Historic present in Spanish for a case study
Thread poster: Greg Hunt
Greg Hunt  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
Mar 5, 2012

As I'm sure all Spanish-English translators are aware, written Spanish often uses the present to refer to the past ("the historic present") and this can cause a few difficulties in English, as although one can use the historic present, but it's much less common.

I'm translating an academic article at the moment where the verbs are all in the present throughout:

"La primera etapa consiste en establecer un test... Se emplea para ello Eq. (1) para cada una de las 42 empresas que constituyen el conjunto de oportunidad de este estudio".

The article is a case study where a particular method or theory is advocated and demonstrated using real-world data. So, the author is both describing a process that was used (concrete action in the past), but also one which is to be followed in general, or even can be by the reader while reading the article. It's almost as if the author is carrying out the study at the time of writing, rather than the paper being the report or write-up of research already carried out.

The problem is particularly acute when, for example a table of figures is shown which are (or were) manipulated to obtain further information: i.e. the authors did carry out an action, but then the educated reader is invited to do the same:

"De la resolución de esta ecuación se obtiene lo siguiente..."

In some ways, this is like a Kudoz question, but it's not a lexical problem but a grammatical one. There has been a similar discussion of this before, but I'm wondering if there any specific thoughts for my case.

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


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Denise Phelps  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
My two cents' worth Mar 5, 2012

If it's a research article, the general convention is to use the past simple in English. For example:

"In general, use the past tense when describing how you performed your study and what you found or what other researchers did. Preferably use the present tense in general statements and interpretations (e.g. statistical significance, conclusions) or when writing about the content of your article, especially tables and figures (Day & Gastel 2006)"
EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles to be Published in English, June 2011
©2011 European Association of Science Editors (www.ease.org.uk).

The text can become very confusing for English readers if it's written in the present simple throughout, as it becomes difficult to distinguish what the researchers did from what have been established as general rules and so on.


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Greg Hunt  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Great Mar 5, 2012

I think the quotation you give is extremely interesting as it specifically refers to the problem that prompted me to pose this topic.

I've been trying to use the past wherever possible, but I was having doubts when I came to the tables and equations. The quotation seems to suggest that I should use the present in those cases, which was what my instinct told me, but I was worried about the consistency of the tenses.

I'm still interested to know what other people think, but your comment has already been a big help. Thanks!


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:40
English to Spanish
+ ...
Agree Mar 5, 2012

Denise has expressed it well and I agree with her. Although I am in a different part of the world (US-Mexico border), the historic present is also very frequently used in Spanish. When it refers to past events, I translate it into English using the past tense, because that is the preferred usage in English.

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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
Agree - past tense Mar 5, 2012

In English I almost always translate the historical present using the simple past tense. The only exceptions I sometimes make are for timelines ("1854 - The company is founded") and the narration of documentaries (which can be in the present or past).

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Greg Hunt  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
clarification Mar 5, 2012

In a sense, it's not so much about knowing how to translate the historic present, but rather about being able to distinguish between the historic present and just the present.

In other words, if I know it's definitely referring to the past, then it's easy, but a lot of times it's not so clear. The Spanish is often ambiguous; it's knowing how to deal with that ambiguity is the problem. In Spanish, as the verbs in the present can be interpreted in two different ways in some cases, then arguably the reader is left to decide what it means. But for English, the writer, or rather in this case the translator (me!) has to make that choice, and having to use the past in some cases and the present in others was making me question whether I was being sufficiently consistent and whether I could justify my choices.

Denise's reference has cleared my thoughts and in general everyone's contributions have reassured me that I'm going the right way. Cheers!


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neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
Denise is spot on Mar 6, 2012

Denise has summed it up nicely.
Guidelines for authors vary among journals and other publications, and some reviewers or editors may disagree, but I think you can normally use the present when describing the tables or figures (Table 1 shows ...) although in general most of the rest should be in past tense.


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