Use of the 'historic present' in English- is it allowed?
Thread poster: Karen Vincent-Jones

Karen Vincent-Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
French to English
+ ...
Apr 18, 2007

I am currently translating a French text on psychotherapy whose author uses the historic present when describing her interation with a patient in a clinical session: 'Il me dit...' 'Je vois comment...'
'Il me regarde...' and so on. Can I use the present in English here? The events of course are all in the past, the session happened some time ago. French often uses the present tense in this way, but I'm not sure about using it in English. It sounds a bit 'breathless'. What do other people think?


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:51
French to English
Footballer-talk :-) Apr 18, 2007

I don't know if it's "allowed" or not; I can tell you that I always use a more conventional past tense of some kind when I'm translating it from French.

It always sounds a little (very!) informal to me, like a footballer describing a goal. "I'm just standing on the back stick and the ball comes over and I nod it in." Or casual conversation in a bar, "So, I'm just standing there and this bloke comes up to me and says did you look and my pint and I says no and he lumps me one." It always has that kind of ring to it. Just a personal opinion.

Added thought - I guess in a medical (or other) contexts, you probably could use a present tense if the situation is on-going. "The patient says that he gets headaches. My view is that this is because he has a nail sticking out of his forehead." That kind of thing.


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Angela Dickson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
French to English
+ ...
allowed? Apr 18, 2007

Well, there's no grand authority that is going to strike you off, whatever you do!

I'd say it's normal in English to use this kind of present tense in, for example, letters written immediately (in theory - it can take quite a while for such letters to be written!) after an outpatient appointment (the patient complains of X and Y, etc).

In hospital admission summaries, on the other hand, the past tense is usually used in English (though it may not be in French) as such summaries act as a narrative of the admission. When translating, for me using what is normal in English takes precedence over a respect for the French tense.

So it depends on precisely what kind of text this is. In general, though, if the present is used in French for events that occurred in the past, it won't usually be wrong to use the past tense in English, if this is the normal English way to write a similar text. I think I need to go and get a cup of coffee now as I'm not sure that this makes too much sense


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:51
English to Spanish
+ ...
Often to past Apr 18, 2007

Spanish also uses the "historic present" a lot, including legal documents. I normally use past tense when going into English since it appears to be the usual style.

But there are occasions when it can be used in English as well, it just does not seem to be equally as common.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:51
Spanish to English
+ ...
Check where it's to be published.......is it IMRAD? ect Apr 18, 2007

Karen Vincent-Jones wrote:

I am currently translating a French text on psychotherapy whose author uses the historic present when describing her interation with a patient in a clinical session: 'Il me dit...' 'Je vois comment...'
'Il me regarde...' and so on. Can I use the present in English here? The events of course are all in the past, the session happened some time ago. French often uses the present tense in this way, but I'm not sure about using it in English. It sounds a bit 'breathless'. What do other people think?


Scientific texts don't typically use the historic present.

Is it an IMRAD article? Where will it be published? Once you answer such Qs you can decide whether it is acceptable or not:-)


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:51
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
TV historian-speak Apr 18, 2007

Charlie Bavington wrote:

I don't know if it's "allowed" or not; I can tell you that I always use a more conventional past tense of some kind when I'm translating it from French.

It always sounds a little (very!) informal to me, like a footballer describing a goal. "I'm just standing on the back stick and the ball comes over and I nod it in." Or casual conversation in a bar, "So, I'm just standing there and this bloke comes up to me and says did you look and my pint and I says no and he lumps me one." It always has that kind of ring to it. Just a personal opinion.

Added thought - I guess in a medical (or other) contexts, you probably could use a present tense if the situation is on-going. "The patient says that he gets headaches. My view is that this is because he has a nail sticking out of his forehead." That kind of thing.


Nice one, Charlie.
I'm sure it's correct to use the past tense in English for events that happened in the past, but I've noticed in recent years on TV and radio that historians in particular are addicted to using the present tense, and it annoys me greatly.
On the subject of Henry VIII, for example (always popular on TV), we have: "Henry grows tired of Catherine, divorces her and marries Anne. He sets up the Church of England. Anne disappoints him and he beheads her. Then he marries Jane etc. etc."
Where it should of course be "Henry grew tired of Catherine, divorced her and married Anne, etc. etc."
Almost as jolly as a football commentary.
Love,
Jenny.


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Barbara Cochran, MFA  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:51
Spanish to English
+ ...
Mix It Up Apr 19, 2007

I would translate the psychotherapist's words to past tense, but have her state whatever the patient said verbatim. The way the patient expresses him or herself in a session would, I believe, be significant as far as how the psychotherapist relates to and interprets what the patient has said. But you have to be sure that the patient's words are verbatim.

In my general experience of translating French to English, I often change from one tense in French to another in English to make it coherent with the rest of the English-language context, the way I have translated it up to that point. While the use of a certain tense may make sense to a French native, changing the tense in the translation will make your finished product more comprehensible to your English-language readership if it is more comprehensible to you that way.

[Edited at 2007-04-19 03:04]

[Edited at 2007-04-19 03:05]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 12:51
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Depends on the context, in this case Apr 19, 2007

Karen Vincent-Jones wrote:
I am currently translating a French text on psychotherapy whose author uses the historic present when describing her interation with a patient in a clinical session ... Can I use the present in English here? The events of course are all in the past, the session happened some time ago.


In English, I think the historic present tense should be reserved for informal texts or the direct transcription of speech. If the psychotherapist here wrote what her exact words were when she had the session, then historic present may be acceptable because those were her direct words and that was the style in which the questions were asked.

I think your biggest problem is deciding whether the historic present tense in French is "equal" to the historic present tense in English, and if it would make a difference to psychotherapists' conclusions when they read the text if they read the author's comments in the historic present tense.


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Karen Vincent-Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
The article will be published in the International Gestalt Journal Apr 19, 2007

[quote]Lia Fail wrote:

Karen Vincent-Jones wrote:

I am currently translating a French text on psychotherapy whose author uses the historic present when describing her interation with a patient in a clinical session: 'Il me dit...' 'Je vois comment...'
'Il me regarde...' and so on. Can I use the present in English here? The events of course are all in the past, the session happened some time ago. French often uses the present tense in this way, but I'm not sure about using it in English. It sounds a bit 'breathless'. What do other people think?


Scientific texts don't typically use the historic present.

Is it an IMRAD article? Where will it be published? Once you answer such Qs you can decide whether it is acceptable or not:-)


[Gestalt psychotherapy puts a strong emphasis on the importance of the 'here and now' in the psychotherapeutic session, on what patient/therapist are experiencing there, at that time. Unlike Freudian psychotherapy which focuses on regression to the past. I wonder if that is a pointer that the historic present should be retained?]


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AngusJohnson
Local time: 12:51
Polish to English
??? May 11, 2007

Hi,

I'm no expert on grammar, and still less on psychology, but if that helps you in any way, there's a grammar book by Quirk et al. (unluckily, I don't have the full version) that, in the section on tenses, lists three basic uses for 'the historic present.'

*On-going actions (narrated while the events are taking place)
*To bring up some chunk of narration to the reader's attention (so, I guess, a switch of tenses is possible here).

The third use is irrelevant, so I'm not going to list it, but I think what you were discribing (the patient's disease symptoms) could be included in the second category. There's a past tense used all through the interview, while the especially important bits are highlighted by switching the narration to the historic present. Also, in some way, the first point would warrant the use of the historic present, because the doctor was taking notes on the spot - when the patient was talking. I don't know if what I said is right, but hopefully it'll clear the problem up a bit.


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Karen Vincent-Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Historic present- probably allowed. May 11, 2007

AngusJohnson wrote:

Hi,

I'm no expert on grammar, and still less on psychology, but if that helps you in any way, there's a grammar book by Quirk et al. (unluckily, I don't have the full version) that, in the section on tenses, lists three basic uses for 'the historic present.'

*On-going actions (narrated while the events are taking place)
*To bring up some chunk of narration to the reader's attention (so, I guess, a switch of tenses is possible here).

The third use is irrelevant, so I'm not going to list it, but I think what you were discribing (the patient's disease symptoms) could be included in the second category. There's a past tense used all through the interview, while the especially important bits are highlighted by switching the narration to the historic present. Also, in some way, the first point would warrant the use of the historic present, because the doctor was taking notes on the spot - when the patient was talking. I don't know if what I said is right, but hopefully it'll clear the problem up a bit.


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Karen Vincent-Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Historic present- can be used in certain circumstances May 11, 2007

Thank you Angus, and to all the others who have replied. The consensus seems to be that it can be used, but with care. So I shall use it for the descriptions of the actual sessions, as the doctor is 're-living' the therapeutic encounter, but not in the rest of the text. Another problem solved, thanks to ProZ.com colleagues!

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Claire Morrissey  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 20:51
Member (2014)
French to English
Thanks for the help! Jul 8, 2014

Thank you all for your input on this - I'm a translation student doing an internship in a political sciences lab so am constantly confronted by this exact problem! At times it can be very difficult to work out how much really needs to be changed.

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John Farebrother  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
French to English
+ ...
context is everything Jul 8, 2014

You should try to get a look at original similar texts in English, and attempt to reproduce their style when reformulating from French.

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Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:51
Member (2004)
Italian to English
Not too relevant Jul 8, 2014

to your circumstances but:

I recently translated a novel written entirely in the historic present. It was compiled from a series of journalistic reports from a war correspondent in 1941, written with a degree of artistic licence (to put it mildly).
While the historic present no doubt gave readers at the time a sense of immediacy, I decided that present day English readers would regard it as a historical novel and find the present tense a rather tiresome affectation.


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