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Background

German language textbooks teach that the German language does not have a tense with a progressive or continuous aspect which would indicate that an action is happening right now and will continue to happen. In English, this tense and aspect would take the form of "I am learning", "he is swimming".

The Präsens tense instead expresses the action with no indicator about when in the present time the action took place or about the actions duration (length of time, or when it was completed).

Another way to describe this, is that it appears to be silent on this aspect. And further information like the words 'gerade' or 'immer' provide the point of time and duration reference.

Unfortunately, books that I study from provide different translations of Präsens sentences which have no additional information such as gerade or immer.

Sometimes Präsens is translated into the English Base form (using the infinite without "to), and at other times Präsens is translated into a progressive form using "is/am" and the -ing (present participle) form of the verb.

A few examples.

Ich lerne Deutsch

I learn German (now, or in the near future)

I am learning German (right now, and will continue to learn beyond the speech reference point)

Sie begegnet Peter

She meets Peter (now, or in the near future)

She is meeting Peter (the meeting is happening right now)

Er singt zu laut

He sings too loud (generally, or right now, or near future)

He is singing too loud (right now, and will continue to sing beyond the speech reference point)

Question

  1. Are there general rules for translating a Präsens tense sentence that has no additional information like gerade or immer. Such as, that it is never intended as progressive in the absence of words such as gerade.

And should we avoid translating into the progressive "is/am -ing" form by default.

As you can see from the examples, there can be a big difference between the two translations. Whether someone sings too loud all the time or just right now, whether someone is in a meeting right now.

Grateful to know whether Germans think in progressive normally and any standard rules for translation. Thanks in advance.

  • Note that in German the Präsens is even used to indicate future events ("Ich gehe morgen einkaufen." = "I will go shopping tomorrow."), and using the Futur I ("Ich werde morgen einkaufen gehen.") will immediately identify you as a non-native speaker. :) – AndreKR Jul 11 at 13:09
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According to “Grundriss der deutschen Grammatik Band 2: Der Satz” by Peter Eisenberg (2013), p. 102, the present tense, without a clarifying context or adverbs, can have several meanings. These are two of them:

  1. Time of utterance (U) and time of event (E) overlap.
  2. Time of event follows time of utterance.

To decide between the two the lexical aspect of the verb is a guide: Präsens with atelic verbs tends to be interpreted as (1) and with telic verbs as (2). Neither (1) nor (2) corresponds to the English present tense or present continuous. There is no perfect translation possible because the German and English tenses differ in meaning. This can be seen in your examples:

Ich lerne Deutsch.

Here, the lexical aspect is atelic. The sentence can't be translated perfectly because the English tenses are too specific to express an overlap of U and E time. So, a choice is forced on the translator and meaning is lost no matter how the translator decides. That is why it is advisable not to translate to “bare” tenses in every case, but to add an adverbial phrase or other clarification as necessary.

Sie begegnet Peter.

Begegnen is a telic verb, unlike to meet, which is atelic. This makes the suggested translations problematic. One of these seems to be more apt: She comes across/encounters/bumps into Peter.

Er singt zu laut.

In German, the meaning of the present tense is broader than of either of the English present tenses, as evidenced by this example sentence. In this sentence, it is simply not specified whether he sings too loud now or now and continuously. (I left out the meaning of singing to loud in general/habitually because this meaning exists in German as it does in English, for each of your example sentences. The German Präsens is here ambiguous just as the English present tense is.) This differentiation between now on the one hand and now and continuously on the other is absent in such sentences. (And, if I may add some rationale as a speaker of German, the differentiation between singing now and singing now and continuously makes little to no sense. The now, the present, is a infinitely small point in time–the point of contact of past and future–while the activity of singing covers a period of time. So, the singing in the present necessarily overlaps the point of now and is continuous. Therefore, these two different meanings in English would collapse into one meaning in a German speaker's mind. I have honestly no idea how one can be singing now and continuously without to sing now, and vice versa. Both seem to be equivalent.)

To answer your question: There are some general rules to translate the Präsens. But there is the limitation that the translator must construct more specific interpretations, which are absent in German, and choose which of them s/he wants to express in English. This may depend on clues that are given in the context. It is not possible to translate faithfully from Präsens to either present or present continuous. However, the meaning of the German source can be further approximated by choosing one of the other English tenses–future with to be going to and present perfect continuous are certainly good candidates for translations of some uses of Präsens–and/or adding clarifying adverbial phrases.

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  • 1
    Brilliant and well founded answer. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 11 at 5:54
  • Interesting to note the distinction between telic verbs and atelic verbs, and that the default is simple present rather than the progressive form. Also noted, that depending on the verb itself the Präsens tense can implicitly mean both now, and "now and continuous" for the expected duration of the action (but that there is no need to use a separate tense form to express the progressive aspect). – BeginnerStudent Jul 11 at 13:01
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Depends entirely on the context

The aspect doesn't have to be marked by adverbs, but can also be clear from the context, i.e. content of the sentence.

If you have just the sentences you gave above themselves, however, you cannot tell. In this case the default translation should be the present, since there's no evidence to assume it's present progressive.

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  • Is the German word werden an exception? I cant think of a sentence with werden on its own, in Präsens, which does not mean "now and continuous", and if so would you recommend English present progressive (ing) tense for all instances of werden on its own? Er wird Arzt (He is becoming a Doctor), Es wird kalt (it is becoming colder), Er wird müde (He is becoming tired), Sie werden neugerig (they are becoming curious). Thanks. – BeginnerStudent Jul 11 at 15:02
  • @BeginnerStudent Actually I think the verb werden is an excellent example for the context dependency of the translation. If you say Es wird kalt, the context (absence of time indicators) suggests that it's happening right now, even though it's not formally marked in German. But nonetheless it's no grammatical rule whatsoever immanent to werden in my opinion, since adding an adverb like immer (Es wird immer kalt) would accordingly just change the context, not the character of werden itself. Thus I would again suggest to abandon the idea of a general default translation – amadeusamadeus Jul 11 at 15:24
  • Noted and thanks for the advice. – BeginnerStudent Jul 12 at 8:46

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