So far in these posts, I’ve quoted from two textbooks: the Hasegawa and the Wakabayashi. But today I’m going to introduce another book by the name of Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You, written by prolific translator Jay Rubin (whose work was actually quoted many times in the Wakabayashi). In this book, he clears up misconceptions about the Japanese language and explains some of the more difficult grammar structures in easy-to-understand ways.


Now, if you’re at the level where you actually need his insight, you really shouldn’t be translating anything yet. I certainly wouldn’t be confident in a translation written by someone who still gets confused by -sasete itadaku. But this guy’s really funny, so I wanna show you how witty and yet pointed he can be.


His first order of business is to combat this notion that Japanese is some mystical, exotic language shrouded in vagueness:


Thus, it would seem, the Japanese sentence is subject more to rules of fragrance than of grammar. It is a delicate blend of incense… Non-Japanese novelists and supermarket encyclopedias are hardly the exclusive source of the idea that Japanese is fundamentally “vague” in contrast to Western languages. Japanese themselves promote the myth, and sometimes with the aid of so venerable a medium of truth as National Public Radio. Once NPR carried an interview with a member of the Tokyo String Quartet… Japanese, he concluded, is vague, while English is more precise. (pp. 14-5)

He goes on to argue that the Tokyo String Quartet had an easier time talking in English not due to any feature of the language, but because they were adopting the cultural norms of English-speaking countries when doing so, since they were in the presence of a non-Japanese, as opposed to the Japanese cultural norms of expressing things indirectly or incompletely. Particularly cutting is this:


No, Japanese is not the language of the infinite. Japanese is not even vague. The people of Sony and Nissan and Toyota did not get where they are today by wafting incense back and forth… [W]e must never let its apparent strangeness blind us to the simple fact that Japanese is just another language. And we can increase the precision with which we understand that language if we do away with some of the mystical nonsense that continues to cling to it even in the age of the computer and the electric nose-hair trimmer. (pp. 17-8)

Japanese isn’t any more vague than English; the two languages just stipulate about different things. Yes, English is exacting about singular versus plural while Japanese isn’t, but at the same time, Japanese is exacting about formality while English isn’t. When someone translates an English work into Japanese, they essentially have to invent the characters’ speech registers out of whole cloth, since hardly any such information is encoded in English speech compared to Japanese. The street goes both ways.


If you’ll permit another digression, I’d like to again reference Haruhi, which talks about this “vagueness” issue. During the discussion about Tsuruya-san’s second story, the brigade zeroes in on a tara construction that appears to denote a sequence of actions, but might actually be a hypothetical.


“Wait a second. Right after she wrote, ‘Is there perhaps any other place you might wish to go, milady?’ Tsuruya-san has something that screws your theory up. ‘Tsukibito-san ga kono joukyou de ittara hiniku ni kikoeru serifu da ne” (p. 222). Isn’t this proof that that line was spoken by the attendant?”


Ah, but that’s the very moment her trick came into focus,” said Koizumi, tracing that part of his copy of Episode 2 with his finger. “That sentence is a hypothetical: the grammar is expressing what would have happened if something that didn’t actually happen were to come to pass. If we were to rewrite it more precisely, it would be something like, ‘If the attendant had said that in this situation, it would have come off as ironic.’ That is, the attendant didn’t say it, and wasn’t even present to have the chance. Tsuruya-san intentionally abridged some parts of the situation, and thus created a sentence that doesn’t look like a hypothetical at first blush.”



I’m not sure I buy it. I feel like you’re pulling a fast one on me. You’re in the Mystery Club, T—is this okay?


Hmm, in my estimation… it is something asymptotically close to ‘out,’ but nor is it ‘safe.’”


Normal people call that ‘out.’


But without missing a beat, Koizumi turned toward T and backed her up. “You think that because you translated it into English as you read it,” he explained. “Tsuruya-san used a vague expression unique to Japanese. Japanese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, and even the past and present tenses of verbs can be unclear at times… The key is the ittara. You can read it as shorthand for ‘if the attendant had said it,’ but it can also be taken in the present as ‘saying it.’ She deliberately used informal language to make sure it could be read either way.” (pp. 237-8)

Yeah, as you can see, the Japanese seem proud to push their language as vague. Also, note that I rendered two of Kyon’s three lines without quotation marks. Just to illustrate that thing I mentioned a few posts ago.


Anyway, Rubin closes the introduction with a caveat:


One of the worst things I see students doing when they start to translate texts is numbering their sentences. They take a perfectly sound paragraph, in which the author is trying to develop a thought, and they surgically slice it up, writing the translation of each sentence separately in their notebooks as if it had no relationship to the others. Especially in a language like Japanese, with its frequently unnamed subjects, it is crucial that you take each sentence within its context. (p. 22)

Please don’t do this. I know that it can be tempting in VNs, with each line in its nice and neat row in your Excel spreadsheet, but don’t take them one at a time. As I’ve alluded to before, treat them all at once as a single translation unit. Would this detail work better at the end of this patch of narration in English? Then put it there. Does this word need extra clarification for an English reader? Throw in an adjective to help you. Don’t be afraid to do some reassembling. Japanese organizes its points differently from how English does.


Rubin’s first concrete order of business is to address perhaps the most famous feature of Japanese: the subjectless sentence.


The very first time they present an apparently subjectless sentence, all Japanese language textbooks should have large warnings printed in red: You Are Now Entering the Twilight Zone. It is here, more than anywhere else, that the language suddenly begins to melt into that amorphous mass of ceremonial tea and incense and Zen and haiku, where distinctions between self and other, I and Thou, subject and object, disappear in a blinding flash of satori. Now the student sees that the phenomenal world is but an illusion, it is all within you and without you. Absorbed into the great Oneness (or Nothingness; take your pick), we enter into the true Japanese state of mind, and we experience firsthand what makes the language vague.


Meanwhile, the Japanese themselves go about their business, commuting and shopping and cooking and raising their kids’ math scores to some of the highest in the world and making super color TVs and cars, using unnamed subjects—and objects and everything else—all over the place, utterly unaware that their language makes it impossible for them to communicate precisely. (p. 25)

He argues in this chapter that every sentence in Japanese does have a subject; it’s just not always explicitly stated. He calls this absent subject the zero pronoun, asserting that it’s no more vague than the English tendency to use pronouns. As long as everyone involved in the conversation involved knows the context, the meaning is perfectly clear. Think about it—I’ve been using he this entire paragraph so far, but you know exactly who I’m talking about because you’ve been following this post. But show this paragraph in isolation to someone else, and they’d never be able to name the man he refers to. The zero pronoun is no different.


In the next chapter, he talks about wa and ga, the two postpositions that trip us up the most. They’re like a and the to speakers of languages without articles: no matter how good you get at the language, you’re bound to still mix them up sometimes. The short version is that wa places emphasis on the predicate, while ga places emphasis on the subject.


Sure, we have the expression “as for” in English, but sane people use it much more sparingly than do students of Japanese. Take Patrick Henry, for example: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Now, there’s a man who knew his as-fors! The next time you are tempted to say Watashi wa ikimashita, stop and think about whether you really want to proclaim to the world, “I know not what course others may have taken, but as for me, I went!” Your wa differentiates you as a topic of discussion from other possible topics (“I don’t know about those other guys, but as far as I am concerned…”) and then, after building up this rhetorical head of steam, it blows it all into the rest of the sentence (“Yes, I did it, I went!”). Notice that wa builds suspense, arousing curiosity in the reader or listener about what is to come. If the speaker were to pause at the wa, the listener’s brain would whisper subliminally, “Yes, yes, and then what?” After having differentiated the named topic from implied other potential topics, wa dumps its emphatic load on what comes after it. This makes it very different from ga, which emphasizes what comes before it. (pp. 33-4)

A bit over the top, but you see his point, right? Sometimes, I see a tricky wa translated as as for, and I wonder if the translator just turned his brain off. Since, as Rubin says, we hardly ever use the phrase in natural English. He goes on to explain other uses of wa, and he interrupts his discussion of these particles with this:


Even the most accomplished Japanese speaker of English will continue to make mistakes with “the” and “a,” and native users of English will probably always have some degree of difficulty with wa and ga. This is surely one of those intuitive areas of language that can only be fully mastered in early childhood. (p. 37)

As I said above. I’ve seen very proficient English speakers among the Japanese people around me, and even they still have trouble with our dastardly articles. Likewise, I’m sure I’ve fucked up wa and ga, and they’re just not telling me.


If you’ve ever studied Japanese, I’m sure you’ve heard the explanation that wa marks the topic of discussion, and ga marks the subject of a verb. The explanation usually continues, “Oh, but the topic usually is the actor on a verb, so wa often marks the subject in effect.”


Rubin disagrees. He asserts that wa never, ever, ever marks the subject (or any other grammatical part) of a sentence. All it does is proclaim to the listener, “Hey, the coming discussion is gonna be about this.” Even when it looks like wa is attached to the subject, Rubin argues that the real subject is the zero pronoun. In his words:


[I]n Japanese, once you’ve established the topic you are going to be talking about, you can use the Japanese zero pronoun when you give it a verb to perform. And that’s just what is happening in Watashi wa ikimashita. Our old standby “as for” can help clarify this a bit further. “As for me, [I] went.” The “I” is in brackets here because it is present in the Japanese sentence only as an unspoken subject. Watashi is not the subject of ikimashita and is not the subject of the sentence. It is simply the topic of the upcoming discussion. The wa tells us only that the following discussion is going to be about watashi as opposed to other possible people. The subject of the verb ikimashita is not watashi but the silent pronoun that follows it. In other words, when you used to make up sentences with double subjects in the first grade, you were trying, in your childish wisdom, to use wa constructions in English. You could have mastered wa at the age of seven, but that pigheaded Mrs. Hawkins ruined everything! (p. 39)

This is a really interesting take on understanding wa. Obviously I’m not saying this has any place in translation—we should keep translating as we always have—but in terms of conceptualizing the usage of wa, this is a fascinating perspective. Indeed, Rubin acknowledges how well as for actually matches wa, but has this to say:


The only problem with “as for” nowadays, as I mentioned earlier, is that we tend to stop interpreting it properly in English when we encounter so many wa’s in Japanese. Understood correctly, “as for” is an excellent device for helping us analyze a Japanese sentence, but when it comes to translating Japanese into real, bearable English, it is usually best disposed of. (p. 42)

As fantastic as as for is at capturing the meaning of wa, it’s also considered way too emphatic in English for most purposes and needs a damn good reason to exist as a translation of wa.


I could keep quoting this chapter all day, but that would make this post longer than it already is, so I’ll give you the executive summary. Rubin goes on about waga sentences, which any serious student of Japanese should hopefully have no trouble understanding, and even observes the power of wa in opening a fictional story. Since wa presupposes that the listener knows the thing it marks, it can conjure a sense of familiarity out of thin air. Natsume Souseki’s Mon starts with Sousuke wa sakki kara engawa e zabuton wo mochidashite…, handily translatable as Sousuke had brought a cushion to the porch. You know, Sousuke! That son of a gun we all know and love. With common nouns in English, the word the can have the same effect, e.g. The elevator continued its ascent at an extremely sluggish pace. You know what elevator we’re talking about, right? It’s been here all along, even before you started reading the book. In this way, Rubin draws similarities between waga and thea.


Wow. What started out as an excuse to copy/paste funny passages turned into a serious discussion on basic Japanese grammar. I’ll pick up where I left off next time. If you can, I highly encourage reading Rubin yourself, as there’s so much good shit I had to pass up due to space constraints. And if you’re learning Japanese, I hope this gave you new insight. Let me know what you think, and I’ll see you next time.

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