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The Treatment of Relative Clauses in the Description of the Basilisk in Translating Harry Potter (Book 2)

Too often relative clauses are regarded as a point of grammar, whereas they are often better treated as a point of style. That is, understanding them does not involve what they are; it is much more important to understand how they are used.

One feature of the description of the Basilisk is the heavy use of attributive relative clauses (clauses using 'which' or 'that' modifying nouns).

If you look up grammar books, you'll find a lot about the grammatical functions of relative clauses. Apart from some basic stuff, in particular the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses (see below), these grammatical explanations are of limited use in analysing how relative clauses are used in writing. This passage by Rowling is a good example.

    Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk, known also as the King of Serpents. This snake, which may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years, is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad. Its methods of killing are most wondrous, for aside from its deadly and venomous fangs, the Basilisk has a murderous stare, and all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death. Spiders flee before the Basilisk, for it is their mortal enemy, and the Basilisk flees only from the crowing of the rooster, which is fatal to it.

Full texts of translations into Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian can be found here.

Content of the page:

The Grammar of the relative clause in English

Relative Clauses as a device in writing:

Summing up


First off, a brief look at the grammar of attributive relative clauses.

Relative clauses: the grammar

The best way to explain relative clauses is through example. The clauses shown in italics below are relative clauses modifying 'wand':

    The wand that was lying on the floor was broken.
    The wand which was lying on the floor was broken.

This particular type of relative clause is known as a 'restrictive relative clause' because it restricts what 'the wand' refers to. In other words, the sentences are not just talking about any old wand, but the particular wand that was lying on the floor. The restrictive relative clause is essential to the meaning of the whole because of its role in specifying the wand being discussed. It cannot be left out. These kinds of restrictive clause are also known as 'integrated relative clauses' because they are integrated into the construction containing them, especially in terms of content.

There are, however, certain kinds of integrated relative clause that are not actually 'restrictive' in their function. For example:

  • She has no monetary worries. She has two sons who support her financially.
  • I go to Hanoi a lot. I have a brother who lives there.

The first sentence could mean that she has two sons who support her and another son who doesn't. If this is what is meant, the clause would be restrictive in meaning, specifying that only a subset of her sons, those who support her financially, are being discussed. But it is equally possible that she has only got two sons, both of whom are supporting her financially. 'Who support her financially' in this case is an integrated clause, but does not serve to restrict the meaning to 'those two sons who support her financially'.

Similarly for the second example, where 'who lives there' is not restrictive in meaning; it is an explanation as to why the speaker goes to Hanoi a lot. These two examples can't be classed as non-restrictive clauses (see below) because they can't be left out without changing the meaning.

Fo another example, see the High Inquisitor's Order Banning Teachers from Giving Students Extraneous Information.

A second kind of relative clause is the 'non-restrictive relative clause', also known as the 'supplementary relative clause'. An example is:

    The wand, which was lying on the floor, was broken.

In the written language, the clause is contained inside commas, which cordon it off from the rest of the sentence. In spoken English, the non-restrictive clause is likely to be spoken with specific intonation and emphasis. The relative clause does not restrict the meaning of the word 'wand'; it almost casually adds extra information, as if to say, 'oh, and by the way, the wand happened to be lying on the floor'. It could be left out without making much difference to the primary meaning of the sentence, namely, 'the wand was broken'. The name 'supplementary relative clause' refers to the fact that the information is not fully integrated into the larger structure and is not necessary for identifying the referent (the particular wand being referred to).

For information on relative clauses, see Edufind (several pages — Edufind uses 'defining clause' in preference to 'restrictive clause'), Grammar Workshop, and Using English.


Relative clauses as a device in writing

The passage describing the Basilisk contains several relative clauses, which we will discuss one by one. (There is one example, 'all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death', which I will leave out of consideration. This instance has grammatical complexities which distinguish it from the others.)

Example 1: Integrated Relative Clause

The first sentence contains an integrated relative clause (in italics).

Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk...

While this is an integrated clause, it is less clear whether it is restrictive or not. The relative clause is used to characterise which beasts and monsters are under discussion, that is, fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, as opposed to, say, fearsome beasts and monsters that live in the depths of the oceans or fearsome beasts and monsters that fly through the air. In this sense it plays a restrictive role. Still, from a functional point of view, it's not intuitively true that this relative clause really just restricts the scope of 'beasts and monsters'. It can equally be understood as a means to impart alarming background information — that fearsome beasts and monsters can be found roaming our land. What looks like a clearcut grammatical device is also imbued with functions related to style and the delivery of information.

This stylistic purpose is highlighted by the construction that it occurs in. 'Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land' is placed right at the start of the sentence. It is not simply a phrase containing a restrictive relative clause; it is a sentence opening that provides a dramatic backdrop to the description of the Basilisk. See the difference between what Rowling writes and a more straightforward version:

Straightforward version:    
None of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land is more curious or deadly than the Basilisk
Rowling version:    
Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land there is none more curious or deadly than the Basilisk

What Rowling resorts to here is a ready-made literary device that follows the formula: 'Of the many x that...., the most y is the ...' The restrictive relative clause forms just one part of this pattern. The effect is as we have seen here, setting a grand background for what follows.

This sentence pattern is frequently encountered in English prose. A few examples from the Internet:

  • Of all the knuckle headed stuff [that] I've done, driving the wrong way isn't on the list.
  • Of all the incompetent Ukrainian governments that have led the country, the current coup government may be the most incompetent of all.
  • Of all the unkind things that Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has ever said, his invective against the obese is probably the most awful.
  • Of all the idiotic contrivances foisted upon helpless womankind, the bustle is certainly the worst.

Another example is this sentence, found in the 19th-century book The Young Mechanic (quoted here):

    Of all people in the world who must not be neglected are, first and foremost, "Our Boys" and, of all boys, mechanical boys deserve a very high place in our estimation.

While the grammatical details are slightly different, these sentences share a similar structure — 'Of all the xxx + relative clause'.

This kind of structure has become so entrenched that the relative clause can even be omitted in colloquial English.

  • Of all the idiotic things! Bringing a 15-year old to fucking Germany! He could have gotten you killed.

If, as this suggests, the restrictive relative clause is more decorative than necessary, choosing content for the relative clause may be less about restricting the scope of reference than it is about adding additional information.

Rowling's sentence can be derived from two sentences:

Many fearsome beasts and monsters roam our land. Of these, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk.

By breaking the sentence down into its two components, we can see its real import. The first part conveys the alarming information that many fearsome beasts and monsters are roaming our land. The second singles out the Basilik as being particularly fearsome. Far from being designed to restrict the topic to a specific type of monster, the relative clause plays an important role in reinforcing the message of the sentence.

Let's see how the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and two Mongolian translators handle this passage.


Type One: Mechanical reproduction of the relative clause in the target language

Three translators translate the sentence exactly according to the structure of the English original.

The Taiwanese translation into Chinese is:

在我們國土上漫遊的眾多可怕野獸與怪物裡面 其中最希罕,同時也是最危險的種類就是蛇妖
zài wǒmen guótǔ-shàng mànyóu de zhòngduō kěpà yěshòu yǔ guàiwù lǐmiàn qízhōng zuì xīhǎn, tóngshí yě shì zuì wēixiǎn de zhǒnglèi jiù shì shéyāo
Among the [that] roam in our country many frightful wild beasts and monsters of these the most curious and at the same time most dangerous type is the Snake Demon

The Japanese translation is:

我らが世界を徘徊する多くの怪獣、怪物の中でも、 最も珍しく、最も破壊的であるという点で、 バジリスクの右に出るものはない
warera ga sekai o haikai suru ōku no kaijuu, kaibutsu no naka demo mottomo mezurashiku, mottomo hakaiteki de aru to iu ten de Bajirisuku no migi ni deru mono wa nai
Even among the [that] roam our world many frightful wild beasts and monsters in terms of being the rarest and most destructive there is nothing to top the Basilisk

The Vietnamese translation runs:

Trong số những ác thú và quái vật đáng sợ đi lang thang trên mảnh đất của chúng ta không có con nào lạ lùng hơn và nguy hiểm hơn Basilisk.
Among the many fearsome beasts and monsters [that] roam our land there is none stranger or more dangerous than the Basilisk.

Comment: The effectiveness of these translations varies.

Japanese makes extensive use of relative clause-like structures known as rentai shushoku (連体修飾 rentai shūshoku). In such clauses the verb (in this case 徘徊する haikai suru 'to roam') comes at the end and links directly to the following noun (多くの怪獣、怪物 ōku no kaijū, kaibutsu 'many beasts and monsters').

The particle mo, meaning 'also' or 'even', adds emphasis. Whereas the English simply says 'Of the many beasts and monsters', the Japanese says 'Even amongst the many beasts and monsters', hinting that something even more terrifying is about to come.

In the rest of the sentence, the translator uses a structure different from the English, apparently in order to create a more authoritative tone.

Vietnamese modifying clauses, like English relative clauses, follow the word modified, often without a marker equivalent to 'that'. The Vietnamese is almost translated word-for-word from English.

The Taiwanese version is problematic for its structural clumsiness. The Chinese equivalent of relative clauses uses the connecting particle de. Like Japanese, and unlike English, the modifying clause comes before the noun modified. If the clause gets too long, the sentence can become ungainly and difficult to understand. The 'clause + de structure' was originally relatively uncommon in Chinese but under the influence of English translations has become widespread, especially in certain styles of academic or official writing.

A secondary problem in the translation is that 'of the' is rendered twice, first as 在...裡面, then again as 其中.

Given that the main purpose of the opening words, 'Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, ...', is to provide a dramatic start to the passage, one has to question the need to follow the English so closely.

The only point in favour of this approach is that it imitates the ponderous academic style that might be found in reference books describing the Basilisk.

Type Two: Reproduction of a relative clause-like structure, minus 'roaming'

The most recent Mongolian translation uses a structure that is roughly similar to the English relative clause but also different from it.

Mongolian version (2):

Манай дэлхий дээрх мангас чөтгөрүүдүүдийн дунд... Василискаас илүү сонирхолтой, үхлийн аюултай амьтан үгүй билээ.
Manai delkhii deerkh maŋgas chötgörüüdiin dund ...Vasiliskaas ilüü sonirkholtoi, ükhliin ayuultai am'taŋ ügüi bilee.
Among (that are) in our world beasts and monsters, there is no more curious or deadly creature than the Vasilisk...

Comment: Mongolian is structurally similar to Japanese and has an equivalent to rentai-shūshoku. However, the translation adopts a peculiar structure that is specific to Mongolian: the word дээрх deerkh, consisting of дээр deer 'on' plus the suffix х kh, yielding a 'quasi-verbal' form meaning 'which is/are on'. This is used as an attributive modifying the noun. While it preserves the use of 'among', the translation fails to render the verb 'to roam'. Perhaps the translator felt that the essential meaning, 'beasts and monsters in our world', was adequately captured by дээрх deerkh, and that 'roaming' was a superfluous filler, but by failing to capture this nuance of the original the translation arguably falls short.

Type Three: Translation broken down into underlying sentences

The Mainland Chinese version does not try to knit the whole together as in the English original. Instead it splits the sentence into its two underlying clauses:

zài wǒmen guójiā, yóudàng-zhe xǔduō kěpà de yěshòu hé guàiwù,
In our country are roaming many frightful wild beasts and monsters,
qízhōng zuì líqí, zuì jùyǒu shāshānglì de mòguòyú Shéguài
of these, the most curious, the most lethal does not surpass the Snake Monster

Comment: The translation transforms the dramatic opening gesture of the English into an independent sentence. (Note on grammar: Placing the verb 游荡着 yóudàng-zhe 'are roaming' before 许多可怕的野兽和怪物 xǔduō kěpà de yěshòu hé guàiwù 'many frightful wild beasts and monsters' creates a 'sentence of existence' in Chinese. The structure tells us that 'something exists', that is, 'There are many frightful wild beasts and monsters roaming in our country'.)

While it does not exactly follow the English grammatical structure, the translation accurately reflects the total effect, i.e., the procession from 'fearsome beasts and monsters roaming the land' to 'the most curious and lethal is the Snake Monster'.

Type Four: Translation broken down into underlying parts while omitting content

The older Mongolian translation is highly abbreviated.

Mongolian version (1):

Энэ хорвоод тоо томшгүй олон мангас байдаг ч Басилиск шиг аймшигтай нь үгүй.
En khorvood too tomshgüi olon maŋgas baidag ch Basilisk shig aimshigtai n ügüi.
Though in this world there are innumerable monsters none are as terrible as the Basilisk.

Comment: This Mongolian translation converts the first clause into a declarative sentence, followed by the particle ч ch meaning 'even' or 'though'. This omits the word 'roaming', losing the impact of Rowling's English. The result is a stripped down translation that conveys the basic meaning of the English but dispenses with those elements that give it interest and flavour. The second part is also abbreviated from the English original.

While ranking translations in different languages is tricky, we can say that:

  • The Japanese and Vietnamese are unproblematic in translating the relative clause since the equivalent structures fit naturally into the sentence.
  • Of the two Chinese translations, the Mainland Chinese version adopts the superior approach, achieving the same effect as the English with two separate sentences. The Taiwanese translation suffers from awkwardness in directly reproducing the English relative clause with the de construction.
  • Both of the Mongolian versions omit the word 'roam' in translation, which detracts from the effect aimed at by the author. The newer translation using дээрх deerkh is, however, superior to the heavily abbreviated older version.

The rest of the relative clauses in the passage are supplementary, which, as I said above, add extra information almost incidentally. But once again, the relative clauses that Rowling uses are not simply grammatical devices; they also have informational and stylistic functions that are important.

Example 2: Supplementary Relative Clause

This is a textbook example of additional information casually tacked on.

...the Basilisk [which is] known also as the King of Serpents

'Which is' has been omitted. In full, this sentence would be '...the Basilisk, which is known also as the King of Serpents'.

In our examples, there are two methods of handling this.

Type One: Translation as a short additional sentence

Almost all translations treat the truncated relative clause as a separate sentence.

Mainland version:

...Shéguài, yòu bèi chēng wéi Shéwáng.
...the Snake Monster, (this) is also known as the Snake King.

The Taiwanese version:

...Shéyāo, yì chēng wéi Wàn-shé-zhī-wáng.
...the Snake Demon, (this) is also known as the King of the Snakes.

Vietnamese version:

...Basilisk, còn được gọi là Tử Xà.
the Basilisk, also known as the Death Snake.

Japanese version:

Bajirisuku no migi ni deru mono wa nai. "Dokuhebi no Ō" to mo yobareru.
...there is nothing to top the Basilisk. It is also known as the 'King of venomous snakes'.

Mongolian version (1):

Басилиск шиг аймшигтай нь үгүй. Түүнийг Могойнуудын хаан гэдгээр мэднэ.
Basilisk shig aimshigtai n ügüi. Tüüniig Mogoinuudiiŋ khaaŋ gedgeer meden.
none is as fearsome as the Basilisk. It is known as the King of Snakes.

Comment: These translations append the information about the Basilisk's alternative name as a separate sentence. Orthographically, four separate the additional sentence with a comma while two use a full stop.

The choice of this method of translation may owe something to Chinese tradition, in which alternative names are given exactly as seen in the Chinese and Taiwanese versions.

Type Two: Translation as a relative clause

Mongolian version (2):

...Могойн хаан гэгддэг Василискаас илүү сонирхолтой, үхлийн аюултай амьтан үгүй билээ.
mogoi khaaŋ gegddeg Vasiliskaas ilüü sonirkholtoi, ükhliiŋ ayuultai am'taŋ ügüi bilee.
there is no more interesting or deadly creature than the [which] is known as the King of Snakes Vasilisk.

Comment: The newer Mongolian translation translates the English clause as a modifying clause preceding the word Василиск vasilisk. This is a valid strategy in verb-final languages such as Japanese and Mongolian, which place modifying clauses before nouns, as it a useful way of packing in further information. It is also, however, a stylistic choice, as part of a strategy of accumulating detail before arriving at the final noun.

It is interesting that the Japanese translator chose what might be called the traditional Chinese approach in rendering this relative clause (adding the alternative name as an additional note) rather than the more dramatic approach of using rentai shūshoku.

Example 3: Supplementary Relative Clause

The next example also features a supplementary relative clause:

This snake which may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad

This is formed from the two sentences:

This snake may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years (This snake) is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad

The construction 'This snake, which may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years' looks like the classic supplementary relative clause tacking on additional information, but this is a poor characterisation of its function. In fact, the information that 'the Basilisk may reach gigantic size and live many hundreds of years' is no less important than the information that it is 'born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad'. The two could be reversed with very little difference:

This snake which is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad may reach gigantic size and live many hundreds of years

The use of a supplementary clause here has one purpose: to add stylistic variety to the sentence. It is a more interesting alternative to the straightforward and monotonous:

    This snake may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years. It is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad.

This can be represented as follows:

This snake may reach gigantic size, and live many hundreds of years   It is born from a chicken's egg, hatched beneath a toad

In translating this sentence it is important to grasp the stylistic function, not merely the grammatical.

How do the translators fare?

The translations can be divided into three types:

Type One: Translations that preserve the original structure

Taiwanese version:

此種 可以成長到驚人尺寸,並擁有數百年壽命的 蛇類,是由蟾蜍孵育雞蛋所生。
Cǐ zhǒng kěyǐ chéngzhǎng dào jīngrén chǐcùn, bìng yōngyǒu shùbǎi nián shòumìng de shélèi, shì yóu chánchú fūyù jīdàn suǒ shēng.
This kind of can grow to an amazing size and have a life span of several hundred years snake-type, is born from a toad hatching a chicken's egg.

Mongolian version (2):

Аварга том биетэй, олон зуун жилийн настай энэхүү могой бахын дарсан тахианы өндөгнөөс төржээ.
Avrag tom biyetei, oloŋ zuuŋ jiliiŋ nastai enkhüü mogoi bakhiiŋ darsaŋ takhianii öndögnöös törjee.
[that] grows to an amazing size and has a life span of several hundred years this snake was born from [that] a toad brooded chicken's egg .

Comment: In the Taiwanese translation, this results in a long and clumsy pre-modification to the noun 蛇類 'type of snake'. While perhaps common in certain kinds of Chinese prose, this is not necessarily a suitable place to use this kind of structure. The whole intent of using a relative clause in English is to add a variety to the sentence structure, which it does in a natural way. By using the equivalent structure the translator only makes the sentence clumsy and hard-to-understand.

Mongolian accommodates adnominal clauses more easily than Chinese, and the result is by no means awkward. However, a simpler structure would have been equally possible. Interestingly, the Mongolian translation also uses an adnominal clause to modify the noun phrase тахианы өндөг takhianii öndög 'chicken's egg'.

Type Two: Translation that uses a different pattern of relative clauses

Mongolian version (1):

The earlier Mongolian version takes only one portion of the English relative clause and puts it into an adnominal clause:

1st part    
Маш том биетэй болон өсдөг энэ могой олон зуун жил насладаг
Mash tom biyetei bolon ösdög en mogoi oloŋ zuuŋ jil nasladag
[which] can grow to a huge body this snake lives for hundreds of years
2nd part    
тахианы өндөгнөөс төрөөд бах мэлхийгээр даруулж амилдаг байна.
takhianii öndögnöös törööd bakh melkhiigeer daruulj am'ldag bain.
it is born from a hen's egg hatches from a toad's brooding.

Comment: This results in a two-part structure in which the first sentence uses an adnominal clause and the second uses a coordinate sentence.

Type Three: Translations that use coordinate clauses

Three translations place the information in a sentence of its own, which stands in a relationship of coordination with the second part.

Mainland version:

1st part
这种蛇的体积可以变得十分巨大 通常能活好几百年
Zhè zhǒng shé de tǐjī kěyǐ biàn de shífēn jùdà tōngcháng néng huó hǎo jǐ bǎi nián
This kind of snake's dimensions can become quite large [it] frequently can live many hundred years
2nd part    
它是 从一只公鸡蛋里、由一只癞蛤蟆孵出
Tā shì cóng yīzhī gōngjīdàn lǐ, yóu yīzhī lái hámá fūchū de
It is hatched from inside a rooster's egg by a toad (grammatical particle)

Japanese version:

1st part
kono hebi wakyodai ni seichō suru koto ga ari,nanbyakunen mo ikinagaraeru koto ga aru.
This snake can grow to huge size,can live for many hundreds of years.
2nd part
 鶏の卵から生まれ、 ヒキガエルの腹の下で孵化される。
 niwatori no tamago kara umare,hikigaeru no hara no shita de fuka sareru.
 is born from a chicken's egg,hatched beneath a toad's belly.

Vietnamese version:

1st part  
Con rắn này có thể sống đến nhiều trăm năm và đạt tới kích thước lớn kinh hồn
This snake can live for hundreds of years and reach amazingly large dimensions
2nd part  
Nó được phôi thai trong một cái trứng gà, nhưng được một con cóc ấp nở ra
It is conceived in a hen's egg, but is hatched by a toad

Comment: The Mainland version virtually follows the 'boring' English version suggested above. Boring though it may be in English, this is very well suited to Chinese, which traditionally has a preference for short sentences with parallelism of function. The single sentence is broken into two separate sentences.

In the Vietnamese, the first sentence consists of two parts, with ('and') providing a transition. In the second sentence, the two halves are connected by a comma. This accurately reflects the intent of the English structure.

While Japanese commonly uses the relative-clause-like rentai shushoku the translator here refrains from doing so, preferring to separate the content into independent sentences. Each sentence consists of two clauses joined by a verb-form known as ren'yokei. The ren'yokei is an 'incomplete' form that suspends the sentence, awaiting a further clause to carry on.

Example 4: Supplementary Relative Clause

The third supplementary relative clause is perhaps the most interesting.

Spiders flee before the Basilisk for it is their mortal enemy and the Basilisk flees only from the crowing of the rooster which is fatal to it

Although it takes the form of a relative clause, almost casually attached to the end, the final clause 'which is fatal to it' performs a similar function to the clause 'for it is their mortal enemy' earlier in the sentence (For a note on this see also the treatment of 'for'). The information is an explanation of the behaviour of the Basilisk, not a casual observation. The author could as well have written:

Spiders flee before the Basilisk for it is their mortal enemy and the Basilisk flees only from the crowing of the rooster for this is fatal to it

This is a good example of how writers use grammatical structures in ways that transcend the purely grammatical.

As we will see below, the four translations use different, sometimes roundabout ways to translate this seemingly innocent relative clause.

Type One: The relative clause is treated as additional information

Taiwanese version:

1st part

蜘蛛見到蛇妖就會落荒而逃 因為牠是牠們的天敵
zhīzhū jiàndào Shéyāo jiù huì luòhuāng ér tào yīnwèi tā shì tāmen de tiāndì
Spiders will flee in panic if they see the Snake Demon because it is their mortal enemy

2nd part

dàn Shéyāo wéiyī jìdàn de què shì xióngjī de tíjiào
but what the Snake Demon solely fears is the crowing of the rooster
nà duì tā lái shuō shì duó mìng de móyīn
this is a lethal magic sound to it

Vietnamese version:

1st part

Nhền nhện thường trốn chạy trước khi Tử Xà xuất hiện bởi vị đó là kẻ tử thù của chúng.
Spiders often flee before the Death Snake appears because it is their deadly enemy.

2nd part

Và Tử Xà thì chỉ bỏ chạy khi nghe tiếng gáy của gà trống
And the Death Snake will only flee when it hears the crowing of the rooster,
tiếng gà trống gáy là tai họa chí tử đối với Tử Xà.
the sound of the rooster crowing is a fatal calamity for the Death Snake.

Mongolian version (1):

1st part

Басилиск аалзнуудын заналт байсан тул, тэд түүнээс зугтдаг.
Basilisk aalznuudiiŋ zanalt baisan tul, ted tüünees zugtdag.
Because the spiders deeply hated the Basilisk, they flee from it.

2nd part

Харин Басилиск өөрөө тахиа донгодох дуунаас л айдаг.
Khariŋ Basilisk ööröö takhia doŋgodokh duunaas l aidag
But the Basilisk itself is afraid only of the sound of the chicken calling
Түүнд хор учруулж чадах цорын ганц зүйл энэ юм.
Tüünd khor uchruulj chadakh tsoriiŋ gants züil en yum
This is the only thing that can harm it.

Mongolian version (2):

1st part

Аалзнууд Василискаас айдаг, учир нь энэ тэдний өшөөт байсан юм
Aalznuud Vasiliskaas aidag uchir n en tednii öshööt baisaŋ yum
Spiders fear the Vasilisk the reason is that this was their hated [one]

2nd part

Василиск зөвхөн тахианы донгодох дуунаас айдаг.
Vasilisk zövkhön takhianii doŋgodokh duunaas aidag.
The Vasilisk is afraid only of the sound of the chicken calling.
Энэ дуу түүнд үхлийн аюултай.
En duu tüünd ükhliiŋ ayuultai
This sound is deadly to it.

Comment: Putting the content of non-restrictive relative clauses in a separate sentence is one common way of handling them in translation.

In the Taiwanese and Vietnamese translations, the content is slightly more elaborate than the original English ('this is a lethal magic sound to it', 'the sound of the rooster crowing is a fatal calamity for the Death Snake'), probably because a direct translation of 'which is lethal to it' would have sounded too bare.

Type Two: The relative clause is translated as a clause of causation/reason

Mainland Version:

1st part

蜘蛛看到蛇怪就会逃跑 因为蛇怪是蜘蛛的死敌
zhīzhū kàn dào Shéguài jiù hùi táopǎo yīnwei shéguài shì zhīzhū de sǐdì
Spiders will flee if they see the Snake Monster because the Snake Monster is the mortal enemy of spiders

2nd part

而蛇怪只有听见公鸡的叫声才会仓皇逃命 因为公鸡的叫声对它来说也是致命的
ér Shéguài zhǐyǒu tīngjiàn gōngjī de jiàoshēng cái huì cānghuáng táomìng yīnwei gōngjī de jiàoshēng duì tā lái shuō yě shì zhìmìng de
but the Snake Monster just has to hear the cry of the rooster before it will flee in confusion because the crowing of the rooster is lethal to it

Japanese version:

1st part

kumo ga nigedasu no wa Bajirisuku ga kuru maebure de aru.
The escaping of the spiders is a harbinger of the coming of the Basilisk.
naze nara Bajirisuku wa kumo no shukumei no tenteki da kara de aru.
(That is) because the Basilisk is the mortal enemy of spiders.

2nd part

バジリスクにとって致命的なのは雄鶏が時をつくる声 唯一それからは逃げ出す。
Bajirisuku ni totte chimeiteki na no wa ondori ga toki o tsukuru koe de, yui-itsu sore kara wa nigedasu.
What is lethal to the Basilisk is the crowing of the rooster and (therefore), it flees only from this.

Comment: The Chinese translator interprets the relative clause as having a causal connection. The first and second sentences are of a parallel nature, both using 因为 yīnwèi 'because'.

In the Japanese, two different structures are used.

According to the lights of Japanese grammar, the preferred sentence order is cause first, result second. The normally expected, neutral sentence structure would be:

Bajirisuku wa kumo no shukumei no tenteki da kara, kumo ga nigedasu no wa Bajirisuku ga kuru maebure de aru.
Because the Basilisk is the mortal enemy of spiders, the escaping of the spiders is a harbinger of the coming of the Basilisk.

The なぜなら...だからである naze nara... dakara de aru construction, literally, 'if (you ask) why...it is because', is a way of putting the reason clause in second place. It is typically used to render the English word 'because' since it allows the the order of the English to be preserved: 'The fleeing of the spiders is a harbinger of the coming of the Basilisk because it is their mortal enemy'.

In the second part, the explanation of causation (the Basilisk flees from the rooster because the rooster's crow is fatal to it) uses the vaguer de construction. de is the ren'yokei or sentence-linking form of the verb です/である desu / de aru ('to be'). It differs from なぜなら...だからである naze nara... dakara de aru in at least two ways:

  • The connection expressed by de is loose enough that the two sentences could be interpreted as two independent statements ('The crowing of the rooster is lethal to the Basilisk. It flees only from this'). If this interpretation is adopted, the Japanese translation belongs to the first group. On the other hand, this construction frequently implies a causal connection ('Because what is lethal to the Basilisk is the crowing of the rooster, it flees only from this'). The Japanese thus conveys a causal relationship without being overly explicit.
  • Sentences with de follow the unmarked Japanese order. As a result, the order of elements in the first part (about the spiders) is the opposite of that in the second part (about the Basilisk).

What is a less perceptible difference between the two sentences in the English ('for it is their mortal enemy' and 'which is fatal to it') is therefore transformed into a more marked contrast in the Japanese, that between the in-your-face expression なぜなら...だからである naze nara... dakara de aru and the more subtle de.

Other peculiarities of the Japanese are:

By saying that 'the escaping of the spiders is a harbinger of the coming of the Basilisk', the Japanese translator spells out what is not said in the English.

The translation of 'The crowing of the rooster... is fatal to it' uses a cleft sentence in Japanese. The literal meaning is: 'What is lethal to the Basilisk is the crowing of the rooster at dawn'.

This transforms the information structure of the Japanese version. Where the English relies on parallelism — the sentence about the spiders and the sentence about the Basilisk run largely in parallel — the Japanese sets up a conscious contrast. Roughly, the intent behind the Japanese structure is:

Sentence A: 'The Basilisk is lethal to spiders'.

Sentence B: '(So what is lethal to the Basilisk?' Answer:) 'What is lethal to the Basilisk is...'

The total effect of these various changes is to transform the contours, and to some extent the meaning, of the original English. This shows up the tendency of the Japanese translator to 'over-explain' and also suggests that she was over-influenced by Rowlings' innocuous use of a relative clause ('which is fatal to it').

It is interesting that most of the translations of this sentence are devotedly faithful to the structure of the English, using a subordinate clause (or separate sentence) to express the meaning 'because' in the first part, and two separate sentences to deal with the relative clause in the second. Only the Mainland Chinese translator has fully realised that the relative clause fulfils virtually the same function as the 'for' clause in the previous sentence.

Notably (and thankfully), translators have not translated the relative clause as an attributive (adnominal) clause. If this strategy had been adopted, the Taiwanese translation would have become 蛇妖唯一忌憚的卻是 對牠來說奪命的 雄雞的啼叫 Shéyāo wéiyī jìdàn de què shì duì tā lái shuō shì duó mìng de xióngjī de tíjiào ('What the Snake Demon fears is only the which is fatal to it cry of the rooster '), which would have been ungainly and almost incomprehensible.

Summing up

The four instances of relative clauses found in this passage (one integrated, three supplementary) each exemplify a crucial difference between 'grammatical function' and 'stylistic function'. The first relative clause adds to the dramatic introduction to the Basilisk. The second is a textbook example of tacking on information almost parenthetically. The third is a stylistic device used to add variety to what would otherwise be a straightforward string of sentences. The fourth is used as a replacement for a clause expressing cause or reason.

In the translations shown, it is clear that the grammatical structure of the English has had a excessive influence on many of the translation choices. This appears to be due to a mechanical grasp of sentence structures rather than a deeper consideration of their stylistic and informational functions.

See also "Choppy Japanese": dramatic journalistic prose, in which rentai-shūshoku plays an important part.

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