~ている – Stative Gerunds

現在進行形 is the name of the tense (present progressive in English). You’re probably well familiar with this pattern. 食べています (tabete imasu). 飲んでいます (nonde imasu). Eating stuff. Drinking stuff. Doing stuff in general.

But I was reminded last week by 落ち着いている that you have to be careful with this pattern in Japanese because the same construction can be used as stative description depending on the verb. One of the best examples of this is the phrase 変わっている. This should not be translated as “is changing.” If something is 変わっている it means it is “in a changed state,” i.e. it is strange or weird. This is often used to describe quirky, unusual people.

You have to be vigilant not to fall into this traps. I recently had to pull myself out of one. In the Murakami story “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall,” there is a short introduction where the narrator meditates on the uncertainty and ineffectiveness of words:






I initially translated that last line as “And the next moment words are dying.” But it actually should be “And the next moment words are in the state of being dead”; in other words, “words are dead.” This passage is interesting because you have three different conjugations of the verb die: 死ぬ (shinu), 死んでいく (shinde iku), and 死んでいる (shinde iru). Here is the translation I ended up with:

There are too many things I want to say and too few things that I am able to say.

And to make matters worse, words die.

Every second words are dying. Words die in alleyways, in attics, in the wilderness, and in waiting rooms at stations with the collar on their coat turned up.

Excuse me, sir! The train is here!

And the next moment, words are dead.

I guess if you wanted to be more dramatic and read into it a little you could go with “Every second words are uttered and then go off to their death” for 死んでいく. Anyone have other ideas?

If you are trying to say “is changing” you should probably say 変化している (or possibly 変身している), or you could bust out some ところ action and say 変わっているところ.

Other frequently used examples are:
開いている。 It’s open.
閉まっている。 It’s closed.
冷えている。 It’s chilled (and ready to drink).

Maintain gerund vigilance.

9 thoughts on “~ている – Stative Gerunds

  1. Facebook friend Wake says: Good one. 結婚している is one of these, isn’t it?

    Yup, that’s a great example. Probably didn’t come to mind because I am 結婚していない.

  2. Hm, interesting translation dilemma. I think that “are dying” is actually probably not so bad at capturing the sense of the Japanese because “words are dying,” to me at least, communicates a similar sort of intimacy or immediacy of their peril as the Japanese in this case. However, if I were to attempt some more imaginative translations:

    “Every second, [more] words wind up dying.” This injects a bit of the sense of process in a sort of a chatty, colloquial sense, which may fit Murakami. I like the added ‘more’ because it’s easy, flows well, and emphasizes the continual nature of what he’s talking about, but it isn’t strictly conveyed in the original sentence, so I certainly don’t insist on it. Incidentally, I also thought about “words turn up dead,” which sounds like they’ve been offed by the mafia and is an engaging verbal play, but that would seem to invert the focus (sounds more like “-te kuru”, as per your entry of the other day).

    “Second by second, words meet their demise.” A bit baroque, perhaps.

    “Tick, a word is born; tock, it’s already dead.” This is dramatic and concise, and I like it a lot. A variant, “Tick, a word is born; by tock it will be dead,” would more faithfully plant the English reader in the same place as the Japanese reader. The latter is a bit less bluntly satisfying, but it has other virtues. One problem with both, though, is that the original doesn’t necessarily measure the lifespan of a word, but the frequency with which they die, so this takes a bit of liberty with the text.

    Finally, all the above translations are more colorful renditions in English than the Japanese is. They seem to me to stand out more prominently and call more attention to themselves. Is this a problem? Maybe not– the whole thought is imaginative and could bear some embellishment to tease that out (I play a little with the two 死んでいくs, just for fun):

    So many things that must be said; so few which can be said.

    And to top it off, the words die.

    Every second, more words wind up dying. On the pavement, in the attic, in the wilderness, and in the station’s waiting room: with collars still turned up, words turn up dead.

    Sir, the train has come!

    And the next moment, the words have died.

    What do you think? (Sorry, this turned into a very long comment….)

  3. Other good examples from facebook friend Dave: I guess 酔っ払っている or 酔っている fall into this category as well.

  4. DBP: I like the way you rendered 死んで行く using “more” – that’s a really interesting way to translate it. The “tick-tock” line is fun, but I think a little too loose of an interpretation. Way more colorful than the Japanese. This is Murakami back in 1980, so short and sweet is probably best.

    I also like the “And the next moment, the words have died” after the station attendant’s line. I left it all as just “words” because Murakami later personifies ことば and has a conversation with it (them? – he calls words おまえ). I thought it sounded weird with a personified “the words,” but now I can see that that line could refer specifically to the bolded line and not words in general.

    Everything else looks good, too. I prefer to think of words with a turned-up collar slumped over dead on a bench at a station waiting room (out in the inaka with one of those gas heaters, preferably), so I’m not a fan of the way you separated off that one clause and made it apply to everything, but it’s a legit translation. Also, that first sentence should probably be a complete sentence, and I think it deserves a pronoun even though it lacks a 僕 because of this line that comes later: 語りつづけるためには、僕には時間というものがどうしても必要なのだ。僕は語りつづけねばならぬ, but that’s me cheating a little because I’ve read the whole story.

    This 2ch thread has a bit of “The Town” typed up, but it’s a bit soupy and hard to dig through unless you know what you’re looking for: http://mentai.2ch.net/book/kako/999/999352393.html.

  5. Daniel,

    Thanks for your comments on my translation, and for your approval where applicable. As you saw, I eventually shied away from the tick-tock line for much the same reasons you mentioned. I’ve not read nearly as much Murakami as you, in either language, so I don’t claim to really know what fits his style the best; but his writing is definitely fun to read and translate as far as I’ve done so.

    In light of what you wrote about the larger context, I agree with your idea of making the first line more personal. I was translating quickly and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to render that part the best. I think I was drawing a mental parallel to “So much to do, so little time,” but it was slapped off pretty quickly.

    Regarding the station bit, I had much the same image, but envisioned it as a trail of destruction across the landscape. Still, on consideration I think you’re right that it’s easiest to pull off (at least, while staying as close as possible to just what was written in the Japanese) applying that phrase just to the final item in the list. And, of course, the explicit そして helps justify that decision. So perhaps your rendition is better.

    Otherwise, I’ll try to get at that 2ch thread when I get a chance. I am reading this from work and should probably not install their ‘tools’ on this computer, but maybe when I get home I can check it out. Thanks!

  6. I’ve been thinking more and more about that first line. There is something nice about making it more general the way you have it, and Murakami does usually mark his narrator with 僕. That said, I think that 語る (which seems to link it to other parts of the text) is a decent enough excuse to throw the “I” in there.

    Maybe it could work in third person – “There’s too much we have to say, and always too little we are actually able say.”

    And, oops. Just spotted the spelling mistake with そして. I’ve lost my original copy of the story and was pasting from that 2ch thread. Will have to fix that.

  7. Interesting article. I think ~ている was a form that I didn’t really understand properly for the longest time because of the tendency of textbooks to equate it to the gerund when in fact it is often used to describe a state. Although perhaps not directly related to your comments which mainly relate to the present tense, in the past tense, particularly with negative constructions, it’s very difficult to translate sentences such as the following if you think in terms of ~ている=gerund:

    仕事に行ってなかった I didn’t go to work (I was in a state of not having gone to work)
    本を持ってきてなかった I didn’t take the book with me (I was in a state of not having taken the book)

    There are still a few cases where I’m still not sure I understand the difference. For example:




  8. I think the ongoing action vs changed state use of ている problem is one of those pitfalls that formal, textbook, classroom only language learners find daunting, that gets worked out pretty quickly when you’re actually reading/using Japanese.

    I see 死んでいる very often and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it confused with being in the process of dying, since its pretty much the standard, no frills way to say X is dead in Japanese. Also, in the \the next moment\ indicates that its something happening quickly, not a process.

    On the other hand I think you’re original \words are dying\ is really poignant, as a loose, more poetic translation, but it probably doesn’t fit as well with Murakami’s treating words like people conceit.

    Also, this is just a guess not based on any kind of formal grammar knowledge, but isn’t:

    田中さんはどこに行ってたの? Where has Takana-san gone to?
    田中さんはどこに行ったの? Where did Tanaka-san go?

    Could it be that the first one suggests he may have gone somewhere and maybe be \in the state of still being there\, while the second one all we know is he went somewhere and we don’t have any reason to know what happened after he went?

  9. Could we refer to 北斗の拳 on this one?


    I think the best translation is “You are already dead!” because, even though technically Kenshiro is saying “You are already dying!” the statement is more powerful in English if death is a foregone conclusion. Reason being, perhaps, the English “you are dying” does not always imply the person will die. (i.e. “He’s dying, doc, you gotta help him!”)
    In Japanese, however, 死んでいる is perhaps more definite in meaning.

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