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More Ways to Translate the Imperfetto

In a recent lesson we talked about the imperfetto, a simple past tense that has various ways of being translated into English. In this lesson we’ll discuss more ways we can translate the imperfetto.


In this gripping film about people trying to live out their lives in the rundown suburb of Scampia, near Naples, a husband and wife are discussing the difficult situation of being threatened by the Camorra almost daily.


Che dovevo fare? Dovevo accettare?

What should I have done? Should I have accepted?

Caption 19, L'oro di Scampia - film

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It’s good to know that this is not actually correct Italian. Nevertheless, it’s quite common in colloquial speech to skip complicated structures and use the simple past instead. If, as a foreigner, you know how to use the conditional and the subjunctive, it’s never wrong to say things correctly, just in case. At the same time, it’s essential to understand what someone is talking about. The conditional and past subjunctive need more words and take longer to say, and are complex as well, so more and more, in conversation, people take a shortcut and use the imperfetto.


Before reading further, can you put the above questions into correct Italian?


Here’s the answer:

Che avrei dovuto fare? Avrei dovuto accettare?


What’s needed grammatically is the conditional, but the imperfetto has become an acceptable alternative in casual conversation. This marital discussion was not the time to worry about grammar!


Here are two other examples where the imperfetto is used in place of the conditional, which would have been grammatically correct, and in any case necessary in English.


Però me la potevi passare, no?

But you could have passed her to me, no?

Caption 84, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP8 - Morte di un buttero - Part 12

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Sai che potevo fare un viaggio per il Brasile?

You know, I could have gone on a trip to Brazil?

Caption 33, Francesca e Marika - Il verbo potere

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Here are the grammatically correct versions:

Però, me l’avresti potuta passare, no?

Sai che avrei potuto fare un viaggio per il Brasile?


And here’s still another way to translate the imperfetto! The following example is a classic use of the imperfetto in place of a past subjunctive tense, in this case the trapassato congiuntivo. Again, it’s grammatically incorrect, but lots of people use it. The key word is se (if), which can signal a hypothetical situation and consequently the use of the congiuntivo (subjunctive).


Se sapevo che l'era l'ultima volta che lo vedevo...

If I had known that it was the last time I would see him...

Caption 50, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP8 - Morte di un buttero - Part 14

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What makes sentences like this complicated is the presence of se (if) and che (that, what), which both often take the subjunctive and/or the conditional. And there are a good two instances of che!


Here’s the more grammatically correct, but rather complex version:

Se avessi saputo che sarebbe stata l’ultima volta che l’avrei visto...


Mamma mia, it's super complex. Fortunately the imperfetto has become more and more acceptable. For more about the subjunctive and conditional see this lesson