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I'm attempting to translate one of my comics into French, and I need some advice.

It's a ghost story set in 19th century Edinburgh, and the narrator is a Christian minister who is writing a letter relating a story he was told. Should I use the passé simple or the passé composé? I was taught that the passé composé is used in spoken French and the passé simple in literary French. Would a letter written by a minister in the 19th century count as literary?

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  • If passé simple is rarely used orally, passé composé is used in both, oral and written language. They're not likely to be used in the same sentence but since there can be differences in usage there might be instances both would be used within the same text. The only reasonable advice would be to go for the passé simple if you want your text to sound literary, but not to exclude the passé composé if context or tense concordance requires it.
    – None
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 10:41
  • There is no hard and fast answer to the problem as it is described. We're talking about a narrator reporting something he's writing (wrote?) about something he was told, so 2-3 layers of reported speech. It also depends on the tone of the story and how you chose to render it in English. Sample sentences from the original version would help. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:09
  • @guillaume31 Je suis d'accord. Après avoir essayé d'écrire plusieurs versions (dans ma réponse), je me suis rendu compte qu'il y avait de multiples possibilités et que la "solution" contiendrait probablement plusieurs temps ...
    – Frank
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 14:04

2 Answers 2

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If I were to have a character in a story write a letter to another character to relate some story he was told, I would probably use the passé composé rather than the passé simple. It might go something like:

L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche. Il a attrapé un énorme brochet...

One could use the passé simple in the narrative sentence too:

L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche. Il attrapa un énorme brochet...

which, to me, doesn't sound as natural.

More examples with a passé simple:

On me rapporta ce jour-là qu'il était allé à la pêche. Il avait attrapé un énorme brochet quand il réalisa...

It is also possible to write:

On me rapporta ce jour-là qu'il venait de sortir de sa maison quand il entendit un cri épouvantable...

or, as yet another example:

L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche. Il venait d'arriver au bord de la rivière quand il se rendit compte qu'il avait oublié sa canne à pêche...

which uses an imparfait followed by a passé simple in the narrative sentence, for localized actions in the flow of the narration. Note that the following is also possible:

L'autre jour, on me rapportait justement que X était allé à la pêche. Il a/avait attrapé...

With an imparfait and a passé composé in the sentence that introduces the narrative sentence.

However, there is another possibility, which is to use a present tense to make the narration more lively:

L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche... Il attrape un énorme brochet, mais quand il essaie de le mettre dans sa besace, il lui glisse des mains, et le voilà à quatre pattes en train de le chercher dans l'herbe...

In that case, the narrator helps the reader enter into the narration by making it "present". It is conceivable the first character would switch to that present in his narration of the story he was told. Note how a passé composé followed by a plus-que-parfait (because the story narrated is before the narration) is used to introduce the narration of the story itself.

Here is another example that shows several tenses in the same sentence:

L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé se promener. Pendant qu'il se promenait, il trébucha et se cassa la jambe, on l'a amené à l'hôpital, il y est encore et n'en sortira pas avant la semaine prochaine.

This one shows an imparfait, followed by a passé simple, then a passé composé then a présent and finally a future, all in the same narration (!) ... Those passé simples sound a lot more literary, but should be grammatically correct (with a tinge of hesitation on my part, because I would have more probably used a passé composé).

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  • In your examples, "on m'a dit" is passé composé, Of course, it doesn't work with passé simple. Your examples don't follow concordance des temps. Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:30
  • @AnneAunyme What do you mean by "don't follow concordance des temps"? Is there any mistake? What would be your corrections? I just tried to answer in line with "relating a story he was told".
    – Frank
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:37
  • Probably: L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche. Il avait attrapé un énorme brochet.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 23:53
  • @jlliagre C'est une erreur? Quelle serait la correction? J'aurais pu dire aussi: L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X est allé à la pêche. Il a attrapé un énorme brochet, mais le plus-que-parfait de la phrase précédente ne me parait pas déraisonnable. L'autre jour, on m'a dit que X était allé à la pêche. Il a attrapé un énorme brochet. serait une rupture de la "concordance des temps" (?) Si je commençais avec était allé, je continuerais plutôt avec avait attrapé (?)
    – Frank
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 0:34
  • @jlliagre Mais je lis que la "concordance des temps" s'applique dans une phrase qui contient une principale et une subordonée, alors qu'ici, on a deux phrases. Pour ce qui de la concordance des temps avec un plus-que-parfait dans la principale (ce qui n'est de toute façon pas la situation ici), j'ai du mal à trouver des références.
    – Frank
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 0:40
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It mostly depends on what your narrator is trying to achieve.

If this minister plans on immortalizing this story by writing it down, then it makes more sense to use passé simple, as a way to disconnect it from the present. On the other hand if they plan for this letter to explain present events (relative to him), then it makes more sense to use passé composé.

Anyway, none of those choices is incorrect, they simply convey a different intention from the writer.

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