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I understand that French literature uses past historic. But I also see some imperfect used mixed with past historic in literature. Without hopefully violating copyright with the below sample, here is an example from Harry Potter official translation :

Elle donna un affectueux coup de bec à Harry tandis qu'il lui enlevait son fardeau, puis elle traversa la pièce d'un coup d'aile pour rejoindre Errol.

Here, "donna" is historic and "enlevait" is imperfect. What is the difference in meanings of these past tenses when they are mixed ?

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In effect, when reading French literature that uses the passé simple:

  • The passé composé is replaced by the passé simple, except in dialogue and similar text intended to directly represent speech. (I'm quite sure that Harry and the other characters do not use the passé simple in their speech.)
  • The imparfait remains the imparfait. In all cases in which you would use the imparfait in spoken French, it shows up in written French.

In other words, the general difference between the passé composé and the imparfait that you learn remains, except that the passé simple is used instead.

In your example, the contemporary natural spoken way to say that sentence would be:

Elle a donné un affectueux coup de bec à Harry tandis qu'il lui enlevait son fardeau, puis elle a traversé la pièce d'un coup d'aile pour rejoindre Errol.

  • Donna/a donné represents a completed action (she gave him a peck and it was done)
  • Enlevait is in the imparfait because Harry "was taking off" the burden, an action that is ongoing. You would use the imparfait in spoken French in the same way.
  • Traversa/a traversé also represents a completed action (she crossed the room).
  • Good answer, but notice that “ongoing” actions are one but not the only use of imparfait. A state, a description or a recurrent event, a habit would be rendered using imparfait as well. An alternative way to think about it is to consider that the simple past is used for narrative steps and imparfait is used for context. – Stéphane Gimenez Oct 23 '17 at 21:03
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Giving the "coup de bec" (how do you say this in English?) being quick, it is in the "passé simple" (historic past).

On the other hand, taking off the burden from the animal lasts a bit, and is therefore in the "imparfait" (imperfect).

This is the usual distinction for "passé simple" and "imparfait".

Similar sentence and usage in English, with past continuous instead of "imparfait", and preterit instead of "passé simple" : She gave him a quick kiss while he was taking off his raincoat.

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