Tackling Translation Troubles (Vol. 1): dealing with adjectival clauses

By | October 11, 2021

This is the first post of my Tackling Translation Troubles (TTT) series where I go over common challenges faced in Japanese to English translation, often at least partially based on my own translation experience. In each episode I will try to use at least one example from Japanese literature to illustrate the topic at hand.

Japanese has many grammatical differences from English with respect to word order, and changes in word order can be especially difficult for learners to parse, and for translators to translate naturally.

In Japanese, both single-word adjectives and adjectival clauses generally come before the word (often a noun) in question. For example:

  • 赤い壁 (akai kabe)
    • (a) red wall
  • 踊ってる人 (odotteru hito)
    • (a) dancing person

In English while single-word adjectives generally come before the noun or pronoun in question (ex: “red wall”), adjectival clauses come, as a rule, after the noun that is being modified (ex: “the person that was dancing all day”). In Japanese, this would be commonly expressed as ”一日中踊ってる人” where the adjectival clause is before the noun. Keep in mind I am just talking about simple grammatical structures here, if we start adding commas and more complex structures we can shift the order around of things, as we will soon see.

When translating from Japanese to English, often we come across phrases like this where we cannot trivially maintain the word order and have to figure out how to refactor things, while making sure the result is natural.

Now let’s look at a real example of this in a story by Natsume Soseki, and see how we can translate it:

  • 自分たちの親切を、無理にも子供の胸に外部から叩たたき込もうとする彼らの努力は、かえって反対の結果をその子供の上に引き起した

First, let’s look at the general grammar structure of this sentence:

( [object 1] [verb 1] ) [subject 1] [object 2] [verb 2]

Essentially, everything before subject 1 (“彼らの努力” (karera no doryoku)) is acting as a adjectival clause that describes that noun.

As a side point, the verb 叩き込む (tatakikomu) literally means “drive into” (like a nail into a wall), but since the object of that verb is 親切 (shinsetsu, “kindness”), we know the verb is being used figuratively. My dictionary gives an example sentence involving “drive an idea into a person” which is helpful.

Let’s try a basic translation of this sentence and see what we end up with:

  • Their efforts to try and force their kindness upon the boy had the opposite effect.

There are some nuances missing from this (and perhaps some places that could use some adjustment), but it’s good enough for our purposes to see how to render long adjectival clauses.

Here we use the preposition “to” in order to connect the first subject and the adjectival phrase. In this case the adjectival phrase isn’t particularly long, and furthermore the information it provides is critical to understanding the sentence, so there is no need for commas.

So what other options do we have here? Well, we can try to get closer to the Japanese word order, and in some cases that may give a more desirable effect. To do that we need a comma, and the starting the sentence with a verb in the “-ing” tense:

  • Trying to force their kindness upon the boy, their efforts had the opposite effect.

One drawback about this version is that the “forcing of kindness” part feels a bit separate from their efforts. In this translation “efforts” takes a more vague meaning and can include their forcing as well as other things, whereas in the previous version the wording “efforts to force” made it clear what efforts we were talking about.

On the other hand, to me this second version feels better in terms of pacing because of the comma. It feels a bit more wordy and perhaps even a little “literary”, and given the length and pacing of the original text I think this is perhaps a slightly better translation.

Now let’s look at another example where the adjectival phrase is less important. (I’ll make this one up myself.)

  • 世間に対して何も知らない僕は、頑張ってみることにしました。

While somewhat shorter, this sentence is grammatically similar to the previous example in that we have an adjectival clause before the main subject (僕).

Again, we will try to translate first by shifting the order of the clause to after the modified word:

  • I, who knew nothing about the world, decided to try and do my best.

Notice here we use commas because the adjectival clause is specifying non-critical information. While this accurately captures the meaning in the original text, the lone “I” beginning the sentence feels a bit odd to me. 

One option is to add a relatively harmless word before “I”, such as “but”, which would lengthen the phrase before the comma. But instead let’s try to move the phrase to before the noun and see what happens.

  • Knowing nothing about the world, I decided to try and do my best.

This looks and sounds much better to me, and the pacing also matches up better with the original text (not always necessary, but nice nonetheless).

This technique can work well, but I wouldn’t suggest overusing it since it’s best to mix things up for variety and avoid repetition (unless you feel there is repetition in the original text that seems important to retain).

There are other ways to render sentences like this. You can break it into two parts using a basic conjugation (but, and, etc.):

  • I knew nothing about the world, but I tried to do my best.

In this case, the nuance is clearly different than in the original text so I wouldn’t recommend it, but depending on the context it might be appropriate.

We could also flip the order of these phrases:

  • I tried to do my best, though I knew nothing about the world.

Again this introduces the contrast of “though” which is not in the original text. Ultimately, I would say in many cases it is impossible to retain the exact same pacing/phrasing as well as meaning as the original text, so we have to decide what we want to focus on. We also have to keep in mind how the final result reads, in context, in the target language; this goes beyond the sentence at hand, to the paragraph, page, and even chapter level. 

Another option is to try and convert the adjectival phrase into a single word and get rid of any commas. While the word “ignorant” does vaguely carry the connotation of “knowing nothing about the world”, the result of just throwing that word sounds awkward: (even if we swap “I” for “me”)

  • Ignorant me tried to do my best.

This definitely sounds unnatural. But if the subject is something other than a specific person or pronoun, this approach can yield a more natural result. For example: 

  • 何も入ってない箱は爆発した。
  • The empty box exploded.

Here we are fortunate to be able to convert the adjectival clause “何も入ってない” into the single word “empty” that has basically the same meaning. On the other hand, using an adjective to modify a pronoun (“ignorant me”) or a person (“Tired Bill”) sounds a little odd in English. This is an example of how Japanese has less restrictions with respect to how nouns can be modified. Another example is the natural Japanese expression “この俺”, which literally means “this me”, but we would never say that in English.

I hope you enjoyed this first post of Tackling Translation Troubles! I’ll try to do another one on a different topic in the next few weeks. But if you have come across any tricky translation problems in the meantime, please let me know in the comments.

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