Historical Tenses

French historical tenses
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Temps historiques

When writing about history, the tenses used in French and English aren’t always the same. French prefers to use the present or even the future, while English tends to stick to the past tense.

Historical past – Passé historique

alias Passé simple, Passé défini

In historical accounts as well as journalism and literature, the passé simple takes the place of the passé composé used in spoken French.

Un homme nommé Forestier fut le premier à établir le record d’ascension le plus rapide de la tour. A man named Forestier was the first to set the fastest climbing record of the tower.
Source: 12 faits historiques peu connus sur la tour Eiffel

Historical present – Présent historique

alias Présent de narration, Présent littéraire

However, French typically uses the historical present to describe history because this helps bring the events to life. While it is possible to use the historical present in English, the past tense sounds much more natural.

Par exemple…

Le 1er mai 1561, le roi Charles IX reçoit un brin de muguet porte-bonheur. Le cadeau lui plaît tellement, qu’il décide d’offrir tous les ans un brin de muguet à chacune des dames de sa cour. On May 1st 1561, King Charles IX received a sprig of lily of the valley for good luck. The gift so pleased him that he decided to give a sprig of lily of the valley to each of the women in his court every year.
Source: Bonne fête du Premier Mai

Historical future – Futur historique

alias Futur de narration, Futur de perspective

There’s also a historical future in French, but it’s never used to tell the whole story, the way the historical present is. Instead, the historical future is mainly used to emphasize events sandwiched between passages in the present or passé simple.

Par exemple…

Progressivement, il crée ses propres personnages : Gnafron puis celui qui deviendra le plus célèbre, Guignol, qui incarne un canut lyonnais. Gradually, he created his own characters: Gnafron then the one who became the most famous, Guignol, who embodied a silk worker from Lyon.
Source: Guignol, un symbole de la culture populaire lyonnaise

 When translating between French and English, it’s important for the target language to sound authentic, which is why tenses don’t always match up. Read more about the art of translation.

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