Verb tenses in historical writing

Through translating wikipedia articles in the Immersion section, I've noticed that when describing historical events the original French will often jump between the past and present tenses. In English, using the present tense to describe historical events usually feels clumsy and mixing tenses in a single passage is frowned upon. More often than not I find myself just translating the present tense French into the past tense in English.

I was wondering if this is a common style in French writing. Does written French commonly mix tenses where the same usage would be considered clumsy in English? Does written French use the present tense to describe historical acts where this would be confusing in written or spoken English? Is this style also common in spoken French?

July 11, 2014


As I understand it, French uses a tense they call "historical present" in which to write their historical articles. With few exceptions, It sounds awkward when translated into English, so common practice here is to change the tense of such articles into the appropriate form of the past tense when translating into English.

July 11, 2014

It is also "very" common in Spanish.

July 12, 2014

The historical present, as Carolyn correctly calls it, is used even in English. Few would find anything awkward or incorrect with "Alexander goes into Persepolis and burns it to the ground during one of his drinking bouts." I assume, however, that like in English, French too does not like switching tenses in the same sentence or idea. Once you have chosen either present or past stick to it the whole way through.

July 14, 2014

I really sympathize, it is initially rather confusing. Dessamator in his excellent Immersion Community Guidelines writes that verb tenses in the original should be retained in the translation if, and here comes the crunch, it is natural in the target language. The French like to beef up their history writing by using the Present Tense. We do in English in some cases, especially in novels and in some history writing, for the same reason as French. But we are more sober in general. If you check one Wiki site in English and one in French, you get the idea. Point to watch: when the French text uses a past tense we may have to use the perfect past. Hope that helps. Spoken French is no different from English.

July 13, 2014
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