Literary Japanese: shifting around the order of topics

By | August 26, 2019

In English, language used in literature can be quite different to that used in everyday conversation, with variations in vocabulary, sentence length, and word order, among other things. For example, a simple phrase like “A captain was I!” has a tone that marks it as literary, and generally wouldn’t be used in spoken language unless someone was trying to be dramatic. Here the only change from everyday English (“I was a captain!”) is the word order.

Literary Japanese is also very rich with things that change nuance and tone. In this post I want to focus on one aspect of literary Japanese: changing the location of a topic which uses the particle “wa” (は).

Let’s start with a sentence that has typical word order:

  • ようこはお店で弁当を買って、家で食べました。 (youko wa omise de bentou wo katte, ie de tabemashita)
  • Yoko bought a bento box at the store and ate it at home.

The topic of the sentence (in bold above), can actually be shifted to later in the sentence:

  • お店で弁当を買ってようこは家で食べました。 (omise de bentou wo katte youko wa ie de tabemashita)

Here, the meaning is not changed (Yoko is still the person doing the buying), but the flow––the order that the reader parses things in––is significantly different.

Why would an author want to use this sort of variation? One reason is to avoid the repetition of a bunch of sentences that begin with “Yoko wa”. Another option is to omit the topic altogether, something common in both literary and informal Japanese. However using the topic-in-the-middle pattern above allows “reminding” a reader what the sentence is about without starting with that word.

How would this be rendered in English? It turns out there is a fairly straightforward way:

  • Buying a bento box at the store, Yoko ate it at home.

Even this English translation has a bit of a literary feel to it, and I don’t think you would typically speak this way.

Another common grammatical pattern is to begin the sentence with a topic that is modified by a clause. Because modifying clauses in Japanese occur on the left side of the word they modify, you end up with a similar word order to what we just talked about, except the verb tense is different.

  • お店で弁当を買ったようこは家で食べました。 (omise de bentou wo katta youko wa ie de tabemashita)

The only difference between this and the previous example is the word 買って (te-form) is now 買った (past form). 「お店で弁当を買った」is the clause that modifies ようこ, essentially acting as an adjective (see this related post about verbs and adjectives). Its important to think this way, since trying to apply お店で or 弁当を to the final verb (食べました) doesn’t make sense.

The meaning of this variation is almost the same as the first two example sentences, but there is a nuance difference because the action of first verb is separated from the action of the second. But when the te-form is used (2nd example), it’s more like a stream of successive actions (though technically they don’t have to be immediately one after another). Regardless, this sentence structure is another way to adjust the nuance and flow of a sentence and avoid repetitive prose.

There are few ways to render this sentence in English. First, you could use the translation from the previous example (“Buying a bento box at the store, Yoko ate it at home.”). To add further separation between the verbs, you could instead leverage the “perfect aspect” (have + past participle):

  • Having bought a bento box at the store, Yoko ate it at home.

Both of these options retain the phrase order of the original Japanese sentence, but you can also use another kind of sentence structure if you don’t mind changing the order:

  • Yoko, who bought a bento box at the store, ate it at home.

(Note: In English, commas are often used to set off information that is not critical, and perhaps this sentence is a little awkward for that reason.)

As in all translation, there is no single right rendering. It depends on the context and what the translator wants to emphasize.

On a final point, while the above grammar patterns could technically be used for subjects followed by the が (ga) particle, “wa” is more common and feels more natural, at least for the above example sentences.

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