Translation of noun phrases with premodifying verbs from Japanese to English

When I was studying Japanese in college (emphasis on studying rather than acquiring), I honestly couldn’t believe it when I first heard of the ridiculous flexibility with which verbs modify nouns in Japanese.  I was honestly annoyed that 分からない人 wakaranai hito could mean either “someone who doesn’t understand” or “someone I don’t understand/know”.  As I would find out, most Japanese English learners are similarly confounded by the vagueness of this structure when it comes time to translate it into English.

And translate they will.  This post is about issues surrounding translation of noun phrases with verbs premodifying the noun as in the above example.  It is not a lament of the commonness of translation or the lazy pedagogy that allows translation and translatability to stand as substitutes for intelligibility or correctness.  It is not a recommendation or criticism of translation as a classroom practice.  It is not an examination of other issues surrounding translation of verbs from Japanese, such as the fact that many of the ideas expressed by verbs in Japanese are done so by adjectives in English.  It is just an attempt to explain the errors that J-E translation of these types of phrases often produces.

Verbs in Japanese can premodify nouns (i.e. come before nouns in a noun phrase) in a variety of ways that each may require distinct grammatical structures, most often not premodifying a noun, in English.  Many of these are made possible by the rather flexible relationships verbs in Japanese have to their subjects, objects and indirect objects or complements (functional grammar: agents, themes, patients, etc.), in both their range of meanings and the lack of necessity for many of them appearing in the surface structure of an utterance that includes them conceptually, and would require them in surface structure in English.

Consider the cases of these noun phrases, each containing a premodifying verb:

  1. それを知った私 sore wo shitta watashi
  2. 知らない人 shiranai hito
  3. 知っている人 shitteiru hito
  4. 真実を知る本 shinjitsu wo shiru hon
  5. 知る必要 shiru hitsuyou
  6. 知る前・知った後 shiru mae / shitta ato
  7. 一緒に行く人 issho ni iku hito

Confirm to yourself that all of the above are cases of verbs or verb phrases premodifying nouns – although #6 might surprise some.  Yes, those words, prepositions or conjunctions in English, function as nouns in Japanese.

Now here are the ways I’d translate those sentences.

  1. I, who learned that
  2. Someone I don’t know
  3. Someone who knows
  4. A book for learning the truth
  5. The need to know
  6. Before learning / After learning
  7. Someone you go with

(知る shiru is often translated as know but differs in that shiru refers to an action with an endpoint occurring when the knowledge is gained, rather than a state of already having gained that knowledge as in know.  I.e. shiru is telic and know is atelic, which affects their meanings and therefore their translations.)

Now notice that only 4 and 5 are structurally similar in English – noun followed by preposition phrase denoting purpose.  Of course, more than one translation is possible, and for some of the above more than one meaning is possible, but I have admittedly cherry picked a bit to prove the point that verbs premodifying nouns can reflect a wide variety of relationships between that verb and that noun.

Now here are the same phrases with some notes on their grammar.

  1. それを知った私 sore wo shitta watashi (I, who learned that)
    Here, the noun modified is the subject of the verb, i.e. the performer of the action described.  This is especially clear since the object is explicitly identified with the particle を wo.
  2. 知らない人 shiranai hito (Someone I don’t know)
    In my translation the noun is the object, and the implied subject is usually the speaker, although that depends on context.  Note that the difference from #1 that makes the modified noun likely an object in this case is simply the absence of another specified object, and grammatically an interpretation in which hito is the subject (“someone who doesn’t know”) is still possible.
  3. 知っている人 shitteiru hito (Someone who knows)
    My experience leads me to interpret the noun as the subject, but I have heard this as both subject and object – from teachers asking students who knows the answer to a question (“Is there someone who knows who invented the lightbulb?”), in which case hito is the subject; and as the opposite of #2 above (“Only get in the car with someone you know”) in which case hito is the object.  A translator would use context to resolve this difference; the phrase by itself gives no clue.
  4. 真実を知る本 shinjitsu wo shiru hon (A book for learning the truth)
    Although the object (“the truth”) is identified with を wo again here, hon logically cannot be the subject unless we radically alter our understanding of what books are capable of doing.  A book cannot learn anything, which leads us to interpret in this case as “a n for the purpose of v” rather than “a n which vs”, i.e. is the means or method rather than subject, object, or indirect object.  Google Translate, incidentally, seems to translate all cases of nouns premodified by present tense verbs from Japanese as “n to v“, which like the original Japanese is semantically vague. Unfortunately, Google Translate does not have the human-like understanding of the world necessary to judge which is a more likely interpretation of the above: “a book which learns” or “a book for learning”.  Students looking to translate noun phrases with verbs need to apply their human cultural knowledge in order to resolve ambiguities like this rather than simply rules of grammar, something in my experience their education has taught them not to do. 
  5. 知る必要 shiru hitsuyou (The need to know)
    This one and #6 below have nouns in Japanese that don’t even always translate into nouns in English (an alternate translation for this one would be “needing to know”; a full sentence with this phrase a la 「知る必要がある」”there is a need to know” would often be translated as “we need to know”).  Nouns can be postmodified by phrases containing verbs in English in ways that show some relationship between the noun and the verb besides simply the noun performing that action (e.g. “songs to sing”, “do something besides sit”, “nothing to eat”, etc.) which seem to be among the types of relationships shown by simply the verb premodifying the noun in Japanese.
  6. 知る前・知った後 shiru mae / shitta ato (Before learning / After learning)
    The point of including these two is to illustrate that many constructions which would require prepositions in English instead use nouns in Japanese.  These two phrases are a case of a verb premodifying a noun where the noun stands for some abstract temporal or spacial construct.  The verb carries its usual meaning along with any implied subjects and objects and its place premodifying the abstract noun simply serves to create a minor clause along the lines of “while v-ing”, “after you v“, “where people v” etc.  The verbs in these cases appear in their present (present and infinitive in Japanese look the same), past, continuous etc. forms not as a reference to objective time or to match the time given in the main verb in that sentence (i.e. he told me he was tired) but to give the telic completedness, i.e. the shape rather than the location in time, of that action – hence 知った後 shitta ato, translated with its past tense intact, becomes “after I learned it”, because things can only happen after learning when the act of learning is complete.  知る前 shiru mae with its present tense becomes “before I am to learn it”, the act of learning still floating off in the future somewhere.
  7. 一緒に行く人 issho ni iku hito (Someone you go with)
    Here the noun modified by the verb iku would be represented in an indirect object in English, requiring a preposition.  Note that this relationship is made obvious by the presence of an adverbial (issho ni, “together”) in the verb phrase, without which other interpretations (e.g. subject as in “a person who goes”) would become more natural.  Many different types of indirect objects which would require different prepositions in English can follow verbs in Japanese in exactly the same way – location (寿司を食べれるレストラン sushi wo tabereru resutoran “a restaurant at which you can eat sushi”), method (ギターを修理する方法 gitaa wo shuuri suru houhou “a method by which you repair guitars”), recipients (お土産を買ってあげた人 omiyage wo katte ageta hito “a person you bought souvenirs for”), etc.  None of these distinctions are necessarily drawn in the Japanese phrases.

The point of this post again is not that attributive verbs are untranslatable or that translation is too difficult to teach.  I will talk about the pedagogical value of grammar-translation in a different post.  I mean to explain some of the errors that teachers may observe as a result of surface-level translation from J-E, which in my college writing classes were very common.  To sum up,

  • Verbs modifying nouns in Japanese can implicitly place those nouns in various grammatical roles, in some cases easier to figure out than others. There is no one-to-one translation rule for turning a noun phrase with a verb in it in Japanese into a phrase in English with equivalent meaning.
  • Verbs modifying nouns are better interpreted as having aspect rather than tense.  This is different than English, where verbs modifying nouns still have tense in addition to aspect.
  • Certain very common noun phrases in Japanese aren’t best translated as noun phrases at all, which is damned confusing for some.

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