I'm learning French partly by reading a book or newspaper, looking up the words and verb conjugations and such. In this process I use Google Translate pretty frequently.

I notice, for example, that when entering a phrase in passé composé, it gives the regular past tense in English as opposed to I have xxxxxed.

For example,

j'ai parlé avec ma sœur

j'avais parlé avec ma sœur

both come out as

I spoke with my sister

instead of

I have spoken with my sister

I had spoken with my sister.

I notice this a lot when entering passé composé into Google Translate. Does the translation indicate typical usage, or is it an error in the translator?

  • 2
    J'avais parlé is not passé composé (j'ai parlé) but plus-que-parfait.
    – jlliagre
    Commented May 18, 2019 at 21:48
  • See french.stackexchange.com/questions/17031/…
    – jlliagre
    Commented May 18, 2019 at 21:51
  • @jlliagre you are correct, my bad. The issue does hold however, I edited the question
    – badperson
    Commented May 18, 2019 at 22:49
  • 2
    Vous pouvez essayer le traducteur en ligne "deepl" qui dans les phrases d'exemple que vous citez va vous proposer deux traduction distinctes : I spoke with my sister et I had spoken with my sister
    – user20580
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 16:31
  • Forget translation engines. See Language Learning for some insight. Otherwise use dictionaries etc. For instance notice that when searching for a word in Wiktionary, you will notice on the bottom left-hand side a list of other languages which should provide an equivalent to what you were searching, in English for instance. Consider also Larousse. Challenge yourself here. Good luck.
    – user19187
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 21:04

3 Answers 3


Google Translate is incapable of determining context and should be avoided for anything other than trying to understand the gist of a text.

The passé composé is equivalent to three different English constructions:

  1. I spoke to my sister [and she agrees]. (simple past)
  2. I have spoken to my sister [three times in the last year]. (present perfect)
  3. I did speak to my sister [but she refuses to reconsider] (emphatic past)

GT has no way of knowing which of these is correct, so it just chooses the top one. That shouldn't have any bearing on which one you select as the correct translation given the context.

  • Not so much that it uses the top one as that it uses whichever one it's been translated as most often in the corpus (which can differ by verb, too -- it has no knowledge of the grammatical form it's working in or anything). So we can suspect that "have spoken" is less common than "spoke" as a translation of "ai parlé", which is intuitively right.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 14:26

Le français est une langue qui a beaucoup évolué mais les relations de base avec l'anglais sont restées.

In "old" French it was normal to use Passé simple and Passé antérieur as Speaking language but today these tenses are more used as Written Language.

  1. If you say Je fus content - I was happy (Passé simple - Simple Past, Today used to write stories for Ex.)

  2. It sounds the same as J'étais content - I was happy (Imparfait - Simple Past)

The only difference is the confirmation of 2. Now I am no longer happy

Let's take your example

  1. Je parlai avec ma soeur (passé simple)
  2. J'eu parlé avec ma soeur (passé antérieur)
  3. J'ai parlé avec ma soeur (passé composé)
  4. J'avais parlé avec ma soeur (plus-que-parfait)
  5. I spoke to my sister (simple past)

1, 2, 3 and 4 sound like 5 in English because the action is done before the sentence is spoken. But from language to language we have differences in the actions concurrence management, how to know actions order in the story.

To avoid these historical, grammatical, stylistic differences, Google Translator takes the must "speak-able" solution. You, as native speaker of your language and knowing grammar basics of French you should determine which tense is most suitable.

I suppose Google Translator is focusing on the way to speak the language.

  • Ha ha 😅 thanks for your comment, you are right I just edited my answer. Concerning the past continue I only translated Imparfait tense into English. This could be a long debate see I was being 🤔 no this is j'était entrain de ... In some cases we can't give the exact French correspondence or vice versa ...
    – Fabrice T
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 15:41
  • 2
    ""I was being" is "j'était en train de"" doesn't add up: after "I was being" you can't have a state verb (be, become, seem, look,…); you can't have "être" after "j'étais en train" but you can have "devenir"; that amounts to "I was being becoming"; if you use an adjective, then it's right in English, but wrong in French: "Iwas being sick", "J'étais en train d'être malade"; also "I was being told" can't be "J'étais en train d'être dit". There is a very imperfect correspondence.
    – LPH
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 15:58

The first sentence uses passé composé. This tense has essentially replaced the passé simple in spoken French and is slightly doing the same in written French too.

J'ai parlé avec ma sœur

is then definitely the best translation for

I spoke to my sister.

The passé simple is rare, so rare that Google Translate even thinks it might have been mistyped:

enter image description here

The passé simple at the first person singular (je parlai) is also indistinguishable from the imparfait (je parlais) in spoken French, which doesn't help either.

On the other hand, the plus-que-parfait is common in written French and is not incongruous in spoken French.

The issue with j'avais parlé à ma soeur is that it lacks context.

Should you give one to Google translate and it selects the Past Perfect:

j'avais parlé avec ma sœur ➔ I spoke to my sister

j'avais déjà parlé avec ma sœur ➔ I had already spoken with my sister

  • Deepl is not as confused as google translate in this regard.
    – Jacques
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 16:56

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