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A sentence describing a troll from Harry Potter:

背が四メーテルもあり、墓石のような鈍い灰色の肌、岩石のようにゴツゴツのずんぐりした巨体、ハゲた頭は小さく、ココナッツがちょこんと載っているようだ。(Japanese TL)
Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite grey, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald head perched on top like a coconut. (Original English)

I'm unconvinced by the part in bold. I read this as "Its bald head was small and seemed to have a coconut perched on top of it". That is to say, the Japanese sentence sounds to me like there is a coconut on the troll's head, whereas the English sentence compares the head with a coconut. At best, if I assume the topic is still the troll and not ハゲた頭, the troll has both a head and a coconut.

Am I making a parsing error, or is this just one of those terrible sentences that this book's translation is notorious for?

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  • It seems correct to me: ハゲた頭は ... ようだ, his bold head was small, like ... which in this case it's like a coconut. more or less, right?
    – A.Ellett
    Jan 27 at 17:15
  • @A.Ellett Sorry, I'm still not convinced. ココナッツ is the subject of 載る, right? The coconut is placed on something. I suppose it could be "Its bald head was small, like a coconut had been placed on the troll". Feels clunky to me but I don't have enough experience to trust my feelings. Jan 27 at 17:53
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    It's ambiguous. You could say it's poorly written. 岩石 (or 巨体) の上にココナッツが〜 would have made the meaning clearer.
    – aguijonazo
    Jan 27 at 22:08
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    1. There can be multiple topics in one sentence. In 彼は顔はいいが性格はわるい, the larger topic is always 彼, but the subtopic is 顔 and then 性格. (I feel this is a bit overthinking) 2. Structurally, to be consistent with ...肌 and ...巨体, it could be その(=巨体)上にちょこんと載ったココナッツのようなはげた小さい頭.
    – sundowner
    Jan 28 at 8:58
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    @yk7 I think it's better to see it just as listing nouns. Consider in English Blue sky. Hot weather. Perfect vacation. - there should be some sort of omission, but I don't think it's necessary. For the sentence in question It has ... height, .. skin, ..large body, and .. head. would be a reasonable filling though.
    – sundowner
    Mar 1 at 22:33

1 Answer 1

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I feel like the topic of the sentence is 巨体. Everything else is explaining what the nature of this body is.

I am not reading 頭は as marking the topic but rather as a contrastive は.

Consider everything else about the body: it's four meters tall, everything is built like stone, 岩石, which doesn't sound particularly triffling. The troll's body is huge.

But his head, well his head stands out exactly because its size contrasts so drastically with everything else.

Now consider these two words that appear as the head is described: 小さく and ちょこんと. The small nature of the head is certainly being contrastively emphasized by these words alone.

Even though coconuts can be somewhat big, on a four meter tall troll, a coconut would look quite small. And a coconut is the right shape for a head.

If I were to disregard the original English and try a translation from the Japanese, I would parse it something like,

But the head! It was small. Like a coconut sitting daintily atop [his body].

And while "but" might be a bit of a flourish, I'm using it to capture what I feel the nuance of は (in 頭は) suggests.


My sense is that the original sentence is told is the casual way of a story teller. But, we could add back in the parts omitted.

背が四メーテルもあり、
墓石のような鈍い灰色の肌もあり、
岩石のようにゴツゴツのずんぐりした巨体もあった。
ハゲた頭は小さく、
ココナッツがちょこんと載っているようだ。
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    Thanks, I think I'm coming round to your way of thinking. Certainly I agree that 頭は seems contrastive. If you don't mind, I'll hold off on voting until we get some corroboration. I'd still like to know if this is a well written sentence or one that makes you stop and think. Jan 27 at 18:37
  • No offense taken. I don't mind. I'm sure you already know that I am not a native speaker (I seem to be saying that a lot lately). So, I wonder at times whether I might be missing something that is more obvious to a native speaker.
    – A.Ellett
    Jan 27 at 18:38
  • I feel like the topic of the sentence is 巨体 If you mean topic in a grammatical sense, then I don't think that is so. If nothing else, contrastive は still marks a topic. Now consider these two words that appear as the head is described: 小さく and ちょこんと. I'm not sure I understand what the second one means. According to jisho.org it supposedly means slightly. Slightly placed atop [the body]?.. If you suggest "daintily," then how does it emphasize the contrast?
    – yk7
    Feb 29 at 23:52
  • @yk7 The contrast is not between 小さく and ちょこんと but between those two words and 巨体 which are not naturally paired.
    – A.Ellett
    Mar 1 at 1:06
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    @yk7 Translating ちょこんと as "slightly" is not making clear what ちょこんと is saying: notice how even jisho indicates that "slightly" is used of an action; "small and quiet" is about appearance which is what is being drawn attention to and which is why I translated it as "dainty".
    – A.Ellett
    Mar 1 at 1:11

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