Okay, screw the usual preamble. Time for some more Rubin. I love this guy so much.


The waga chapter is followed by one on the “giving” verbs and all their various uses throughout Japanese grammar. Most of the chapter contains grammatical explanations you can find in most textbooks (though he cites his “zero pronoun” on several occasions), but it starts getting funny when he gets into -sasete itadaku. He opens with an anecdote about a sign he purchased with text he particularly enjoyed:


Honjitsu wa yasumasete itadakimasu. Two verbs. No subjects, no objects, no agents, nobody. And the Honjitsu wa tells us only that these two incredible verbs are happening “today.” Despite this, the sentence is both complete and perfectly clear. As the great Zen master Dōgen himself might have translated it, “Gone fishin’.” Is that all it means?! Well no, not literally, but it is just as much of a cliche in its culture as “Gone fishin’” or “Closed for the Day” might be in ours. (p. 60)

After some messy analysis of the relatively convoluted grammar involved, he sums it up with this:


Here, the context comes from the real world. The sign hangs in a shop window and the would-be customer finds the place closed, the sign telling him that “(We, the shopkeepers,) humbly receive (from you, the exalted customer,) (your) letting (us) rest today.” This is all phrased in tremendously polite language, but the fact remains that the shop owner is telling the customer that, whatever the customer may think of the matter, the owner is closing the shop for the day. Itadaku is performed by the subject, at his own discretion, and it carries the message “I take it upon myself in all humility to get from you…” It’s like those signs “Thank you for not smoking,” which always impress me as having an underlying growl that makes them even more intimidating than a plain “No Smoking.” (p. 61)

In case you didn’t know, the -sasete itadaku (or morau) construction in Japanese is a roundabout way of saying, “I’ll be taking the liberty of…” Or, more succinctly, “I will…” At the end of the day, this is just a simple fact of Japanese grammar, but its underlying logic is fascinating to English-speaking ears. And Rubin seems to think highly of it:


A completely naturalized translation for the sign might simply be “Closed,” though that way we lose the interesting cultural difference. Perhaps “We thank you for allowing us to have the day off” or “We appreciate your permitting us to have the day off” would begin to convey some sense of the respectful tone of the Japanese in natural-sounding English. But make no mistake about it: the owner has gone fishin’. (p. 61)

I think he’s going a bit overboard. This shit is downright mundane in Japanese, and to use one of those long-winded translations he proposes would stick out to the reader. Perhaps if said cultural difference was essential to convey in the situation—I’ve been known to use the aforementioned “take the liberty of” for this construction—but for the most part, I wouldn’t literally translate this construction any more than I would literally translate “It’s raining cats and dogs” into another language.


The next chapter is about the passive voice in Japanese, which is less frowned upon than it is in English. In particular, it has a construction often called the suffering passive (which is a bit of a misnomer, since it doesn’t necessarily imply negativity), wherein something that would ordinarily be the subject of a passive verb is now its object, with the new subject being someone affected in some way by this event (and often, of course, represented by the zero pronoun). Again, yet another fascinating aspect of Japanese grammar, and here’s what Rubin has to say about translating it:


In translating a sentence like Kaban o nusumareta, don’t resort to something like “The suitcase was stolen and I was distressed.” The suitcase was not passively stolen: the unmentioned “I” was the one passively affected. Much closer to the original would be a “literal” equivalent such as, “I was unfavorably affected by someone’s having stolen the suitcase,” or “I suffered someone’s stealing my suitcase.” These are pretty awkward, of course, and not for consumption beyond the walls of the classroom. Since “I was stolen my suitcase” is probably even worse, you might finally want to go as far as “Oh, no, they stole my suitcase!” or “Damn! The rats took my suitcase!” or any number of other expressions of dismay befitting the overall tone of the translation. (pp. 66-7)

He’s got the right idea here, but you shouldn’t be too strict about following this. Oftentimes, the context will make the effect on the subject perfectly clear, with no need to draw explicit attention to it. After all, if someone says to you, “My suitcase was stolen” or “Someone stole my suitcase,” your immediate reaction is going to be, “Oh, that’s terrible,” not “Hey, good for you!” And if someone’s na wo shirareta as a skilled musician, you’re going to be impressed, not sympathetic. So make direct reference if appropriate; but if you choose not to, do make sure the nuance comes across in some other way.


For the next several chapters, Rubin provides more nitty-gritty explanations of grammatical structures like -kara da­ or hodo (in an affirmative sentence), mostly in a matter-of-fact way and largely devoid of humor, so I’ll skip over ‘em. I will, however, copy/paste the entire section on kanji:


Kanji are tough. Kanji are challenging. Kanji are mysterious and fun and maddening. Kanji comprise one of the greatest stumbling blocks faced by Westerners who want to become literate in Japanese. But kanji have nothing to do with grammar or sentence structure or thought patterns or the Japanese world view, and they are certainly not the Japanese language. They are just part of the world’s most clunky writing system, and a writing system cannot cause a language to be processed in a different part of the brain any more than it can force it to some other part of the body (excepting, of course, Lower Slobovian, which is processed in the left elbow). George Sansom had the right idea back in the thirties when he noted that the sounds of Japanese, simple and few in number, are very well suited to notation by an alphabet, and it is perhaps one of the tragedies of Oriental history that the Japanese genius did not a thousand years ago rise to its invention. Certainly when one considers the truly appalling system which in the course of the centuries they did evolve, that immense and intricate apparatus of signs for recording a few dozen little syllables, one is inclined to think that the western alphabet is perhaps the greatest triumph of the human mind. To this, I can only add that banana skins provide one of the best surfaces for writing kanji if one is using a ballpoint pen. Since this book is intended to help with an understanding of the Japanese language, it will have nothing further to say about kanji. (pp. 89-90)

Where’s the Duolingo course for Lower Slobovian, huh?


And hey, remember Seidensticker? The guy whose rendition of Senba dialect I didn’t like a few posts ago? Get this:


Edward Seidensticker is such a magnificent translator of Japanese fiction that I can probably be forgiven for gloating over catching him out at a little flub he made in what happens to be one of his best translations, that of my favorite Kawabata Yasunari novel, The Sound of the Mountain. (p. 97)

Gasp! What did he do? What was his crime? Is Seidensticker actually a hack?!


He misunderstood tsumori when it was being used in a way that rarely gets directly explained. Didn’t really change the meaning or impact of the passage, though.


Most textbooks will present a verb in the non-past tense followed by tsumori and explain it to mean something along the lines of “[I] intend to…” That is correct. But rarely will you see an explanation for what it means after the past tense. I know I had to pick it up through context.


You see, when tsumori follows a verb in the past tense, it carries the meaning of “I am under the belief that I did such-and-such.” It can happen after nouns and adjectives, too. I’ve seen people make this mistake myself, and I find it perplexing that this usage of tsumori is so rarely discussed.


But I actually bring this up for a different reason. Oftentimes, you’ll see a Japanese speaker in the VN community point to a translation error and cry, “Look! This translator made a mistake! Rake him over the coals! He doesn’t know the first thing about Japanese! This translation is shit!” But how often is it a significant error? How often is it part of a pattern? If it occurs consistently, and in ways that change the meaning, then yeah, it probably is a shit translation by an incompetent translator (like how Nekopara 1’s translator clearly hadn’t finished learning Japanese grammar, judging by the constant mistakes with causative and passive constructions—at least according to my hazy memories of when it first came out), but if it’s just sporadic and slight misunderstandings? I’d say it then falls into the category of “dumb mistakes,” which I wrote about twenty thousand posts ago. Don’t go roast someone over the fire for the tiniest of infractions—even Rubin considered Seidensticker magnificent, and this book to be his best translation, despite the minor oopsie he committed. Hasegawa actually catches him misidentifying a zero pronoun in another Kawabata work, though to copy/paste that passage would probably be belaboring the point, and he’s certainly not as bad as the rampant translation errors Megan Backus commits in her renditions of Yoshimoto Banana’s works. So don’t jump down a translator’s throat for having a brain fart once in a blue moon.


But yeah, no, some translations genuinely are hot garbage.


Whew, wasn’t expecting to actually type so much at the end there! Don’t worry, I’ll make up for it next time by copy/pasting lots of Rubin here. We’re nearing the end of his book, but the last few topics are some I really want to make sure I cover. Leave me your feedback, and as always, I’ll see you later.

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