Background information

(Do point out if I got anything wrong along the way)

So I'm working through Jay Rubin's Making Sense of Japanese, and I've familiarized myself with the concept of zero pronouns, and his aversion to the "passivication" of active sentences.

From what I can gather, zero pronouns are used when the context makes it clear. Following that, Rubin warns against overlooking a zero pronoun subject, and interpreting an active sentence as a passive one.

For instance, when answering questions about what I had for lunch,

Original text: 犬{いぬ}を食{た}べた。

should be translated actively as

I ate a dog.

and not passively as

A dog was eaten.

A dog was eaten by me.

Because that would shift the focus of the statement from the agent on to the patient, by changing the subject from 'I' to 'a dog'. (Is this a kind of a semantic loss?)


Conversely, in a English to Japanese translation from an active sentence

I ate a dog.

to passive sentences such as



is there a similar loss in emphasis or topic focus along the way?

According to Earthliŋ here, "in Japanese, the passive voice leaves the focus of the action on the person performing the action", which I take to mean that the focus is still on the agent of the passive sentence, and not the subject. Is that interpretation right?

If so, does that mean that a passive Japanese → active English translation should be avoided because the initial focus is lost, but an active English → passive Japanese translation is alright?

  • It would really help if you could define what counts as "loss of information".
    – Blavius
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 23:14
  • I phrased it as such because I have no idea what, if anything, is being lost in translation.
    – akj
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 2:25
  • It's kind of hard to answer then. I'd argue that removing the 私に as in the top of the two Japanese translations in your post would be a loss since it doesn't have the information of "I" being the one to eat it.
    – Blavius
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 2:40
  • I have tried clarifying the question with an edit. You were right, it was probably a little too vague. Thanks.
    – akj
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 3:17
  • Does this question & answer answer your question?
    – Blavius
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 3:28

1 Answer 1


(In the first place, I don't think "in Japanese, the passive voice leaves the focus of the action on the person performing the action" but on the recipient.)

It doesn't only change focus or emphasis but also the meaning itself, in other words, 犬が食べられた doesn't mean "I ate a dog" or "a dog was eaten by me", but "they ate our dog", more accurately, "a dog in a closer position in my perspective was eaten by someone in a more distant position".

So, 犬が私に食べられた sounds as if you are saying it under someone else's perspective.

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