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Sometimes, for stylistic or rhetorical effect, one wants to delay mentioning a word/concept until the end of a sentence. For example, it's often best to save the punchline for the very end:

I was happy to discover that my ex was sentenced to life in prison for arson, murder, and jaywalking.

If we directly translate into a Japanese-style word order—

((My ex)-NOM (Arson, murder, and jaywalking)-for ((life in prison)-to sentenced) was) that I discover happy was.

—the utterance hemorrhages much of "jaywalking"'s comic effect into the bog of unnecessary background and framing information.

Whereas English word order naturally places the word where we want it, if we instead wanted to place it somewhere else, English makes available alternative or periphrastic phrasings, such as "x did y." → "It was y that x did."

So likewise: what techniques or periphrastic constructions are available in Japanese to move words or clauses?

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2 Answers 2

Anastrophe exists in Japanese:

Usual order: 前の彼女が放火、殺人、信号無視の罪で終身刑になったと知って安心した。
Anastrophe: 前の彼女が終身刑になったと知って安心した。放火、殺人、信号無視の罪で。

(Note about the word 終身刑: Strictly speaking, 終身刑 means life imprisonment without parole, and the usual life imprisonment with a possibility of parole is technically called 無期刑. However, in nontechnical context, 終身刑 often means both.)

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Japanese does have cleft (and pseudo-cleft) constructions that you mention.

元彼/彼女が放火、殺人に加えて信号無視で終身刑になったと知って安堵した。(Underlying)

元彼/彼女が終身刑になった理由が放火、殺人に加えて信号無視だったと知って安堵した。(Embedded cleft)

私が(それを)知ることで安堵したのは、元彼/彼女が終身刑になった理由が放火、殺人に加えて信号無視だったことだ。(Matrix cleft)

But with these orders, it still does not sound funny to most Japanese. They just sound like American jokes, whose quality are very different from those of Japanese commedy.

Other than this, Japanese, among many other languages, have scrambling and topicalization.

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(1) “Sentenced to life in prison” is different from “sentenced to death.” –  Tsuyoshi Ito May 24 '12 at 12:46
    
(2) All of your translations in this answer sound quite like translationese, probably because of “自分の” and “安堵を感じた.” –  Tsuyoshi Ito May 24 '12 at 12:46
    
@TsuyoshiIto I made a mistake about (1). For (2), I will improve it. –  user458 May 24 '12 at 13:59

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