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我走到海滩边,看到一幢房子前有一块写着“旅馆”的牌子. I went to the seaside and saw a building with sign in front of it which said 'hotel'.

Authentic Chinese with my translation. This is in the past. But there is no 了. Is this a bit like the English historical present? Or is there an explanation to do with aspect? Is my translation using the past a mistranslation?

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Tense in Chinese is inferred from context, there are no grammatical constructs for it.

了 indicates completion, not past time per se.

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I would say that Chinese language is not that rigorous in grammar as in English. You example sentence is definitely okay and readable for a native Chinese speaker.

There is no general rule for when to use "了".

To make your example sentence more authentic, you may say instead:

我走到海灘邊, 看到一棟屋子. 屋前掛著一塊牌子, 寫著 "旅館".

Note that the key is to think in Chinese, rather than translating from English to Chinese. For, if so, then rarely it is idiomatic (I am assuming you pursue idiomaticness). Thus, for your sentence to be idiomatic you must practice to think in Chinese. That will be more helpful than trying to figure out a general "rule" of sentence formulation.

Wish you all the luck!

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“了” really means the suffix of a verb like "-ed" for past tense in English. However, this "suffix" word is usually following some verbs that may last for ages. For example:

我吃饭 (I'm having lunch)

In Chinese, 吃 is a verb that can last for ages (this isn't a shorted-time verb). So if you wanna explain that the verb comes to an end, just add "了":

我吃饭了。(I had lunch)

However, some verbs with a prepsition like "到", just also means an end of a verb, such verbs as "走","跑", are "direction-toward" verbs. For example:

我来**到**你面前。

他奔**入**宿舍内。

That's also the reason why don't to need "了" here.

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