Optimal past tense in translations of a Spanish novel

Date of news: 26 September 2022

How is the past tense in a Spanish novel translated into other languages? And how can similarities and differences be explained? Language researchers at Radboud University investigated this using the Spanish novelAsí empieza lo malo(Thus bad begins) by the recently deceased writer Javier Marías.

Linguists from the Centre for Language Studies (CLS) compared verbs in the simple past ('read') and the present perfect ('have read') in the Spanish novelAsí empieza lo malo(Thus bad begins) with English, Dutch and French translations. In doing so, they distinguished between dialogue, in which characters are in conversation with each other, and literary, narrative text.

Interesting differences

In the narrative parts of the book, the vast majority of Spanish verbs were found to be translated one-to-one to their counterparts in the three other languages. But in the dialogues, the researchers found interesting differences. In Dutch, the present perfect ('have read') is often used as a translation of the Spanish simple past forms ('read'), as was expected by the researchers. What they did not expect was that in English, the simple past ('read') is more often used as a translation for the Spanish present perfect forms ('have read'). This suggests that these languages have different optimal forms for referring to a past event.

New insights

The results of this corpus study provide new insights into the use of the past tense of different languages. In Dutch, you are apparently more likely to say that you 'have read' a book than that you 'read' a book, while in Spanish and English it is the other way around. But the difference between Spanish and English is that by saying 'I have read a book' in Spanish you seem to emphasise the link to the here and now ('have'), while in English you seem to emphasise the fact that the event is completed ('read'). These insights may also be applicable to learning Spanish or translating Spanish literature.

The article "Tense and Aspect in a Spanish Literary Work and Its Translations"by Dr Gijs Mulder, Dr Gert-Jan Schoenmakers, Olaf Hoenselaar and Prof. Helen de Hoop was recently published in the scientific journal Languages.