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 ?


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.

  • 1
    This isn't exactly accurate, because Hebrew prose also nearly always uses perfect for אהב even when there's no sense of completion – b a Sep 16 '19 at 12:44
  • Both English and Hebrew have both tense and aspect, they are just coded differently. There is also no such thing as (im)perfect aspect; it's (Im)Perfective, and third, Perfective aspect is not about completion but about viewpoint and event composition. – user2672 Sep 16 '19 at 17:59

"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.

  • 1
    Caveat lector - 'asher has nothing to do with "tense"; the double qamets in 'ahabti has nothing to do with tense. Quote: Now "וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע" is past and present tense - is just nonsense. Not sure why this got the upvotes it did given the misinformation provided. – Dɑvïd Sep 11 '14 at 9:17
  • @Davïd asher could be translated as that or which, and is tense-insensitive, but if its referring to a past event it is a past-tensive type of which. the fact that the word ahavti (at the very least) can be a past-tensive word is clear, and im not gonna bother defending it. regarding וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע its a bit more nuanced as i pointed out myself (ongoing past-tense, almost like kamatz yud as beginning of a word), i would refer you to job 1:5 where "כָּ֛כָה יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיֹּ֖וב כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים" is commonly translated as thus job did continually. – Math chiller Sep 11 '14 at 19:51
  • 'asher is a relative particle: end of story! | Of course 'ahabti can be "past", but the "kametz" alef and hey has nothing to do with it (which was my my point). | Re: וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע, it looks like the problem is with your expression "past and present tense" as a description of the form (that's the nonsense); if your intent was to say that here it represents ongoing action in the past (like your Job example), that's a different communication! Are we achieving clarity? ;) – Dɑvïd Sep 11 '14 at 20:02

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