Prose Translation

Hey peeps!

I’m currently working as a freelance translator and most often work with legal, instructional, and technical texts. I’m used to translating Japanese which is quite direct and not overly descriptive.

However, I’m now looking at translating a short story, which is exciting but also a little bit out of my comfort zone! I love reading prose in Japanese, but this would be the first time tackling a proper translation of it. Normally I just read it to understand without necessarily translating it in my head. My issue right now is that the author tends to switch tense frequently within the text, which is a common stylistic choice in Japanese novels. In English, this is much rarer as sometimes it can be confusing to the reader and even seen as “bad grammar” (which I don’t personally agree with but y’know).

Does anyone have any further reading or theory/tips for translating this kind of writing? I can’t share the text itself because of data protection/copyright, but for reference, in some paragraphs the author will switch between だ・です and た form every other sentence.


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There are a few Stack Exchange questions dealing with “historical present” in Japanese.

Maybe you don’t need an overview on the actual usage in Japanese… I’m not sure. One thing I’ve seen is that usually these would just all be past tense in English.


This is common, since Japanese prose fiction tends to lead toward use of the historical present. Generally, a piece will use a past-tense phrase at the start of a paragraph, section, when action is less immediate, etc., to establish its actual, overall tense, then switch to grammatical present tense for details.

Translate the whole thing in past tense.

Hope you’re looking forward to other hurdles, like Japanese’s ability to obfuscate perspective in a way English struggles with! (Only becomes a translation issue when it’s clear the Japanese original is intending to call attention to/experiment with that ambiguity though.)


I can’t believe I never had a linguistic term for it before but this makes a lot more sense now, thanks y’all! I’m very used to reading Japanese in this way so it’s more so that I need to study up on how it is best translated into English while keeping the ST style.

I did think about just translating it all using past tense, but then I’m usually of the opinion that authors choose specific tenses for a reason. Though it would seem that historical present is maybe not one of these kind of choices.

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I think in this case, it’s just a matter of rendering the normal convention of one language in the normal convention of another. Conversely, an all past-tense story in English would probably have some historical present inserted into it when translated into Japanese. (I would assume … I guess I can’t back that up with a concrete example right now.)

The important thing is going to be looking for elements that defy the conventions of Japanese fiction, within the original, and finding a way to similarly play with/defy them in English.


As you noted, this is normal in Japanese, but it would be jarring in English. Therefore, maintaining the feeling of reading the passage is also important. If it doesn’t make a Japanese person go “what the heck is going on” then the English shouldn’t do that to someone either.


I guess I’ll offer one final consideration, plus a link.

If the piece feels extremely, extremely active, in a way that you don’t think past-tense covers in English, there cooooould be cause for rendering it all in present, which is somewhat more accepted and less jarring in English short fiction than in Japanese. Though it’d still be a pretty bold choice without author input, I’d think.

Here’s a little chat that discusses some Japanese translations of English fiction ignoring an all present-tense perspective, opting instead for the traditional mix of past-tense framing and historical present for details: 地の文が現在形である場合: 翻訳百景

On the other hand, there are some Japanese writers who do rely fully on present-tense, though it seems even more jarring than it is in English (where it’s already a choice that calls attention to itself), so tread with care. 現在時制 - Wikipedia

But definitely do not mix tenses in English, which is extremely jarring and unnatural in a way that the Japanese isn’t.

(For credence, I hold a fiction MFA.)

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