What is the imperfect subjunctive tense in Spanish? It is basically the past version of the Spanish present subjunctive! That said, let's begin this lesson with a bit of background on the subjunctive, which is one of the three Spanish moods.
Most simply put, Spanish uses different verb tenses to distinguish between objective states and actions and subjective, uncertain, or emotional ones, for example, things we merely "hope" will happen. So, while there's no difference in verb form between "you come" and "I hope you come" in English, in the equivalent statement in Spanish, (usted) viene (you come) changes to the present subjunctive venga as we see here:
Espero que venga a ver nuestros productos,
I hope you come see our products,
Caption 70, Otavalo ArtesanosPlay Caption
To get a tad more technical, as we see in the example above, in Spanish sentences with a subjunctive verb, we often (but not always) see the following structure:
1. An independent clause with a verb in the indicative that "triggers" the use of the subjunctive (we'll learn more about these later!)
2. A conjunction, or connecting word, like que
3. A dependent clause with a subjunctive verb
And while a "triggering" present tense verb provokes the present subjunctive, a "triggering" verb in some form of the past tense (e.g. preterite, imperfect, or past perfect) will be followed by a verb in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, as we see here:
La verdad esperaba que usted viniera con su apoderada.
Truthfully I was hoping that you'd come with your client.Play Caption
Now that you know a little bit about the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, let's learn how to conjugate it. If you know how to conjugate the third person plural of the preterite in Spanish, conjugating the imperfect subjunctive is relatively easy. You simply remove the -ron ending to get the imperfect subjunctive stem, then add one of two sets of endings (there are two distinct forms of the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish that are used interchangeably). Let's first take a look at these two ending sets:
|Subject Pronoun:||Ending 1:||Ending 2:|
Now, let's remove the -ron endings to come up with the imperfect stems for several common Spanish verbs:
|Verb||3rd Person Plural Preterite||Stem|
Now that we have the stems, let's add the endings to come up with the two versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive for all of these verbs, noting the addition of the accent in the nosotros/as (we) forms to maintain pronunciation. Although the first ending set is more commonly heard, while the second is the more "classic" form, there is no difference in meaning whatsoever.
And the good news is... there are no irregular verbs in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive!
So, what are some examples of Spanish verbs that trigger the subjunctive? The acronym W.E.I.R.D.O., which stands for Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal Expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial, and Ojalá, can help you to remember many of them. Keep in mind that because today's lesson focuses on the imperfect subjunctive, all of said verbs will appear in one of the Spanish past tenses.
As you read the English translations, you might notice that while all of the Spanish sentences meet our aforementioned criteria for using the imperfect subjunctive, there is no "one size fits all" formula for translating this verb tense because it is used in a variety of different circumstances that call for varying verb tenses in English.
Verbs that describe our wishes, hopes, or desires call for the Spanish subjunctive and include desear (to want/wish/desire), esperar (to hope), exigir (to demand/require), insistir (to insist), mandar (to order), necesitar (to need), ordenar (to order), pedir (to ask), preferir (to prefer), and querer (to want). Let's take a look at two examples where said verbs in the Spanish imperfect tense prompt the use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive:
que lo único que esperaba era que su madre pudiera acompañarlo a una presentación del colegio.
as the only thing he was hoping for was for his mother to be able to go with him to a school performance.
Captions 2-3, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante Capítulo 2 - Part 11Play Caption
Pero dijo que quería que fueran amigos.
But she said she wanted you guys to be friends.
Caption 55, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 11 - Part 4Play Caption
In these two examples, the English infinitives "to be" and "to be able" were used to translate the Spanish imperfect subjunctive because in English, we often say that we what we hoped was for something "to happen." However, in the first example "the only thing he was hoping for was that his mother could accompany him to a school performance" could be another viable/equivalent translation.
Emotional verbs like alegrarse (to be happy/glad), enojarse (to be/get angry), encantar (to delight), lamentar (to regret/be sorry), molestar (to bother), sentir (to be sorry), and sorprender (to surprise) also provoke the subjunctive. Let's see two examples of the imperfect subjunctive sparked by the imperfect and preterite tenses:
¿Y por eso te preocupaba tanto que él viniera a verme, que me contara algo?
And that's why it worried you so much that he'd come to see me, that he'd tell me something?
Caption 54, Yago 12 Fianza - Part 2Play Caption
No, me encantó que me llamaras, escucháme, eh...
No, I loved it that you called me; listen to me, um...
Caption 63, Muñeca Brava 2 Venganza - Part 3Play Caption
The first example describes one's past worry about what might happen (whether or not it did), and since in English, we often say we were worried about what "would happen," it was translated in this fashion. The second example, on the other hand, describes an action that actually took place: "you called". And yet, despite the necessary differences in the English translations, we see that in both cases, the use of an "emotional" verb in the first clause triggered the use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive in the second.
Impersonal expressions are constructions that don't involve any particular person and typically begin with the third person singular of some form of ser (to be) plus almost any adjective. Examples include bueno (good), curioso (interesting), dudoso (doubtful), extraño (strange), importante (important), necesario (necessary), probable (probable), raro (strange), urgente (urgent), and many more (the exception being adjectives that indicate certainty, such as cierto (certain) or seguro (sure). Let's see some examples of impersonal expressions in the imperfect tense that call for an imperfect subjunctive verb in the second clause:
Es que era muy raro que no abrieran la puerta.
It's just that it was very strange that they weren't opening the door.
Caption 20, Tu Voz Estéreo Embalsamado - Part 10Play Caption
Y para mí era bien importante que el grupo tuviera letras...
And it was really important to me that the band had lyrics...
Caption 61, La Gusana Ciega Entrevista - Part 1Play Caption
Again, the first caption describes an action that was actually happening (they weren't opening the door), while the second describes someone's past preference (which may or may not have come to fruition). Regardless, an impersonal expression in the imperfect tense triggered the use of the imperfect subjunctive. Note that an alternative translation for the second example might be: "And it was really important to me for the band to have lyrics."
Verbs that either recommend or don't recommend other actions, such as aconsejar (to advise), decir (to tell), dejar (to allow), exigir (to demand), hacer (to make/force), insistir (to insist), mandar (to order), ordenar (to order), prohibir (to forbid), proponer (to suggest), recomendar (to recommend), rogar (to beg), sugerir (to suggest), and suplicar (to beg) call for the subjunctive mood. Let's look at some examples in the preterite:
Le propuse que hiciéramos un pequeño taller de artesanía,
I suggested to him that we open a small craft studio,
Caption 40, Playa Adícora Francisco - Part 2Play Caption
Yo sé que les dijimos que no vinieran por acá pero
I know we told them not to come here, butPlay Caption
Although we might find out later whether or not someone's advice was actually taken, in the moment it was given, the aforementioned "advising" verbs always trigger the Spanish imperfect subjunctive.
When conjugated in some form of the past, doubt verbs like dudar (to doubt), no creer (to not believe) or no poder creer (to not be able to believe), no parecer (to not seem), no pensar (to not think), and no suponer (to not suppose) call for the imperfect subjunctive:
Bueno, por un instante llegué a dudar de que estuvieras.
Well, for a moment, I even began to doubt that you would be [here].
Caption 41, Yago 4 El secreto - Part 11Play Caption
Yo no podía creer que me pasara que una chica así se me acercara
I couldn't believe this was happening to me that such a girl would approach me
Captions 7-8, Enanitos Verdes Cuánto PoderPlay Caption
In these examples, past "doubt" causes the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, regardless of whether the situations were actually unfolding. The second example is interesting because it has been translated with both the past progressive "was happening" and the conditional "would approach" in English to represent that the speaker still can't believe such a situation "would happen" to him, even as it was.
Although ojalá and ojalá que aren't technically verbs but rather conjunctions, they are roughly equivalent to such English expressions as "I hope," "let's hope," or "God willing" and require the subjunctive. When used with the imperfect subjunctive, these expressions are often to describe hypothetical situations that one wishes "were" true (interestingly, the change from "was" to "were" to represent a hypothetical situation is the only time we see a verb change in the subjunctive mood in English). Let's look at some examples:
No es crucial. Ojalá todos los problemas fueran estos.
It's not crucial. If only all problems were [like] these.
Caption 19, Cómetelo Crema de brócoli - Part 9Play Caption
Y ojalá todo el mundo estuviera lo suficientemente entusiasmado.
And I wish everyone were excited enough.
Caption 8, Club 10 Capítulo 1 - Part 1Play Caption
We hope that these examples have helped you to understand how to conjugate the Spanish imperfect subjunctive tense, some scenarios in which to use it, and some of the many ways in which it might be translated to English. In future lessons, we hope to focus on some additional, common uses of this tense, but in the meantime... don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments.
Sometimes, various languages use very different idiomatic expressions to communicate exactly the same idea! As an example, the English expression "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," which refers to the last of a series of unpleasant events that causes some more extreme consequence, is conveyed with a Spanish saying with a totally different literal meaning: Fue la gota que derramó el vaso (It was the drop that spilled the glass). The purpose of today's lesson will be to bring to your attention several such idioms.
As you may have noticed, Yabla sometimes includes brackets that indicate what a word or phrase means "literally" as opposed to how it has been translated. This is because, while we want our subscribers to learn the literal meaning of the words they are reading, we also want them to glean the intention behind a particular expression (which is more obvious in some cases than in others) and/or depict what a native English speaker would say in the same context. With that in mind, let's take a look at Yabla's Top Ten Spanish Idioms from our Yabla Spanish library.
This Spanish equivalent of "Practice makes perfect" literally means "Practice makes the master":
Es así de sencillo: La práctica hace al maestro.
It's that simple: Practice makes perfect [literally "Practice makes the master"].
Caption 7, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 13 - Part 4Play Caption
Who knows why the concept of jokingly deceiving someone is expressed with "to take" or "pull one's hair" in one language and "to pull one's leg" in another?
¿Qué tango, me estás tomando el pelo?
What tango, are you pulling my leg [literally: Are you pulling my hair]?
Caption 46, Muñeca Brava 30 Revelaciones - Part 3Play Caption
The Spanish idiom andarse por las ramas and its variants mean "to walk around/between the branches" and have the same meaning as the English saying "to beat around the bush," or avoid getting straight to the point.
Mi abu también dice que yo ando entre las ramas,
My grams also says that I beat around the bush [literally "I walk between the branches"],
Caption 20, X6 1 - La banda - Part 1Play Caption
Literally translated, Al que madruga Dios lo ayuda means "God helps he who gets up early." Meant to tout the benefits of early rising, similar sayings in English include "The early bird catches the worm" and "Early to bed, early to rise makes the man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
Además, yo siempre madrugo, ¿vio? Porque, "Al que madruga..." "Dios lo ayuda".
Besides, I always get up early, you know? Because, "The early bird..." "Catches the worm" [literally "God helps him"].
Captions 33-34, Muñeca Brava 47 Esperanzas - Part 6Play Caption
Spanish-speakers use the expression "Speaking of the King of Rome" instead of "Speak of the devil" in circumstances where one is, for example, talking about someone when that person appears.
Miren, hablando del Rey de Roma.
Look, speak of the devil [literally "the King of Rome"].Play Caption
For insight into even more idiomatic expressions from the intriguing Colombian series Confidencial: El rey de la estafa (Confidential: The King of Cons), we recommend the video Carlos Comenta- Confidencial- Vocabulario y expresiones (Carlos Comments- Confidential- Vocabulary and Expressions).
Word for word, hacer el oso means "to play" or "act like a bear"! However, this oft-used Spanish expresion, employed frequently in countries like Colombia, is used to say that someone is "making a fool of him or herself."
Hermano, deje de hacer el oso.
Brother, stop making a fool of yourself [literally "playing the bear"].Play Caption
To learn more such "Colombianisms," we suggest the lesson Colombian Slang: 100 Words and Phrases to Sound like a True Colombian.
The word "darn" in English is an exclamation of disappointment, for example, when something goes wrong, while "not to give a darn" means "not to care." The Spanish equivalent importar un pepino, on the other hand, translates to "mattering as much as a cucumber" to the party in question:
¡Y el peor de todos es Pepino Pérez, que le importa un pepino todo!
And the worst of all of them is Pepino Pérez, who doesn't give a darn [literally "a cucumber"] about anything!
Caption 14, Kikirikí Agua - Part 1Play Caption
The image of getting "caught with one's hands in the dough," as the expression (atrapado) con las manos en la masa describes, seems like the perfect way to convey the notion of "getting caught red-handed" (in the act of doing some bad deed).
Con las manos en la masa atraparon al ladrón
Red-handed [literally "with his hands in the dough"], they caught the thief
Caption 1, Eljuri Un fósforoPlay Caption
The expression la mosquita muerta, or "small dead fly," describes a person who appears nice or innocent but is actually evil or untrustworthy. Similar English expressions include "a wolf in sheep's clothing" or a "snake in the grass."
Como se equivocó la mosquita muerta esa.
What a big mistake that wolf in sheep's clothing [literally "small dead fly"] made.
Caption 11, Tu Voz Estéreo Embalsamado - Part 4Play Caption
Although the literal meaning of the Argentinian saying Listo el pollo, pelada la gallina is "The chicken's ready, the hen's plucked," it is used to announce the completion of some goal or task, making it similar to the more straightforward English expression, "Mission accomplished." Here, Mili from the popular Argentinian soap opera Muñeca Brava utters the second part of this expression to make this point:
¡Listo el último! -Va, ¡pelada la gallina!
The last one's ready! -Come on, mission accomplished [literally "the hen's plucked"]!
Caption 73, Muñeca Brava 47 Esperanzas - Part 3Play Caption
If Argentinean Spanish particularly interests you, you might read this lesson on the Top Ten Argentinian Slang Words You Need to Know.
We hope you've enjoyed this lesson on Yabla's Top Ten Spanish Idioms and their English equivalents. If you are interested in learning more about what goes into translating idiomatic expressions and more, we recommend the lesson The Art of Translation, and don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments.
Recently, one of our subscribers wrote into us, alarmed by the following translation:
Caption 7, Café Tacuba - MediodíaPlay Caption
As the literal meaning of "Parece mentira" is "It seems like a lie," he didn't understand how the translators at Yabla could have so terribly missed the mark. Long story short, translation is not always literal, and there are many occasions on which the same word, expression, or text could be translated in more than one fashion. There are many factors that come into play at the moment of translating, including idiomatic speech, differences in dialects, the format or genre of the translation, and even the audience for which it is intended.
Since much of the art of translation involves making actual choices, rather than simply translating each word literally, the audience for a translation and its intended purpose come into play. For example, someone might hire a translator to translate a legally binding contract into layperson's language if the purpose of the translation is simply for that client to be able to understand what is being said in everyday terms. On the other hand, were that same contract to be presented by a lawyer at a trial in a Spanish-speaking country, the translation would need to match the high register of the original document and contain exact equivalents of its complex legal terminology. This is further complicated by the fact that sometimes the laws of one country are so different from another's that there simply is no equivalent terminology.
On the other hand, literary translation can be quite complicated with genres like poetry or children's stories that employ rhyme. The translator is then faced with the choice between translating the literal meaning of the poem and completely losing this literary element or employing rhyme while inevitably altering the meaning (as little as possible, of course!). Again, either one of these translation styles could be legitimate, depending upon the audience for the translation and/or what the translator considers more important in terms of maintaining the essence of the original literature.
In the case of Yabla, our audience consists of language learners. As our goal is to translate in a way that facilitates language learning, we are basically left with two choices in our aforementioned example: to literally translate the phrase "Parece mentira" as "It seems like a lie," which sounds a bit awkward in English, or to translate the actual meaning of this idiomatic expression, which is indeed utilized to convey the idea that something is "unbelievable," "incredible," or "hard to believe." Over time, Yabla has transitioned from more literal translation to a style that expresses actual meaning and/or the way in which a native speaker would express him or herself whenever possible.
To illustrate a very simple example, the concept of "black and white" (movies, for example) in Spanish is expressed in reverse order as blanco y negro. While in the past, Yabla may have opted to translate this as “white and black” in order not to confuse learners (perhaps leading them to believe that Yabla's translators need to brush up on their colors!), these days, we would most likely go with the more common manner of expressing this in English. This can be seen in the following clip.
Son los vari blanco y negro.
They are the black and white ruffed lemurs.
Caption 34, Animales en familia - Un día en Bioparc: LémuresPlay Caption
Of course, as this is also a proper name, the translator should always choose the real name by which something is known in the target language (in our case, English) rather than the source language (Spanish), even when the literal translation would be completely different:
Bueno, en las costa se pueden, bueno, observar pingüinos, lobos marinos.
Well, at the shore you can see penguins, sea lions (literally "sea wolves").
Caption 49, Buenos Aires - Heladería CumelenPlay Caption
Interestingly, the very same animal, the sea lion, is literally referred to as a "sea wolf" in Spanish. However, translating it in this matter would only serve to confuse English speakers, perhaps causing them to wonder whether the speaker could be referring to some alternative species (or maybe a fantastical creature!). Whenever possible, Yabla also employs brackets to indicate the literal translation in such cases.
To further demonstrate the complex nature of translation, let's examine a few additional examples:
¿Qué te parece San Sebastián, Matías?
What do you think of San Sebastian (literally, "How does San Sebastian seem to you"), Matias?
Caption 29, Clase Aula Azul - El verbo parecerPlay Caption
The literal translation of ¿Qué te parece San Sebastián? is "How does San Sebastian seem to you?" However, although there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that English sentence, the translator must again put him or herself in the shoes of a speaker who, for example, is inquiring about the visitor to a particular city's opinion of it. In this case, "What do you think of San Sebastian?" would be a much more common utterance. Once again, since the intention of this video is to teach Yabla students grammar, you will note that the literal translation has additionally been provided in brackets.
Let's now take a look at an example in which two completely different idioms are used to express the same idea in Spanish vs. English:
El arreglo, un ojo de la cara.
The repair, an arm and a leg (literally "an eye off my face").
Caption 19, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante - Capítulo 1Play Caption
Amusingly, to say something costs "an eye off my face" has the same meaning as the English expression, "to cost an arm and a leg," and the translator should thus choose the equivalent idiomatic expression in the target language.
Let's look at one last example:
Sí, gorda, ya lo sé.
Yes, honey, I know that already.
Caption 32, Muñeca Brava - 45 El secretoPlay Caption
As gorda literally means "fatty," the translation "honey" might initially seem off. However, terms such as gordo/a ("fatty"), flaco/a ("skinny'), and negro/negra ("blackie") are frequently employed in many Spanish-speaking countries (regardless of whether the person actually has these physical characteristics!) as terms of endearment equivalent to such English words as "dear," "honey," or "sweetie." This additionally demonstrates how a term deemed perfectly acceptable in one country could, in another, be misunderstood at best and offensive at worst. This becomes extremely important when translating, for example, advertisements targeted at specific audiences.
That's all for today. We hope that these examples have shed some light on a few of the countless challenges and choices that translators face regularly, and don't forget to leave us your comments and suggestions!
Did you know that the Spanish words sí (which usually means "yes") and si (which typically means "if") can also serve to make utterances more emphatic? Today's lesson will explore this topic.
Like English words such as "do" or did," "really," or "indeed," the Spanish word sí (yes) can be employed to add emphasis. For example, when someone says you didn't do something, you might reply in English, "I did do it," "I really did it," or "I did it indeed." Similarly, in Spanish, you can use the word sí (with an accent) to retort: Yo sí lo hice (I did do it).
Like the aforementioned words, this use of sí has a purely emphatic effect. While you could say simply Yo lo hice (I did it), Spanish speakers commonly add this sí to emphasize that fact. Let's look at some additional examples:
Ah claro, ahora sí lo entiendo hija, ¡qué torpe soy!
Oh, of course, now I do understand it, girl. How clumsy I am!
Caption 57, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 7Play Caption
Uy, si piensan arreglar con ese tipo, la cosa sí va a estar dura.
Oh, if you're thinking of settling with that guy, the matter's really going to be tough.Play Caption
¡Guau! Eso sí que era divertido
Wow! That was fun indeed,Play Caption
Note that, as in the last example, this emphatic sí is often accompanied by the word que.
The Spanish word si, without the accent, which usually means "if," can also be used at the beginning of a phrase to give extra emphasis or oomph to assertions or expressions of doubt. This emphatic si is a bit less intuitive for English speakers because, as it does not introduce a conditional clause like si and "if" typically do, translating it as "if" would simply not make sense in most cases. For this reason, this emphatic si is often not reflected in translations at all. Let's look at a couple of examples.
No, si yo ya sé que Nicolás de eso no va a ver ni un peso.
No, I already know that Nicolás is not going to see even one peso out of that.Play Caption
Andrea... Andrea, si vos sabés que yo soy fiel a muerte.
Andrea... Andrea, you know that I am faithful to death.
Caption 67, Muñeca Brava 45 El secreto - Part 4Play Caption
Since the word "but" can also serve to add emphasis in English in similar utterances, translators sometimes opt to translate the emphatic si with that word, like in the following example:
Si yo lo estoy diciendo hace rato ya, hombre.
But I've been saying it for a while already, man.
Caption 71, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 4Play Caption
That said, as the word "but" won't always seem "just right" in sentences that include the emphatic si, the most important thing is to remember is that its function is to add this emphatic feeling, even when there is no tangible translation.
While it might seem initially confusing, we hope that this lesson has helped you to understand how the words sí and si can occasionally depart from their traditional meanings in order to add emphasis to certain phrases. Having said that, sí que pueden escribirnos con sus dudas y comentarios (you can definitely write us with your questions and comments)!