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How can I say "I was working." in German?

I was thinking:

Ich war arbeiten.

But I feel that is totally wrong.

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4  
At a quick glance, I would say that this strongly depends on the context and the kind of text. –  Wrzlprmft May 27 '13 at 7:30

3 Answers 3

The other answers cover most of what should be said but I am gonna go for it anyway:

So... your German translation sounds correct and people say that a lot, BUT that is a coincidence. It is not the German equivalent of the English progressive aspect.

Ich war/bin arbeiten/einkaufen/telefonieren/baden/Fussball gucken/....

This looks like progressive aspect but it is not expressing the same notion. The German construction is pretty much an answer to "Where were/are you/what have you done there?" in a general sense. It does not really focus on the whole "that was happening right then" thing. If that is your focus you can go for these:

Ich bin/war am arbeiten. (colloquial)

Ich habe/hatte gerade gearbeitet.

The German construction with "sein + inf" is apparently called "Absentiv". A very detailed explanation (in German) is here.

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1  
Not so sure about the third yellow box, but the rest is spot on! –  Mac May 27 '13 at 16:12
    
"Ich war arbeiten gewesen." is unnecessary Plus-Quam-Perfekt. "Ich bin arbeiten gewesen." is enough. –  Toscho May 27 '13 at 16:39
    
did some more search... found a source... added link –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 16:51

First of all, your translation is not wrong. It would be the typical answer to questions like "Wo warst du?" or "Warum bist du nicht zur Party gekommen?", emphasizing what you were doing.

I think the most literal translation would be "Ich habe gearbeitet", typically if there was some context that is no longer given, e.g. "Ich habe bei Siemens gearbeitet" (implying that you work somewhere else now, or are retired).

If you want to describe the circumstances in the past, "Ich arbeitete" might be a translation as well, e.g. "Ich arbeitete von früh bis spät" or "Ich arbeitete für eine Transportfirma".

So there are some rules of thumb which translation would sound "natural" (and there is some overlapping), but it always depends on the context .

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2  
“Ich war am Arbeiten” is also possible, though not normally in written text. –  chirlu May 27 '13 at 11:35

You're thinking in English. Most languages that I have studied, other than English, don't do the whole "I am verb-ing," "You are verb-ing" thing. That is, they use a subject and a finite verb - that's all. They don't throw "to be" in there, and when you really think about it, the English way is more confusing.

You have two options for expressing the indicative past: simple (imperfect) and present perfect.

Present perfect:

Ich habe gearbeitet.

Simple/Imperfect

Ich arbeitete.

You will hear the former spoken more often than written, and the latter written more often than spoken.

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A little nit-pick... Roman languages do the whole "am verb-ing"-thing. It is not that uncommon –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 16:01
    
@Emanuel Could you name some in particular? Not trying to be argumentative; just curious. –  Dustin May 27 '13 at 16:57
    
@Dustin French implements it by "en train de" (Je suis en train de travailler), Spanish has its own gerund endings, ando in the concerning case (estoy trabajando), Italian (sto lavorando), Romanian (I don't know how to form it, but there's a gerund in the same sense) –  c.p. May 27 '13 at 17:03
    
@c.p. Thanks! I don't speak Spanish, but as to French, I have always considered the "en train de" construction to mean "in the process of." –  Dustin May 27 '13 at 17:04
    
@Dustin: Spanish, French, Italian... it is not entirely the same but grammatically it is and in meaning and usage there is an overlap. I used my knowledge of progressive aspect to build nice sounding constructions with the participle 1 –  Emanuel May 27 '13 at 17:07

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