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I have a question about the last sentence here taken from this essay:

'Then you will know the true joy of travelling.'

'After your meal, go outside for a while.'

'You will see a myriad of fireflies dancing right behind the inn.'

'The phenomenon will take your breath away.'

The English translation provided, though conveying the right idea, is very loose. Here is my more literal translation (which doesn't flow as nicely):

'Just speaking of such a fantastic thing, it's enough to take one's breath away.'

I am wondering who is speaking in this sentence and whose "breath is being taken away" (yes my translation is still quite figurative). Is it (a) the speaker (I guess this is called 1st person singular)? = "Just speaking of such a fantastic thing takes my breath away" Or is it that (b) if "one were to describe the event it would take one's breath away" = (third person singular)? Or (c) a combination of these = 'If I spoke of these things it would be enough to take your breath away" or (d) just ambiguous? If there is a clear answer, how can one ascertain who is performing these actions?

Edit: Or perhaps I should understand these as two figurative phrases? その幻想的なことといったら = such an amazing thing 息をのんでしまうほどです。=just breath-taking!

I apologize in advance for my ignorance of grammatical terms.

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If you look at Space ALC's translation of 息をのむ 息をのむほど and 息をのむよう are generally translated as "breathtaking" while 息をのむ is "catch one's breath" so I'm not sure anyone is performing the action. I'm thinking "astonishing" and similar words may be usable in place of it. I'm starting to think that sentence is fairly similar to その幻想的なことは息をのんでしまうほどです except in emphasis. "The fairytale-like phenomena is breathtaking" maybe. –  cypher Dec 1 '11 at 7:14
that enlightens me a bunch. the first part of the sentence still has an actor though (i think?). Perhaps we can read this as two set phrases put together, with very little literal action. –  yadokari Dec 1 '11 at 7:47
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3 Answers

I'm not exactly sure where in the sentence you face the problem, but I'm going to guess that it's with:

  1. Implicit agency

  2. Implicit experiencer

  3. The ~といったら sentence pattern

First let's fix 1. and 2.

You must have realised by now that the Japanese language is so to speak "sparse" because quite often you will encounter sentences that are seemingly ambiguous because no specific persons are mentioned.

[Person A] どこ行くの?

[Person B] (私は)図書館に行く。

The context makes who is performing which action evident. Without context, (i.e. you just walked in on a conversation and only heard 図書館に行く) it could be anybody who is going to the library.

Now notice that you have one contextual clue in your second sentence - ましょう. Usually this is used in a cohortative sense of "let us do ~" or "shall we do ~?". The subsequent sentences can either involve the speaker, the listener or both. The context given is that the speaker is inviting the listener to go outside to enjoy the fireflies.

Consider which of the sentences are appropriate:

Existing contextual information: Intention is to share the firefly-phenomenon

Invitational Sentence:

Shall we go outside after eating?

Elaboration 1:

A. I will see a myriad of fireflies dancing right behind the inn

B. You will see a myriad of fireflies dancing right behind the inn

C. We will see a myriad of fireflies dancing right behind the inn

Elaboration 2:

A. The phenomenon will take my breath away

B. The phenomenon will take your breath away

C. The phenomenon will take our breath away

Obviously choice A would feel completely unnatural. You intend to share something with someone and end up talking only about yourself (how selfish).

Now B and C are possible ways to parse it into English for both Elaboration 1 and 2. But I feel it should sound most natural as:

"We will see a myriad of fireflies dancing right behind the inn. The phenomenon will take your breath away."

Because in the first part, the focus is on a "shared activity", namely watching the fireflies together. And in the second part, the focus is on "getting the other person to experience the phenomenon"; the focus is on the other person.

Now for the ~といったら sentence pattern. Its function is similar to ~といえば, ~って, ~ったら. What it does is that it presents ~ as a topic from something that was from a previous discourse. It is similar to the topic marker は, except that it carries more emotive overtones.


その幻想的なことといったら息をのんでしまうほどです。 Literally: "Speaking of that phenomenon, it is something to the extent of taking your breath away."

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thank you. I'm with you on the といったら, but for now I'm more convinced of cypher's argument that 息をのんでしまうほどです is more like "breath-taking" then it having an implicit experiencer. –  yadokari Dec 2 '11 at 23:37
@yadokari There must be an experiencer in order for "breathtaking" to work. At the very least it implies an arbitrary experiencer capable of perceiving something as "breathtaking" –  Flaw Dec 3 '11 at 3:00
I don't know, I think this sentence could work: "while the waterfall is breathtaking, noone will experience it." –  cypher Dec 3 '11 at 5:42
@cypher. Then where is the authority that first describes it as "breathtaking"? Even if there is no real person, there must be a hypothetical person to experience it. –  Flaw Dec 3 '11 at 6:24
My answer was largely based on this explanation: 「~してしまうほど」というのは例えの表現です。だから実際には誰も「していない」わけで、そこから「(もしいたら)誰もが~するだろう」ということがわかります. I might've interpreted incorrectly, but "breathtaking" seemed like a good explanation to me based on that and the Space ALC definition for 息をのむほど. I know Space ALC isn't always right, but I think it's a good guide and it's worth referencing. What I want to know is what the difference is between 息をのんでしまうほど and 息をのむほど. –  cypher Dec 3 '11 at 23:16
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Focusing on the second part of the sentence, this seems to be a problem which is part-English and part-Japanese. I'm sure there are cases where "breathtaking/astonishing" and "takes your breath away" can't be exchanged, but I'm having trouble finding them. In English at least, "takes your breath away" is an idiom which means something which astonishes or surprises you and the "your" in that figurative expression doesn't literally refer to the listener and it's not implied that anyone literally has their breath taken away.

In the case of 息をのんでしまいました "(my) breath was taken away" it could refer to someone actually having been astonished. But I get the feeling that 息をのんでしまうほど would generally refer to something which "is to the extent of being astonishing" and and it's largely descriptive/hypothetical just like someone saying e.g. "that concert will be astonishing!"

If you look at Space ALC's definition for 息をのむ, 息をのむほど and 息をのむよう are generally translated as "breathtaking" while 息をのむ is "catch one's breath" so I'm not sure anyone is performing any action or receiving any reactions here.

There are cases where "breathtaking" can't be used, for example 息をのむほど感動した might be "I was moved to the point of being astonished" or "I was moved to the point of having my breath taken away." But in many other cases, e.g. 思わず息をのむほどの[美麗]{びれい}さ, I think "beautiful to the extent of being instinctively breathtaking" could work in place of "beautiful to the extent of instinctively taking your breath away."

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thanks. I'm going to see if anyone else has opinions. Where did u get the last sentence quoted? i agree with you on the second part of the sentence. i still would like it if anyone could clarify what is happening in the first part, especially with the といったら, though i think flaw's answer covers that part somewhat well. –  yadokari Dec 2 '11 at 2:33
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I think the original translation maybe better. "といったら" in the sentence has already lost its original meaning of 'say', 'speak' or 'describe'. It is only there to show an emphasis.

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