Everything all the time.

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Ben Yagoda is sick of it, Philip Pullman is calling time on it, and I’m grappling with it in two languages on a daily basis. It’s Germany’s favorite verb tense: the historical present!

German academic writers love their historical present tense, so the past events they describe always seem to be happening in an eternal now. In the English-speaking world, the historical present tense is used when discussing fictional narratives (“Ophelia goes crazy and Hamlet dies”—spoiler!), and it frequently pops up in TV documentaries, where you’ll hear things like, “When the Great Fire of London starts in 1666, Samuel Pepys buries his parmesan cheese in the garden to keep it safe” (I’m not even making that up). In English, this sentence would generally be written in the past tense (“The Great Fire started…Pepys buried his cheese”). But in German, Pepys is still burying his cheese even as I write this.

As a German translator who handles a lot of academic texts, I’m forced to deal with the historical present tense all of the time. I say “forced to deal with” because it drives me crazy, not only because it often sounds stilted to my American ears, but because it can be truly confusing. When everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to something that happened two months is recounted in the same verb tense, it can be difficult to unpick the then from the now and determine 1) what really happened when, and 2) whether that thing that happened is actually still happening or only sounds like it’s still happening because of the historical present tense.

I also say “forced to deal with” because every time I translate a German text written in the historical present, I have to decide whether to preserve the present tense in the English or use the past tense instead. In some cases, the historical present still works; it’s not unusual to find it in chronicles or timelines, for example:

But in the vast majority of cases, I opt to change the present tense of the German into the past tense in English. It’s the convention, and it’s just what sounds right. I’m confident of this, so I’m usually comfortable with my choice—usually. But every new text forces me to rethink and figure out what’s best for the text in question, and sometimes I sway back and forth, starting out with the present tense, then changing everything to the past tense, then changing half of it back to the present again. Sometimes I worry that I’ve taken too many liberties with a German text by moving into the past tense, that maybe I’ve robbed the writing of its immediacy. Sometimes this concern stays with me until long after the translation is out of my hands—but sometimes I come across something which immediately confirms that my suspicion of the historical present is not misplaced.

For the book I’m currently translating, I’ve had to consult another book translated from German into English called Paper Machines. The subject matter—card catalogs—is fascinating for a library nerd like myself, but I’ve been finding the English translation, which is written consistently in the historical present tense, very awkward to read. I mean no disrespect to the translator, who will have had his own reasons for choosing the verb tense he did (maybe the author or publisher insisted on it, who knows…?), but it just feels slightly off to me. That said, Paper Machines isn’t a million miles away from the book I’m working on (which is written in the historical present in German, but which I’ve time-shifted in the translation), so I found myself questioning my strict adherence to the past tense for this type of writing.

And then I stumbled on this review of Paper Machines in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology:

Be warned, Paper Machines is not an easy read. It is not just that in some sections the narrative jumps around, points already firmly made are needlessly repeated, the characters in the plot are not always introduced carefully enough, and a great deal seems to have been lost in translation. More serious than these difficulties, the book is written entirely in the present tense. This is both disconcerting and distracting. I’m surprised the editorial team […] and a publisher as reputable as the MIT Press allowed this to happen; unless, that is, the original German version was itself written in the present tense, which for a historical discourse I would find baffling.

The review captured my attention for two reasons. First, it verifies that the present tense is weird in historical writing in English—so weird, in fact, that the “disconcerting and distracting” nature of it can be even worse than a disjointed, repetitive narrative. And second (a point less pertinent to this blog post, but one of general interest to me personally), it is an example of a someone reviewing a translation as a translation even though the reviewer has no knowledge of the original text.

Some interesting assumptions are made here, e.g., that it makes sense for a translation to be written in the present tense if “the original German version was itself written in the present tense” (it actually doesn’t make sense, because the translation should have been adapted to serve an English-speaking audience, and the present tense of the original clearly doesn’t serve that audience), that using the present tense in German historical discourse would be an unexpected or “baffling” occurrence (it’s not baffling at all, it’s the convention in German books of this type), and, finally, that “a great deal seems to have been lost in translation”—a throwaway line based on no evidence whatsoever, because the reviewer hasn’t read the original (in the case of this book, I suspect not enough was lost in translation).

But I digress. My basic point, I suppose, is that there’s a time and a place and a tense for everything, and I’m more convinced than ever that the historical present tense should rarely be used in English as it is in German. Tense-shifting may move a translation further from the source text on which it’s based, but I think it can move the translation closer to the audience for whom it’s intended.

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