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Why are Hebrew verbs in the "perfect" form so often translated as present tense in modern translations?

For example in Psalm 119:47 :

וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע בְּמִצְוֹתֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָהָֽבְתִּי׃

Most old translations (LXX, Vulgate, KJV) translate אָהָֽבְתִּי by a past tense: "which I have loved" (KJV), but it seems that most modern literal translations (ESV, NASB etc) translate with a present tense. In the present case I understand that the author probably still loves the commandments, but in that case I fail to grasp why he uses the perfect form.

In other words :

Why do usually highly literal translations such as the ESV and NASB make this choice ?

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2 Answers 2

Biblical Hebrew doesn't have tense, it has aspect. English doesn't have aspect, it has tense. So, translators are in a pickle. The 'perfect' aspect (exemplified by אָהָֽבְתִּי) is about completion, not point-in-time.

However, this is poetry. In poetic BH poetry, just about every rule gets bent sooner or later in favor 'what it sounds like'. So translators feel rather empowered to mess with this sort of thing when they feel that the sense is clear enough. Context here is in favor of an imperfect aspect, not a perfect one.

You could also treat this as the use of the perfect as a way of emphasizing the complete status of the speakers affection: it's not that it's over and done with, but rather that it is complete.

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"Asher" is used with past-tense hence making it past-tensive.

"Ahavti" with "kametz" alef and hey properly means past-tense as well.

However, it can be used as ongoing past-tense which applies in the present which as you pointed out its the easiest understandable meaning.

Now "וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע" is past and present tense (ongoing past-tense almost like kamatz yud as beginning of a word), hence making a problem.

And if you write a literal translation for something as complicated as the Bible you probably want to write the most logical translation as well as most literal, as long as it's not a twist, just a less-obvious translation, if it's a lot more logical you might choose that one.

Just a theory.

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