No matter the language, it seems as if the perfect tenses (except for the future perfect) can be replaced with the imperfect. In translation, why do these sets of tenses have different meaning? I don't understand their difference other than the way they're worded.

Sometimes, I see example sentences on dictionary sites with translations aside them. They'll have an English imperfect rendered by a Latin perfect/pluperfect. Are there situations in which a phrase should be translated in a different tense than its equivalent in another language?

  • 4
    Can you add an example where a Latin perfect can be replaced with an imperfect, and an example where someone rendered an English imperfect with a Latin perfect or pluperfect?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 3:43
  • 2
    Yes, give an example sentence or two. Also, say what dictionary site you are using. There's a lot of misinformation and inaccurate translation out there.
    – user1466
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 14:32
  • 1
    You know, my teacher a while back would often do this while translating poetry. We'd encounter an imperfect tense in Latin and then translate it into a perfect tense. This may be poetic license, but it was also done during the translation of prose, so I'm interested to see if there is some sort of reason, or if it is merely a mistake.
    – Sam K
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 15:09
  • I don't know of any construction in English called the "English imperfect". The English "simple past" tense (like "I walked") can be used to convey either an imperfective or perfective meaning. Is that what you are talking about in the last paragraph?
    – Asteroides
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 18:06
  • @sumelic The English imperfect (one form of it, anyway) is used to, as in "We used to learn Latin by the grammar-translation method, before we wised up." Regardless, we need an example or two or three to be clear on what this question is asking about.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 2:36

2 Answers 2


There are a few tricky points here.

The key is the tense-aspect distinction: Latin "tenses" really represent a combination of time and aspect.

Latin has three aspects, inherited from Proto-Indo-European:

  • The imperfective aspect is for when the duration is important: the action is continuing, or habitual, or going on for a long time.
  • The aoristic aspect is for when the duration is unimportant: you can think of the action as a single point in time.
  • The perfective aspect is for when the action is over and done, but its consequences are important at the moment.

It also has three tenses, which didn't exist in PIE but were invented in Proto-Italo-Celtic:

  • The past tense is about the past.
  • The present tense is about right now.
  • The future tense is about the future.

Now, each of the Latin "tenses" represents a pair (or multiple pairs) of these:

  • The Latin present is present imperfective and present aorist: talking about right now, actions that are still going on, or duration doesn't matter.
  • The Latin imperfect is past imperfective: talking about the past, actions that have a long duration or are habitual.
  • The Latin perfect is past aoristic and present perfective: either talking about the past, actions where duration doesn't matter, or talking about completed actions that impact the present.
  • The Latin pluperfect is past perfective: talking about completed actions that impact the past.
  • The Latin future is future imperfective and future aoristic: talking about the future, actions that will have a long duration, or where duration doesn't matter.
  • The Latin future perfect is future perfective: in the future, some already-completed action will be having an impact.

English is, formally, somewhat similar:

  • "Have" + past participle makes a verb perfective.
  • "Be" + present participle makes a verb imperfective.
  • Using neither makes a verb aoristic.
  • "Will" + infinitive makes a verb future.
  • A special ending (usually -ed, sometimes not) makes a verb past.
  • Using neither makes a verb present.

So by combining these, we can distinguish all nine combinations in ways Latin can't: Latin can't distinguish "he will be working" (future imperfective) from "he will work" (future aoristic), for instance.

But on the other hand, the distinctions aren't mandatory in English. The only distinction that's actually mandatory in English is past versus non-past, with everything else being optional. For example, "I hope it goes well" and "when we get home" both use a "present" form for a future action—because the context makes it clear that this non-past form is meant to be future, and extra words are unnecessary.

So when translating from English to Latin, a translator needs to take the context into account and figure out exactly which tense-aspect combination is actually meant for each verb—and when translating from Latin to English, they need to use English-speaking intuition to figure out how much of the tense actually needs to be specified. A sentence like "after he will have gotten the job, he should negotiate his paycheck" is technically correct English, but the "after" and "should" make it clear that future perfective is meant, so a native speaker would simplify it to "after he gets the job" (specifying only the mandatory "non-past" and letting context do the rest).

EDIT: Later Latin also had a special "true perfect" tense which separates out the present perfective meaning, leaving the normal "perfect" for past aoristic.


So, the past tenses are quite interesting, and they have to do with the duration of the action.

Imperfect tense deals with continuing actions that happened in the past:

Hic incolebam. I used to live here.
Ibi sedēbam. I was sitting there.

Perfect tense deals with remote or completed actions that happened in the past:

Ibi fuī. I have been there.
Illud fēcī. I have done that.

Then there is the past-perfect or pluperfect tense which deals with actions in the distant past, use especially when talking about a prior event or action relative to a past event or action (see comment below):

Illud fēceram. I had done that.

Future-perfect deals with actions that are expected to be completed by some time in the future:

Tunc decesserit. He will have left by then.

I hope this helps.

  • Do you have a source regarding the pluperfect being about the "distant past"? I've never heard it explained that way.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 14:14
  • Latin class at Walnut. The book we used was Latin for Americans. Commented May 14, 2019 at 14:23
  • Ita, in viā ībam, et laciniam, quam in televisione vīderam, in fenestrā vīdī, et eam ēmī. So, I was walking down the street, and I saw a dress, which I had seen on television (before then), in the window, and I bought it. Commented May 14, 2019 at 15:00
  • That example is fine. But I think the way it's currently worded gives the (incorrect) impression that the pluperfect means "a really long time ago." In fact, it just means "sometime before another past action." Virgil wouldn't have used Urbs antiqua fuerat even if Carthage had existed in the more distant past.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 18:09
  • I use "distant past" rather loosely here. Commented May 14, 2019 at 18:20

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