Background, problem statement

Very often, I find myself in situations where I have to build structurally complex sentences in Japanese, and find myself struggling, trying to put all I want to say in a single sentence. As far as the other languages I know well enough go, it's not an issue since

  1. they have relative pronouns that resolve many ambiguities (that, which, who, whose, qui, que, dont, auquel…),
  2. their grammar allow incremental stacking of relatives, starting with the base of the sentence (see example).

I guess there are two viable solutions to my problem, but I never really paid attention to which was usually chosen in spoken (nor, in fact, written) Japanese.

Solution 1, the most likely

Break your sentence in many small chunks, make a sentence of each chunk, and convince yourself that unlike French or English, it's not awkward to have a train of sentences like "Aです。Bです。AとBの関係はCです。Dです。CとDの関係はEです…"

Solution 2, the "wished" one

It is possible to express unambiguously sentences like

On Monday, the dog that ate the pudding that I cooked and whose owner's sister I met yesterday will be castrated.

My attempt at this sentence would be like:


But even though I feel quite satisfied with this simple, quite linear one, I don't think it's likely to be heard… (FWIW, the sentences I build are often describing inter-related complex mathematical relations, which makes thing even harder…)

The recent remark on "invertion" makes me wonder even more if this common to have such sentences, because inversion may cause ambiguities to arise:


The person with a Japanese interlocutor? The Japanese with an interlocutor?


The partner with a Japanese person? The person with a Japanese partner?


  • Do you have issues expressing complex relations in Japanese?
  • How do you get round this issues?
  • Are there relation patterns in English that you will definitely break into several Japanese sentences?
  • Do you have trouble understanding the aforementioned kind of Japanese sentences?

And subsidiary question, if ambiguity is definitely a major issue to all: how could the language not evolve to avoid ambiguities?

  • 2
    You cannot always do word-to-word / clause-to-clause translation. I learned it in the other way around; some sentences in Japanese cannot be translated into English without breaking them into several sentences. Aug 31, 2011 at 15:39
  • 2
    You might find the "「どっちにてん?」" and "絵にぴったりの文を作ろう" games here of interest, as examples of how minor changes affect interpretation of sentences: nhk.or.jp/school/bangumi/wakaru-tubo/2-hp3-game.html To be honest, on first glance of your example I thought Monday was the name of the dog. (British English speaker here - I'd put "On Monday...")
    – nkjt
    Aug 31, 2011 at 16:49
  • @Dave: The questions are short, but not the preamble :)
    – Axioplase
    Sep 1, 2011 at 2:33
  • @Tsuyoshi: I quite guess that's how it works, but I wonder if there are some constructions that are known to be problematic (like those using "of which" or "whose") when going from English-like language to Japanese.
    – Axioplase
    Sep 1, 2011 at 2:34
  • 2
    Another common case where you cannot translate an English sentence to a Japanese sentence literally is what is called 無生物主語 in English classes at schools in Japan, such as “A toothache kept him awake last night.” (This example was taken from Wikipedia.) Sep 1, 2011 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


This happens a lot in patent translations, so you might get some hints by searching for these terms: 特許 請求項 翻訳

This site has this example:

  1. A dynamic random access memory including at least two banks, each of said banks including memory cells arranged in rows and columns, said memory cells storing data provided by at least one bit line and by at least one data line, the dynamic random access memory comprising: first switching means for selecting one of said at least two banks; and second switching means connected to said first switching means for selecting one of said columns, wherein said first and second switching means couple one of said bit lines to one of said data lines, enabling data to be written into or read out of memory cells common to said selected bank and to said selected column.

[請求項1] 少なくとも2個のバンクを含み、前記各バンクが行と列に配列されたメモリ・セルを含み、前記メモリ・セルが少なくとも1本のビット線と少なくとも1本のデータ線から供給されるデータを記憶するダイナミック・ランダム・アクセス・メモリであって、


This site has many more translation examples.
The wording in patent translation is obviously very formal and it's probably not what you want, but I guess if you want to investigate whether one language is somehow better at unambiguously expressing sentences with lots of relative propositions, this could be an interesting corpus.

  • 1
    Very good idea!
    – Axioplase
    Sep 2, 2011 at 10:24
  • 3
    This is a very good idea. However, it might be worth pointing out that patents are written in the “patent Japanese” which is not exactly the same as Japanese outside patents. For example, I think that ~ランダム・アクセス・メモリであって、~ランダム・アクセス・メモリ is usually considered incorrect outside patents (the correct form would be ~ランダム・アクセス・メモリであって、~もの). “Specialized languages” like this exist also in other fields such as mathematics and law. Sep 2, 2011 at 12:28
  • 1
    Since the OP did mention mathematics, it's probably worth mentioning that ci.nii.ac.jp sometimes has titles or abstracts in both Japanese and English, searching for a mathematical term in Japanese might turn up something of interest.
    – nkjt
    Sep 2, 2011 at 14:01
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    Also one cautionary tale.. Many patent translations are really, really bad so you need to be careful. Sep 3, 2011 at 3:44

I don't see anything wrong with solution 1, but not because it makes it easier for the speaker. Breaking up complex ideas also makes things easier for the listener to digest, piece by piece. Of course it's ridiculous to take it to the level of "Here's this. Here's that. That relates to this in a certain way. . . ad nauseam". But you can and probably should limit how much information you put into one sentence, then logically work in more complex relationships in separate sentences. Even in English, I don't think I would ever think to put all the information contained in your example into a single sentence. I'd be more likely to say something like "Yesterday I met the sister of the guy whose dog ate that pudding I made. She said the dog will be fixed on Monday." Or even more simply "You know that dog that ate the pudding I made? I met his owner's sister yesterday. Apparently, the dog's getting fixed Monday." In Japanese, maybe 「昨日、私が作ったプリンを[Edit-see comments (X食われたX)]食った犬の飼い主さんのお姉さんに出会った。犬は月曜日に去勢されるよ。(へへへへ)」

  • 2
    +1 for the general idea. However, 私が作ったプリンを食われた犬 is unnatural because of the combination of passive and relative clause. 私が作ったプリンを食った犬 is the usual way to say it. (I might also change 食う to the more common 食べる, but that is a different story.) Sep 1, 2011 at 13:37
  • I see. Thanks for the correction. Would 「犬に食われたプリン」 be OK (not in this particular sentence, but hypothetically), or does that not work either?
    – rdb
    Sep 1, 2011 at 14:27
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    It works. I do not think that it is possible to extract the ~に part of a passive sentence as a relative clause, but ~が part is fine. Sep 1, 2011 at 14:30

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