Reading "Botchan" by Natsume Soseki, one sentence at a time

I have an idea that may or may not be silly. I am thinking of reading Botchan, a 1906 novel by Natsume Soseki, as a beginner with very limited experience in Japanese. The only experience I do have is also from a couple years ago. I do not think this would work if I were doing it alone, but if there’s interest within the community, I think we could all learn quite a bit.

I chose Botchan because it is in the public domain (we can post the contents on the forum freely), with an e-book available through Aozora Bunko and an audiobook available through LibriVox. It is also widely studied and translated into several languages; there are multiple English translations to choose from.


Let’s work through the book at a glacial pace: one sentence at a time. c1p1s1 (to facilitate searching: chapter 1, paragraph 1, sentence 1), as it appears in the e-book, is

親譲(おやゆず)りの無鉄砲(むてっぽう)で小供の時から損ばかりしている。

With additional furigana (checked with a dictionary and the audiobook) for beginners like me, it is

親譲(おやゆず)りの無鉄砲(むてっぽう)で小供 (こども) の時 (とき) から損 (そん) ばかりしている。

With the help of a dictionary, it seems like 「親譲(おやゆず)り」 is something that was inherited (levels 40 and up should be able to comment more) and 「無鉄砲(むてっぽう)」 is something like “recklessness.” I believe 「小供 (こども)  ã® æ™‚ (とき)  ã‹ã‚‰ã€ is equivalent to saying “since childhood” (literally “child’s time since”) and 「損 (そん)  ã°ã‹ã‚Š ã—ている」 is roughly equivalent to “is only hurting.” My interpretation is: “My inherited recklessness has done nothing but hurt (me) since (my) childhood.”

Yasotaro Mori’s (public domain) translation:

Because of an hereditary recklessness, I have been playing always a losing game since my childhood.

I am still a beginner and I have a few questions.

  1. What is the role of the particle 「で」 here?
  2. While searching through dictionaries, I found that 「ばかり」 is often written 「許り」 with a note that it’s usually written with kana. Why is it written with kana? When would someone write it with kanji?
  3. I found that 「無鉄砲(むてっぽう)」 is phonetic (“ateji”?). Does this work like foreign loanwords in Chinese? If so, why are some foreign words written with Chinese characters while most are written with katakana?

Let me know if you’re interested in joining in!

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Lots of Japanese words that play a grammatical role are often written with kana. For example, the demonstrative pronoun: この/此の. Using kanji I think would be a very rare choice for an author and one would have to look at the context to see what the author was aiming at… Also, when いう/言う when used as quotation like in definition 〜 ということです it is written as kana. My feeling is that words that play a mostly grammatical role tend to be written in kana.

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I’m not sure, but it’s a pretty common particle, so I’m guessing it’s because people can’t be bothered to write the kanji all the time. :melting_face:

This is a pretty nutty idea. I love it. Keep it up.

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Long time ago people used ateji for foreign loan words but in modern times, katakana is the norm. I think only the last two characters 鉄砲 are ateji not the first 無. One of my JPN-JPN dictionaries gives this meaning to 無鉄砲「無手法」の意〕前後のことをよく考えない、むちゃな様子だ。向こう見ず。

I read 無手法 as meaning “without method” and although 手法 is read as しゅほう、one mixing the readings of the individual kanjis could read (incorrectly) as てっぽう …

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From the book, All About Particles,

  1. Indicates the reason for something: “because of.”
    病気で旅行に行けなかった。
    Byōki de ryokō ni ikenakatta.
    Because I was sick, I couldn’t go on the trip.
    台風で電車が止まった。
    Taifū de densha ga tomatta.
    The train stopped on account of the typhoon.
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Thanks for your help with this. That’s consistent with what I found. I saw a blog post that said 「で」 can indicate causation. It looks like it’s commonly used in the context of unavoidable circumstances like disasters, illnesses, and accidents.

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Not quite. More like “would always get hurt”. Notice that ばかり changes its meaning depending on the form of the verb: 食べたばかり・食べてばかり・食べているばかり all have distinct meanings. In the following, I used GTP chat but it matches what I learned in the classroom.

These Japanese fragments each convey a slightly different nuance related to the verb “食べる” (to eat):

  1. 食べたばかり - “Just ate” or “Have just eaten.” This implies that the action of eating was completed very recently.
  2. 食べてばかり - “Always eating” or “Doing nothing but eating.” This suggests a habitual action or emphasizes that the person is frequently or constantly eating, possibly to the exclusion of other activities.
  3. 食べているばかり - “Just keep eating” or “Just continuing to eat.” This implies that the person is continuously in the state of eating, with an emphasis on the ongoing nature of the action.
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I think this is a great project but how is your grammar level? It is great to learn grammar in context but, rather than kanji level, I think grammar is more important to be able to sail thru this project. With only N4 or N5 grammar, it might be quite painful to go over every line because there will be lots of new grammar that one would need to learn.

It’s nonexistent! I’ve never studied Japanese grammar. I’ve never studied grammar.

In each of your examples, 「ばかり」 comes after the verb. Does that change anything? I understood (損 (そん) ばかり)(している) to be roughly the same as (harm-only)(does, ongoing), as though the noun is modified before it becomes a denominal verb. I asked ChatGPT:

When ばかり is placed between a noun and the -する (-suru) part of a verb, it conveys the idea that someone is constantly or excessively doing a particular action related to that noun. This structure is often used to describe someone’s behavior or actions.

Here’s an example:

  • Noun + ばかり + する
  • Example: 仕事ばかりする (shigoto bakari suru)
  • Translation: “Always working” or “Only working”

Is it correct to say that “仕事ばかりしている” can be grouped into a modified noun “仕事ばかり” and the verb “している”?
Yes, that’s correct. The phrase “仕事ばかりしている” can indeed be analyzed as a combination of a modified noun “仕事ばかり” and the verb “している.”

  • 仕事ばかり (shigoto bakari): This part acts as a modified noun phrase and can be translated as “only work” or “nothing but work.” The term ばかり emphasizes the exclusive or predominant nature of the noun.
  • している (shiteiru): This is the present continuous form of the verb する (suru), which means “to do.” In this context, it indicates that the action of doing (仕事) is ongoing, habitual, or in progress.

So, the combination “仕事ばかりしている” conveys the idea of someone “constantly doing nothing but work” or “always working.” The modified noun plus verb structure is common in Japanese to express continuous or habitual actions related to a specific noun.

What about 損ばかりしている, then?
Certainly! Similar to the analysis of “仕事ばかりしている,” the phrase “損ばかりしている” can also be broken down into a modified noun and a verb.

  • 損ばかり (son bakari): This part acts as a modified noun phrase. 損 (son) means “loss” or “disadvantage,” and ばかり (bakari) emphasizes the exclusive or continuous nature. So, 損ばかり can be translated as “only losses” or “nothing but disadvantages.”
  • している (shiteiru): This is the present continuous form of the verb する (suru), indicating that the action of doing (損) is ongoing, habitual, or in progress.

Putting it together, “損ばかりしている” conveys the idea of someone “constantly incurring losses” or “always at a disadvantage.” It suggests a continuous pattern of experiencing negative outcomes or setbacks.

This is what I thought when I translated it as “is only hurting,” but I would say that it is “is (and has been, considering -している to indicate that it is habitual) only/always hurting.”

To be fair, though, ChatGPT is bad at explaining grammar. Trying to learn languages with a general language model is not a good idea. It can tell that the things it writes adhere to the norms of the language, but it can’t tell you why. It’s pretty easy to break it (examples are my own):

What are the tenses of the verbs in “avaient volé”?
“Avaient volé” is the passé composé tense of the French verb “voler”, which means “to steal”. …

I don’t think that’s exactly right, as “avaient” is not in the present tense.
You are correct, I apologize for my mistake. “Avaient volé” is actually in the imparfait tense of the French verb “voler”. …

What’s the difference between “j’ai préparé” and “je suis préparé”?
… “Je me suis préparé pour la fête” means “I got ready for the party” or “I prepared myself for the party.” In this case, “je suis préparé” does not require an object to be grammatically correct because the subject is the one who has prepared themselves. …

Your example has the object “me” in “je me suis préparé,” which contradicts your statement in the last paragraph.
You are correct, my previous response was not accurate. The sentence “je me suis préparé” does indeed have an object, which is the reflexive pronoun “me”. I apologize for the confusion. …

Can you explain tone sandhi in Mandarin?
… The most well-known example of tone sandhi in Mandarin is the third tone sandhi. The third tone in Mandarin is a low-rising tone …. However, when the third tone appears before another third tone, it changes to a second tone …. This change is known as the “third tone sandhi.” Here’s how it works: …

  • 他好吗? (tā hǎo ma) - “Is he good?”
  • When 他 (tā) precedes 好 (hǎo), the third tone of 好 changes to a second tone … due to tone sandhi.

I’m not even sure this example is relevant because you claim this rule applies to consecutive third tones, yet your choice only includes one word (好) with a third tone.
You are absolutely correct, and I appreciate your thoroughness in pointing out the oversight. The example I provided was indeed not ideal, as it didn’t involve consecutive third tones. I apologize for the confusion caused by this error. …

You can get ChatGPT et al. to tell you pretty much anything you want about grammar just by giving them a leading question. It’s funny when you’re aware of it, but it’s not so funny when you’re actually trying to learn. I suppose that’s why human teachers are still important (for now …).

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I’ve just recently read an explanation about “Why do words that can be written in kanji sometimes appear in kana?”

It’s the second answer in the FAQ here:

https://www.satorireader.com/help

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Sorry I misread the original sentence. I incorrectly assumed the ばかり was placed after the verb. After the noun it would fit another grammar point and the grammar structure book I use supports what you wrote. Boldface is mine.

(4)今日は朝から失敗ばかりしている。

All I’ve done since morning today is make mistakes.

(5)6月に入ってから、毎日雨ばかりだ。

Since the beginning of June, it’s been raining all day every day.

Means “only this and nothing else.” Used to say that there are many things of the same kind, or repeated occurrences of the same action or event.
As shown in (1)-(5) and (8), ばかり is often placed immediately after a noun. When it is used before が or を, it may keep the form ばかりが or ばかりを, but が and を are often dropped. With other particles, ばかり attaches to the combination of “noun + particle” and takes the forms Nとばかり and Nにばかり, as shown in (6) and (7). ばかり is never used right after まで or より, or after から when it expresses a reason. ばかり is similar to だけ and のみ. However, when it implies “repeating over and over,” “always,” or “all,” だけ and のみ cannot be used instead.

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The next sentence, c1p1s2, is a bit longer. It is

小学校に居る時分学校の二階から飛び降りて一週間ほど腰 (こし) を抜 (ぬ) かした事がある。

With additional furigana, it is

小学校 (しょうがっこう) に居 (い) る時分 (じぶん) 学校 (がっこう) の二階 (にかい) から飛 (と) び降 (お) りて一週間 (いっしゅうかん) ほど腰 (こし) を抜 (ぬ) かした事 (こと) がある。

Some background vocabulary (currently missing 腰 (こし) を抜 (ぬ) かした, for which a direct translation seems a bit clumsy to me at first glance):

  • 小学校 (しょうがっこう) : primary school
  • 居 (い) る: to exist (animate? I guess it is referring to the speaker, while the 事 (こと) がある at the end of the sentence refers to the event, but I am not sure)
  • 時分 (じぶん) : (a) time
  • 学校 (がっこう) : school
  • 二階 (にかい) : second floor
  • 飛 (と) び降 (お) りる: to jump down (it seems like this may be outdated, as I found 飛 (と) び下 (お) りる in a dictionary)
  • 一週間 (いっしゅうかん) : one week
  • 事 (こと) : thing, incident, event

Yasotaro Mori’s (public domain) translation:

During my grammar school days, I was once laid up for about a week by jumping from the second story of the school building.

The grammar here is not as intuitive, so I’m seeing why @sergiop was worried about my background! I’m going to have to research this a bit (or a lot).

時分: apparently roughly equivalent to ころ

So it could be read like this:
小学校の頃、学校の2階から…
But I don’t know the nuance of 時分

Dictionary for 腰を抜かす

Edit: it’s funny with old text how they use kanji for what would probably in hiragana nowadays 居る, 事

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In Japanese, one can append a whole sentence (subordinate clause) in front of a word to modify it like an adjective in English. Here 小学校にいる is modifying 時分. So a sentence in Japanese main have several verbs so to parse the main sentence it is often useful to look at the verb/i-adjective/copula that ends the sentence.

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It does not seem outdated. I am finding it in several dictionaries. Also the 下 is listed as the second reading not sure if the dictionary is listed as chronological order or by usage frequency. In any case, the meaning here 飛び降りる is not only of falling down but falling down from a high place (see 高い所から in the JPN-JPN definitions below).

とびおりる【飛び降りる・跳び下りる】
〔乗り物から〕 jump [leap, spring, hop] down [off]; 〔高いところから〕 leap from a height; jump to one’s death.

とび–お・りる【飛び降りる(飛び下りる)】
[自上一]
❶高い所から身をおどらせておりる。
「崖から飛び降りる」
❷走っている乗り物から飛んでおりる。
「汽車のデッキから飛び降りる」
[対義語]飛び乗る
文とびお・る(上二)
名飛び降り

とび お・りる[4]【飛(び)降りる・飛(び)下りる】
(動ラ上一)文ラ上二とびお・る
①高い所から身を躍らせて落下する。⇔飛び上がる。「枝から━・りる」「清水きよみずの舞台から━・りる」
②走っている乗り物から跳躍しておりる。「汽車から━・りる」

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I also do not know the nuance but here are several usage examples:

新和英大辞典 第5版
じぶん2【時分】
1 〔時期・ころ〕 a time; an hour.
子供の時分から
since one’s childhood.
あの時分には
in those days; at that time; then
若い時分に
when (one was) young; in one’s youth
学校へ通っていた時分に
in one’s school days; while [when] one was attending a school
その時分にはまだパソコンなど売られていなかった.
In those days (home) computers weren’t yet being sold.
妻とは富山に勤務していた時分に知り合いました.
I got to know my wife when 「I was [we were] working at Toyama.
イチゴの出盛る時分になると母は必ずジャムを作って送ってくれた.
When strawberries came into season [In the strawberry season], my mother was sure to make jam and send 「me some [it to me].
若い時分の私の写真
a photograph of me 「in my young days [when I was young].
あの時分とは時勢が変わった.
Things have changed since those days. | Things are not what they used to be.
ふるさとの長野ではそろそろ雪が降る時分だ.
Back at home in Nagano, it will be starting to snow about now.
もう月が出てもよい時分だ.
The moon should be coming up any time now.
2 〔時機〕 a suitable [the right] time; an opportunity; a chance.
時分をうかがう[見る]
watch for a good opportunity; 〔好機を待つ〕 bide one’s time.
時分はよし.
Now’s the opportunity. | This is our chance. | This is the right time.
[複合語(見出し語が後)]
今時分
⇒いまじぶん

In modern texts, this kind of “grammar word” (which includes but isn’t limited to particles) is almost always written in kana. This is a trend that dates back to the post WW2 spelling and writing reforms, which specifically recommended this, as part of cutting down on the number and variety of kanji in use. The book you’re reading is from well before WW2, but it has been modernized to use new kana spelling and new kanji forms. This modernization usually includes at least some rewriting of grammar words that were originally in kanji into kana, to be easier to read for modern readers. I don’t know if its original publication would have used kana or kanji for this specific word.

So the answer for most “usually kana” words is that you may see the kanji version:

  • in older texts and by older authors
  • in newer texts that are aiming to produce a feeling of being an old text
  • as a personal quirk of some authors who just prefer a text which has a higher density of kanji use

and you will usually not see it:

  • in books for younger readers
  • in textbooks
  • in newspapers (which tend to follow the official guidance on kanji usage more strictly than fiction authors do)

Also, some “usually kana” words are 85% kana and some are 99% kana, so there is variance also between words.

The writing reforms also did a certain amount of reduction in the variety of kanji use when a word might have multiple possible kanji you could write it with; the pre-war norm had greater variety and usually full furigana to disambiguate, whereas the post-war norm has much less furigana and relies more on sticking to a “standard” way of writing words to avoid ambiguity. Modernized texts usually do not change the kanji choices from the original, though where a particular kanji has an old and a modern simplified form they will convert it to the simplified form.

Given the text you’re reading, I would expect to see somewhat more and more varied kanji use than would be the average for a modern book.

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Thanks for your help with this, everyone. Here’s my current understanding of c1p1s2:

I am still a little confused by the first part of the sentence. Is this equivalent to (school-at)(exists a time), or is it (school-at-(I) exist)(a time)? I think the former makes more sense, but the latter would justify the use of いる. I have never seen this sentence structure before and maybe it’s something I just need to get used to.

Also, does it make sense to put the brackets around the entire first part of the sentence, or is the 事がある only talking about a smaller slice of the sentence?

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It’s いる because that’s the existence verb for people; ある is for inanimate objects. The clause means “the time when I was at primary school”; as usual for Japanese, when the subject (here 私) is obvious from context it is not stated.

For 事がある personally I would put the opening bracket before “学校の…” but I don’t think it makes a big difference and the other way is not wrong.

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