0

"He had/lived a difficult life."

Should we use the imparfait or the passé composé in the translation?

Il avait/vivait une vie difficile.

Il a eu/vécu une vie difficile.

On the one hand, a life is over a long time period rather than a single instant, so it is conceivable that we should use the imparfait. But on the other hand, we are talking about a single event (even if it is an event that lasted for a long time), so by this reasoning we should use the passé composé. Which one is correct?

The context is we want to describe the life of a person, so the sentences around it could be the following:

Pierre est né en 1938 dans une famille pauvre. Il avait trois frères et quatre soeurs. Il ___ une vie difficile. Son père est mort quand il avait 5 ans.

  • 1
    Both tenses are possible depending on context, but you are not giving any context. In the meantime you can read this answer to help you improve your question. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Jan 12 '17 at 11:58
  • @Laure I've added the context. – user11550 Jan 12 '17 at 14:10
1

In this context, the most natural to me (native French) is:

Pierre est né en 1938 dans une famille pauvre. Il avait trois frères et quatre soeurs. Il a eu une vie difficile. Son père est mort quand il avait 5 ans.

I think it's because it feels to me like this text is going to "historical". If I wrote "Il avait une vie difficile", the narrative point of view would be different, I would expect the rest of the text to be placed at that point in time where he is experiencing a difficult life.

Interestingly,

Pierre est né en 1938 dans une famille pauvre. Il a eu trois frères et quatre soeurs. Il a eu une vie difficile.

doesn't work as well. Probably because the fact of having brothers and sisters is a-temporal (I'm just guessing here).

  • Thanks! Given the other answers with "il a eu", I was about to ask whether "Il a eu trois frères et quatre soeurs" also works. But you anticipated my question. :) – user11550 Jan 12 '17 at 16:47
  • Yes, I started wondering about whether the tenses should be the same in all parts of the paragraph, but apparently not. I would have a hard point pinning down a full explanation though. I guess familiarity with reading books/news ... in French is guiding me here - it's become somewhat subconscious. – Frank Jan 12 '17 at 16:50
  • If I change the story to a living person: "Pierre est né en 1980 dans une famille pauvre. Il a trois frères et quatre soeurs. Il ___ une vie difficile pendant son enfance.", would you use "a eu" or "avait"? – user11550 Jan 12 '17 at 17:14
  • "a eu" - but you can also do "a". That becomes a question of style at this point. "avait" does not work, IMHO. I would prefer the present tense throughout, but that becomes only my stylistic preference. – Frank Jan 12 '17 at 17:15
  • Really? That's surprising to me. I think we usually say "Quand j'étais enfant, j'avais une vie difficile". What's the difference here? – user11550 Jan 12 '17 at 17:17
0

With the following context :

Pierre est né en 1938 dans une famille pauvre. Il avait trois frères et quatre soeurs. Il ___ une vie difficile. Son père est mort quand il avait 5 ans.

You can continue with the tense you were using : "Il avait trois frères et quatre soeurs".

To avoid repetion you can write : "Il avait trois frères et quatre soeurs et vivait une vie difficile"

0

The nuance here, as a french speaker, is that I would use "Il avait/vivait une vie difficile." for someone that is still alive today and "Il a eu/vécu une vie difficile." for someone deceased. The reason is that it is a more proper way to address the past with the imparfait when it is true in the present and use the passé composé when it is not. If the person in question is deceased, then he/she is not living in the present and therefore i would use the passé composé. Nonetheless, both are "correct" theoretically speaking.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.