Is it 縁 or 貝? I have consulted two translations, and they both make different choices.

The shell was big and smooth and sharp-edged. (Breaking into Japanese Literature; trans. Giles Murray)

The shell was sharp, with a long, gently curved edge. (trans. Matt Treyvaud)

Is this sentence ambiguous for native speakers, or would they always attribute adjectives and modifiers to the closest noun (i.e. would the first translation above correspond more to 縁の鋭い大きな滑かな貝であった)?

  • 1
    この朗読 では、「真珠貝は 大きな 滑かな 縁の鋭い貝であった」と読んでいるので、 "The shell was big and smooth and sharp-edged." と解釈してますよね。
    – chocolate
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 0:56
  • この朗読 も。
    – chocolate
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 1:09
  • ありがとうございました!じゃ、読み方によって、例えばイントネーションとかポーズとか、解釈が変わるでしょうね。
    – polygokko
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 4:14
  • I admit I would find it funny if @Matt answered this question. Commented May 18, 2022 at 0:36

2 Answers 2


In terms of syntax, 大きな can be interpreted as modifying either 縁 or 貝. The same is true for 滑らか, but this is almost theoretical and most people would see '滑らかな縁' as a chunk.

In terms of meaning, it is not ambiguous mainly because people at least vaguely know what 真珠貝 looks like. Also, whether 大きな modifies 縁 or 貝 does not make much difference: a long edge means a large shell and vice versa.

That said, to me, 大きな modifies 貝. So literally it means The pearl oyster was a large shell with a smoothly-curved sharp edge.

This kind of ambiguity is common. A famous example is 黒い目のきれいな女の子, which is said to admit 18 ways of parsing. (See this for example).

  • It sounds a bit strange to me to say "The pearl oyster was a large shell". It sounds natural to say "The pearl oyster was a large shellfish". The other translations seem to sidestep this by just leaving out "The pearl oyster."
    – Leebo
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 23:40
  • @Leebo It seems to refer to the outer shell (I may be wrong on the difference of shell/shellfish). Anyway I meant it as something closest to word-for-word translation that respects English grammar, not as a proper translation.
    – sundowner
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 1:20

I would interpret it as...

The shell was big and smooth and sharp-edged.

... where 大きな, 滑らかな and 縁の鋭い modify 貝, 縁の鋭い being one chunk.

So I would read (朗読/音読) it like this:

「真珠貝は 大きな 滑らかな 縁の鋭い貝であった。」

... with a pause between 滑らかな and 縁.

To say "The shell had a big, smooth and sharp edge", with 大きな and 滑らかな modifying 縁, I would say more like...

「真珠貝は 大きく滑らかで鋭い縁の貝であった。」 大きく, 滑らかで and 鋭い all modify 縁. (This can still be ambiguous, though.)
or maybe...
「真珠貝は 縁が 大きく滑らかで鋭い貝であった。」(This one can also be ambiguous, though: "a large-edged, smooth, and sharp shell" (縁が大きく、滑らかで鋭い貝)? "had a large and smooth edge, and was sharp" (縁が大きく滑らかで、鋭い貝)?)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .