Studies of grammar in prose

Using 是-sentences to express the content of memories

16 April 2016

At an earlier post I noted the following sentence:

Tā zuì hòu yīcì “xiàn shēn” jù xìn shì 14 rì chén chuānguò biānjìng cóng fàguó huí dào bǐlìshí
His most recent "appearance" is believed to be [ on the morning of the 14th (he) crossed the border from France back to Belgium ]

Using a 是-sentence like this to equate his most recent 'appearance' (他最后一次“现身”) to the entire clause 'on 14th (he) crossed the border from France back to Belgium' (14日晨穿过边境从法国回到比利时) does not sit well from the point of view of English, which requires the addition of 'when', that is:

His most recent "appearance" is believed to be [ when he crossed the border from France back to Belgium on the morning of 14th ].

'When' in this case is equivalent to 'the time when'. That is, English logically prefers to equate the noun 'most recent appearance' to another noun, 'the time when'. By contrast, Chinese is happy to equate 最后一次“现身” ('his most recent "appearance"') to a full clause.

my most xxxx memory

Recently I came across several more examples of 是-sentences in Mo Yan's lecture at the time of receiving the Nobel Prize. Each sentence heads up a paragraph, and takes a form similar to the following:

wǒ jìyì-zhōng zuì xxx de yì-jiàn shì (jiù) shì...
The most xxx incident in my memory was...

As in the example at the earlier post, the copula shì is followed by a clause or sentence that simply narrates the event in question. That is, an incident (一件事 yī-jiàn shì) is equated straightforwardly to a narrative. (Grammatically, the memory is equated to the first sentence or sentences of the narrative, which then simply continues on as any other narrative would.)

The four sentences are as follows. For convenience, the narrative sentence is placed in square brackets:

我记忆中最早的一件事,是 [ 提着家里唯一的一把热水瓶去公共食堂打开水 ]
wǒ jìyì-zhōng zuì zǎo de yì-jiàn shì, shì [ tí-zhe jiā-li wéiyī de yī-bǎ rèshuǐ-píng qù gōnggòng shítáng dǎ kāishuǐ ]
The earliest incident in my memory was [ I carried our family's only thermos to go to the public canteen to fetch boiling water ]
我记忆中最痛苦的一件事,就是 [ 跟随着母亲去集体的地里捡麦穗 ],
wǒ jìyì-zhōng zuì tōngkǔ de yì-jiàn shì, jiù shì [ gēnsuí-zhe mǔqīn qù jítǐ de dì-li jiǎn màisuì ],
The most painful incident in my memory was [ I went with my mother to collective land to pick up wheat ],
我记得最深刻的一件事是 [ 一个中秋节的中午,我们家难得地包了一顿饺子,每人只有一碗 ] 。
wǒ jìde zuì shēnkè de yì-jiàn shì shì [ yīge zhōngqiū-jié de zhōngwǔ, wǒmen jiā nándé-de bāo le yīdùn jiǎozi, měi-rén zhǐ yǒu yī-wǎn ].
The incident that I remember most deeply was [ one noon in the mid-autumn festival, our family had managed to make a meal of jiaozi (dumplings), each person just had one bowl ]
我最后悔的一件事,就是 [ 跟着母亲去卖白菜,有意无意地多算了一位买白菜的老人一毛钱 ]。
wǒ zuì shēnkè de yì-jiàn shì, jiù shì [ gēn-zhe mǔqīn qù mǎi báicài, yǒuyì wúyì de duō suàn le yīwèi mǎi báicài de lǎorén de yī-máo qián ].
The incident that I most regret was [ I went with mother to sell Chinese cabbage; intentionally or not I calculated an extra ten cents for the Chinese cabbage of one old man ]

In the third example 'one midday in the mid-autumn festival' is a sentence adverb. The incident is the fact that the family made dumplings one midday in the mid-autumn festival.

Mo Yan's speech has been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt. His translation of the four sentences is as follows:

'My earliest memory was of taking our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'

'My most painful memory involved going out in the collective’s field with Mother to glean ears of wheat'

'My clearest memory is of a Moon Festival day, at noontime, one of those rare occasions when we ate jiaozi at home, one bowl apiece'

'My most remorseful memory involves helping Mother sell cabbages at market, and me overcharging an old villager one jiao – intentionally or not, I can’t recall'

Goldblatt translates 我记忆中最xxx的一件事 wǒ jìyì-zhōng zuì xxx de yì-jiàn shì 'the most xxx incident in my memory' as 'My xxx-est memory'. This is followed by one of two structures.

The first structure involves using 'of', which is short for 'the memory of'. In other words, the translation means

'My xxx-est memory is [the memory] of'.

What comes after 'of' is the '-ing' form of the verb ('taking'), which is usually identified as a gerundive, that is, a form of the verb that is functionally equivalent to a noun.

In the third sentence, Goldblatt refers to

the memory of 'a Moon Festival day, at noontime,...'.

In the original Chinese, the content of the memory is not 'a Moon Festival Day', but the making of dumpling or jiaozi on that day. While this has no impact on the sense of the sentence, it does represent a departure from the original structure.

The second involves using the vague but extremely useful word 'involve'. This verb is frequently used in English as a versatile way of indicating the 'content' or 'implications' of another word or phrase in the sentence. It also involves using the gerundive.

Goldblatt's translation uses a relatively terse literary style. In ordinary spoken English it is possible that 'when' or 'how' would be more commonly used. For example, the first sentence above could be translated into fairly colloquial English as:

'My earliest memory was (of) when I took our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'


'My earliest memory was (of) how I took our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'

In written English this would generally be regarded as too 'loose' or 'diffuse', and Goldblatt's rewriting is typical of the written language. Interestingly, the German translation of this sentence uses the pronoun wie 'how':

Meine früheste Kindheitserinnerung ist die, wie ich als kleiner Junge mit unserer einzigen Thermoskanne bei der öffentlichen Kantine abgekochtes Wasser holen gegangen bin.

(For more on 是-sentences, see post on Indicating the content of news and missions.)