Each of the following sentences:

  1. 今ではほとんど見ることのできないポケットベル、通称ポケベルは、当時の女子高校生の必須アイテムだった。

    Pokebell, the short version for Pocket Bell in Japanese, can’t hardly be seen now but it was the indispensable item for female high school students of that time.

  2. 鼻より先を見ることのできないものもいる。

    Someone cannot see beyond the end of his nose.

  3. 顕微鏡でしか見ることのできない生物。

    An organism that can be seen only through a microscope.

has the "見ることのできない" but the translation is different, like in example 2, the sentence is talking about someone that can't see something, but in sentence 1, the sentence is talking about something that can't be seen.

How do Japanese interpret these sentences?

  • I think this answers your concern.
    – macraf
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 23:27
  • I've read the answers but still don't get it. Is it something about context?
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 23:59
  • I pointed to exactly one answer which explains why できる is used both as a transitive and non-transitive verb. If your concern is different, please add the details to the question.
    – macraf
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 0:02
  • Are Japanese native speakers aware of this kind of transformation, or only Japanese language learners?
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 0:15
  • 2
    Are speakers of your native language aware of that language history, etymology, and transitions? Or do they just use the language? Or maybe it depends on a person?
    – macraf
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 0:23

3 Answers 3


I bet most Japanese people cannot explain why Sentence 2 is different from the other two. Native speakers of Japanese are of course unaware of how they construct relative clauses in Japanese. At best, some students will notice that Japanese also has relative clauses which are not very similar to those of English when they learn English at middle school.

Anyway Sentence 2 is clearly different from the other two because there is already a direct object of 見る before it (i.e., 鼻より先). The modified noun will be taken as the subject of 見る because the subject is the only missing part.

Japanese relative clauses are simpler than English ones, and thus can sometimes be ambiguous, at least grammatically. As for Sentence 3, it can theoretically mean both "organisms which are visible only through a microscope" and "organisms that can see things only with a microscope". Japanese people will understand even without thinking that this sentence means the former.

As for Sentence 1, 今では見ることのできないポケットベル can technically mean "a pocket bell that is now visually impaired", yes. But any Japanese person who knows about pocket bells will not even notice such an interpretation is technically possible.

See Also:


As a native English speaker, I think the translations are a little weird but not because of the 見ることができない.The key as to why you would translate that phrase differently is the adverbial phrases in front of 1 and 3, ほとんど and 顕微鏡しか respectively.


I would translate this to:

Now You barely see Pocketbell, colloquially called "Pokebell," but for high school girls in that era it was a must-have item.

ほとんど means "generally" but when combined with a negated verb means "barely"


Here, there's no adverb.

I would translate this to

there are some people who cannot see past their own noses.

For the third one, you need to know the pattern Xしかできない which means "can only do X"

  1. 顕微鏡でしか見ることのできない生物。


 An organism that can only be seen with a microscope.

So it's not that the basic meaning is changing but that adverbs are changing the functional meaning in 1 and 3.


This is not about how Japanese people interpret the text.
It is about how to translate in a way that sounds natural in English.

A sentence in one language may not sound natural in another language if translated literally.

For example Japanese people will say 喉が渇いた to mean "I am thirsty".
But a literal translation makes no sense in English: "my throat is dry".
An English speaker would never say "my throat is dry" to mean "I am thirsty".
But that is the literal meaning of the Japanese sentence.

That is why literal translations are often wrong.
You have to translate the meaning of the sentence, instead of directly translating each word.

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