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I'm a JP>EN translator who mainly works on novels. I've been doing some research into dialogue attributions, their differences between languages, and ways to translate them effectively and naturally. I've identified a variety of types of dialogue attribution in Japanese, and I have some questions for the more difficult ones. I'll be using examples from Miyuki Miyabe's 龍は眠る as she is, to my knowledge, a technically proficient writer (although I only own the Japanese version and not the English translation to compare with).

Also, I understand that this is kind of bordering between "question" and "discussion," so if it's gravely against the rules or something, do what you need to do. A lot of my questions involve whether something is "acceptable" or somehow losing meaning.

  1. Attribution directly after dialogue

「何か轢いたのかな?」慎司は素早く言った。

This seems easy, but I notice I don't see it very much at all compared to its direct English equivalent. Sometimes I see it with a と in between, sometimes not.

"Did we run over something?" said Shinji quickly.

  1. Pseudo-attribution directly before dialogue

慎司がちょっと頭を上げて、小声で言った。「モニカっていうんだ」

I call it "pseudo" because it's not in the same sentence, but given the two following options, combining them with a comma instead of the original period seems more natural.

Shinji looked up a little, then said in a soft voice, "Its name is Monika."

However, I have noticed in some cases it can feel better to use the period like the author does. I'm pretty sure doing either is okay in a translation.

  1. Attribution on the following line

「どうですか?」

慎司が大声で聞いた。

This is where it starts to get hairy. I personally feel like this is the sort of thing that should be combined into one paragraph in English, but is okay in Japanese. Is there a general consensus among translators for this? Because this is how I would state it. It just looks more natural to me.

"How does it look?" asked Shinji in a loud voice [loudly].

  1. Pseudo-attribution on the following line

「まさか。木の枝か何かだろう」

そう受け流しながらも、私もなんだか嫌な感じがした。

For this one I'm going to straight up ask if modifying the paragraph structure like this is okay:

"I'm sure it was just a tree branch or something," I said, brushing it off. Still, I had a bad feeling about this too.

I don't honestly know--does Miyabe breaking it up like she does carry some kind of additional meaning? Would I instead leave it something like:

"I'm sure it was just a tree branch or something."

Though I brushed it off, I had a bad feeling about this too.

  1. Split lines with actors changing in the middle

「お仕事中に、まことに申し訳ありません」

生駒が口を切ると、川崎は鷹揚な感じで手を上げた。

「かまいません。ちょうど授業のあいだですから」

Literally translated, this sentence structure--correct me if I'm wrong--almost never comes up in English, but I see it somewhat often in Japanese. And it looks awkward if you keep the paragraphs the same. Below is my personal method of translating things like this. Is it okay? Should I not be juggling phrases around so much, or is the sacrifice worth it for the sake of good flow?

Ikoma broke the silence. "We're terribly sorry for disturbing you during work."

Kawasaki lifted his hands in a generous way. "I don't mind," he said. "I was just between classes."

I add a "he said" in to add sentence variety, since moving both those phrases before their respective quotations makes it feel pretty flat. Plus, Japanese doesn't have that quick, mid-sentence attribution you see all the time in English to break up multiple sentences of dialogue.

  1. A certain light novel author's method of attribution

I figured I'd throw this one in because I run into it a lot in a novel series I'm translating professionally (and you could probably learn which one from the dialogue) and have difficulty handling it over and over again.

「お疲れ様です、警部」

「全く、骨折り損とはこのことだ」

 白み始めた空の下で、笑い出すのを堪えていることが丸分かりな部下を叱責するでもなく、千葉警部は他人事の様にぼやいた。

This is a veritable mess to translate. If I keep the paragraph structure, it turns into something like this (dialogue liberally translated):

"Nice work out there, Chief."

"Man, that was a waste of energy."

Under a sky beginning to whiten, without scolding his subordinate who was very obviously holding back laughter, Chief Chiba muttered, as though it were someone else's problem.

The dialogue attribution is technically present--waaaaay at the end of that sentence. Is the following structural change considered kosher? Is the original even considered good writing in the first place?

"Nice work out there, Chief," said Inagaki as the sky started to brighten, very obviously holding back laughter.

Chief Chiba didn't bother to scold him for it. "Man, what a waste of energy," he muttered, as though it were someone else's problem.

This author does this all the time and it drives me up the wall. Sometimes there's even a second dialogue attribution present in the same sentence, too, in the middle of all the descriptions. Does anyone have any advice when handling things like this?

Phew. In any case, I apologize for the long-winded question. I enjoy doing research like this, but I've only been doing this job for a couple years, and these things don't quite make sense to me just yet.

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    This isn't an answer, but I felt constrained to say it: What a brilliant question! I really look forward to reading the answers. This is why I read Stack Exchange. Thanks, Andrew. – Graham Healey May 8 '17 at 8:19
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    Awesome question. I really hope this doesn't get closed because it's probably one of the best summaries of quote attribution complexities I've seen, even if this isn't the normal type of question here. – Darius Jahandarie May 8 '17 at 8:19
  • Not exactly related to the Japanese part of the question, but here's a nice essay describing "action tags" for dialogue in English fiction: litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/… – Igor Skochinsky May 9 '17 at 9:53
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I read your question, then skimmed some Japanese novels, very few English paperbacks I have, a translation of an English novel, and finally think I'm coming to understand how interesting your question is.

Though I'll not able to be of much help on how to translate them, let me share my two cents about how these things go on in Japanese from a native speaker's viewpoint.

Before discussing your examples, I'd like to say I don't think such a notion of "attribution" technically exists in Japanese writing. Authors are usually in no hurry to attach some "said he" snippets around a dialogue. It's partly due to Japanese word order problem, and as you said, that Japanese lacks a short expression to insert into the middle of a sentence. But what I think most important is that a Japanese dialogue is supposed to manifest basic information of who said it to whom, in what manner without the assist of narrative. The diversity of (pseudo-)pronouns, honorifics, ending particles, and sometimes flexibility of orthography all contribute to identification of the situation, dispensing with frequent use of "attribution", especially those intermixed with dialogues.

If you ask what you are seeing in those examples, I'd say they're something like stage directions. Average literary passages involving dialogues are written as if play scenarios with overwhelmingly detailed stage directions, and that is standard style of Japanese novels. Dialogues go uninterrupted, and further descriptions run around them.


  1. Attribution directly after dialogue

「何か轢いたのかな?」慎司は素早く言った。

It probably doesn't affect the translation, but with or without と is a big deal grammar-wise. The passage above has two sentences, where it'd be one if you insert と after the quote.

  1. Attribution on the following line

Breaking lines before and after a dialogue is the standard way we've learned in the composition class while in the elementary school. Putting narration and dialogue in one line is rather a subtle technique, so to speak.

  1. A certain light novel author's method of attribution

Is the following structural change considered kosher? Is the original even considered good writing in the first place?

Yes, it's good writing. Otherwise how could he sell over seven million copies? (And you're translating this? Wonderful, good luck!) I'm not good enough in English to judge the validity of the adaptation, so I'd like only to point out a grammatical concern, that 白み始めた空の下で "as the sky started to brighten" is qualifying 千葉警部 in this sentence. I'd visualize a shot centering Chiba who stands with his back to the brightening sky from the original passage.

  • Thank you so much! This really helps me understand how Japanese authors write prose. Now that you've said there really is no method of "attribution" when writing, things start to make a lot more sense. Also—probably just my ignorance speaking, here—but I have trouble following a lot of that author's passages, and I personally don't think it's a very good /book/. But if you say that excerpt is well-written, then I'll reevaluate my outlook. (My impression, stereotypical though it may be, is that people really into LNs wouldn't know good writing :X) And thanks for the correction as well~ – Andrew Prowse May 8 '17 at 20:14
  • Also, I upvoted your answer, but I'm going to leave the question open in case anyone has any ideas about good translation practice for all this. – Andrew Prowse May 8 '17 at 20:18
  • Ack, and sorry for all the comments, but regarding your point on the dialogue itself expressing who's talking and how, that's something I realized as well. Japanese seems to rely a lot more on things like 語尾, 敬語, etc. etc. which help convey information about that in-line rather than relying on attributions outside the quotations. Interesting! – Andrew Prowse May 8 '17 at 20:23
  • @AndrewProwse That's no problem. I don't think I'm capable of giving a perfect answer to it in the first place, as I'm obviously not an English speaker. It will be a good learning to me too if someone posts about translation practices. – broccoli forest May 8 '17 at 23:45
  • @AndrewProwse As for "people really into LNs wouldn't know good writing" part, it's not totally your illusion :D but you can trust the writing quality at least regarding books published from major labels. They do have good editors and proofreaders. – broccoli forest May 8 '17 at 23:58

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