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Functional Grammar in English-Japanese Translation

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Tomoko Inaba photo1. Introduction

We use language to express our inner or outer states of beings or things. However, it is often pointed out that the structure of a given language determines the way in which the speakers of that language view the world (Wardhaugh, 1986: 212). Jakobson also acknowledges that interlingual translation involves two different codes, therefore there is no full equivalence between them (2000: 114).

Through systemic linguistic study which provides “a semantic account of the grammatical structures of the language” (White, 2001: 3), this paper will attempt to decode how the translator views and expresses the world differently from those of the original writer by examining communicative functions and meanings reflected in the structure and patterns of an English text and its translation in Japanese. Towards this end, the source text (ST) and the target text (TT) will be compared with a focus on the three primary modes of functions or meanings institutionalized in the systemic linguistics: experiential, interpersonal and textual.

2. The source text and the target text

The ST is an English newspaper editorial compiled in The Japan Times Editorials. The TT is the Japanese translation printed side by side of the ST. The Japan Times Editorials is a compilation of a number of past editorials published in a major English newspaper in Japan The Japan Times with the respective translations. Next to each English editorial, there is also a list of Japanese equivalents or synonyms of some English words and phrases used in the ST.

The Japan Times Editorials is published as a textbook for learners of English language to assist them develop their reading comprehension skills in English. Whereas the target audience of the ST is primarily English speakers, the target audience of the TT is Japanese speakers who are learning English as a foreign language. The purpose of the TT is not to allow readers to enjoy it as originals by compensating cultural differences or “to bring the writer back home” (Venuti, 1995: 30) rather, it is to assist the learners to comprehend the original English text to improve their English reading skills. Indeed, the TT includes almost all equivalents or near synonyms in Japanese. In other words, the translation is literal and their lexical and grammatical structures are retained as much as possible. If the TT is consisted of equivalents or similar words and phrases as the ST, it can be assumed that the meanings are also similar, however, when each clause of the two texts were compared, numerous mismatches were identified in terms of their experiential, interpersonal and textual meanings.

The ST is an article about unexpected pregnancy of the 39-year-old princess who is the sister-in-law of the 43-year-old Crown Princess of Japan. The backdrop to this news is that the current Japanese constitution only allows the Imperial family’s male members to succeed to the throne, however, the Crown Prince and Princess’ only child is a girl. Therefore, the government was trying to pass a new law to allow the family’s female members to succeed to the throne. And just as it was about to be realised, the news of unexpected pregnancy came along which immediately halted the establishment of the new law.

3.1 Interactive function

There is interactive or interpersonal function in each clause and every clause functions to either: a) give goods-&-services b) give information c) demand good-&-services or d) demand information. These functions are realised respectively by: a) offer b) statement c) command and d) question. In return, a set of desired responses match each speech function: a) acceptance/rejection b) acknowledgement/contradiction c) undertaking/refusal d) answer/disclaimer (Halliday, 1985: 68-69). In other words, every clause is interactive or interpersonal in that all clauses act to position both speaker/writer and listener/reader in some way (White, 2001: 7).

In order to investigate how the writer and translator interact with their respective target audiences, the Subject and the Finite which form the Mood Block of each clause have to be identified first. The Mood Block can be identified by tag questions which “contain the Subject and Finite in the reverse order from the original clause” (Butt, 2000: 91). Most clauses in the ST and TT are statements giving information with the Declarative Mood in which the Subject precedes the Finite. Towards the end of each text, several clauses are expressed with the Interrogative Moods which function to demand information.

Since both ST and TT are written texts, it is impossible to physically or verbally interact with the respective audiences, however, they may function to interact with the readers. Through the clauses which function to give information, readers are invited to either acknowledge or contradict, and through demands of information, readers may either respond to answer or disclaim.

Most of the Mood Block components (Subject and Finite) of the ST and the TT matched except for the following pair:

ST: How do you explain why some people think being a girl is such a crippling defect it automatically disqualifies you from a job that carries no power anyway?

TT: Joshi dearukotowa chimeitekina kettendeari, kekkyoku notokoro nannokenryokumonai shigotoni tsuku shikakuwo jidoutekini ubaumonodearuto naze ichibuno hitobitoga kangaerunoka, dou setsumei sureba iinodarou.

Back translation of the target text (BTT): How can it be explained that some people think being a girl is a vital defect which automatically deprives her of the qualification to engage in a job which has no power after all?

The order of the Mood Block of both ST and TT cited above is: Wh-Adjunct+Finite+Subject. Therefore, they are both interrogative clauses which function to demand information. Although they both function to demand information, the referring Subject and the Finite of the above clauses are different. Whereas the Subject of the ST is “you”, that of the TT is “it”. The Subject “you” in the ST directly addresses the readers and demands information from the readers thereby inviting them to take part in the discussion. However, “it” as the Subject in the TT includes neither the writer nor the readers and leaves both parties out of the discussion. The TT is less direct and less inclusive than the ST. Therefore, the interactive quality of the ST is lost in the TT because of the Subject alternation. Changing the Subject makes a great difference in the interpersonal meaning because the Subject is the central element of arguability of each clause (White, 2001: 84).

Furthermore, the above ST asks “you” to supply the explanation of “why some people think being a girl is such a crippling defect” however, the TT does not demand anyone to do the explaining although both texts are interrogative and demand information in terms of their grammatical order. Whereas the ST specifically demands readers to supply information about “why some people think being a girl is such a crippling defect”, the TT does not demand anyone to supply anything. In other words, the TT does not technically function to “demand information” (Halliday, 1985: 68).

Also, with the Modal Finite “can”, the TT stresses the probability of the succeeding statement and connotes that an effort is needed to “explain why some people think being a girl is a vital defect”. Moreover, the TT suggests that different views or arguments are possible, thus true value of the predication is more challenged. The TT actually functions more as a statement rather than a demand for information. In other words, the above two texts function differently in terms of their interpersonal meanings. Both are expressed in the same grammatical structure on lexicogrammar level, however, they are different on the semantic or functional level. The change of Subject and Finite in the TT results to the implication of a different interpersonal meaning.

3.2 Modal values and communicative consequences

“We use language to position ourselves to show how defensible we find our positions to encode our ideas about obligation and inclination, and to express our attitudes.” (Butt, 2000: 110) Probability or usuality of a message can be expressed by the application of Modal Finites, Modal Adjuncts and interpersonal grammatical metaphors which consist the Mood Block that is the “nub of the message” (Butt, 2000:110).

The ST writer uses several Modal Finites to signal his/her position in the ST. The TT includes the same number of words to suggest probability, usuality, typicality, obviousness, obligation or inclination. However, the translator replaces some of the original Modal Finites with Mood Adjuncts. For example:


1)      the princess must have thought

2)      the gap might be closing a bit

3)      the princess would not wish to congratulate her brother- and sister-in-law

4)      she must dread having to explain to her 4-year-old daughter


1)      Kotaishihiga kangaeteitani chigainai

2)      Sono hedatarga tasho sebamaru kamoshirenaii

3)      Kotaishihiga giteito gimaino yorokobashii shirasewo shukushitakunai darou toiunodewanai

4)      Kotaishihiwa jibunno 4saino musumeni setsumei shinakerebanaranaikotowo anjiteiruni chigainai


1)      the Crown Princess is sure to have thought

2)      the gap is maybe closer a bit

3)      the Crown Princess may not wish to congratulate her younger brother- and sister-in-law

4)      the Crown Princess is surely concerned about having to explain to her 4-year-old daughter

Whereas three degrees of probability (must, might and would) are expressed in the ST, only two levels of probability are expressed (sure/surely and maybe/may) in the TT. Furthermore, whereas the probability is expressed with Modal Finites in the ST, the TT applies only one Modal Finite and the rest are expressed by Mood Adjuncts.

In terms of the degree or level of probability, the clause 2 of the ST applies a mid Modality “might” but the equivalent TT is expressed with the Mood Adjunct “maybe” which suggests a slightly lower degree of probability than “might”. However, the clause 3 of the TT uses a greater degree of probability than that of its ST. It might be worth noting that there are fewer words to express degrees of probability in Japanese than English. For example, there are six words to express different levels of probability in English such as: would, could, may, might, will, must, etc. but in Japanese, there are only three levels of probability which are: kamoshirenai (maybe), darou (probably) and chigainai (surely). The limited modal expressions in the target language might have limited the reproduction of the same degree of modality, thereby not allowing the TT to convey the subtle nuance of modality expressed in the ST. Therefore, the translator did not have much choice in expressing the probability and usuality of the messages in the TT. Also, due to the lexical constrain or limitation of the target language, the TT cannot fully reproduce the ST writer’s position in his/her messages.

4.1 Experiential meanings

“As well as using language to interact with people, we clearly use it to talk about the world, either the external world – things, events, qualities, etc. – or our internal world – thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc” (Thompson, 2004: 86). Our language reflects the pictures of some external reality of what we see and experience or some internal reality of what we think, believe, feel, etc. When examining what is reflected in the language as a representation of some external or internal reality, we look for answers to the question of “who does what to whom under what circumstances” by which extracts the experiential function of language (Butt, 2000: 46). Most clauses are consisted of Process, Participant and Circumstance, with the Process being the core of each clause. The experiential meaning of ST and TT will be compared in the following sections with an interest in the different realisation of the Process and Participant.

4.2 Missing or replaced Process

The Process of each clause functions a central role in expressing the experiential meaning, therefore the Processes of each text will be examined to compare the experiential meanings embedded in each text. By doing so, an attempt will be made to construe the social value behind the choice of Process.

Across the ST, all clauses with the Crown Princess as their Participant are accompanied by the Mental Process, but the TT uses more Relational Processes when stating about her. Whereas 22 Processes are identified in the ST, only 20 of them are reproduced in the TT with the same type of Process, thereby functioning in the same way and conveying the same message.

What happened to those two mismatching Processes? They have been shifted or disappeared in the course of translation. In the ST cited below, “gets depressed” functions as the Mental Process by which the inner process of human consciousness is described. However, that inner Mental Process shifts to function as the Participant in the TT where the Process of getting depressed is nominalised by its form and it is applied to describe an inner state of human consciousness. There is a clear shift of Process by which results to play a different role in the TT.

ST: the Crown Princess gets depressed

TT: Kotaishihino yokuutsujotaiwa murimonai

BTT: (the) Crown Princess’ depression is not unreasonable

The Process of the ST (“gets depressed”) is initiated by Crown Princess Masako and expresses a certain extent of activeness or responsibility in her state of depression. However, in the TT, her state of depression becomes the Carrier followed by Relational Attributive Process and Attribute, thereby the ‘activeness’ of the princess’ inner state is eliminated in the TT. Compared to the ST, the TT connotes more strongly that the princess is not to be blamed for her state of depression; rather, she has less responsibility or control in her mental state.

The clauses given below also show that the ST Process (“to accede to”) transforms its functional role to that of Participant in the TT:

ST: Or why it would still be empowering to women for a woman to accede to a position of such bizarre powerlessness

TT: Hitorino joseiga sorehodo kimyoni muryokuno chiiwo tsugutoiukotoga soredemonao joseizentaiwo hagemasumonodearunowa nazeka

BTT: Or why (a) single woman’s succession to such bizarre powerless position still encourage(s) (the) whole women

The process of a woman “acceding to” a position is expressed explicitly in the ST by placing “a woman” which refers to the Crown Princess’ daughter as the Actor of the Material Process of “acceding to” a position. However, in the TT, this Material Process becomes part of Participant and changes its functions to that of Phenomenon.

Both verbal groups of the aforementioned ST express a process or state of affairs in some internal or external reality. Moreover, both Processes are accompanied by respective Agents which carry responsibility or dynamic involvement and denote a certain level of ‘activeness’—higher degree of agency as the outcome of the structural choice represented. On the other hand, the two TT clauses alter the function of the original Processes and represent them as part of nominal group instead and are ‘downgraded or ‘downplayed’ through rank-shifting. By this, the ‘activeness’ implicated in the ST is lost.

As demonstrated above, the experiential meaning of the ST and the TT are different in some cases. Whereas the ST is ‘active’ and expressive, the TT is less expressive as a result of changing the function of the original Process by replacing it with another Process. This may be due to the fact that each text has different target audience. While the ST was originally published in an English newspaper targeting non-Japanese speakers, the TT is targeted at Japanese speakers. Both aforementioned clauses are statements about the members of Imperial family of Japan. And since the Imperial family is highly respected amongst many Japanese people, the translator may have wanted to avoid being too expressive in the statements concerning the Imperial family, and may have wanted to avoid offending the readers’ sentiments towards the family in any way. As a result, the translator might have intentionally changed the Processes to be less direct and more impersonal in the statements about the Imperial family.

4.3 Choice of Participants and ideological/evaluative positions

Through analysing the Participants which are directly implicated in the Processes, the writer’s/translator’s ideological and evaluative position will be construed while focusing on the Participants that are presented as agents or initiators of actions or events.

As some verbal groups have been shifted in the course of translating, their functions have transferred accordingly. For example:

ST: (there is) No wonder the Crown Princess gets depressed  

TT:  Kotaishinino yokuutsujotaiwa murimonai

BTT: (the) Crown Princess’ depression is not unreasonable

Whereas in the ST, “the Crown Princess” is the Sensor Participant of the Mental Process and Phenomenon “gets depressed”, the princess’ role as the Sensor of the Process changes to that of the Carrier in the TT. The “active” role of the Crown Princess as the agent of getting depressed is eliminated in the TT by transforming her role to that of a possessive pronoun of the illness. While the ST puts stress or impact on the princess as the initiator of her depression, the TT simply depicts the princess’ state. By this transportation, the aforementioned TT places a greater stress on inferring that the prince is not at all responsible for her depression and that her state is totally understandable. The experiential meaning carried in the TT gives a more sympathetic sentiment for the princess than that of the ST.

Indeed, through the media, the Crown Princess is known to be an outgoing, modern, intelligent and liberal woman who used to be a high-flying diplomat at Japan’s foreign ministry before her marriage to the Crown Prince. And her prolonged depression after marriage and total disappearance from the media has long been a substantial concern for many Japanese. Many people reason that her depression is due to archaic traditions of the Imperial family. This is also mentioned in the preceding sentence of the aforementioned clause. The translator may have intentionally shifted the princess’ role to a less expressive one and made the clause more sympathetic towards the princess while taking into account of the target audience’s sentiments toward the princess; or it can even be a reflection of the translator’s own sentiments or interpretation of the situation.

5. Textual meanings

In all clauses, there is the Theme element by which enables the writer/speaker to make his/her starting point to organise their message. The Theme comes at the very beginning of a clause in order to signal what the message is “about” or the “hook” upon which the message hangs, as well as the “angle” on the message being presented (White, 2001:154).

Both ST and TT follow similar thematic structure or flow. Whereas there are nine Themes in each text, the first five Themes indicate that their messages are about the Crown Princess or a member of the Imperial family. The sixth Theme of both texts suggest to express a message about the “whole nation”, followed by the last three Themes in which they throw questions to the readers to consider the social status of “girls” or “women”. In other words, the theme of both ST and TT start from issues concerning the Imperial family then progress to address gender issues towards the end of each text.

Most Themes of the ST and those of the TT match, however, there is a case of total mismatch as shown below:

ST: No wonder the Crown Princess gets depressed

TT: Kotaishinino yokuutsujotaiwa murimonai

BTT: (the) Crown Princess’ depression is not unreasonable

Whereas the Theme of the ST indicates that it is “about” the Crown Princess as a person and suggests that the rest of the message (Rheme) “hooks” on the Crown Princess, the Theme of the TT is “about” the Crown Princess’ mental state, not about the princess herself as a person, and the rest of the message (Rheme) is the complement about her state. The clause of both the ST and TT state something related to “the Crown Princess” and “depression”, however, the textual making of these clauses is totally different because of the different point of departure. Each clause is directed to a different message and consequently they state about different things. Therefore these clauses are different in terms of textual meanings.

6. Conclusion

Although the TT is consisted of almost all ST equivalents or near synonyms, some TT clauses are significantly different from the original in terms of interpersonal, experiential and textual meanings. In the domain of the chosen texts used for this analysis, it can be said that the TT is less interactive with its readers and less expressive in representing the original writer’s position in his/her statements in terms of interpersonal and experiential meanings. The experiential meanings embedded in some TT clauses indicate some modification to suit its target readers and to meet their social values. Also, in terms of textual meanings, the point of departure in some TT statements is different from that of the ST, thereby giving a different angle on the statement.

The points mentioned here are only based on handful clauses and they may not apply to describe about English texts and Japanese translations in general. However, they evidently prove that the systemics approach is useful in identifying how each clause functions in terms of interpersonal, experiential and textual meanings. Knowing these meanings and functions may be useful to equip translators to convey the original message as faithfully and appropriately as possible in the TT.


Butt, D. et al (2000) Using Functional Grammar – An Explorer’s Guide. Sydney: Macquarie University, National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Jakobson, R. (1999) ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’. In Venuti, L. (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

The Japan Times Ltd. (2006) The Japan Times Editorials, Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd.

Thomson, G. (2004) Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Arnold

Venuti, L. (1995) The Translator’s Invisibility. London: Routledge.

Wardhaugh, R. (1986) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: Basil Backwell.

White, P (2001) Functional Grammar, The University of Birmingham, Centre for English Language Studies

Published - July 2009

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