One of the challenges when learning another language is that it’s not always possible to translate word for word. Sometimes, the other language uses a different word, different grammar or even a specific sentence structure that wouldn’t make any sense in your native language.
This holds true when translating from English to German. In this article, I’d specifically like to draw your attention to the fact that German doesn’t have a progressive tense. So, what does that mean? It means that you cannot express that something is happening right now simply by using a specific verb tense, such as the present progressive in English. For example, there is no way to say “I am reading” or “I am eating” in German. You can only say “I read” or “I eat.”
So, let’s have a closer look and start with an example in present tense: “I am reading the newspaper.” If you translate this word for word (and that’s what many German learners do) you get: Ich bin lesen die Zeitung.
Now, that looks like an accurate translation. However, it is wrong. What you should say is:
- Ich lese die Zeitung.
This is literally “I read the newspaper.” But remember, there is no difference between “I am reading the newspaper” and “I read the newspaper” in German. Both are translated as Ich lese die Zeitung.
Here’s another example: “It is raining.” The translation that I hear a lot is: Es ist regnen.
Again, this is an accurate word for word translation. However, it’s unfortunately not how you should say it. In correct German, “It’s raining” translates to
- Es regnet.
Alright, great. We’ve looked at this phenomenon in the present tense. Now, let’s check out some examples in the past tense. This is important because we also have the past progressive tense (also known as the past continuous) in English, which similarly doesn’t exist in German.
Let’s look another example: “He was cooking in the kitchen.” And here’s a possible translation: Er war kochen in der Küche.
Well, what do you think? Is this correct? That’s right, it’s not. “He was cooking in the kitchen” translates to:
- Er hat in der Küche gekocht.
Why? Because in German there is no progressive verb tense, such as in “was doing” or “were doing.” When an action happens in the past, you simply use the past tense. In spoken German, this is usually called the Perfekt tense, which is formed by using haben or sein plus the past participle. This gives you Er hat in der Küche gekocht.
Here’s another example: “They were watching TV, when he called.” A word for word translation would look like this: Sie waren fernsehen, wenn er angerufen hat.
But of course this is wrong, and now you know that in this context, you should just use the past tense in German. Therefore, the correct translation looks like this:
- Sie haben ferngesehen, als er angerufen hat.
In the above example, you should also note that there are actually three ways to translate the word “when” in German. Generally, als is used instead of wenn when talking about an action in the past. This is what is happening in the above example.
So, you might now be thinking: OK, I get it. There is no continuous verb tense in German. But what do Germans do when they want to strongly emphasize that something’s happening right now? Well, the answer is that there is a work-around. We use the adverb gerade, which can be translated as “at the moment” or “currently.” This adverb is usually placed after the verb. Here are some examples followed by their English translations:
- Kannst du mich später anrufen? Ich esse gerade. Can you call me later? I’m eating (or as we literally say in German, “I eat at the moment”).
- Ich trinke gerade eine Tasse Kaffee. I’m drinking a cup of coffee.
- Wir spielen gerade Basketball. Willst du mitspielen? We’re playing basketball. Do you want to play?
So, to summarize, it is not possible to indicate that an action is continuous in German just by using grammatical structures.
Therefore, “I am doing something” would be translated as the equivalent of “I do something” in German. Furthermore, “I was doing something” would be translated as the equivalent of “I did something.” Having said that, there is in fact a way to express that the action is taking place right now, and that’s done by placing the adverb gerade after the verb.
So, now you’re familiar with one of the big differences between German and English. You have also seen some specific examples demonstrating that it’s not always possible to translate word for word, and that it’s simply best to adopt the structure of the target language.
If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll be more than happy to help.
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