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In French, I've seen that when translating something like "In March, I went to his house" you would use the present tense instead of the past tense, "En mars, je vais chez lui", at least I think so. Or when translating "Ever since I was young, I played the piano" you'd say "Depuis que je suis jeune, je joue du piano". But when saying something like "Back then, I thought that he was an idiot" would you say

Ce temps là, je pensais qu'il était un idiot

Or

Ce temps là, je pensais qu'il est un idiot

  • "In March, I went to his house" != "En mars, je vais chez lui" | En mars, je vais chez lui → I’m going to his house in march | In March, I went to his house → J’ai été chez lui en mars/au mois de mars – Stéphane Jun 30 '16 at 11:11
  • That's strange, I don't understand why but I think I've seen people use the present tense when referring to something they did on a week day like "Je mange le mercredi" – Marco Ruben Abuyuan Llanes Jun 30 '16 at 11:12
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    "Je mange le mercredi" = "I eat on wednesdays" – Andreas Jun 30 '16 at 11:16
  • That's exactly what I thought. – Marco Ruben Abuyuan Llanes Jun 30 '16 at 11:17
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    @Stéphane 'Je suis allé' et non 'j'ai été'. – Destal Jun 30 '16 at 21:05
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En ce temps là, je pensais que c’était/qu’il était un idiot.

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    « À cette époque » peut être utilisé comme alternative à « En ce temps là ». C'est probablement l'expression la plus usitée des deux dans le langage courant. – Thomas Francois Jun 30 '16 at 13:45
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    « ... que c'était un idiot. » ou «... qu'il était idiot » (pas d'article indéfini dans le deuxième cas). – Laure Jul 1 '16 at 18:28
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The right translation of "Back then, I thought that he was an idiot" is

En ce temps là/ à cette époque là, je pensais que c’était un idiot

You can't say Je pensais que c'est un idiot, because you alreay used the verb penser in the past time (Imparfait)

If you wanted to use the present, you should have said

A cette époque là, je pense que c'est un idiot

The same thing for the sentence "En Mars, je vais chez lui". It's the present tense, but you know that is something happening in the past (in March)

But why the present is used for past events, you could ask ?

Well, it's what we call in french Le présent de narration, and it is used to relate past events with a more vivid appearance, like if they were happening now. It is, for example, frenquently used in novels :

Ce matin-là, j'arrive en retard.

This présent de narration has the same value of a past tense.

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    "En Mars, je vais chez lui" without further context (and there is none in OP's question), shows a future event, not a past event. – Laure Jul 1 '16 at 18:33
  • @Laure without context It may show a futur or a past event, but in the question the sentence is given as the translation of "In March, I went to his house", so, past ! – Koblenz Jul 3 '16 at 14:12
  • But OP's translation or their understanding of the French sentence is wrong. And there's nothing shows it is the "présent de narration". To make such a statement you need a lot more context. No good answer can be given if OP does not clarify his question. – Laure Jul 3 '16 at 15:04
  • You should ask him then, make the comment on OP's question ! – Koblenz Jul 3 '16 at 17:51
  • Stéphane's comments already point this out... – Laure Jul 3 '16 at 18:13
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The answer is

En ce temps là, je pensais qu’il était un idiot.

It's the translation of "back then, ...." Because now you think that he's not. If you think he's actually an idiot you say

Depuis ce temps là je sais qu'il est un idiot.

And I think in informal french you can use the second sentence in the two cases.

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    When someone says or write je pensais qu'il était un idiot, I know for sure (s)he is not a native French speaker. – jlliagre Jul 1 '16 at 22:23

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