Historic present

Using present-tense verbs to refer to past events is a device that’s been around since the Romans at least (praesens historicum). It can be done in both English and Dutch too, for drawing the reader in and adding impact. In English, though, it risks sounding childish or ungrammatical if not handled with care.

In English, it’s more of a literary device (in the broadest sense: a bloke in the pub narrating an anecdote or bad joke to his mates may use it too). Dutch uses it much more widely and the effect can grate quite badly if translated literally. As can skipping between tenses from one sentence to the next; this is usually also worth avoiding in English. We often find ourselves changing the tense from present to past during translation. Examples:

  • minutes of meetings
  • reports of medical procedures
  • reports of work done in scientific theses
  • brief descriptions of historical events (particularly in museum audio tours, which we do a lot of)

Awareness of this issue is relatively low, as evidenced by the fact that we always have to state clearly on delivering a translation that this is what we’ve done and why. Otherwise, you can bet your bottom dollar that our text will come back from the end client with a complaint that we’ve changed the tenses…

Prevalence: low. Low because it only affects certain kinds of text.
Frequency: endemic. In the type of text where this device gets used at all, Dutch authors will hardly ever think of changing the tense away from what’s in their head.
Native: no. Not for formal texts such as the above.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

6 thoughts on “Historic present

  1. Interesting blog, but it would be much clearer if examples were given … Or am I missing something? Some years ago I used a list of Dunglish on Wikipedia and went through it with groups of students. Together we created a new list, with the incorrect words, their meanings, and the correct words. A fun project, but most of all: the students were more aware of their mistakes!

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    1. There has been other input suggesting more examples, so I may indeed start doing so. But that would of course make the burden of writing it much greater… more than just a background hobby project. I would also have to be careful in the editing so as to anonymize the examples, given that the people who committed the errors may well be reading the blog; some certainly are.

      I don’t know exactly what you think you’re missing. There are various sources of Dunglish on the web and at least one good book on the subject: Joy Burrough, “Righting English that’s gone Dutch”. The majority of such sources tend to be humorous (which this isn’t) and/or aimed at schoolchildren (which this isn’t) and/or not easily searchable (which this is) and/or not backed up by any form of statistical research (which this is): these are genuinely the mistakes Dutch-speaking professionals make.

      It’s going to be a great deal more than a raw list of incorrect words and their meanings, for example, which those statistics show are in fact only a minor and easily corrected element of Dunglish.

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      1. Hi Mike,

        Thanks a lot for your reply. I do realize that giving examples would mean much more work, but what I actually meant here was examples of this Historic present. In spite of many years of experience in English, it just didn’t ring a bell …

        I just read your blog on capitalization in English acronyms, and there were some clear examples (thank you).

        Best regards,
        Inge

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      2. It’s things like “De voorzitter opent de vergadering” in the minutes of a meeting (“The chair opened the meeting”), “500 mg wordt zorgvuldig gewogen” in a scientific report (“500mg was weighed out carefully”), “Van Gogh sterft in Auvers-sur-Oise op 29 juli 1890” in a museum audio tour (“Van Gogh died…”)
        Retaining the present tense in the English isn’t normal.

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