I am translating an excerpt of a Chinese short story. In general, do any indicators in Chinese grammar exist that would require the usage of past tense (in English) instead of present tense? In this particular story, there are paragraphs which reflect on the past and contain 以前 and other adverbs etc. But it makes me wonder if there are less obvious indicators governing the intended tense for translation.

Edit: Abbreviated example, can't copy and paste from the book, but it illustrates my problem well. These sentence are in one paragraph in this order, padded out by filler information I removed. 车来了。我坐车回家。我父母已经回来。一看到他们的目光,就退软了。喇叭开始播报当天的消息。

The rest lends itself easily to present tense, but such sequential descriptions making up a large part of the story sound weird to me. No 了 in the third sentence, so it is not "They are already at home"? I would translate the fourth sentence as something like "One glance at their expressions and I get weak at the knees", but the 了 throws me off. As for the fifth sentence, I associate 当天 with past tense, could it also be "of the (respective) day" instead of "of that (past) day?

I usually don't have trouble with aspect, it's just that here the aspects conveyed feel "mixed".

Another example, from 韓松:乘客與創造者 - "三十一B的睡姿有些奇怪。我碰碰他。[...] 我随手按了呼叫钮。一个苗条的身影飘过来。乘务员由经济舱的女乘客轮流担任。她淡淡地看了一眼三十一B,又叫来另一个乘务员。两人交换了一个冷静的眼色,架上三十一B便走掉了。" More sequential description in the whole story, similar use of 了. The translation by Nathaniel Isaacson renders it all present tense.

  • 1
    Give a short passage to illustrate your "problem"? Sep 24, 2020 at 8:02
  • Take a photo of 1 page, post it. Then it will be easier to see what is happening.
    – Pedroski
    Sep 24, 2020 at 23:13

3 Answers 3




"No 了 in the third sentence, so it is not "They are already at home"?" - It is not necessary as "已经" (already) indicates the parents have returned home prior to his arrival. Note, too many 了 can make the paragraph unsophisticate (similar to avoiding repetitive words in English writings). However,

"一看到他们的目光,就腿软了。" in this sentence, 了 is necessary to imply completion of the act (腿软) which happens at this moment only (a one-time event). On the other hand, 一看到他们的目光,就腿软。is a general statement that means "whenever" I meet/met with their eyesight, I always feel/felt shaky. For example:

  • 我一上車就頭暈了 - I felt dizzy "once" got on the car. (This is a case-specific, one-time experience. - Rule 1)

  • 我一上車就頭暈 - I feel dizzy "whenever" riding in a car. (This is a general statement that implies the experience "always" occurs. - Rule 2)

Nevertheless, you can eliminate 了 with the changes:

  • "每次"一看到他们的目光,就腿软。 - "every/each time" I feel/felt shaky when I meet/met with their eyesight. (A general statement as the reaction occurs repetitively every/each time. - Rule 2)

But, the change will alter the tune of the remaining storylines.

喇叭开始播报当天的消息。 "开始播报" - starts to broadcast, "当天的"消息 - "today's" news. The sentence is expressed as a simple present tense in the paragraph describing a sequential event in the past. Instead of "today's news", you can say "that day's news" as the timing is unmistakable - the broadcast started when he saw his parents.

[三十一B的睡姿有些奇怪。我碰碰他。[...] 我随手按"了"呼叫钮。一个苗条的身影飘过来。乘务员由经济舱的女乘客轮流担任。她淡淡地看"了"一眼三十一B,又叫来另一个乘务员。两人交换"了"一个冷静的眼色,架上三十一B便走掉了。]

There are 3 sentences that contain "了", let's check against the rules developed above:

我随手按"了"呼叫钮。 - A case-specific single-time event. (Rule 1)

她淡淡地看"了"一眼.. - A case-specific single-time event. (Rule 1)

两人交换"了"一个.... - A case-specific single-time event. (Rule 1)

So "了" is used properly for all three sentences.

Special Consideration:


Q: In the sentence above, why does only the leading phrase have "了"?

A: It would be acceptable to add "了" to the second phrase, however, as addressed previously, repeating a word too many times in closely connected sentences hurting the readability of the writing. Also, by realizing the writer is describing a series of single-action events, the elimination of "了" wouldn't cause confusion whether it is a one-time event/action or a general statement.

Note, actually all "了s" can be eliminated, but instead of describing a series of single-action events that occurred in the past, the resulting paragraph describes the occurrence of a series of single-action events in the present.


Your example describes a series of things happening one after another. The first and fifth sentences already imply past tense. This is enough to imply that all things described happened in the past until a word about time is present to change the tense to "now" or "future".

"了" should not be in every sentence since that creates a ton of duplication which makes the assay inauthentic or ill-written.

  • Thank you. Of course 了 would not be used everywhere, but would it not lead to ambiguity in the cases I pointed out? How would I distiguish: "I went home. X already happened (in the past).", "I went home, then X happened." and "I do A, then go home. X happens." If there is no time word changing the tense to NOW in the whole story, how to treat that? If there are only time words pointing to a more distant past, is the present tense appropiate for the rest? Is the present tense appropiate as a conscious stilistic choice for a translation, even if the original time is treated like in my post?
    – Rika
    Sep 24, 2020 at 10:59
  • @Rika You can add "了" to every sentence without any syntax problem. But such expression is not often used by natives. In general, you might want to start with a past event in the past tense, and you can assume all sentences following it is in the past tense until you mentioned a time which might be now or the future. An exception where multiple "了" s can be used is in a sentence like "I went home, sat down, watched TV, and ate an apple".
    – Aria Ax
    Sep 24, 2020 at 13:44

It's hard to write about the present, and very wordy. Try it.

In a story, how many events can you describe which happen simultaneously? How would your story go on? Then there is 'the Historical Present Tense.'

These sentences are definitely a description of things past.

The bus came.
I got on and rode home.
My Mum and Dad were already home.
When I saw the look in their eyes, my legs turned to jelly.
The radio was blaring out today's news.

Radio Gaga, Radio Googoo, someone still loves yooooou!

韓松:乘客與創造者 - "三十一B的睡姿有些奇怪。
Han Song: passenger and creator - "31B was sleeping in a strange position.

I prodded him.
[...] 我随手按了呼叫钮。
I pressed the stewardess button.
A slender figure floated by.

The female passengers in economy class took turns as stewardess. (Something must have happened)

She glanced disinterestedly at 31B, and called another stewardess.

They glanced at each other calmly, heaved him upright and left.

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