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I was curious how a lot of 19th century textbooks dealt with the difference between the praetereunte /imperfect and praeterito/perfect: I found translations that distinguished between them, while not ( to my ear) signifying a great difference in meaning: namely I loved for the imperfect, and I have loved for the praeterito. I had loved for the antepraeterito.

To my ear I 've eaten dinner, and I ate dinner are almost indistinguishable - using these methods to render the tenses in English seems to highlight their similarity, while also pointing out through form that they are different.

But then, I am someone who things that one cannot translate Latin into English, only ever roughly paraphrase it, as Latin carries too much subtle implicit information in word order, and that information, and much other information, is lost in translation. I don't think students should be translating, except at the most rudimentary levels of language instruction, where forms and sentences are very elementary.....

But, where is that student level Latino-Latinum dictionary? Alas, it still does not exist.

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Comment by Monte Bishop on July 29, 2010 at 8:20pm
I don' t know if I can help in a significant way, but, first and foremost, I like to think of the so-called "imperfect" as past durative (i.e. connoting ongoing action in the past). I rarely think of translating it into a simple, English preterite as my first choice, such as "he ___ed." The durative sense, of course, does not need to manifest itself simply as "was ___ing," as it could be a repeated or habitual action, such as in "used to ___." This is, in part, how the 19th century grammar books cover it. In my opinion, anything we can do to convey its special sense, even if we have to add an adverb like "ever," "always," or "still" to our translation, is reasonable. (Naturally, this leaves out the special usages of the imperfect altogether, like the conative.)

I don't know if I hear the same thing you do in "I've eaten dinner." To me, that sounds like I'm conveying that I only finished recently, not that I simply ate at some indistinct time in the past. I think we should only translate this use of the perfect, the so-called "perfect definite" in this way. Of course, the Latin, so-called "perfect historical" means the same thing as our preterite, something completed at some indefinite point in the past, "I ate dinner."

I agree with you about translation, however. At some point, the training wheels of translation do need to come off. I am wondering how or if I will really be able to put that into action when I start teaching. If we don't, aren't the students doomed always to leaning on at least their memory of their translation? Could we simply do it right off the bat so as not to have the transition later? Probably not...
Comment by Laura Gibbs on July 30, 2010 at 8:25am
Hi Evan, to add to the list of desiderata: we need a Latin grammar that is actually based on linguistic science, rather than forcing Latin to look like English. Inventing non-categories like "historical perfect" in order to justify the choices we make when translating Latin into English does not help us to see the actual linguistic structure of Latin itself.

Indo-European was a language system stronger on aspect than on tense. Over time, many of the Indo-European language evolved tense systems, often quite elaborate ones (this is the situation with Latin). Indo-European did not even have a future tense at all, so the variety of ways that IE languages express the future is really staggering. Yet some languages, like the Slavic languages, really did not evolve much of a tense system and continue to use aspect as the primary manner through which they express verbal distinctions of meaning.

In Latin, unlike English, there is a two-stem verb system, based on aspect (present stem and perfect stem). So, while Latin does have an elaborate tense system, it also has aspectual distinctions which operate at the level of the verb stem itself, making it quite different from English. As long as students are taught to understand the Latin imperfect solely through English translations, they will never really see how the Latin verb system works as a whole.

The fascinating thing about Latin is that the aorist and the perfect collapsed, so that there is not a true "preterite" (or "simple past") in Latin. This is especially a problem with the passive system, because the perfect system did not originally have voice distinctions, so all the perfect passive forms are later analytical inventions, periphrastic forms with participles (and then in the Romance languages, those periphrastic forms even took over the old synthetic forms throughout the present passive system!). Anyway, there are all kinds of structural features of the Latin verb system well worth our attention - none of which are illuminated by English translation formulas, it seems to me.

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