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I'm reading Harry Potter in Japanese and it goes:

力は失せ、命も絶えなんとする姿で、ヴォルデモートは逃げ去った。
His powers gone, his life almost extinguished, Voldemort had fled;

命も絶えんとする姿で would make sense to me, but it's a bit confusing with the extra な. What is it? Can it be the perfective ぬ (as in 風が立ちぬ =The wind has risen)?

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  • Why they used an expression like this in a children’s book is beyond me.
    – aguijonazo
    Jan 6 at 2:12
  • 読んだことないですが、ファンタジー作品ならこういう古めかしい表現もあるのかなー、と思ってました。現代文では「さもありなん」を除けばまず見ないですよね…。
    – naruto
    Jan 6 at 3:18
  • @aguijonazo I have often heard people say that the translation of Harry Potter is strange, but I don't think I've ever found a breakdown of why people think so.
    – Leebo
    Jan 6 at 3:44
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    @Leebo By googling "harry potter 翻訳おかしい," you can find some interesting Japanese threads like detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q13174025388
    – Jimmy Yang
    Jan 6 at 5:35
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Yes, that な is the irrealis form (未然形) of ぬ from classical Japanese. ぬ is usually the auxiliary for the perfective aspect (as in 風立ちぬ), but when it's combined with an auxiliary of inference such as ん (=む), it emphatically adds the degree of certainty.

(2) 強意…[きっと~・~してしまう]

船にのりなんとす。(土佐日記・一二月二七日)
 (船に乗ってしまおうとする。)

※「つ」・「ぬ」+推量の助動詞
 つべし・ぬべし・てむ・にむ・つらむ・ぬらむ・てまし・なまし・にけむ・てけむ
 などの推量の助動詞とともに用いられる場合は強意となる。

②〔確述〕きっと…だろう。間違いなく…はずだ。▽多く、「む」「らむ」「べし」など推量の意を表す語とともに用いられて、その事態が確実に起こることを予想し強調する。

完了の助動詞「つ」「ぬ」を解説!【古典文法】

推量(系)の助動詞と連携

この「つ」「ぬ」は推量(系)の助動詞(いずれ出てきます)とも連携します。そして、なんと推量と連携する時、「つ」「ぬ」は新たな文法的意味を獲得します。それが 「強意」

この時の「つ」や「ぬ」の意味は「完了」ではなくて「強意」です。訳す際には、「きっと〜だろう」と訳し、「きっと」のところに「強意」の意味が反映されています。

So:

  • 絶えん (絶えむ) = 絶えるだろう
  • 絶えん (絶えなむ) = 間違いなく絶えるだろう/絶えてしまうだろう

See this entry, too.

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    Fascinating question and answer. I have a question about native speakers' general knowledge of this type of construction. Do native Japanese speakers only understand such things because they have studied 文語 at school? Or do they have a kind of vague intuition about some Classical constructions (e.g. -む ~= だろう) even though they have never formally studied Classical Japanese?
    – jogloran
    Jan 6 at 1:07
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    @jogloran Simple ん/む for volition/inference (e.g., いざ行かん, さもあらん) is relatively common in manga and lyrics, so most people know how it works intuitively. なん/なむ is much less common, and average native speakers don't understand it intuitively. I think I knew about it before the university entrance exam, but I had forgotten about it until yesterday.
    – naruto
    Jan 6 at 3:26

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