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Imperfect Tense Often Serves as Background for Preterite Tense

Lesson 10 in the 'Real Spanish Grammar' Series

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Excerpt from novel: Todavía recuerdo aquel amanecer en que mi padre me llevó por primera vez a visitar el Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados. Desgranaban los primeros días del verano de 1945 y caminábamos por las calles de una Barcelona atrapada bajo cielos de ceniza y un sol de vapor que se derramaba sobre la Rambla de Santa Mónica en una guirnalda de cobre líquido.

Source: Opening paragraph of the novel La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, copyright by Ruiz Zafón in 2001.

Suggested translation: I still remember that dawn when my father took me for the first time to visit the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first days of the summer of 1945 were unfolding and we were walking through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies and a wispy sun that spilled over the Rambla of Santa Mónica in a coppery liquid garland.

Key grammatical issue: This excerpt shows distinct uses of the imperfect and preterite tenses.

The preterite and imperfect are the two simple past tenses of Spanish. The preterite is often the equivalent of the simple past tense of English, as in "he went to the store," and usually refers to events that had a definite end; the imperfect has no exact equivalent in English but can be expressed in ways such as "he was going to the store" or "he used to go to the store" to refer to events whose definite completion isn't a focus.

One common distinction that Spanish makes between the two tenses is that an imperfect-tense verb is often used to provide the background for one in the preterite tense. For example, in the sentence "No estaban allí cuando llegamos (they were not there when we arrived), estaban (they were) is in the imperfect and llegamos (we arrived) is in the preterite. Their absence serves as the background for our arrival. The preterite is used for llegamos because it is an event that happened as a specific time; estaban is used in the imperfect because it is background, and as such it's not important to this sentence when their absence ended.

Here are some other simple sentences that show the imperfect serving as background for the preterite:

  • Salí porque llovía. (I left because it was raining.)
  • Tenía un dolor de cabeza. Por eso fue al supermercado. (She had a headache, so she went to the store.)
  • Su madre era joven cuando él nació. (His mother was young when he was born.)

Although the novel paragraph is much more complicated, the same principle applies. The description of the Barcelona scene, which is in the imperfect tense, serves as background for the sentence in which llevó is used in the preterite. The writer was taken for a visit at a specific time, but that time occurred during the brief period described in the second sentence.

Note on the use of figurative language: Although the above selection is prose, it is written in poetic or figurative language that cannot be understood literally. In most cases, figurative language doesn't post much of a problem to translation; we can talk about ashen skies or cielos de ceniza and realize that we aren't talking about a situation where a volcano has filled the sky with literal ash. Similarly, we could talk about a city being trapped and the sun spilling over a street in either language while realizing cities don't literally get trapped and that the sun doesn't literally spill.

But sometimes figurative language can pose a challenge. Most vexing in this selection is desgranaban, an imperfect form of desgranar, which literally means to "degrain" or remove seed from something, such as when husking corn or shelling peanuts. Obviously, translating "desgranaban los primeros días" as "the first days were husking" wouldn't make sense at all. (Note that this part of the sentence uses an inverted word order in which the verb precedes the noun.) However, desgranar can be used figuratively to refer to the separating of smaller units from a larger unit that includes them. What the author here is referring to is a time when the first days of summer were somehow being distinguished or separated. There may well be no English word here that conveys Ruiz Zafón's thought well, but I think "unfolding" comes pretty close. Another translator very easily might have come up with something else. Sometimes desgranar is used in Spanish to refer to the ticking by of seconds or the passing by of hours, so perhaps that might suggest another interpretation.

The other place where I changed the imagery slightly was in translating sol de vapor as "wispy sun" rather than "vaporous sun." The latter is probably just as good, but I thought "wispy sun" might better convey the idea of the sun not being totally visible.

Especially when it comes to figurative language, translation is at least as much art as science. You may find it interesting to see how the English version of the bestseller conveyed this paragraph: "I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper."

Other notes on vocabulary and grammar:

  • Recordar is a verb meaning "to remember.
  • Common ways of saying "that day" are ese día and aquel día. The use of aquel here suggests that the day was emotionally distant in time or a time far different than the present.
  • Although llevar often means "to carry," it also can mean, as here, to take something or someone somewhere.
  • Note that in several places a phrase beginning with de is translated using an adjective. This phenomenon is explained more fully in our lesson on the frequent use of de.
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  8. Spanish Imperfect and Preterite Tenses Serve Different Purposes

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