Compound Past: Tips for Translating
Don't Let the Passé composé Trip You Up!
Table of Contents
I. “I Spoke” Or “I Have Spoken”?
This Language File should be read in tandem with this other one: Compound Past.
The very first question a translator must answer when faced with a verb in the passé composé is: Should I translate into English using ordinary past tense (or Simple [that is, one-word] Past, or Preterite), or Present Perfect?
Formally, that is, as regards the words actually making up the tense, the passé composé corresponds to the English present perfect: both consist of the auxiliary verb (“to have” in English, avoir or être in French) in personal form, and the past participle:
|Subject||Auxiliary Verb||Past Participle|
In fact, however, the passé composé has largely taken over the function of the simple past to indicate a completed past action, so that most of the time you don’t translate a verb in the passé composé with an English present perfect, in spite of these tenses being constructed in an identically similar way.
Consequently, you should follow this convenient two-part rule:
1. Start Off Translating a French Compound-Past Verb as an English Simple-Past Verb.
- J’ai mis la table et puis j’ai écouté de la musique. (I set the table and then I listened to some music.)
The second part of the rule is:
2. If Simple Past Doesn’t Sound Right, Use Another Tense.
For example, the negative often requires in English the emphatic form of the verb (with the auxiliary “do/did”):
- Elle n’a pas répondu. (She didn’t answer.) 1
Commentary: “She answered not” is not standard in modern English.
For more on the emphatic tenses, see Part IV of Language File “Bien, the Many Meanings of”; also, Part I of “Functions of the Present Tense.”
In some cases, a present-perfect verb really is called for. A tell-tale adverb is often involved:
- Elle n’a pas encore répondu. (She hasn’t answered yet OR She still hasn’t answered.)
- Ils ont déjà fait leurs devoirs. (They have already done their homework.)
- Avez-vous jamais visité la France? (Have you ever visited France?)
- Je n’ai jamais été en Argentine. (I have never been to Argentina.)
Native-American oratory (we are told) typically ended with this formula:
- J’ai dit. (I have spoken.)
II. What the Passé composé Doesn’t Do (and Present Perfect Does)
The French passé composé does NOT do the following functions of the English Present Perfect.
1. Indicate an action or a state begun in the past and continuing in the present, as in:
- “I have known George / for a long time / since 1980.”
- “I have been telling you that / for years / since we first met.”
For the corresponding French construction, see the Language Files “Functions of the Present Tense,” Part V.3, and “Temporal Expressions and Their Tenses,” Part I.
2. Indicate an action very recently completed, as in:
- “I have just won the lottery”.
For the corresponding French construction, see the Language File “Functions of the Present Tense,” Part V.2.
III. Passive Voice and Passé composé
When you see the verb être in the passé composé (as ai été, as été, a été, avons été, avez été, or ont été) followed by another past participle, how do you translate it? Look at the first part of the rule above. You translate it, initially, not as “has been,” and for goodness’ sake not as “had been” (see the purple No-No box above), but (again, initially) as—
- J’ai été bouleversé par la nouvelle. (I was upset by the news.)
- Il a été retenu au bureau. (He was held up at the office.)
- Elle a été obligé de ravaler ses paroles. (She was obliged to eat her words.)
- Nous avons été élus au premier scrutin. (We were elected on the first ballot.)
- Elles ont été massacrées, vous dis-je, exterminées, anéanties! (They were massacred, I’m telling you, exterminated, annihilated!)
Only if “was/were” doesn’t sound perfectly right should you try out “has been/have been.”
Don’t (Ever!) Translate Passé composé as Pluperfect!
You may sometimes translate a verb in the passé composé as “has/have…(done something),” but never as “HAD (done something).” 2
- Also possible as a translation of Elle n’a pas répondu: “She hasn’t answered.” This translation may or may not be appropriate, depending on the context.↩
- The only quasi-exception to this negative rule involves the past subjunctive, which is formally the equivalent in the subjunctive mood of the indicative passé composé. In secondary sequence (following a verb in the past tense), the passé du subjonctif should be translated as a pluperfect.↩
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