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The Historical Present Tense in Italian

In the English language, with some exceptions, history is told in the past. The historical present does exist, however. In English grammar, the historical present is the use of a verb phrase in the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy. It’s also called the historic present, dramatic present, and narrative present.


But in Italian and other romance languages the historical present is commonly used to recount events in the past, especially when referring to history.


Context is very important, and translating can present some challenges.


Here’s an example of how Italian uses the historical present for something that clearly happened in the past. In English, it would sound a bit strange in the present tense, and the first phrase would be well nigh impossible to express in the present tense.


Pitrè nasce nel milleottocentoquarantuno a Palermo,

Pitrè was born in eighteen hundred forty-one in Palermo,

in una famiglia di pescatori.

in a family of fishermen.

Il padre, un povero marinaio del rione di Santa Lucia,

The father, a poor sailor from the Santa Lucia district,

è costretto, come tanti, ad emigrare in America,

was forced, like many, to emigrate to America,

dove muore di febbre gialla.

where he died of yellow fever.

Captions 28-32, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie

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In the documentary about Fascism currently available on Yabla, the historical present is used in several instances. Sometimes it makes sense to use it in English, too, as in the following example. By using the historical present, we set the scene. We seem to observe the events from close up, as they happen.


Sono gli anni delle campagne di stampa contro le parole straniere.

These are the years of the publishing campaigns against foreign words.

Parole straniere e borghesia sono mali da estirpare.

Foreign words and the bourgeoisie are evils to be rooted out.

Captions 5-6, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana

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La "Gazzetta del Popolo" di Torino

Turin's “Gazzetta del Popolo” [The People's Gazzette]

inaugura la rubrica "Una parola al giorno".

launches the feature “Una Parola Al Giorno” [A Word a Day].

Captions 14-15, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana

 Play Caption


The use of the historical or narrative present in Italian is just something to be aware of. Deciding whether or not to maintain the same tense in translation is a subjective one, based on the tone to be set, or based on clarity. Much of the time, using the past tense in English will be preferred, but not always.

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