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From the start of 星の王子さま:

僕が六歳だったときのことだ。「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことを書いた本で、すごい絵を見た。
It was when I was six years old. I saw an amazing picture in a book called "Stories that Really Happened" that (someone) wrote about the primeval forest.

I'm a bit confused about 書いた here. I would have expected this to be in the passive form. Since it is not, there must be some implied subject of the verb, but these are the first two sentences of the book so the only subject I can imply is "someone".

Is this usual in Japanese? Would 原生林のことを書かれた本 be more, or less natural, or equally acceptable, and why?

I read this question but I don't think the answer is applicable in this case.

Edit:

I've just realised I'm even more confused, because in my interpretation 本 would have been the object of 書く before it was made into a relative clause. But after making it a relative clause 書く is now taking a second object: 原生林のこと. So if 原生林のこと is the object then wouldn't 本 have to be the subject, so I would get "a book that wrote about the primeval forest". But books don't write things. People write things in books.

In the active sentence I guess I would have said something like 原生林について本を書いた. So perhaps my alternative should have been 原生林について書かれた本.

  • Would 原生林のことを書かれた本 be more, or less natural... -- You meant to write 原生林のこと書かれた本, no? – Chocolate Oct 8 '17 at 15:10
  • @Chocolate To be honest, I'm not sure what I meant. Now that you point it out, neither が nor を really seem to work for me. But somehow, I still feel that passive would be more natural. I'm confused. – user3856370 Oct 8 '17 at 15:23
  • Yes, 原生林について書かれた本 is a book written about the primeval forest. The main content of the book should be the untouched forest. – user25382 Oct 8 '17 at 16:10
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    Related: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/21772/5010 In this case, both 原生林のこと書かれた本 and 原生林のことを書いた本 are totally fine, but the former would be a little easier to understand because it doesn't rely on "implicit subject switching" of the relative clause. – naruto Oct 9 '17 at 1:16
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Both Aのことを書いた本、Aのことが書かれた本 are used.

As you understood, Aのことを書いた本 is translated as "a book in which someone wrote about A" and Aのことが書かれた本 is translated "a book which was written about A".

原生林のことを書かれた本 would be unnatural and 原生林について書いた本 would also make sense.

In the case that you want to refer to a specific writer, it would be usually said like 村上春樹が戦争のことを書いた本, but not passive(村上春樹によって戦争のことが書かれた本).

  • a book which someone wrote about A -- "a book in which someone wrote about A" って言いたいんじゃないですかね? – Chocolate Oct 9 '17 at 14:04
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    @Chocolate I actually feel that both "a book which someone wrote about A" and "a book in which someone wrote about A" are both correct. In the former sentence 'A' would be the whole content of the book. In the latter, the book may contain things other than 'A'. I think you are strictly correct that 'in which' is better in this context, but I don't think most native speakers would worry about the difference. I didn't notice a problem until you pointed it out. – user3856370 Oct 9 '17 at 14:46
  • @user3856370 Oh.. I thought "a book which someone wrote about A" was a relative-clause version of "Someone wrote a book about A", and "a book in which someone wrote about A" was that of "Someone wrote about A in a book"... and I thought Tam meant the latter, rather than the former. (Actually I feel 「Aのことを書いた本」 is more like "a book which wrote about A", though...) – Chocolate Oct 9 '17 at 15:36
  • @Chocolate Your understanding is perfect. I just think native speakers (me) are a bit lazy and wouldn't care too much about the distinction in this context. Others may disagree with me. Your interpretation of 「Aのことを書いた本」 agrees with goldbrick's analysis and makes me happy because I thought 本 would have to be the subject. Of course, the direct English translation with 本 as the subject sounds weird. It's strange that we are happy for books to "tell" us things (even thought they don't talk), but we don't like them to "write" things. – user3856370 Oct 9 '17 at 15:52
  • @ Chocolate I mean it is "Someone wrote a book about A". However I always thank people who correct my English. – Yuuichi Tam Oct 9 '17 at 16:00
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(1)「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことを書いた本で、

(2)「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことが書かれた本で、

(1)も(2)も普通に理解できます。ここの文章で大切なのは、このフレーズに続く「すごい絵を見た」ですから、(1)や(2)の部分は読み飛ばすから気にしないのでしょう。 でも、読み飛ばさずに気にしてくれと言われると、確かに、(2)の方が良い文かなと思います。
それでは、何故(1)でも理解でき、余り問題にしないのでしょうか。 無理に考えろと言われると、それは、読者が、(3)のように、「書いた」の主語である「作者が」省略されているからと理解するからでしょう。日本語では分かっていることは明示しないことが普通であり、「作者を」敢えて書くと文がくどくなるからでしょう。 こういう日本語の習慣から、読者は絶えず隠れた主語を意識して補充することに慣れていますので、(1)で「書いた」となっていても問題にしないのでしょう。ところが、(1)のフレーズの後で「すごい絵を見た」となると、この時点で着目点は「本」に移動しますので、「作者」の存在が邪魔になります。従って、(1)を読み飛ばすことなく何度か丁寧に読むと、着目点が移動しない(2)の方が良いと思えるのでしょう。

(3)(作者が)「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことを書いた本で、すごい絵を見た。

ところで、私は、(1)に近い表現ですが、「作者が」登場しない(4),(5)なども自然に読めるので好きです。

(4)「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことを書いてある本で、すごい絵を見た。
(5)「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことが書いてある本で、すごい絵を見た。

(4)と(5)なら、(5)の方が好きです。

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In 「原生林のことを書いた本」, the 「本」 is not the object of the verb 「書いた」 (as in 「私が書いた本」: "book I wrote") since the object slot for 「書いた」 is already occupied by 「原生林のこと」. (You can say 「本を書いた。」 and 「原生林のことを書いた。」 but not 「本を原生林のことを書いた。」)

There are two ways I can see of looking at the syntax of 「原生林のことを書いた本」.

In the first one, it's one of those Japanese relative clauses where, in translating to English, you have to fill in the semantic gap that results between the relative clause and the modified noun by some preposition. And the required preposition in this case would be "in". In this analysis, the subject of the clause is "its author" or the like, but is omitted since it is so obvious that mentioning it would be tedious and even silly.

「原生林のことを書いた本」:

"book [which] [its author] wrote about the primeval forest" ← This, though grammatical English in itself, does not reflect the syntax of the original Japanese very well. (In the Japanese, 「本」 is not the object of 「書いた」.)

"book [in which] [its author] wrote about the primitive forest" ← Now that's what I'm talking about.

Alternatively, it is possible to think of the 「本」 as the subject. (In fact I'm more partial to this interpretation.):

「原生林のことを書いた本」: "book that wrote about the primitive forest"

True, books don't write their contents, their authors do -- but by virtue of metonymic transfer of the agency of writing from the author to their works, you are well-justified in writing constructions of this kind, as far as Japanese is concerned. This practice is more common and commonplace than you might think. Examples from everyday speech and prose abound. Take 「朝日の記事はこう書いている。」: "An article in The Asahi has written thus." or 「そこについてもこの本は色々書いてくれている。」: "Thankfully, on that matter, too, this book has written plentifully."

  • I wish I could give this one a tick as well. I went with Yuuichi Tam since he answered the title part of the question, but this answer is also really helpful. Sorry. – user3856370 Oct 9 '17 at 14:39
  • Oh, it's no problem. I should have addressed that other one, but, alas, my brain was so taxed grappling with the one I did address that it totally forgot about it. And as for「原生林について本を書いた」 and 「原生林について書かれた本」, they are both good Japanese. – goldbrick Oct 9 '17 at 15:54
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I think your points are all correct, from my understanding of Japanese, this sentence, 「ほんとうにあった話」という原生林のことを書いた本, sounds a little bit awkward because there should be a subject, it's omitted. When sentences are passive voice in English, it don't necessarily have be followed by 'by subject' in the grammatical point, it just occurs to this Japanese sentence. As far as a formal and precise conversation goes, 書かれた本 would be preferred. I more often hear 書かれた本 in media or serious situations, 書いた本 sounds slightly fancier and simpler.

Additionally, the omitted subject can be inserted into somewhere in that sentence, but still it'll result to be wordy and messy.

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