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TRANSLATING TENSE AND ASPECT FORMS




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Every student of English has been challenged by the difference between English and Russian tense and aspect categories. To begin with, in English there are four major aspect groups (Simple, Progressive, Perfect, Perfect Progressive), showing how the action is performed, multiplied by four time indicators (Present, Past, Future, Future in the Past.) In Russian there are three time indicators, called tenses (Present, Past, Future), and two aspects, perfective and imperfective. Therefore, English and Russian forms are not parallel, though some regularities might be observed between them.

English Simple (Indefinite) tenses denoting regular, permanent actions correspond to the Russian imperfective aspect: Water boils at 100º Centigrade. – Вода кипит при 100ºC. When expressing an action as a single fact, a Simple tense corresponds to the Russian perfective form: When I heard the news, I walked faster and faster. – Когда я услышала эту новость я пошла быстрее. Very often the contrast between the meanings expressed by a Simple tense is seen in the microcontext: a single action is indicated by a verb-noun predicate: She gave a cry. – Она вскрикнула. (Cf. She cried hoarsely. – Она хрипло кричала.); by a phrasal verb: She cried something out. – Она что-то выкрикнула.; or by parallel (homogeneous) predicates: He cried something unintelligible and rushed past. – Он крикнул что-то невнятно и пронесся мимо.

Progressive tenses, denoting temporary continuous actions, correspond to the Russian imperfective form: He first became interested in drama when he wasworking abroad. – Он впервые заинтересовался драматургией, когда работал за границей. The same holds true in reference to permanent actions expressed in emotional speech: You are always coming late! – Вечно ты опаздываешь! But when expressing a future action, especially a ‘matter-of-fact’ future, the English Progressive corresponds to the Russian perfective: Spring is coming. Birds will be flying back soon. – Идет весна. Вскоре прилетят птицы.

English Perfect forms, when expressing a completed action, correspond to Russian perfective verbs: I haven’t finished yet. – Я еще не закончила. By the time we got there the rain had stopped. – К тому времени, как мы добрались туда, дождь уже прекратился. To render the meaning of completion expressed by the Perfect verb, a translator has to use the technique of compensation and extension by introducing adverbs implying completion: уже, еще, etc. Therefore, there is no need, when translating from Russian into English the sentence Я уже прочел эту книгу, to use the adverb already. I have read the book is enough to express the completed action.



When a Perfect tense expresses a multiple action that took place in the past and can happen in the future, the English verb corresponds to the Russian imperfective form: I’ve met Ann’s husband. – Я встречала мужа Энн. I have eaten at that restaurant many times. – Я ел в этом ресторане много раз.

It is not infrequent that Perfect tenses require lexical compensation in translation: Russian literature has possessed the feeling of the sole. – Русская литература всегда характеризовалась чувством одиночества. I have lived here for two years. – Я прожил здесь два года и до сих пор живу. He had been a captain. – Когда-то он был капитаном.

Perfect Progressive tense forms denote an action begun before another action and continued into it; they correspond to the Russian imperfective forms: He has been studying Japanese for three years. – Он изучает японский язык уже три года.



There is also asymmetry in expressing tense distinctions in English and Russian. Russian future tenses correspond to English present tense forms in adverbial clauses: Если он придет, я дам вам знать. – If he comes, I’ll let you know. When the English present tense is used to denote the near future, in Russian the present tense form alternates with the future: We are going downtown in some minutes. – Мы пойдем/идем в город через несколько минут. The train arrives in five minutes. – Поезд прибудет через пять минут.

The English PresentPerfect or Present Perfect Continuous verb is usually translated by the Russian past tense verb, since it indicates a ‘prepresent’ action: Who has eaten my soup?Кто съел мой суп? Who has been eating my soup? – Кто ел мой суп?

What are the possible traps for the translator beside this asymmetry? Care should be taken with the connotation of the tense forms: in emotional speech the English Progressive and Simple tenses seem to exchange their aspect characteristics: the Progressive form indicates an exaggerated permanent action and the Simple verb denotes an action taking place at the moment of speech, the speaker’s emphasis being placed on the circumstances rather than the action itself. In this case the corresponding degree of expressiveness in Russian can be reached by lexical compensation: She is always complaining! – Вечно она жалуется! Why don’t you write? – Ну, почему ты не пишешь?



Lexical compensation is often a way out in contrasting tense and aspect forms: «Почему ты не знаешь правила?» – «Я учил.» – «Учил, да не выучил.» “Why don’t you know the rule?” – “I learnt it.” - “You tried to, but failed.” I sobbed a little still, but that was because I had been crying, not because I was crying then. – Я еще всхлипывала, но это потому, что я плакала перед этим, а не потому, что я ревела в этот момент.

Inexperienced students of translation, though they have studied the rule of Sequence of Tenses in their grammar class, are sometimes not aware that this rule does not exist in Russian. Therefore, when translating from Russian into English, they are likely to do word-for-word translation (or rather “tense-for-tense” translation), which is not correct in Russian: I knew he was in the village. – Я знал, что он в деревне (rather than Я знал, что он был в деревне.) The latter Russian sentence corresponds to the English I knew he had been in the village.

 


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