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First, please look at this sentence:

私は日本へ行く前に、中国のお土産を買った。

Its English translation is:

Before I will go to Japan, I bought some Chinese local goods.

which is very weird.

It is said that Japanese tense has relative tense which does not exist in English.

Can you explain that for me?

  • 1
    The English translation is incorrect. (But I guess an answer can elaborate...) – snailcar Oct 3 '16 at 11:38
  • I bought Chinese souvenir before I go to Japan. What's wrong with that? – YOU Oct 3 '16 at 12:59
  • @YOU It's just a guess, but I think the OP is asking why Japanese doesn't use the past tense for 行く. @ Mark. Please identify what you are confused about more specifically and tell us what would be a better sentence. – Rathony Oct 3 '16 at 14:10
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私は日本へ行く前に、中国のお土産を買った。
Before I will go to Japan, I bought some Chinese local goods.

The example sentence might be better translated this way:

  • "Before going to Japan, I bought some Chinese souvenirs."

OP - "It is said that Japanese tense has relative tense which does not exist in English."

Perhaps what is meant by "relative tense" is that the verbs in the two clauses do often need to agree in tense in English, but they don't need to be in the same form for Japanese, in fact that would be incorrect for this sentence.

However, the primary difference between 行く and 行った in Japanese is not a difference of "tense"(時制), it is a difference of "aspect"(相). Aspect is affected by tense, but they are not always equivalent.

In other words,

  • 行く describes an incomplete action (which may take place in the past, present, future or even habitually), but...
  • 行った describes a completed action (which may take place in the past, present or future)

If you look at the Japanese example sentence again with this viewpoint it should make more sense.

私は日本へ行く前に、中国のお土産を買った

  • 行く前に - "before going" (not complete because 行く is describing a point "before" the action of "going" takes place)
  • お土産を買った - "bought souvenirs" (complete because the speaker has already completed the action of buying)

These articles may be a good reference:

  • >>> [ the difference between 行く and 行った in Japanese is not a difference of "tense"(時制), it is a difference of "aspect"(相). ] <<<----- That's kind-of an eye-opening statement. Is that like something everybody knows? Is that in many textbooks? Is that well-explained in a past Jp.SE post, or in a convenient Web page ? (I prefer a Jp Web page) – HizHa Oct 4 '16 at 2:38
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    In my experience Japanese grammar is most often taught from the beginning with the concept of 時制 (even for children in 国語 class). It's not until or unless the inconsistencies with applying tense are dealt with that 相 comes into the picture. So, I think most people who are not into grammar wouldn't be familiar with it. – sazarando Oct 4 '16 at 3:11
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    @HizHa The tense–aspect controversy is far from settled, so I don't think you can say there is a consensus view. I think it's inaccurate though to say that the ~る/~た difference is only one of tense, or only one of aspect, or only one of modality. It can express all of these things. – snailcar Oct 5 '16 at 23:29
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As mentioned by @YOU, there is nothing wrong with the translation

Before going to Japan, I bought some Chinese souvenirs.

Tenses in Japanese are relative to the tense of the verb of the main clause. If the main action is in the past, then past tenses in the relative clauses imply that those actions took place at a time earlier than that of the main clause.

In this case, the main tense is a past tense and the tense of the relative clause is non-past, which implies that this action has taken/will take place at a time later than that of the main clause.

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    I'm sorry but "Before I go to Japan, I bought some Chinese souvenirs" is not good English. It should be "Before going to Japan, I bought some Chinese souvenirs" or "Before I went to Japan, I bought some Chinese souvenirs". – user3856370 Oct 3 '16 at 20:40
  • Yes, you are entirely right. I edit my answer. I might have confused myself trying to show the relation between verb tenses and failed translating that sentence... – Nightzus Oct 4 '16 at 6:30

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