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Verb tense agreement vs preserving author's style
Thread poster: Laura Meyerovich

Laura Meyerovich
United States
Local time: 11:51
Russian to English
+ ...
Feb 18, 2013

I have an interesting dilemma: the source language (Russian) is very tolerant in terms of verb tense agreement: you can break it not only within a paragraph, but also even within a sentence. The original, a literary work, uses this device all the time, mostly to bring the sense of "presence" into the description of past events.
The target language is English, which is very rigid in this regard, so literal translation will sound illiterate, no pun intended.
Should I edit it out comple
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I have an interesting dilemma: the source language (Russian) is very tolerant in terms of verb tense agreement: you can break it not only within a paragraph, but also even within a sentence. The original, a literary work, uses this device all the time, mostly to bring the sense of "presence" into the description of past events.
The target language is English, which is very rigid in this regard, so literal translation will sound illiterate, no pun intended.
Should I edit it out completely, or leave it in at least within paragraphs?
It is the usual "transparent vs. opaque translation" issue, but I cannot find any discussion of this aspect of it, and will appreciate your thoughts.


Respectfully,

Laura Meyerovich
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Tina Vonhof
Canada
Local time: 10:51
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Translating style Feb 18, 2013

Hi Laura,

This is also common in Dutch although not as a specific author's style. Anyone can tell a story or past event in the present tense to make it more dramatic, for example: "I go to his house, I ring the bell, the door opens and this huge, growling dog jumps out at me..." but from the context it is clear that it happened two years ago.

This is not, or rarely, done in English and I think that if you stick to the author's style, and jump back and forth between past
... See more
Hi Laura,

This is also common in Dutch although not as a specific author's style. Anyone can tell a story or past event in the present tense to make it more dramatic, for example: "I go to his house, I ring the bell, the door opens and this huge, growling dog jumps out at me..." but from the context it is clear that it happened two years ago.

This is not, or rarely, done in English and I think that if you stick to the author's style, and jump back and forth between past and present tense, especially in the same sentence, it may seem wrong and the point of it may not come across to the English reader. If an event happened in the past, it should be told in the past tense. That's just my thinking, maybe others have a different idea.
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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:51
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Common problem Feb 18, 2013

I translate from French in the marketing area, so there are lots of websites and their "about XYZ" company histories to translate. The French often says things like "In 1998, XYZ will become the leader in...".

A few clients have questioned the way I change so many of the tenses, but it simply has to be done. It really isn't difficult to justify. You're supposed to be translating the meaning, not each individual word, after all. I mean, many languages use their "to have" verb for age
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I translate from French in the marketing area, so there are lots of websites and their "about XYZ" company histories to translate. The French often says things like "In 1998, XYZ will become the leader in...".

A few clients have questioned the way I change so many of the tenses, but it simply has to be done. It really isn't difficult to justify. You're supposed to be translating the meaning, not each individual word, after all. I mean, many languages use their "to have" verb for ages, but you don't translate it literally as "I have 37 years", do you?
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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 00:51
Chinese to English
Not done in English? Feb 18, 2013

I completely disagree that English doesn't allow for changing tense. There are many occasions where it's allowable in English, though I'm sure the conditions differ from those applicable in Russian.

My approach is:
1) Respect the grammar of the language. If a sentence is grammatical in the source text, then it should be grammatical in the target text.
2) Respect the rhetoric of the language. If a sentence creates a particular rhetorical effect in the source text using
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I completely disagree that English doesn't allow for changing tense. There are many occasions where it's allowable in English, though I'm sure the conditions differ from those applicable in Russian.

My approach is:
1) Respect the grammar of the language. If a sentence is grammatical in the source text, then it should be grammatical in the target text.
2) Respect the rhetoric of the language. If a sentence creates a particular rhetorical effect in the source text using the resources of the source language, you should try to recreate the same effect in the target text using the resources of the target language.

So don't write ungrammatical English just for the sake of following the Russian. But do exploit all the flexibility that English gives you. To make a passage seem more vivid, you can mess with punctuation (short, punchy sentences); change perspective (you can change tense if it's the character's thoughts breaking into the narration); place your adjectives sparingly and carefully; etc.
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Laura Meyerovich
United States
Local time: 11:51
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for presenting the full range, and some specifics Feb 18, 2013

First of all, thanks for sharing your points of view!

I should probably provide specific example to ground this discussion, apologies for not doing it in the initial posting.

Here is a sample with tenses translated literally. It switches from past tense of the preceding text to present tense to dialog and then back to the past tense when the narrative continues. This is very representative: switch for a paragraph or even a sentence in a paragraph for "action" prose, th
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First of all, thanks for sharing your points of view!

I should probably provide specific example to ground this discussion, apologies for not doing it in the initial posting.

Here is a sample with tenses translated literally. It switches from past tense of the preceding text to present tense to dialog and then back to the past tense when the narrative continues. This is very representative: switch for a paragraph or even a sentence in a paragraph for "action" prose, than back to narrative in past tense.

When I asked what the matter was, the officer that handed me the order said:

“Something happened to the Orel, but what exactly, I do not know.”

About 4:30 o'clock in the morning I enter the house of the Chief Commander in Kronstadt. I am immediately escorted to Admiral Birilev, who is sitting in his huge office at the desk at the far end, across from the entrance door.
As soon as I enter, I hear a voice:

“Hello, my friend, first of all, I congratulate you on your reprimand, I am serving for forty years, and have not earned such a distinction. Do you know what has happened? The Orel has foundered in the harbor, she lies on her side, and did not capsize for the sole reason that she touched the bottom with her bilge, having a list of about 20°. Report to Admiral Rozhdestvensky and go with him to the Orel.”

The Orel accident has been later described by sailing on her junior navigating officer
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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:51
Hebrew to English
Historical Present.... Feb 18, 2013

Most certainly does exist in English and is actually used quite a lot, especially so in spoken language when recounting a story to your mates, but is not uncommon in writing either:

"Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historical present has the effect of making past events more vivid."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present

The link
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Most certainly does exist in English and is actually used quite a lot, especially so in spoken language when recounting a story to your mates, but is not uncommon in writing either:

"Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historical present has the effect of making past events more vivid."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present

The link shows how Dickens' employed it in his writing (and links to other "greats" who have been known to use it).

[Edited at 2013-02-18 18:44 GMT]
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writeaway  Identity Verified
French to English
+ ...
Yes, definitely used in English Feb 18, 2013

Ty Kendall wrote:

Most certainly does exist in English and is actually used quite a lot, especially so in spoken language when recounting a story to your mates, but is not uncommon in writing either:

"Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historical present has the effect of making past events more vivid."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present

The link shows how Dickens' employed it in his writing (and links to other "greats" who have been known to use it).

[Edited at 2013-02-18 18:44 GMT]


The name historical present wasn't just invented to be used when referring to other languages. It's definitely used in English. Although other languages may use it in contexts we wouldn't.


 

Laura Meyerovich
United States
Local time: 11:51
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for introducing proper grammatical term in the discussion Feb 18, 2013

Ty and writeaway,

Thanks for mentioning "historical present", I was not aware of the term.

The two examples in the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present are a long passage in Dickens and a book written completely in present tense, and I agree with both.

This discussion helped me to frame my problem more precisely: how long the historical pr
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Ty and writeaway,

Thanks for mentioning "historical present", I was not aware of the term.

The two examples in the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present are a long passage in Dickens and a book written completely in present tense, and I agree with both.

This discussion helped me to frame my problem more precisely: how long the historical present fragment in the otherwise past tense narrative can be, before it descends from the heights of style to the abyss of mistake?

2-3 paragraphs? A paragraph? A sentence in a paragraph?

We probably all agree that a clause in a compound sentence is not acceptable.
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Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 18:51
Member (2018)
French to English
Nick Hornby Feb 18, 2013

uses it all the time to great effect

 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 00:51
Chinese to English
Could you give us an example? Feb 19, 2013

I don't speak any Russian, but perhaps an example would help to clarify things.

I'm thinking this:

If in Russian you can have a grammatically correct sentence that goes:

He parked his car in front of the house, and suddenly there she is, running out to give him a hug.

Then two ideas:

1) the sentence above isn't terrible. It could get wearing if every sentence is written like that. But it's acceptable in English. It feels like a cha
... See more
I don't speak any Russian, but perhaps an example would help to clarify things.

I'm thinking this:

If in Russian you can have a grammatically correct sentence that goes:

He parked his car in front of the house, and suddenly there she is, running out to give him a hug.

Then two ideas:

1) the sentence above isn't terrible. It could get wearing if every sentence is written like that. But it's acceptable in English. It feels like a change of perspective, as though the second clause is written through the character's eyes.

2) If you don't want to do that in English, then you've got to think about what the Russian is doing. You seem to be saying that the effect of using the present in Russian is not to make you think of a different tense/time, but just to make the sentence more vivid. In that case, you should be trying to think of English stylistic effects to make the sentence more vivid.

You could try using words from a different register:
He parked his car in front of the house, and she suddenly materialised, running out to give him a hug.

You could chop up the sentence:
He parked his car in front of the house. There she was! Running out to give him a hug.

You could change the order of the sentence:
He parked his car in front of the house, and there, running out to give him a hug, was the woman he'd been waiting for.


Like Sheila said, sometimes tense is just used differently in two languages. If that's the case here, then it's a grammatical issue only, and you should not be allowing grammar to affect the way you translate. Our job is precisely to overcome the constraints of different grammars.
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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 18:51
Italian to English
In memoriam
What's in a verb? Feb 19, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

Like Sheila said, sometimes tense is just used differently in two languages. If that's the case here, then it's a grammatical issue only, and you should not be allowing grammar to affect the way you translate. Our job is precisely to overcome the constraints of different grammars.



English verb phrases can be marked for lots of notions apart from tense (number, voice, aspect, phase), quite apart from the dimensions of meaning added by its performative modals. It's easy to forget the tools that English puts at your disposal while you are admiring the linguistic pyrotechnics of the source text

In Phil's example, if you want to focus on aspect, which is fair enough given the importance of this notion in Russian grammar as well as English, this is probably the most satisfying of the suggestions:



You could chop up the sentence:
He parked his car in front of the house. There she was! Running out to give him a hug.



This is nice because the first two verb forms establish the time frame before the -ing form highlights the progressive/continuous aspect of the action. Note that you can also take the opportunity to colour the action in English by using one of the many synonyms of "run" ("rush", "tumble", "scurry" and so on).

But it would be counter-productive to dwell on a single grammatical feature merely because it is challenging to reflect in the target language. Other textual dimensions will need to be considered if you are going to produce a readable text that is as faithful as possible to the original.

After all, that's what makes translation such fun!


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 18:51
Spanish to English
+ ...
Saved me the bother Feb 19, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

I completely disagree that English doesn't allow for changing tense. There are many occasions where it's allowable in English, though I'm sure the conditions differ from those applicable in Russian.

My approach is:
1) Respect the grammar of the language. If a sentence is grammatical in the source text, then it should be grammatical in the target text.
2) Respect the rhetoric of the language. If a sentence creates a particular rhetorical effect in the source text using the resources of the source language, you should try to recreate the same effect in the target text using the resources of the target language.

So don't write ungrammatical English just for the sake of following the Russian. But do exploit all the flexibility that English gives you. To make a passage seem more vivid, you can mess with punctuation (short, punchy sentences); change perspective (you can change tense if it's the character's thoughts breaking into the narration); place your adjectives sparingly and carefully; etc.


Nothing to add here - my internal alarms went off when I saw the bit about "English doesn't allow for changing tense" but I see you've already voiced my concerns. Cheers


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 18:51
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I would change most of the tenses Feb 19, 2013

I would definitely change a lot of the tenses to more English use.
Otherwise it simply sounds translated.

It can be very effective in a few well-chosen passages, to mark that this is Russia, (or wherever), but if it goes all the way through, it begins to sound like those dreadful films where the Germans say ' Ve haf vays off making you talk' and the French say 'Mon dieu' and drop their aitches all the time.

Laura Meyerovich wrote:

....

When I asked what the matter was, the officer that handed me the order said:

“Something happened to the Orel, but what exactly, I do not know.”

About 4:30 o'clock in the morning I entered the house of the Chief Commander in Kronstadt. I was immediately escorted to Admiral Birilev [who is sitting - delete this] in his huge office at the desk at the far end, across from the entrance door.
As soon as I entered, I heard a voice:

“Hello, my friend, first of all, I congratulate you on your reprimand, I have served for forty years, and have not earned such a distinction. Do you know what has happened? The Orel has foundered in the harbor, she is lying on her side, and did not capsize for the sole reason that she touched the bottom with her bilge, but she has a list of about 20°. Report to Admiral Rozhdestvensky and go with him to the Orel.”

The Orel accident has been later described by sailing on her junior navigating officer


I would in fact rephrase at several other points, but as you say, this is a literal translation, so you will be reworking it.

Actual quotes are perhaps good passages to keep the narrative present, but that can be overdone too.


 

Thayenga  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 18:51
Member (2009)
English to German
+ ...
Target audience Feb 20, 2013

Christine Andersen wrote:

I would definitely change a lot of the tenses to more English use.
Otherwise it simply sounds translated.

It can be very effective in a few well-chosen passages, to mark that this is Russia, (or wherever), but if it goes all the way through, it begins to sound like those dreadful films where the Germans say ' Ve haf vays off making you talk' and the French say 'Mon dieu' and drop their aitches all the time.

I would in fact rephrase at several other points, but as you say, this is a literal translation, so you will be reworking it.

Actual quotes are perhaps good passages to keep the narrative present, but that can be overdone too.



I agree with Christine. Although the writer's style and intentions need to be preserved, the main issue is to translate the source document into proper English, which includes using the proper tense, and to rephrase wherever it becomes necessary to convey the original meaning.


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:51
French to English
+ ...
Fine so long as you realise it's a *device* in English Feb 20, 2013

I think the present historic is fine in English so long as you genuinely use it as a literary *device* that is deliberately chosen for a particular effect.

The thing that English authors don't on the whole tend to do is use the present historic wholesale as the general narrative tense for an entire novel. This contrasts with other languages where use of a present narrative tense isn't necessarily stylistically marked.

In your specific example, "I am serving for forty ye
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I think the present historic is fine in English so long as you genuinely use it as a literary *device* that is deliberately chosen for a particular effect.

The thing that English authors don't on the whole tend to do is use the present historic wholesale as the general narrative tense for an entire novel. This contrasts with other languages where use of a present narrative tense isn't necessarily stylistically marked.

In your specific example, "I am serving for forty years" sounds a bit odd to me, but the use and switch of tenses generally is fine.
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Verb tense agreement vs preserving author's style

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