August 6, 2013

Translating the Past Habitual

Often the past habitual verb forms can be translated using “used to …”. However, this is often not the case. The Hindi past habitual is not equivalent to the English idiom “used to …”.

Consider a few examples:

दादा जी उनके परिवार से बहुत प्यार करते थे” – “Grandfather loved his family very much”

In the previous example, the sense is not that the grandfather “used to love” his family; in English, “used to” can imply that an action was discontinued. The sense of this sentence is that the grandfather did something habitually in the past, he “loved”.

मैं जाना चाहता था लेकिन मुझे बहुत काम था इसलिए मैं नहीं जा पाया” – “I wanted to go, but I had a lot of work, so I couldn’t go”

In the previous example, the sense is obviously not “I used to want to go”. It is merely describing a past desire, “wanted”. The speaker could have said “मैंने जाना चाहा“, but this is less common.

लेकिन अब तक पढ़ाई के मकसद से कम ही लोग वहां जाया करते थे” – “Yet so far very few people have gone there with the aim of studying”

In the previous example, an iterative construction was used. The past habitual verb naturally suits the iterative construction. The sense is not “people used to go there”, of course. It is difficult to approximate the sense of this iterative construction in English; it emphasizes the repeated, iterated nature of the action.

Each of these examples illustrates that, although the “used to” gloss is useful, past habitual verb forms need not be translated this way.

  • Divija Sampathi

    Could u pls explain the sentence लेकिन अब तक पढ़ाई के मकसद से कम ही लोग वहां जाया करते थे…why cant we use “लेकिन अब तक पढ़ाई के मकसद से कम ही लोग वहां gaye hai” instead ??

    • Hm… there is a subtle, but important difference. What is the difference between “paani piyo” and “paani piya karo”? When we say “paani piyo”, we are saying “drink some water (one time)”. When we say “paani piya karo”, we are saying “drink water (regularly, every day, etc.)”. We say that the latter is “habitual”. I suppose you could say “gaye hain” here, but it isn’t the most appropriate verb form. We might say “bahut log yahan aa gaye hain” to mean “a lot of people have come here”. We’re describing a particular event, e.g. a scene at a restaurant one evening. But if we say “jaya karte hain”, we’re describing a series of events. So, in the sentence “लेकिन अब तक पढ़ाई के मकसद से कम ही लोग वहां जाया करते थे”, we are saying that few people have come over some time period (maybe weeks or months or years). We’re not describing a single event, but a repeated event that occurred over some time period (hence the name “iterative construction”). Does that make sense? However, I don’t want you to think that this distinction is absolute. As with all subtleties in language, even native speakers often blur distinctions.

  • M Sewlall

    Hi David,
    Since you have used “जाया करते थे” in the sentence “लेकिन अब तक पढ़ाई के मकसद से कम ही लोग वहां जाया करते थे”, shouldn’t the translation be “had gone” instead of “have gone”. Also why did you use “पढ़ाई के मकसद” and not “पढ़ने के मकसद”

    • Hm, good question; probably “have gone” is best in this sentence, but it’s admittedly a bit unusual. Usually, such a sentence is translated “used to”, with the implication that it was a repeated action, e.g. जब हम छोटे थे तब हम वहाँ जाया करते थे – “we used to go there often when we were young”, etc.