Ah, those nasty prepositions……
Did you ever want to translate “for” but weren’t too sure whether to use the German “für” or “vor”….. just to discover the answer was neither but something completely different?
The trouble with this one is that sometimes “for” does indeed translate as “für” (or indeed “vor”) but often it doesn’t. A whole booklet could be written just about the pitfalls of translating prepositions in general but “for” in particular stands out as one of the chief offenders. With the limited amount of space we have available here, just a few words of advice.
As a general rule of thumb: Anytime you need to translate “for”, make sure you take a quick mental step back to ensure that you really pick the correct translation in this case.
In a lot of instances the term is used in connection with time:
I’ve been waiting here for the last ten minutes.
In this situation we first of all use “seit” in German and instead of the English perfect tense we use the German present tense:
Ich warte hier seit zehn Minuten.
“Seit” is used to mark the beginning of an event and therefore roughly translates as “since”. Some other examples:
Seit Weihnachten rauche ich nicht mehr. (I haven’t smoked since Christmas.)
Seit 1995 lebe ich in Irland. (I’ve been living in Ireland since 1995.)
On top of the choice of words, it is also very easy to confuse the tenses. Remember: the German perfect tense is used predominently in spoken language to express a past that is dead and gone.
Ich habe letztes Jahr mein Abitur gemacht. (I passed my Abitur/Leaving Cert last year.)
The English perfect tense on the other hand refers to something that started in the past but is continuing into the present: In the example above, the speaker started waiting ten minutes ago and continued to wait until now. And for that we use the present tense in German.
Did I just write “ten minutes ago”?
If we were to translate this expression we would use “vor”:
Ich habe Maria vor zehn Minuten gesehen. (I saw Maria ten minutes ago – German perfect tense! – but now she is gone.)
In English we also use “for” to describe the length of time something took, e.g. “I lived in Germany for three years.”
In that instance we would generally translate this as “[length of time] lang”.
Ich habe drei Jahre lang in Deutschland gewohnt.
We also use “vor” when we mean “in front of” with regards to locations.
Das Auto steht vor dem Haus. (The car is in front of the house.)
There are also lots of other expressions where we use either “vor” or “für” in German but do not use “for” in English (e.g.“vor etwas Angst haben” – to be afraid of something) so caution must always prevail whenever any of these prepositions are coming out of the woodworks.