I am at a loss as to how to write "I was listening to the ..." because the translation keeps coming up as "Ich habe mir das Hörbuch Herr der Ringe angehört" however this loses doesn't seem correct because it's saying "I listened to" or "I have listened to" which feels wrong because "I was listening" describes a continuous action during a period in the past while "I listened" gives no such indication and merely states that it happened.

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    But you do realize that German uses other mechanisms to express continuity? – Stephie Jun 19 '19 at 12:15
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    Related question, to add something specific. – guidot Jun 19 '19 at 13:02
  • This isn't a question as is. The reason you're having trouble translating the sentence is because you only have the start of the sentence; Individual words and grammar constructs don't directly translate. Finish the sentence in english, and then ask how to express it in german, or otherwise change the question about how to express continuity in general (although that's a bit broad). – Cubic Jun 19 '19 at 13:17
  • How do I say “Freundin” in English? Translations say “friend” but that seems wrong, because I do not want to say “Freund”. – Carsten S Jun 19 '19 at 18:21

From your comment on the other answer:

What I am confused with though is how to correctly translate verbs that contain the ing endings.

It's okay to be confused. As CallMeCody pointed out in his correct answer, German does not encode the continous aspect into the verb form as English does. If you want to point out that aspect in German, you have to use other hints: a temporal conjuction as als or während, or a temporal adverb as gerade.

What I wanted to add, for your encouragement: you will encounter this problem not only with the continous aspect but with all aspects, modes, voices, tenses German has. The use of verbs in German is very different from English. What makes it hard and confusing is things look alike, but they aren't. Not at all.

  • English simple present tense is about the present — while German Präsens tense is about everything but the past.
  • English present perfect tense is about actions having a result in the present — while German Perfekt tense is about the past.
  • English simple past tense is about the past — while German Präteritum tense is about an reported timeframe, which may be in the past but as well as valid in the future or in some fantasy world. (English does this too, but in German it's the almost exclusive use, apart from some common verbs.)
  • English past perfect tense is about actions having a result in the past. — While German Plusquamperfekt has the same function for Präteritum German Perfekt has for Präsens.
  • English going-to-future tense is about your future plans — German speakers simply use Präsens tense and time marker words instead.
  • English will-future tense is about the future beyond your influence — while German Futur I tense is pretty similar in meaning, German speakers only use it sparsely. They use Präsens and time marker words instead.

This list is just about tenses (though not all of them!) and you already see how different they are used. The use of voices, moods, aspects is even more different.

So it's okay to be confused but don't be frustrated. You don't have to climb that hill in one day. No German ever did. It will come naturally to you as soon as you read/write/speak/listen to more German.

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  • I find your wording fantasy time a story plays in at least confusing. Als ich aus der Bahn stieg, war der Boden nass, weil es kurz vorher geregnet hatte or am 4. August 1914 erklärte Großbritannien dem Deutschen Reich den Krieg, weil dieses zuvor die belgische Neutralität verletzt hatte - why would you call this fantasy time? – Volker Landgraf Jun 20 '19 at 10:52
  • Because it's not the past. It's an arbitrary time frame your story plays in. Das Planet-Express-Raumschiff hob kurz ab und stürzte dann auf die Straße vor dem Hangar. Später stellte sich heraus, dass Bender die L-Einheit verbogen hatte. (old example) Präteritum has the same function for stories Präsens has for reality. Plusquamperfekt has the same function for stories Perfekt has for reality. – Janka Jun 20 '19 at 13:03
  • But in my two examples it is the real past, the second one even with a concrete date you can find in history books (history != story), so your wording does not cover all possible cases. – Volker Landgraf Jun 20 '19 at 13:04
  • No. It's not the real past. It's the same events as in the real past, told from a storyteller perspective. The difference is crucial. Put both your examples into Präsens and Perfekt. See how the events feel "more real"? That's why authors sometimes decide against Präteritum in favour of Präsens. It feels more real. – Janka Jun 20 '19 at 13:07
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    Same as English tenses feel for German speakers. I occassionally write short stories in English and it drives me nuts. On each proofreading pass, I find Germanisms. I need at least ten passes in English to catch (almost) all the mistakes. At max two in German. – Janka Jun 20 '19 at 18:45

But it is the correct translation.

If you want to stress out that something happened while you were doing something else you use "als" or "während".

"Ich habe mir das Herr der Ringe Hörbuch angehört, als es an der Tür klingelte."

"Ich habe mir das Herr der Ringe Hörbuch angehört, während meine Mutter einkaufen war."

Btw, "das Hörbuch Herr der Ringe" implies that "Herr der Ringe" is the name of the audiobook, just like in english "the audiobook Lord of the Rings".

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  • what I am trying to say in full was: I was listening to the audiobook "The Lord of the Rings" with my Bluetooth headset when you called, and I forgot to change the Bluetooth settings that will transfer the sound back to my phone during a call. – professor_cha0s Jun 19 '19 at 13:27
  • which looks like: – professor_cha0s Jun 19 '19 at 13:27
  • Ich habe das Hörbuch "The Lord of the Rings" mit meinem Bluetooth-Headset angehört, als Sie angerufen haben, und ich habe vergessen, die Bluetooth-Einstellungen zu ändern, mit denen der Ton während eines Telefonats wieder auf mein Telefon übertragen wird. – professor_cha0s Jun 19 '19 at 13:27
  • In the first example I'd use simple past, because it refers to a point in time. To stress the concurrency, one could use "gerade": "Ich hörte mir gerade das Hörbuch an, als es an der Tür klingelte". The second example is fine with present perfect, because it refers to time periods in both parts. – Henning Kockerbeck Jun 19 '19 at 13:28
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    @CallMeCody Simple past, "I listened to music", is used for past actions in general. The action may or may not have taken place at the point in time the conversation is about. It's also used for regular actions, habits etc. ("I listened to music (regularily), but when my CD player broke, I stopped"). On the other hand, past progressive, "I was listening to music", emphasizes that the action took place at the specific moment the conversation is about. It also emphasizes that the action lasted for a period of time, instead of just occuring at a single moment ("Verlaufsform"). – Henning Kockerbeck Jun 19 '19 at 16:10

» … feels wrong because "I was listening" describes a continuous action during a period in the past … «

“I was listening to the Lord of the Rings audiobook …”

You're looking for the temporal adverb "gerade" (often shortened to "grade" or "grad").

Ich hörte grad das Herr der Ringe Hörbuch, da schlug der Blitz ein.

Oder (vielleicht nicht ganz korrekt, aber gängig):

Ich war das Herr der Ringe Audiobuch am hören, da flog ein Vogel durchs Fenster.

Pattern is: Ich bin/war am suchen/arbeiten/schreiben.


Using objects of any case with the verb (like: ich war das Audiobuch am hören) doesn't ring quite correct (see note) to my ears but it is a very useful construction and it is frequently used. So I do use it.

Note: What students (Germans and others) aren't told is that many rules on grammar and pronunciation are too restrictive to account for the huge body of regional idioms, dialects, which is (or was) the true living matter that grammar has been extracted from.

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