be considered a type of past tense. For example, there is the imperfect subjunctive used in dependent clauses such as the viniera in "Yo esperaba que José viniera," I expected that José would come. There are also various compound tenses that can refer to actions in the past: He comprado, I have bought; yo estaba comprando, I was buying. These forms frequently are learned when learning the simple forms of auxiliary verbs.

Ambiguity of person: Note that the first- and third-person forms in the imperfect are conjugated identically. So "hablaba" could mean "I was speaking," "he was speaking," "she was speaking" or "you were speaking." A pronoun can be used to clarify if the context does not.