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Translating the French present tense by an English preterit in historical texts
Thread poster: Sasha Barral

Sasha Barral  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 01:22
Member (2009)
French to English
Aug 31, 2008

Hello everyone,

I have just completed an assignment about packaging and its connections to art. The French text was written exclusively using the present tense, even for the parts that recount the history of packaging art and its developments since the beginning of the nineteenth century. I began by trying to keep the English present tense too, but it now seems to me that it just sounds wrong, so I have now put any historical parts in the past tense (preterit) in English. Is this normal? I am having a hard time trying to explain to my French husband that it just doesn't seem to work in the present tense in English. Can anyone explain this? I also need to explain why I will be changing all the verbs into the past tense to my publishing house.


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Robert Tucker
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:22
German to English
+ ...
Historic present Sep 1, 2008

Previous discussion on ProZ.com:

http://www.proz.com/forum/translation_theory_and_practice/70862-use_of_the_historic_present_in_english_is_it_allowed-.html

Read from last paragraph of page 57 of "Translation, Linguistics, Culture" by Nigel Armstrong

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3BP07JkszlcC&pg=PA57&vq=historic%20present&source=gbs_search_r&cad=0_1&sig=ACfU3U1hzAKmbo_kLh-CfLnOF8PVmpICZQ#PPA58,M1

I'm sure my French grammar books explain this too (the ones written in English anyway).


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:22
Italian to English
+ ...
I'd use the past tense too Sep 1, 2008

Italian also uses the present when talking about historical events, and I agree it sounds wrong in English. I just change it to the past as I see fit, and I've never had this contested by any client.

From the comments in the following link, it seems that while the historical present also exists in English, it's generally used in news items, jokes and the like. This could explain why it sounds wrong in a real historical context.

http://grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/histpreterm.htm


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Sasha Barral  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 01:22
Member (2009)
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks Sep 1, 2008

Thanks for these great links. They have greatly clarified the issue.

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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:22
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
A TV fashion? Sep 1, 2008

I've noticed that in "popular history" programmes on TV in the UK, learned professors (such as David Starkey and Simon Schama) are devoted to the present tense where, obviously, the past would be correct. e.g. "Mary decides to marry Philip II of Spain. She thinks she is pregnant and is bitterly disappointed when she finds she is wrong" instead of "Mary decided to marry ... she thought she was pregnant ... etc.". Why? Do the learned profs think we viewers are too dim to understand past tenses? Do they think it makes history more vivid?
It annoys me greatly.
Perhaps the French are now adopting this modish mannerism too?
I've noticed that in many French texts the conditional or conditional perfect is now being used to suggest supposition or allegation as opposed to fact. Is this new too?

Jenny.


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Rachel Fell  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:22
French to English
+ ...
re: A TV fashion Sep 1, 2008

I think the French (and Italians) have been doing it for a long time, whereas the UK fashion for it more likely comes from US TV, a modern fashion rather than a borrowing from French, etc.

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Robert Tucker
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:22
German to English
+ ...
Not only French (or Italian) Sep 2, 2008

The Germans use the historic present extensively; also Spanish and Portuguese speakers.

Looking through the net, it looks to me as if its use may not extent back to Ancient Greek:

http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2005-August/035462.html

and, it seems, it is used in the Bible:

http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=14793608


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:22
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Yes, I find this really tiresome Sep 4, 2008

It has become the fashion among historians of a certain "thrusting" type to adopt the present tense when speaking of events that took place in past history. What's really tiresome about these people is that they then start skipping from the present to the past tense without warning, back and forth.

In translation I would always adopt exclusively the past tense (and quietly curse those historians who think they're so cool doing that!)

[Edited at 2008-09-04 14:38]


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:22
French to English
French conditional Sep 4, 2008

Jenny Forbes wrote:
I've noticed that in many French texts the conditional or conditional perfect is now being used to suggest supposition or allegation as opposed to fact. Is this new too?

Jenny.

No.
I left school in 1983, I have a grammar book from those days - considerably before those days, in fact, as you might guess - and I have just checked to confirm what I thought I remembered, that the conditional mood was being used thus way back then.


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Daniel García
English to Spanish
+ ...
Here's some more info... Sep 4, 2008

Here's a short discussion about it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_present

It is not really alien to the English language but it seems that it is an endangered species and its usage might become extinct...

I think I remember that Shakespeare uses it a lot in Henry the Fifth, when the chrorus tells what has happened betwee one scene and the next...

I must say that I am not a native speaker, though.

Daniel


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Sandra Petch
Local time: 01:22
French to English
+ ...
Preterit and conditional, yes to both! Sep 5, 2008

Hi Sasha

I have had similar doubts and posted a question a couple of years back on this same subject
http://www.proz.com/kudoz/english/history/1251574-which_tense_to_use_in_a_timeline.html

At that time the consensus was that it depended on "what sounded best" - having said that, I always translate historical texts and timelines using the past (preterit).

Jenny Forbes wrote:

I've noticed that in many French texts the conditional or conditional perfect is now being used to suggest supposition or allegation as opposed to fact. Is this new too?

Jenny.


Hi Jenny

I've always seen the conditional used this way in French. A nifty way of avoiding accusing someone I've often thought (il aurait tué sa femme à coup de hâche). "Allegedly" is often a good solution in English.

Best regards
Sandra


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