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Present Tense in Source Language for historical texts: should it be translated into the past tense?
Thread poster: Susan Brodar

Susan Brodar
Local time: 02:55
Italian to English
+ ...
Nov 13, 2015

I am translating a text which refers to letters in a historical context. The text is written in the present tense: Source language Italian/Target language English: "John writes in his letter... Peter agrees with him and tells him to ...". Somehow it doesn't sound natural in English and I feel the whole text would be better in the past. There are 10 pages to translate so after working on the first page I would like to clarify my doubt. At the moment I am translating it as it stands - present tense.

Anyone know if there is a rule regarding which tense to use - I usually follow the tense used in the original but if it doesn't sound natural...?


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
Do the right thing Nov 13, 2015

As a rule, I'd say that sticking to the tenses used in the original is not the best policy, at least not in my ES-EN pair. Even within English, the US variant tends to prefer past tense to present perfect, for example, so I tend to adjust the tenses used to fit target language usage conventions.

[Edited at 2015-11-13 09:09 GMT]


 

Susan Brodar
Local time: 02:55
Italian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Obviously not literally... Nov 13, 2015

Yes, I agree that one has to see - the Americans have no Past Perfect at all and English with its Present Perfect Continuous needs to be adjusted to the meaning intended in the Source Language.

What I intended is whether the whole historical text should be written in the past tense as if I am narrating a thing of the past or if I should respect the way it's written in Italian, in the present tense, almost as if it were now...

"In the letter he writes that he is tired..." in the original or rather
"In the letter he wrote that he was tired..." as I find more natural for events which took place 500 years ago.


 

Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 07:55
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
Thai language: Indirect/direct speech Nov 13, 2015

neilmac wrote:

As a rule, I'd say that sticking to the tenses used in the original is not the best policy, at least not in my ES-EN pair. Even within English, the US variant tends to prefer past tense to present perfect, for example, so I tend to adjust the tenses used to fit target language usage conventions.

[Edited at 2015-11-13 09:09 GMT]


In Thai, I use original tenses within "--" (quotation mark e.g. in dialogue) and past tenses in indirect speech (narrative statements).

Soonthon L.


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not across the board Nov 13, 2015

Susan Brodar wrote:

Yes, I agree that one has to see - the Americans have no Past Perfect at all and English with its Present Perfect Continuous needs to be adjusted to the meaning intended in the Source Language.

What I intended is whether the whole historical text should be written in the past tense as if I am narrating a thing of the past or if I should respect the way it's written in Italian, in the present tense, almost as if it were now...

"In the letter he writes that he is tired..." in the original or rather
"In the letter he wrote that he was tired..." as I find more natural for events which took place 500 years ago.


In my world, making sweeping generalizations about the "whole" anything is never recommendable. I'd probably follow the form of the original until I had the first draft ready, then go over each instance of verb tenses to see how I think they work best. Sorry I can't be more specific.


 

Serena Basili  Identity Verified
Belgium
Local time: 02:55
English to Italian
+ ...
My two cents Nov 13, 2015

As an Italian, I would use a past tense in English to translate the Italian "presente storico"...it is normal for us to use -in written language- the present tense instead of past to tell stories.

Hope this helps!

S.

Edited to add:
BTW don't ask me why we use present and not past - Italians love making easy things difficult, in any respect of our life lol

[Edited at 2015-11-13 10:11 GMT]


 

Paula D  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:55
Member (2013)
Turkish to English
present or past Nov 13, 2015

This is often an issue in my language pair Turkish- English. I use the past tense for historical texts as personally I would find it really hard going to read through 10 pages of a history book written in the present tense. I think these days, that use of teh present tense sounds dated or, at best, like a children's history text book. Tenses are used differently in different languages so like-for-like is not always appropriate in my opinion.

 

Susan Brodar
Local time: 02:55
Italian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"Presente storico" to simple past... Nov 13, 2015

Thank you everyone for all your valuable help.

In the end Serena's eyeopener regarding the Italian "presente storico" has made me decide I'll have to go back and put everything into the past.

Thanks a lot once more...

Carry on the good work everyone.


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 02:55
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Definitely the past in English Nov 13, 2015

I had a long discussion with a colleague earlier this year about a three-language text on the D-Day landings in Normandy.

There was a list of chronology, and the French and Danish versions used the present, so the client insisted that it should be the same in English too. I would not use the present in Danish either, but the native speaker said it just about worked...

We had quite a job to convince the client that simply adding the date was not enough. Using the present in English made it sound as if the landings were repeated every year! Otherwise it reeked of translation, and we would not put our professional names to it.

The present is fine in the captions beside pictures, but not in narrative, unless it is quoting the spoken word.

Even in spoken language, it is used sparingly, and in the historical letters I have read, the past would be used, unless the present indicated something that happened regularly or was still going on.


 

Susan Brodar
Local time: 02:55
Italian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Definitely the past in English Nov 13, 2015

Thank you so much for this last confirmation that my instinct was right !

I will definitely put it into the past.

Thanks everyone for all the constructive feedback!!


 

Jennifer Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:55
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
A matter of fashion Nov 13, 2015

In my opinion, the past should be used in English when reporting past events.
However, I've noticed that in British historical TV programmes, of which I'm a fan, the learned historian (David Starkey, Simon Schama, who should know better) uses the present tense when talking about past events.
E.g. "Henry divorces Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn. Anne fails to produce a male heir. Henry grows tired of her, has her condemned for treason and beheads her. Then he marries Jane".
Whereas it should be "Henry divorced Katherine and married Anne. Anne failed to produce a male heir. Henry grew tired ..."
It seems to be a matter of fashion, like so much else, including the use of language.

[Edited at 2015-11-13 11:38 GMT]


 

Maria Popova  Identity Verified
Bulgaria
Local time: 03:55
Member (2011)
German to Bulgarian
+ ...
Use the past tense Nov 13, 2015

The same problem is faced when translating historical present tense from Bulgarian into German. I always use past tense.

 

Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 02:55
German to Serbian
+ ...
Tone of voice? Dramatic effect? Nov 13, 2015

Depending on the source writer's intention regarding the tone, Present Tense in target may be considered.

As far as I'm aware, it's also used to add dramatic effect and intensify the situation (as if putting you in the middle of the event by using the Present Tense), and it's used for this purpose particularity in narratives.

However, you have access to the full text and should know best. The two sentences you provided as an example don't give me full overview of the text.


 

fbbest  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 02:55
English to Italian
+ ...
Historic(al) present Nov 13, 2015

You touched upon a very interesting and difficult topic!!

Many people do not know how to use the 'historical present' and this is both in Italian and in English. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present

"In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present or historic present (also called dramatic present or narrative present) refers to the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. It is widely used in writing about history in Latin and some modern European languages; in English it is used above all in historical chronicles (listing a series of events); it is also used in fiction, for 'hot news' (as in headlines), and in everyday conversation (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 129–131). In conversation, it is particularly common with 'verbs of communication' such as tell, write, and say (and in colloquial uses, go) (Leech 2002: 7). Historic present is the form recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas historical present is the form in Merriam Webster.

More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions not by making an event present, but by marking segments of a narrative, foregrounding events (that is, signalling that one event is particularly important, relevant to others) and marking a shift to evaluation (Brinton 1992: 221)."

http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/presente-storico_(Enciclopedia-dell'Italiano)/


 

Angela Dickson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:55
French to English
+ ...
Not in written English Nov 13, 2015

Jenny Forbes wrote:

However, I've noticed that in British historical TV programmes, of which I'm a fan, the learned historian (David Starkey, Simon Schama, who should know better) uses the present tense when talking about past events.
E.g. "Henry divorces Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn. Anne fails to produce a male heir. Henry grows tired of her, has her condemned for treason and beheads her. Then he marries Jane".
It seems to be a matter of fashion, like so much else, including the use of language.

[Edited at 2015-11-13 11:38 GMT]


Not sure about "should know better", since presenters such as Schama are hardly doing this without thinking about it. But yes, I agree that this is common in spoken English (at least on TV/radio) now, but I have rarely seen it in writing.


 
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