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Un oiseau qui meurt as translated in 'The Little Prince',
Japanese versions

 

The expression un oiseau qui meurt ('a dying bird'), is translated in a number of ways in Japanese.

Meurt is the present tense (2nd person) of the verb mourir 'to die'. It indicates an action that is in the process of taking place, expressed by the present progressive in English as 'a bird which is dying'. (Four English-language translators translate the expression as 'a dying bird'. One uses 'a bird dying of...'.)

In Japanese, the attributive expressions qui meurt and 'dying' can both be expressed in the form of rentai-shushoku (連体修飾 rentai shūshoku), the Japanese equivalent to the relative clause, which is also known as an 'adnominal clause'. The adnominal clause is a clause which is placed before the noun and modifies it.

The main challenge is how to capture the progressive sense of 'dying' in the verb 死ぬ shinu 'to die'. Japanese does have a progressive verb form. It is formed with the -te form of the verb, followed by the auxiliary verb いる iru. For example, 食べている tabete iru ('is eating'), 歩いている aruite iru ('is walking'), etc.

The problem is that this only works with some Japanese verbs, those verbs that indicate ongoing actions. Unfortunately, 死ぬ shinu 'to die' isn't an 'ongoing action verb'; it is a verb indicating a 'change of state'. When verbs indicating a change of state are put in the -te iru form, what they indicate is the resulting state. Japanese 死んでいる shinde iru does not mean 'is dying'; it means 'is dead'.

Thus, while 飛んでいる鳥 tonde iru tori 'flying bird' might be fine, 死んでいる鳥 shinde iru tori 'a dead bird', is definitely inappropriate. (Note that in rentai-shushoku, ている -te iru can be replaced with -ta, the past tense, with no change of meaning. Thus, 死んだ鳥 shinda tori is the same as 死んでいる鳥 shinde iru tori). To express the idea of death being in the process of taking place, Japanese translators have to turn to other solutions.

A common one in such circumstances is 死のうとしている鳥 shinō to shite iru tori. However, this is not really a very elegant expression and could possibly be interpreted as 'a bird that is trying to die'.

The solutions reached by the Japanese translators are quite varied, and involve both attempts to find other words than 死ぬ shinu 'to die', and the use of various grammatical devices to indicate that the action is progressive.

〜そう -sō
2
息も絶えそうになっている iki mo todae-sō ni natte iru 'look like expiring'
1
いまにも死にそうな ima ni mo shini-sō na 'look like dying any minute'
1
Two translators use the 〜そう -sō form, which indicates that something 'looks like it's about to happen'. But in addition to using different verbs for 'to die', the two translators use different endings after 〜そう -sō. One is content to connect to the noun with na; the other adds になっている -ni natte iru, indicating 'being in a state of'. One translator uses いまにも ima ni mo, which indicates that the bird might die 'any moment'. 〜そう -sō is a useful choice because it indicates that the bird is giving visible signs of being about to die.
 
〜うとしている -ō to shite iru
1
息絶えようとしている iki-todaeyō to shite iru 'about to expire'
1
This is the same as the 死のうとしている shinō to shite iru alternative that I mentioned above. However, the translator has changed the verb into something a little more dignified.
 
Future form
1
息絶える iki-todaeru 'going to expire'
1
The translator uses the infinitive form, which usually indicates futurity. Again, the verb 死ぬ shinu has been changed into something else.
 
〜ていく -te iku
1
死んでいく shinde iku 'dying'
1
The ていく -te iku form indicates that something is happening gradually. This also indicates futurity, but emphasises the graduality of the process.
 
〜かけ -kake
5
死にかけた shini-kaketa 'dying'
2
死にかけている shini-kakete iru 'dying'
2
いまにも死にかけている ima ni mo shini-kakete iru 'dying any minute'
1
This is deservedly the most popular alternative. The verbal suffix 〜かける -kakeru indicates a process that has begun but has not yet finished. Translators use both the ている -te iru and -ta verb forms. Either is acceptable and the meaning is the same. One translator uses いまにも ima ni mo, indicating that the bird may die any moment. This should be understood as a combination of two expressions: いまにも死ぬ ima ni mo shinu 'die any minute' and 死にかける shini-kakeru 'to be on the way to dying'.
 
~まぎわ -magiwa
1
死ぬまぎわの shinu magiwa no 'on the verge of dying'
1
Rather than play with verb endings, this translation inserts the noun まぎわ magiwa 'verge, edge'. The meaning is 'bird on the verge of dying'.
 
瀕死 -hinshi
3
瀕死の hinshi no 'on the verge of death'
2
死に瀕している shi ni hinshite iru 'verging on death'
1
These translations turn to slightly different expressions. 瀕死 hinshi is a compound meaning 'on the verge of death'. It is also used in the Chinese translations. The alternative 死に瀕している shi ni hinshite iru uses the verb 瀕する hinsuru 'be on the verge of'. In either case, this solves the problem posed by the 'change of state' nature of the verb 死ぬ shinu 'to die'.
 
虫の息 -mushi no iki
1
虫の息になっている mushi no iki ni natte iru 'faint of breath'
1
This translation turns to a different solution. The bird is described as 虫の息になっている mushi no iki ni natte iru, literally 'having an insect's breath', which indicates nearness to death.

While the underlying problem is grammatical issues with Japanese tense and aspect, it is still quite amazing that a simple expression like qui meurt should be translated in such a variety of ways.

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