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It seems to me than when it comes about describing something in the past, it is possible to use either the waren or wurden verbs. For example the phrase:

It was built in 1990

That’d be

es wurde 1990 gebaut,

but is it grammatically correct to say:

es war 1990 gebaut

Can I use these two verbs undistinctly? According to Google Translate, both phrases in German mean the same.

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    Of course, if you enter an ungrammatical sentence into Google Translate, it will still translate it. And btw, the word is bauen, not bauden. – Carsten S Sep 22 '15 at 11:56
  • Google Translate is not a valid source of the kind of information you are looking for, nor is it ever a good language learning tool. One valid use is when you want to understand the rough message of a text for other purposes than learning the language in question. – loxx Sep 22 '15 at 12:34
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    @CarstenS @ owner I corrected the question and mentioned Carsten’s comment in the edit summary. Using a misspelling is in no way relevant to the question. – Jan Sep 22 '15 at 12:55
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Your initial sentence is in the passive voice so it is likely for the translation to be in the passive voice, too. German grammar is considered to have two passive forms: a dynamic passive formed with werden and a stative passive formed with sein. Compare:

Das Haus wird gebaut. (The house is being built)

Das Haus ist gebaut. (The house is built)

When shifting through tenses, these verbs must stay these verbs or a dynamic passive would turn into a stative passive (or vice-versa):

Das Haus wurde gebaut. (preterite)
Das Haus ist gebaut worden. (perfect)
Das Haus wird gebaut werden. (future I)
Das Haus war gebaut worden. (pluperfect)
Das Haus wird gebaut worden sein. (future II)

Das Haus war gebaut. (preterite)
Das Haus ist gebaut gewesen. (perfect)
Das Haus wird gebaut sein. (future I)
Das Haus war gebaut gewesen. (pluperfect)
Das Haus wird gebaut gewesen sein. (future II; semi-strikethough)

Note that not all tenses are possible with the stative passive voice. But then again, since it’s stative, the possible tenses are enough.

After seeing all this, it is clear that switching wurde and war in your initial sentence creates a different meaning:

Das Haus wurde 1990 gebaut.
The house was built in the year 1990.

Das Haus war 1990 gebaut.
In the year 1990, the house was already built.

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    I'm impressed of your complete answer. This outstandingly clarifies the issue. Thank you very much for the dedication. – Charlie Sep 22 '15 at 14:44
  • I am not sure why anyone distinguishes between stative and dynamic passive. It's at least a good approximation to say that German passive voice is always formed with werden rather than sein (i.e. only dynamic passive exists) and that you can use present participles predicatively just like you can do with every adjective: "Das Haus ist schön groß und grün gestrichen und fertig gebaut." In English the two uses of present participles are indistinguishable because English uses be for the passive voice. – user2183 Sep 25 '15 at 8:26
  • As someone hinted in a different answer, the ambiguity can be a problem in English, and this has led to the rise of a variant of passive voice using get. In a hundred years, English will probably have a stative passive with be and a dynamic passive with get, or even only a single passive voice with get, whereas the stative meaning of the house is built will be derived from the use of built as an adjective as I explained for German. – user2183 Sep 25 '15 at 8:31
  • @HansAdler see here especially the comments ;) – Jan Sep 25 '15 at 10:10
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The correct translation would be:

Es wurde 1990 gebaut.

or

Es wurde im Jahre 1990 gebaut.

War is the past tense of sein. Wurde is the past tense of werden. No, they are not interchangeable.

1

To give you a better picture I will use a different approach.

Put your sentence into present tense, in english!

What would you wanna express with

  • this house is built...

If you said 'by Michelangelo' you could refer to the past...
If you said 'by my father' you could mean -> he finished it right now!
Or is it just some fact 'this house is built - we can see that - full stop!'

Or would you rather use

  • this house gets/got build...

To be more clear I guess you would rather go for 'get/got' !


In past tense you already feel the got when you say was - so...

  • this house was built...
  • this house got build...

is perceived as absolutely the same, in contrary to the present tense example where one starts asking himself questions about whether to use the one or the other!

In German this distinction is very clear with the two flavors of the passive-voice - but compare:

  • 'Zustandspassiv' vs. 'Vorgangspassiv'
  • this house was [already] built -> nothing can change the fact it is and you don't ask 'by who'...

  • this house was built... -> you might ask 'by who'...

In German you distinguish it like that

  • dieses Haus ist/war [bereits] gebaut... -> und nichts kann diese Tatsache ändern - und 'von wem' ist auch nicht Sache...

  • dieses Haus wird/wurde gebaut... -> und die Frage 'von wem' drängt sich förmlich auf, auch wenn eine Zeitangabe wie '1990' hinzugefügt wird


You do not imply 'get/got' when you are using 'sein' in German. Only 'werden/wurde' is 'get/got'...!

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Normally you say "Das Haus wurde 1950 gebaut" and

not: Das Haus war 1950 gebaut. - That sounds like a wrong translation from English "The Haus was built in 1950", neglecting the fact that in German a passive is made with werden and not with sein as in English.

Above someone said Das Haus war 1950 gebaut means The building was finished in 1950. I have never heard or read such a formulation. It would be extremely unusual.

  • This duplicates the last two paragraphs or so of my answer. -1 for duping. – Jan Sep 23 '15 at 8:16

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