Reported speech can be split into two main categories in French:
- Direct speech
- Indirect speech
Your example translations are incorrect in the sense that you translated "I told" as "Je dis". This is incorrect. Your translation means "I tell". "I told" is better translated as "J'ai dit" ("Je t'ai dit" for "I told you").
Reported speech is not obsolete at all. Here is how I would translate your example:
I told you I was happy
Je t'ai dit que j'étais heureux.
Using the present tense for être is not wrong, but it is the imperfect is prefferred. Read on for explanations.
I will explain, give examples, and explain possible contexts of direct speech and indirect speech and provide you with some helpful rules.
Whatever was said is reported using quotations.
- Paul dit : "Je suis heureux".
- Paul a dit : "Je suis heureux".
- Paul dit : "J'étais heureux".
- Paul a dit : "J'étais heureux".
Translations of these examples:
- Paul says, "I am happy."
- Paul said, "I am happy."
- Paul says, "I was happy."
- Paul said, "I was happy."
Now to understand this, it is necessary to look at context and what this generally implies. Say for example you are on the phone with Paul or just got off the phone with Paul and you want to tell your friend Luc what Paul said. All four could be used whilst on the phone or just getting off the phone with Paul, but it is more likely that 1 and 3 would be used while still on the phone (imagine you are putting the phone down briefly to tell Luc) and 2 and 4 would most likely be used after getting off the phone with Paul. I will explain meaning and context using the latter situations.
- Paul says that he is happy, just now to you on the telephone. He is stating that he is currently happy. You put the phone down briefly to tell Luc this.
- Paul said that he is happy, while you were on the phone with him. When he made that statement, he was implying that he was currently happy. You are now telling Luc this and the phone call has ended.
- Paul says that he was happy, just now to you on the telephone. He is stating that he was happy. As 'étais' is the first person imperfect of 'être', this could carry a few different meanings depending on the context. For example, he could be saying that he was happy, but is no longer. He could be referring to a general period of time, like his childhood, meaning that he was happy during his childhood. The context of the conversation is important here. You put down the telephone briefly and tell Luc.
- Paul said that he was happy, while you were on the phone with him. Because this is direct speech and you are reporting exactly what he said, the use of 'étais' implies the same meaning. The phone call has ended and you are telling Luc.
Note: Whether or not the phone call has ended does not imply a rule here. I am just explaining a likely example.
What was said is reported without quotations in a subordinate clause.
The subordinate clause occurs after the use of 'que' in these examples.
- Paul dit qu'il est heureux.
- Paul a dit qu'il est heureux.
- Paul dit qu'il était heureux.
- Paul a dit qu'il était heureux.
- Paul says that he is happy.
- Paul said that he is happy.
- Paul says that he was happy.
- Paul said that he was happy.
Explanation of meanings:
- Paul is saying that he is currently happy.
- At the time when Paul said this, he was happy.
- See four.
- 3 and 4 don't necessarily have the same implications due to the imperfect, like the direct speech examples. They can, but context is really necessary here. Number 3 could carry that imperfect implication, but it could also be referring to a specific event, rather than a period of time. Perhaps Paul was happy about a promotion or a grade he received. 4 is similar to this as well with the addition that you could just be reporting that Paul said, "I am happy" to you. This is similar to the English context in this way.
Verb change in indirect speech:
The verb in the subordinate clause (Paul dit qu'il est heureux [surbordinate verb is bolded]) may change in these ways when changing your sentence to the past (Paul a dit). This is used when considering the direct speech and how to formulate it in the indirect:
- Présent ou Imparfait -> Imparfait (Most common)
- Passé composé ou Plus-que-parfait -> Plus-que-parfait
- Futur ou Conditionnel -> Conditionnel
- Futur antérieur ou Conditionnel passé -> Conditionnel passé
- Subjonctif -> Subjonctif
This is what Paul says: "Je suis heureux"
If reporting it using the past tense and indirectly, you would most use: "Paul a dit qu'il était heureux."
It was a long explanation but hopefully it helped.
Here are some links for more on this topic: