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I wonder how best to translate the following:

He was building ships in the dockyard.

I mean this in a habitual sense, for many years. It could equally be written as,

He used to build ships in the dockyard

or

He built ships there.

My suggestions for translating those sentences would be

  1. Construía barcos en el astillero (imperfect)
  2. Estaba construyendo barcos en el astillero (progressive imperfect)
  3. Trabajaba allí, construyendo barcos en el astillero (loose translation).

I read in a previous post that example 2 usually needs an adverbial phrase, such as, siempre, hábitualmente. Are they all more or less equally interchangeable as in the English examples?

2 Answers 2

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The imperfect should be correct for a habitual action in the past. “Construía barcos en el astillero” suggests a habitual task, a job, rather than a series of actions, and I think it's the best translation. “Solía construir barcos...” suggests repetition or frequency, rather than a steady job or habitual task.

“Estaba construyendo barcos en el astillero” sounds incomplete; like you said, it needs some temporal reference. It also sounds weird, because one uses the progressive especially for specific actions in progress, and building boats is not one action. Building one boat can be understood as a bounded, specific action, so “Estaba construyendo un barco en el astillero cuando sonó la alarma” would be a better example; here the progressive imperfect phrase shows a background to some other event (in the preterite).

“Siempre estaba construyendo barcos...” emphasizes the repetition or the continuous nature of the action. It's a bit like “Solía construir...”. It doesn't read like it was a job; more like something done on a whim.

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    I believe that some English speakers first learning Spanish may have the unfortunate impulse to "calque" progressive forms from English directly into Spanish where they don't fit in quite the same way. As you mention, a simple imperfect or a construction with soler can work much better. The mismatch goes the other way too, because Spanish uses progressives with more base verbs (p.ej: sigues charlando, salió corriendo) than might occur to new learners coming to Spanish from English.
    – tchrist
    Feb 14, 2021 at 21:01
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    Yes, and this was a rather difficult answer for me to write, because one should explain a lot more things to cover all the possible nuances.
    – pablodf76
    Feb 14, 2021 at 23:01
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"Se dedicaba a construir barcos en el astillero"; "trabajaba construyendo barcos en el astillero". Both these convey the idea of steadiness, non-episodic activity.

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  • Great. thank you so much everyone. I agree, directly translating from both languages can be problematic. I suppose t its a little bit like getting used to the subjunctive and all its nuances but perhaps best to leave that topic alone for now....
    – Bluelion7
    Feb 15, 2021 at 20:07

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