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I have a text in my learning materials as follows:

彼ら は 自分 の 事 しか 考えて いません。

Its translation is apparently "they only think of themselves".

Now it all makes sense to me until the ません at the end. To my mind it negates the entire sentence. So it means that they DON'T only think for themselves. However, obviously that isn't the case.

If anyone could clear this up, or give me resource for it, that would be amazing. My Japanese level is elementary at the moment.

  • 3
    In addition the answer below, start thinking of しか as "but/except/besides" and eventually it will become second nature. – istrasci Nov 20 at 15:43
  • @istrasci That makes a lot of sense! The way I've learned it is that while しか and だけ both imply 'only this thing', だけ conveys a sense of that thing being enough, and so comes in a positive sense, whereas しか implies that that thing by itself is insufficient and so takes a negative. '欲しいのは一つだけ': 'there's only one thing I want (and that's plenty); '1回しか勉強できませんでした': 'I was only able to study once' (and so failed the test, or somesuch). Is that also a reasonable understanding? – Steven Stadnicki Nov 21 at 17:21
  • Translations may be morpheme-for-morpheme literal, which reads horribly but can help in figuring out the source text, or loose as in this case, which reads naturally but can wind up just being confusing as all get out. Be very wary of trying to use translations as a means of understanding the finer points of Japanese grammar. Just as the "a / the" distinction, grammatical number, or gender cannot be translated well into Japanese, so too do things like しか...[NEG VERB] not translate well into English. – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 21 at 18:10
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi: Just as the "a / the" distinction, grammatical number, or gender cannot be translated well into Japanese, so too do things like しか...[NEG VERB] not translate well into English I disagree. I think しか〜ません translates perfectly into English. 彼らは ("They"), 考えていません ("do not think (of)"), 自分の事しか ("(anything) but themselves"). – istrasci Nov 21 at 18:25
  • @istrasci, yet as we see in the original post, the translation was entirely misleading. I suppose for the specific instance of しか...[NEG VERB] I should have added "not always translate well". (Some things just flat don't translate, like the は・が distinction, contrastive は, subtleties in semantic transitivity in 他動詞 vs. syntactic transitivity in English "transitives", etc.). – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 21 at 18:51
33

「彼{かれ}ら は 自分{じぶん} の 事{こと} しか 考{かんが}えて いません。」

While the translation:

"They only think of themselves."

is a valid one in the sense that it successfully conveys the basic meaning of the original, it can also be highly misleading as far as the grammatical understanding of the original.

The original Japanese sentence is indeed in the negative form even though the English translation I just called 'valid' is clearly in the affirmative form.

The key word is 「しか」, which is always used in conjunction with a negative verb phrase.

「Noun + しか + Verb in Negative Form (Verb + ない/ません, etc.)」

Literally means:

"to not [Verb] anything but [Noun]"

Therefore,

「自分のことしか考えていません」

literally means:

"not thinking about anything except for themselves"

which in turn means:

"to only think about themselves"

The less wordy translations, therefore, tend to be used more commonly over time.

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