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The translation of "I went there" is "Ich bin dort hingegangen." There is only one verb in "I went there". So why are there two in the translation (bin and hingegangen)? Is "bin" a helping verb? If yes, why is it needed? What is the rule at play here? Why is the translation not "Ich hingegange dort."?

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  • Why the downvote?
    – user17144
    May 29 at 0:41
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In German (like in English) some verb forms (like the Perfekt in your example) consist of a helping verb (sein = be, haben = have) and a participle (a lot of them start with or contain the syllable "ge", like "hinGEgangen").

You can compare this to "I have (helping verb) gone (participle) there", for example. If you are looking for a verb form that is similar to the Perfekt but that does not need a helping verb, you can use the Präteritum.

Your sentence in the Präteritum would be "Ich ging dort hin."

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  • Thank you. So is simple past in English called "Präteritum" in German?
    – user17144
    May 27 at 2:12
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    @user17144 As far as I know, simple past and Präteritum are the same, yes. At least I always use simple past when I want to translate the Präteritum to English.
    – Mara
    May 27 at 10:38
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German and English verb tenses do not match. Not at all.

English has a very convoluted system of telling the order of events and whether they stop or continue or are timeless. German on the other hand only ever tells apart non-past —simple tenses— and past —Perfekt tenses—. All the other differences of German tenses and moods tell about how much of a fact that what is told is.

So, whenever you encounter simple past in English, it means a past event. But in German, you have to tell about past events in a Perfekt tense. Not in a simple tense. And that's why

I went there.

becomes

Ich bin (dort) hingegangen.

The Perfekt is built with the auxiliary haben (usually) or sein (often), depending on the verb, and the Partizip II (usually) or the Ersatzinfinitiv (rare), depending on the verb.

Bin is the first person singular of sein, and hingegangen is the Partizip II of hingehen — to go there. That additional dort is redundant.

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  • Thank you. What are you referring to in English as "convoluted"? Simple past is "I went there", and past perfect is "I have gone there." Is there no equivalent simple past in German? Is past always perfect in German? Can you elaborate on "All the other differences of German tenses and moods tell about how much of a fact that what is told is."?
    – user17144
    May 27 at 2:10
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    @user17144 No, past perfect is "I had gone there". But apart from "I have gone" and "I went", there are also "I have been going" and "I was going", so the system isn't all that simple.
    – DonHolgo
    May 27 at 8:39
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    As I wrote, German only ever tells apart non-past and past. There isn't a perfect aspect not a continous aspect, there isn't an order of tenses, no backshifting in subjunctive, no conditional, and no tense for the future either. But German has twelve tenses/moods, not just two. What are the other tenses/mood pairs good for? They tell apart facts, storytelling, assumptions, hearsay, and non-facts. And one possible pair isn't used at all.
    – Janka
    May 27 at 13:55
  • @DonHolgo I mis-typed. Yes, past perfect is "I had gone there."
    – user17144
    May 28 at 3:51
  • @Janka "Ich bin hingegangen" naively translated into English is something like "I am gone there." So why is the German not "Ich haben hingegangen"? The latter is closer to "I have gone there." Why is sein used rather than haben?
    – user17144
    May 28 at 3:56
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First, Ich hingegange dort, is impossible. You're thinking of the past participle hingegangen which is not declined (so not hingegange) and always used with a helping verb. In German the simple past would be Ich ging dort hin. The verb hingehen is irregular so forming the simple past tense doesn't follow the same rules as regular verbs. (There's a whole deal in German with "strong verbs" vs. "weak verbs" which mainly has to do with how they form the past tense. Suffice to say that gehen is a strong verb but it doesn't even follow the usual strong pattern.) Note that hingehen is separable so the hin part goes at the end of the sentence as it would in the present tense Ich gehe dort hin.

For the perfect past, you need a helping verb (sein in this case) and the past participle. Again, this is a separable verb so the -ge- which normally goes in front of the participle is squeezed in after the hin, thus hingegangen. The result is Ich bin dort hingegangen. Also note that gehen has an irregular past participle as well.

But the main question is why use the perfect past when English uses the simple past, and the answer is that English and German use these tenses differently. The difference in meaning in English is somewhat minor, being mostly a matter of emphasis, but in German the difference in meaning is even smaller, being mostly a matter of register. I think of the simple past tense (Ich ging dort hin) in German as "storybook mode" because it's used in narratives. For this reason it's often used in novels and similar literature. The perfect past tense (Ich bin dort hingegangen) might be called "event mode" since it just describes the event. Spoken German uses this form most often, but the meanings of the two forms are virtually the same. There is usually nothing grammatically incorrect about using one form instead of the other in a particular context, though it might sound unusual to native speakers.

Because of the difference in usage, it often happens that the simple past in English is translated as perfect past in German. Keep in mind that there is rarely a simple correspondence between meaning in English and meaning German, and you often have to use context to glean the information necessary to make a sensible translation. This is just as true whether you're talking about individual words or verb tenses.

Janka's answer said something about the English system being convoluted, which is fair because English makes a distinction between different aspects (simple, progressive, perfect) where German (at least Standard German) doesn't. Wikipedia lists 16 different verb forms in English, of which 4 cover the past tense. I think German has about the same total number of verb forms, but when to use which is different between English and German. This is part of the challenge of learning a second language; it's more than just looking up the German form that corresponds to a given English form. You have to carefully work out the exact meaning and use it to figure out which form is most applicable in German. Sometimes subtleties in one language get lost when you translate, and sometimes you need to make distinctions that weren't there in the original, which is perhaps why it's often called "interpreting".

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