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I translate fanfiction stories from Russian into English as a hobby and I'm a bit confused about tenses. In Russian, it's normal to mix past and present tenses in generally past narration, but I remember my professor telling me that one should stick to past tense in English. And that's what I've noticed in books, but in fanfiction, I can see people using both of them like one sentence is in the past and the very next one is in the present. I know that sometimes it's logical to mix them within one sentence, I just wonder if it works the same for the whole thing.

Would it be confusing for native speakers to read a story with a frequent mixture of tenses? I assume it wouldn't if they mix them, but I want to be sure. Note that I mean an author's words, not the dialogues:

I felt something wet on my cheek. Can it be that I’m… crying? As I caught myself thinking of it, I ran my hand over the cheek.

  • I think examples would help here. There is such a thing as the present historic and its Wikipedia article even has Charles Dickens switching from past tense to present. I think it jars. – Andrew Leach Jan 27 at 9:15
  • @AndrewLeach thank you for your answer and for the link, it's really helpful. Yeah, I should've provided an example, here is one: I felt something wet on my cheek. Can it be that I’m… crying? Caught myself thinking of it, I ran my hand over the cheek. – Lina Jan 27 at 9:26
  • OK: I've added that to the question. I suspect that the question is a matter of opinion, but we'll see what happens. I think Dickens' use jars, but your sentence seems better. Others may disagree. – Andrew Leach Jan 27 at 9:31
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    @AndrewLeach thanks, I haven't noticed that edit button. And thank you so much for correcting the sentence. – Lina Jan 27 at 9:39
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    No, it's not confusing to English readers to see several tense constructions, especially in narration. English has so few inflections that teachers make a big deal out of them, but frankly we don't pay any attention to that. Flow of narrative -- in fiction, and especially in dialog -- is everything. English writers use any trick they can find, and there's no grammatical rules (no matter what your English teacher says) about not using tenses "together". There are certain contexts where things get excluded, but that's true of everything. – jlawler Jan 27 at 15:03
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I felt something wet on my cheek. Can it be that I’m… crying? As I caught myself thinking of it, I ran my hand over the cheek.

A monolingual English writer will probably write:

I felt something wet on my cheek. Could it be that I was crying? As I caught myself thinking of it, I ran my hand over the cheek.

It's just common practice to write everything in a single tense in the English language. When you write in a certain language, you have to follow the writing conventions of that language. The stuff that you apply to Russian writings cannot be applied to English writings. It's one of the big issues that many translators have to deal with. Sometimes, translators have to re-arrange whole chapters of the source-language work in order to convey the same level of emotion in the reader in the target-language work, simply because a literary device doesn't work in the target language.

  • Thank you for answering. I see what mean, all this literature stuff really has a lot of tricks. – Lina Jan 27 at 16:02
  • Honestly I think the version with the question in italics but still in present tense sounds the most vivid. The italics sets it apart, suggesting an implied "I thought" in the past tense at the end of the sentence.But it does go against the norm. – Mark Foskey Aug 15 at 13:45
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While I whole-heartedly agree with @Double U, I'd like to add that on the few occasions where it's ok to mix tenses, there are very specific reasons behind it.

I looked at her in shock. I don't mean I was horrified, but I was definitely unsettled.

In this example, the use of present in 'I don't mean' makes it feal as an aside of the narrator as if they're really speaking directly to the reader, explaining the situation. It also separates the time of the events (past) and the time of the narration or reading (present).

I opened the supposed mystic box carefully since everyone knows opening mystic boxes can unleash disaster, even if I don't really believe in such things.

In this example, the present in 'everyone knows' and 'I don't really believe' underlines that those facts are true. 'Everyone knew' might mean people think differently now, and 'I didn't really believe' may mean I changed my mind in the course of the story.

However, the mix must be used sparingly or it simply loses its contrastive power.

As for fanfiction... I am an avid fanfic reader and, based on my experience, I can tell you that where it comes to writing skill (independently of the worth of the plot and character building abilities) some fanfic writers are ok, a lot are bad, some are terrible, and a few are very good. Therefore, don't look at (most) fanfic writers as an example of what is good.

  • Thanks you. I was thinking about this 'contrastive power' and you just proved my theory. Now I'm more confident as of how to use it. – Lina Jan 27 at 17:43

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