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Tense in translations

I've noticed a lot of biographical articles about dead people begin with 'Il est' or similar - that is, talking about the person, and the things he/she has done, in the present tense. We typically translate this to past tense to match English conventions.

I therefore have some questions:

1) Is using present tense to talk about the past a French convention?

2) Should we convert to past tense when translating, or translate literally?


June 26, 2012



Hi therico,

In French, there is what we French people call "présent de vérité générale" which you could translate as "present tense of general truth". It is a somewhat difficult notion, but basically it is used for statements/facts which are considered as "absolute truths", ie: Le soleil se lève à l'Est (=The sun rises from the east) or regarding dead people : everything about them that is documented, and will not change (provided time does not begin to flow backwards).

I think this should answer your first question. For the second one, hopefully some people will chime in and clarify things further.


I think I would translate into the past if it sounds more natural in English.


I asked this question too. The "dead people and documented" part of what KiP said answered my question :)

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