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Mary read a Japanese novel yesterday.

Which of the following is correct?

  1. The novel is written in Japanese.
  2. The novel may be an English/French/etc… translation of a novel written in Japanese.

I asked this question to some Japanese who are more competent in English than I am, but none of them could answer, hence this thread.

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  • 6
    As you say, it is ambiguous. Japanese can mean the language or the country. You'll need to ask Mary for clarification. Jan 6 at 20:55
  • 3
    There is no difference. Jan 6 at 21:05
  • 1
    A Japanese novel does not tell us if the novel was translated into English or if she read it in Japanese. You can substitute any language there and the result is the same. That said, if speaking to English speakers, I'd say: I read a French novel in the original yesterday.
    – Lambie
    Jan 6 at 21:39
  • 3
    say "a novel in Japanese" if you mean the novel was written in Japanese. Otherwise, say "an English translation of a Japanese novel" or "an English novel written by a Japanese author" if it was written originally in English by someone who is Japanese.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 6 at 22:31
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    Yes, but he was born in Japan, and his mother and father were Japanese - so yes he has a British passport now, and obviously speaks English - but he is not a native English speaker. He moved to the UK at age 6. He is quite famous, and has a Nobel Prize for literature.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 6 at 22:44

5 Answers 5

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It is ambiguous and could mean many different things:

  1. It was written in Japanese and may or may not have been translated to another language

  2. It was written/published in Japan (in any language)

  3. It was written by a Japanese person (in any language from any location)

  4. It discusses issues related to Japan or Japanese people

The most likely is (1), but you will either need to infer from context or ask for clarification.

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  • 7
    Upvoted because I agree with 1,2,3; but I think 4 would be "a book on Japan" or "a book about Japan" or "a book on Japanese culture" or informally "a Japan book", but not "a Japanese book".
    – Stef
    Jan 7 at 15:30
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    @Stef Re. 4: yes, you'd probably use another expression for that, as you illustrate — but not certainly.  For a similar example, with no other context, ‘a Japanese guidebook’ would be a guidebook for visitors to Japan, not necessarily by a Japanese person, nor in Japanese, nor written or published in Japan.
    – gidds
    Jan 7 at 17:17
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    Yeah context matters the most. First thing that comes to mind is "is Mary learning Japanese?"
    – Piro
    Jan 8 at 7:41
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    Regarding 4, it's less common, but I'd certainly call a book about Japanese history "a Japanese history book", which is ambiguous. And if someone lived in Japan for a year and later wrote a book about it, you could call it "their Japanese book" even if they were American and wrote it in English in New York - even a work of poetry in a Japanese style might be called "the Japanese book/poetry" at least to distinguish it from other books/poetry they wrote. Context is all.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 8 at 11:21
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    I find the specific use of "novel" a bit interesting, as that may refer to the non-physical arrangement of prose itself, which is closely linked to the form in which it was originally written. Great Expectations is a Victorian novel because the prose - the novel itself - was written in Victorian times. A copy printed in 2024 might be a modern book, but it's not a modern novel. Without further specification, I'd usually take "novel" to refer to the intellectual content and story rather than the particular form it takes. I'd say a Japanese novel remains Japanese when translated. Jan 8 at 14:47
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Language is vague. "Japanese novel" normally means a novel written in Japanese (there is no requirement for it to be written by a Japanese person, lots of English novels are written by people who aren't English)

But I've read "Face of Another" (他人の顔) I read it in English. Did I read Abe Kobo's book? Yes. Is his book a Japanese novel? Yes. Did I read a Japanese novel? Errr... Yes, in some sense. If someone asked me if I've ever read a Japanese novel, I could answer "Yes, but only in translation."

Language is vague on this point. But don't worry since there is unlikely to be much doubt about the particular meaning, and there are lots of ways to resolve any ambiguity. If Mary is a random English person, then the probability that she reads Japanese well enough to read novels is pretty low. But if you know that Mary has been living in Tokyo and studying Japanese for five years, then the context changes.

What about "American novels" - Probably written in (American) English, and so they are mostly also English novels. But some American novels are written in Spanish. What about Welsh novels. It's hard to tell without context. Is this a novel with a distinctive Welsh setting? A novel by a Welsh author? A novel written in Welsh (even though the author is Argentinian-Welsh)

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    In most English-speaking countries, I am sure the first thing the other person would say is 'What, in the original Japanese?'. Jan 6 at 21:17
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    @James K Interesting. In Japanese, the ambiguities you mentioned are very unlikely to happen. Thanks, James.
    – Kaguyahime
    Jan 6 at 21:19
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    I was going to mention 'American' since there is no language by that name (but a dialect of English). Jan 6 at 21:38
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    @Kaguyahime There functionally is a set orthography for Ainu (actually two), it’s just de facto and not de jure. But that doesn’t really matter, because the orthography does not change the underlying language. It’s no different from how transliterating 富士山 as ‘Fujisan’ or ‘Huzisan’ does not change the fact that it is Japanese. Jan 7 at 17:58
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    English is a language with out its own script... (we use the Latin script)
    – James K
    Jan 7 at 23:09
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English is not my native language, which means that I have the advantage of actually being taught these things.

This is according to my teacher some decades ago, he generally taught us British English.

"a Japanese novel" was originally written in Japanese. It may have been translated to another language.

"a novel in Japanese" is currently written in Japanese, it may have been translated into Japanese.

"a Japanese novel in Japanese" is possible, but usually given as "a novel in the original Japanese".

Other meanings should be stated explicitly: "a novel by a Japanese author", "a novel about Japan", "a novel set in Japan" etc.

Of course, my teacher may have been teaching me a standard that nobody follows...

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    But it depends on how likely people are to be confused, e.g. Wilbur Smith's Egyptian series is a series of novels written in English about ancient Egypt, not in any variety of Egyptian, ancient or modern dialect. Because nobody writes in ancient Egyptian and the modern dialect is more commonly called Egyptian Arabic or Colloquial Egyptian.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 8 at 11:32
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    If you want to be really clear that it's written in Japanese, it would be "A Japanese-language novel". Jan 9 at 3:23
  • "I have the advantage of actually being taught these things" - sorry, but English is governed by 'real world' usage, so 'knowing the rules' is often a distraction. You even note yourself that you were taught British English, rather than US English or Indian English, both of which are close to being separate languages.
    – MikeB
    Jan 9 at 8:33
  • If you are speaking English and your interlocutor and you not speak Japanese, "I read a Japanese novel" would have to be a translation...
    – Lambie
    Jan 10 at 20:34
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It is ambiguous. Readers will assume it is a translation, unless we have been told that Mary can read Japanese

Strictly speaking, there is not enough definite information to say what language the book is written in. However, for me, a native speaker of British English, the answer is (2): the novel originated in Japan, but is most likely a translation.

“Japanse novel” alone does not automatically mean that the text of the novel is in the Japanese language. It does strongly suggest that the novel was originally written in the Japanese language, but in this sentence, the better assumption is that it is a translation of that original text.

The reason for this is partly grammatical, but also semantic. First, the grammar: “Japanese” is an adjective here, and means nothing more than “belonging to or relating to Japan, its people, or its language”. So, replacing the word “Japanese” with its definition, we get:

  • A novel belonging to or relating to Japan, its people, or its language

This does still allow the meaning “written in Japanese”, but to explain why it does not in this case, we have to leave the world of grammar and look at what else the sentence is telling us.

Forming assumptions

The sentence:

  • Mary read a Japanese novel yesterday

gives us no definite information about the language the book was written in, but it does give us a clue: the use of the European name “Mary” is what tips the balance to the decision that the book is not in Japanese. Why? Because a randomly-chosen woman named “Mary” is unlikely to be fluent in Japanese, so it’s a safe assumption to make that the book is not in Japanese, unless we learn otherwise.

But it’s important to note that as the reader, I am guessing here, and that the sentence still did not tell me anything definitive about the language of the book: for all I know, Mary is a professor of Modern Japanese Literature at the local university. But until I learn differently, it’s a safe assumption to make.

To see how this kind of assumption works, consider a slightly different, but grammatically identical sentence:

  • Tsumugi read a Japanese novel yesterday.

Now the word “Japanese” strongly suggests that the novel is also written in Japanese, and all we did was change the name of the reader! But the reasoning is the same: how likely is it that a randomly-chosen woman named Tsumugi can read Japanese? Very likely. So, once you recognise that Tsumugi is a Japanese name, it’s safer to assume that the book was in Japanese.

But again, this is just as much an assumption as before. If we limit our reasoning to what we know from the two sentences, it’s entirely possible that Tsumugi and Mary are sisters, they live in Africa, and that both of them speak only French.

Guiding your reader into assumptions like this is a useful technique if you are writing mystery stories, but it’s not a good idea in other kinds of writing. It is better to be unambiguous.

How to be clear

If you want to unambiguously say that the text of the book is in Japanese:

  • Mary read a novel in Japanese [common usage]
  • Mary read a Japanese-language novel [more formal or technical usage]

To draw attention to the fact that the book was in Japanese, rather than in translation:

  • Mary read Snow Country in the original Japanese yesterday

P.S.

“Yesterday” also makes this sentence sound unusual. The word “novel” applies only to long stories, usually of over 75,000 words, but the combination of “read” (past perfect) and “yesterday” in this sentence implies that Mary completed the book, from start to finish, in one day. That’s not impossible by any means, but it isn’t something that would be casually stated in this way.

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    If you are speaking English and your interlocutor and you not speak Japanese, "I read a Japanese novel" would have to be a translation...
    – Lambie
    Jan 10 at 20:34
  • @Lambie - I agree, and that’s the basic argument I make in my answer: the most likely reading of “Japanese” as an adjective here is “of Japan”, unless the context very strongly implies “in the Japanese language” - and the only thing that can provide this context in the OP’s sentence is the given-name of the reader.
    – KrisW
    Jan 12 at 9:30
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  1. Mary read a Japanese novel yesterday.

Does Mary read Japanese? Yes or No? Yes. Therefore, she read it in Japanese.

  1. Mary read a Japanese novel yesterday.

Does Mary read Japanese? Yes or No? No. Therefore, she read it in translation.

FOR THE RECORD: this is not a question about the English language. It would be true of any languages with adjectives similar to how they work in English.

It's quite simple really in terms of no other context.

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