Translation:He is sitting opposite me during the meal.
Can this not be describing an habitual action? He sits across from me during meals.
OK, but in English, we would never say (referring to an habitual action): He sits across from me during the meal. We would say: He sits across from me during meals. or: He always sits across from me during meals.
As a native English speaker (American), I've learned it's in my best interest not to compare English to Dutch. Some of the vocabulary is the same, but otherwise...
Well, the real problem with one sentence exercises like this is that there is no context to know for sure what is actually being conveyed. "Comparing" English to Dutch has nothing to do with it. As simple as a sentence like this seems to be, the way it is constructed: "hij zit tegenover mij" + "tijdens de maaltijd," it could be a present tense narrative of something that took place in the past, it could be describing something that happens habitually, or it could be describing something expected to take place in the future, all because of the way the Dutch use present tense. Although the sentence is grammatically correct, the two elements bring some uncertainty.
Secondarily, the term 'de maaltijd' is less commonly used than 'het eten' but generally indicates een warme maaltijd (a warm meal) and primarily refers to het avondeten (dinner), but could be talking about lunch, certainly not breakfast. All we know for sure is that we're talking about something taking place during a "meal" and one person seated across from another. There is no clear indication of time.
Actually, I think the main purpose of this exercise was to teach that 'tegenover elkaar zitten' means to sit across from / facing / opposite each other. I don't think the emphasis was on 'tijdens de maaltijd.'
The most basic English translation seems to be:
He sits across from me during the meal.
But if you added: We praten niet. We zijn allebei te koppig. Then you would start to get the impression that it's a present tense narrative of something taking place in the past, but whether it was lunch or dinnertime is unclear: He sits across from me during the meal. We don't speak. We're both too stubborn.
If you added: Maar we praten nooit meer met elkaar. Then you would get the sense that it's something that happens habitually and probably takes place at dinnertime: He sits across from me during meals but we never talk to each other anymore. (This is how I first interpreted the sentence:
He sits across from me at dinner. (regelmatic)
Een gewoonte, dus!)
If you added: Ik kan haast niet wachten tot vanavond. Then you would know that it's taking place in the future and that it's definitely talking about dinner: He'll be sitting across from me at dinner. I can hardly wait until this evening.
Consider the following narrative:
( source: https://www.haagschemeesters.nl/blog/ )
"Een alleenstaande moeder met 2 kinderen zit tegenover mij tijdens het inloopspreekuur. Ze heeft een brief bij zich van de Belastingdienst waarin staat dat ze ruim EUR 20.000 moet terugbetalen. Ze begrijpt niet waarom."
This is clearly a story written in the present tense of something that took place in the past:
A single mother with two children sits across from me during the walk-in legal consultation. She has a letter with her from the Tax Department which says she has to pay back around 20,000 euros. She doesn't understand why.
It could just as well have been written in past tense:
Een alleenstaande moeder met 2 kinderen zat tegenover mij tijdens het inloopspreekuur. Ze had een brief bij zich van de Belastingdienst waarin stond dat ze ruim EUR 20.000 moest terugbetalen. Ze begreep niet waarom.
Yes, but then it would probably say "Hij zit altijd tegenover mij tijdens de maaltijd."
Yes, that should be correct. (It is in our database)
Edit: Your sentence is not correct, because it's "the meal", rather than "meals".
I tried "he sits in front of me during the meal", and "in front of me" was not correct. Why?
Well, for starters, 'tegenover mij' means 'across from me.' 'Tegenover elkaar zitten' means 'to sit across from each other' (opposite/facing each other).
'Voor mij' is what you would say to convey 'in front of me' (before me). i.e. niet achter (not behind). Unless you're talking about sitting in front of your computer, in which case, the Dutch say, "achter mijn computer," which literally means "behind my computer" but of course they're not sitting 'behind' their computer, they're seated in front of their computer. But that's another matter.
If someone is sitting "in front of me" that generally means that their back is to me; I'm looking at the back of their head. For example, someone sitting in the seat in front of me on an airplane, as opposed to sitting across from me (facing me) at the dinner table.
"Hij zat voor mij in het vliegtuig / in de bus / in de auto" means he sat / was seated in front of me on the airplane / on the bus / in the car.
'Hij zit voor mij tijdens de maaltijd' would mean he sits in front of me at mealtime (i.e., in a chair forward of me with its back to me), which would be a rather odd seating arrangement. Normally, you sit across from (tegenover) or beside (naast) someone during meals.
Whereas, 'Hij zit voor mij tijdens Engels' would mean he sits in front of me during English class, which would be perfectly normal.
I think it can be correct too in that context. Just that the translation of tegenover is opposite. For me both translations are correct
I had not read Bruce explanation, which is good and detailed. Thanks Bruce.
My pleasure. I'm a student of Dutch, the same as you, and not a native Dutch speaker. But when I'm pretty confident about the English translation, I try to post something — always subject to correction by native Dutch speakers.
Just be aware that "tegenover mij" does have other meanings in other contexts. For example:
Mijn buren tonen te weinig respect tegenover mij tijdens de examen periode.
My neighbors don't show me a whole lot of respect during exams.
Here "tegenover mij" means "to me" or "towards me" (in my presence), instead of "across from me."
By "mijn buren" he's probably talking about the students who live next door to him in the dorm. His "neighbors" show "te weinig" (too little, i.e. not very much; not a whole lot of) respect "towards" him during the exam period. Where I come from, we refer to "the exam period" simply as (mid-term) exams or (end of term) finals.
In other words, he's probably talking about other people in his dorm not keeping quiet or barging into his room while he's trying to study for his exams.