Estne hic error translationis? Genesis 25:11 (Vulgata) dicit:

et post obitum illius benedixit Deus Isaac filio eius qui habitabat iuxta puteum nomine Viventis et videntis.

Anglice autem (Douay Rheims) dicitur:

And after his death, God blessed Isaac his son, who dwelt by the well named Of the living and seeing.

Tempus verbi autem habitabat "imperfect" est, neque "perfect", quod in Anglica translatione ("dwelt"). Credo "was dwelling/living" meliorem/veram translationem esse. Hoc est recte? Etiam, in Anglico verso, "perfect" tempus verbum perfecte legit!

I am confused with the translation of habitabat. The English translation is in the perfect indicative (dwelt, or lived on other translations), rather than in the imperfect indicative, as it is supposed to be. Is this an error of translation? Notice that the English verse using the perfect mood makes perfect sense!

  • I'm not sure what you mean by quod here. Do you mean that "dwelt" is perfect tense or that habitabat and "dwelt" are in the same tense?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 17:43
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta English-speaking Latin students are generally taught that the "simple past" in English (very similar to the aorist in Greek) corresponds only to the Latin perfect, and that the Latin imperfect should instead be translated with the past continuous ("was dwelling").
    – Draconis
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:58
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    @Draconis Oh! I never knew such a simple correspondence between English and Latin tenses was taught. It looks like a good rule of thumb, but an oversimplification for a hard rule. This is the kind of situation where it makes a big difference to have learned Latin from the point of view of Finnish.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 19:15
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Indeed! Honestly I wish I'd learned Latin with vowel length from the start, going back and adding it afterward has been a nightmare.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 19:25
  • "The English translation is in the perfect indicative ... rather than in the perfect indicative" — Er, what?
    – jwodder
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


This is an idiom peculiar to Latin: habitāre in the imperfect means "dwelt", and in the perfect means "used to dwell (but no longer does)". I've seen it frequently in the imperfect, but almost never in the perfect. That is, in Latin, "dwelling" is seen as an action which has to take place over a period of time, rather than just at an instant. So the imperfect is more commonly used.

The Septuagint, on the other hand, uses the Greek word κατῴκησεν katō'kēsen, which is in the aorist tense (roughly equivalent to the Latin perfect). So it seems that the Vulgate is simply using a specifically Latin idiom.

  • I'm happy to see an instance where the Vulgate is not using a Grecism!
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 17:32
  • I see. Using a more modern version of the translation the word used is "lived", which I think might give a more sharper distinction between "lived" and "was living".
    – luchonacho
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 20:08

The Latin imperfect describes past circumstances, not a sharp action, and it is really the only possible Latin tense for this purpose. This could have been translated as "was living" or "was dwelling" in English, but it may have felt unnecessarily heavy. In this context it seems to me that "lived" or "dwelt" communicate the same idea. So "was dwelling" would indeed be a good translation, but not the only correct choice.

The Latin and English tenses do not match perfectly, so the Latin imperfect is not exactly the same as the English past continuous. A judgement call is needed, and in this case I agree that it feels most natural to say "dwelt" instead of "was dwelling", although I find both acceptable. What is important is that the two languages tell the same story.

  • I do agree that "lived" (the actual word used in the CPDV, which I am using for my learning) and "was living", in this context, are both fine. But I still struggle with why the tense is changed. The Latin one is in imperfect tense, but the English one is perfect tense. To be honest, I have found many similar cases but after this one I lost my patience (I am using interlinear bible to learn so ideally want to have same tenses/moods for verbs).
    – luchonacho
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 20:04
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    @luchonacho I'm a little puzzled here. What do you mean by perfect tense in English? The word "dwelt" here is in past simple, not perfect (cf. "went" but not "[has] gone"). The spellings "dwelt" and "dwelled" are synonymous. If "dwelt" is a different tense from habitabat, what would be the same tense? I'm sorry if the questions are silly, but I feel I'm missing something here...
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 20:29
  • Correct. I meant past simple, not perfect. Why is "was dwelling" not the correct translation? That is the question. The version I was reading used "lived" instead, so "was living" sounds better than "was dwelling anyway". The answer could then be that precisely, "was dwelling" is awkward, hence "dwelt" was chosen.
    – luchonacho
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 11:00
  • @luchonacho I updated the answer. I think "was dwelling" is a correct translation, and another one is "dwelt". To me the lighter choice looks better.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 11:25
  • I agree. Good translations does not always mean literal translations.
    – luchonacho
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 11:30

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