I am translating an historical text with really simple language (from French into English) and they used the present tense, that I'd like to keep. But as I started translating I realised that I wasn't so sure how to use the present tense with dates, for example:

"He first etablishes his business in 1789. In 1790, his daughter marries François Pinault, who becomes involved in the business from 1793 onwards."

It goes on and on like this. Please, can a English native let me know if this absolutely wrong, if I have to use the present-perfect or not ?

Thank you !

  • 1
    Your translation looks accurate, and in colloquial English, particularly for the style used in genealogical texts. [Personally, I'd use the simple past, but I imagine genealogists or biographers might use the present to give a feeling of immediacy, of living in those times, with events occurring in sequence. But I'm not a genealogist.] Commented May 12 at 17:57
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    With dates you should never use the present perfect e.g. In 1790, his has got married to François Pinault, who has got involved in the business from 1993 not even when we speaking about duration: he has been involved in the business since 1793
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 12 at 18:42
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    Using Present Tense in such contexts is a bit "literary, affected". And as @Mari-LouA says, Present Perfect is a terrible choice. You're writing about the past, so just use Simple Past throughout if you don't want your writing style to overshadow what you're actually writing about. Commented May 12 at 19:00
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    Present perfect with a date and time-span works only when the time-span extends from that date to the actual present; the span of time involved cannot be entirely in the past. I've been living here since May 1st, 1990 is perfectly OK, whereas "I have lived there from 1980 to 1993" is not OK. Or it can extend to a "reference-point" present back in the past: In the ten years from May of 1770 to June of 1780, the army has grown to 50,000 soldiers. That's OK in an "historical present" context. "June of 1780" becomes the "historical reference-point present".
    – TimR
    Commented May 13 at 13:32
  • Another factor that may be relevant is the OP's note that this is a translation. I would imagine that this could influence the choice of tense. In any translation there is a tension between providing a 'native English' equivalent of the original or an accurate translation. It's also valid to take into account the intended use of the translation. Commented May 13 at 14:44

1 Answer 1


You are attempting to use the "historic present". This is acceptable, but "marked". It isn't the normal way of expression in English and may sound odd.

The effect is one of an omniscient narrator who describes events in the past as if they are happening in front of them. It creates a sense of immediacy and urgency.

In his guide to composition, James Finch wrote in 1919:

Avoid the use of the historical present unless the narrative is sufficiently vivid to make the use spontaneous. The historical present is one of the boldest of figures [of speech] and, as is the case with all figures, its overuse makes a style cheap and ridiculous." (source)

So, it is not forbidden, but do pause to consider options.

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