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"It was" is translated as era or estaba. I know for statements like "It was happy with you" (contigo estaba feliz) that works.

But what about constructions where the "it" is nothing in specific? Such as "It was only when I realized that she was a man did I...", or (using the present) "It's that time again, when...". For these, would era and es still apply?

For example:

It was when I saw the tiger that I became afraid.

My guess at a translation:

Era cuando veía el tigre que estoy asustado.

Also, I had a bit of trouble picking ser vs estar for these constructions. Ser was described to me as being used with something's identity. In these cases, I figured "It was" referred to the identity of the time period. Is this correct?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

For your example, my transalation would be:

Fue al ver el tigre cuando me asusté.

"It was" can be translated as "era" or as "fue", and it these cases I think fue it's the best one to use. For example:

It was only when I realized that she was a man that (*did) I... = Fue al darme cuenta de que era un hombre que...

And for the present, I would use "es":

Es ahora que me doy cuenta de que...

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Thanks for the quick response Mikmik! In your first example, you changed the original example in quite a few ways. Other than changing "era" to "fue", was my way of saying it grammatically incorrect or simply an uncommon translation? – Mirov Jan 19 '12 at 10:53
Your translation had a couple of issues: 1. the tense of the verbs doesn't match. It should be "[...] cuando veía el tigre [...] me asustaba" (if it was something that happened often) or "[...] cuando vi el tigre [...] me asusté" (just once). And 2: "to become afraid" is "asustarse" whereas "to be afraid" could be "estar asustado". It's not the same to be or to become. I've tried to give you the best translation I could think of. That said, you could also say "Fue al ver el tigre que me asusté", but what's best would depend on the context – MikMik Jan 19 '12 at 11:07
Ah. Thank you, I'll keep this in mind during practice. – Mirov Jan 19 '12 at 11:25
An alternative (more literal) translation would be "Fue cuando ví al tigre que me asusté". – Ricardo Jan 19 '12 at 14:51

The shown transposition from "era" to "fue" is correct, but it seems you haven't yet understood why.

First of all, "al + infinitive" is a temporal clause, it indicates the simultaneity of two events. See for example:

Al despertar, me enteré que había dormido demasiado.

I realized I slept too much when/as soon as I woke up.

This is the first thing to note. Secondly, the transposition from "era" to "fue" happens because the tense "imperfecto" denotes an event in the past that has a duration, while the "pretérito" (can) indicate a single event. Your example was:

It was when I saw the tiger that I became afraid.

The moment you saw the tiger was, indeed, a moment. So you can't use the imperfecto in this case for this simple reason:

Fue al ver el tigre ...

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