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The strangeness of Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X')

Is 'translationese' translatable?

15 September 2017 (updated December 2017)

cover of Japanese version by Bunshun Bunko

In 容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha ekkusu no kenshin ('The Devotion of Suspect X') by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾), the protagonist, Ishigami Tetsuya (石神哲哉), sends threatening letters to his neighbour Hanaoka Yasuko (花岡靖子) in which he deliberately adopts the persona of an obsessive stalker.

The letters are part of an elaborate scheme by Ishigami to distract police attention from Yasuko and her daughter after they unintentionally murder Yasuko's abusive ex-husband. The content of the four letters quoted in the book is unexpected and jolting and their style is odd and unnatural.

Here I want to look at the contribution of the language and style of the letters to Ishigami's chosen persona while considering whether the English and Chinese translations have captured the tone of the original Japanese.


Japanese original           Chinese           English

Japanese original

Four letters are found at Chapter 16, near the end of the book, after Ishigami finds that Yasuko has been dating an old admirer. Three are letters kept by Yasuko; one is found on Ishigami's computer. I quote the entire content, although only part of it is relevant to the issue of 'strangeness'. A fairly literal translation is shown after the Japanese.

The first letter:

最近、少し化粧が濃くなっているようだ。服も派手だ。そんなのは貴女らしくない。もっと質素な出で立ちのほうがよく似合う。それに帰りが遅いのも気になる。仕事が終わったら、すぐに帰りなさい。
Saikin, sukoshi keshō ga koku natte iru yō da. Fuku mo hade da. Sonna no wa anata rashiku nai. Motto shisso na idetachi no hō ga yoku niau. Sore ni kaeri ga osoi no mo ki ni naru. Shigoto ga owattara, sugu ni kaeri-nasai.

'Recently your makeup seems to be a bit heavy. Your clothes are flashy. That's not like you. A simpler style suits you. Also, I'm concerned at your returning home late. When your work is finished return home immediately.'

The second letter:

何か悩みがあるんじゃないのか。もしそうなら、遠慮なく私に話してほしい。そのために毎晩電話をかけているんだ。私なら貴女にアドバイスできることはたくさんある。ほかの人間は信用できない。信用してはいけない。私のいうことだけを聞いていればいい。
Nanika nayami ga arun' ja nai no ka. Moshi sō nara, enryo naku watashi ni hanashite hoshii. Sono tame ni maiban denwa o kakete irun' da. Watashi nara anata ni adobaisu dekiru koto wa takusan aru. Hoka no ningen wa shin'yō dekinai. Shin'yō shite wa ikenai. Watashi no yū koto dake o kiite ireba ii.

'Do you have some kind of problem? If so, I want you to tell me without reserve. It's for that purpose that I'm ringing you every evening. As for me, there is a lot of advice that I can give you. You can't trust other people. You shouldn't trust them. You need to listen only to me.'

The third letter:

不吉な予感がする。貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか、というものだ。そんな事は絶対にないと信じているが、もしそうなら私は貴女を許さないだろう。なぜなら私だけが貴女の味方だからだ。貴女を守れるのは私しかない。
Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da. Sonna koto wa zettai ni nai to shinjite iru ga, moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da. Anata o mamoreru no wa watashi shika nai.

'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me. I believe that this is absolutely not true but if it were I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally. The only one who can protect you is me.'

In the letter found on his computer Ishigami writes:

貴女が頻繁に会っている男性の素性をつきとめた。写真を撮っていることから、そのことはおわかりいただけると思う。
貴女に訊きたい。この男性とはどういう仲なのか。
もし恋愛関係にあるというのなら、それはとんでもない裏切り行為である。
'Anata ga hinpan ni atte iru dansei no sujō o tsukitometa. Shashin o totte iru koto kara, sono koto wa o-wakari itadakeru to omou.
Anata ni kikitai. Kono dansei to wa dō yū naka na no ka.
Moshi ren'ai kankei ni aru to yū no nara, sore wa tonde mo nai uragiri kōi de aru.


I've determined the identity of the man you are meeting frequently. I think you can understand that from the fact that I have taken a photo.
I want to ask you. What is your relationship with this man?
If you say you are in a romantic relationship, that would be an outrageous act of betrayal.'
私が貴女のためにどんなことをしたと思っているのだ。
私は貴女に命じる権利がある。即刻、この男性と別れなさい。
さもなくば、私の怒りはこの男性に向かうことになる。
Watashi ga anata no tame ni donna koto o shita to omotte iru no da.
Watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru. Sokkoku, kono dansei to wakare-nasai.
Samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru.


'Don't you know what I've done for you?
I have the right to give you orders. Break up with this man immediately.
If you don't, my anger will be directed at this man.'
この男性に富樫と同じ運命を辿らせることは、今の私には極めて容易である。その覚悟もあるし、方法も持っている。
繰り返すが、もしこの男性と男女の関係にあるのならば、そんな裏切りを私は許さない。必ず報復するだろう。
Kono dansei ni Togashi to onaji unmei o tadoraseru koto wa, ima no watashi ni wa kiwamete yōi de aru. Sono kakugo mo aru shi, hōhō mo motte iru.
Kurikaesu ga, moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.


'For me as I currently am, causing this man to meet the same fate is extremely easy. I'm prepared and have the means.
I repeat: if you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive that kind of betrayal. I am likely to definitely get revenge.'

For a Japanese reader, the tone of the letters is chilling. Apart from being replete with menace and possessiveness, the language itself is decidedly strange and hints at an abnormal, obsessive psychology. This can be seen in at least four characteristics.

1. Personal pronouns

Ishigami's consistent use of watashi 'I' to refer to himself and 貴女 anata 'you' (here written 'valued woman') to refer to Yasuko is sociolinguistically inappropriate in most styles of Japanese.

Unlike English, which has a closed set of personal pronouns ('I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they'), Japanese has historically used a variety of pronouns. In modern Japanese, 'I' can be expressed as ore, boku, watashi, あたし atashi, うち uchi, etc. 'You' can be expressed as あなた anata, あんた anta, kimi, お前 omae, おたく otaku, 貴様 kisama, etc. These range from the polite to the downright insulting.

The choice of pronoun depends on many factors. In speaking to his mates, a young male might refer to himself as 俺 ore, in speaking to teachers as 僕 boku, and in speaking formally (such as in a conference) as watashi. In addressing other people, he might say お前 omae to close mates, kimi to those younger than himself in a defined social relationship, and the contemptuous 貴様 kisama in a heated no-holds-barred confrontation (with a high likelihood of fisticuffs).

あなた anata has often been put forward in Japanese as the standard pronoun for 'you' in emulation of European languages. But あなた anata is anything but neutral in Japanese. In reality it tends to be preferred by women and is traditionally used by a wife to her husband. Spoken by a student to a teacher, for instance, あなた anata would sound familiar and disrespectful.

Moreover, Japanese often avoids personal pronouns. For second-person pronouns, it's common to substitute the person's name or title, or simply drop the pronoun altogether. Honorifics and other devices are often enough to clarify who is being addressed.

Against this background, Ishigami's use of watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' can only be called idiosyncratic. Using watashi in a letter is not in itself strange. More informal terms like 俺 ore or 僕 boku would be over-familiar. But 貴女 anata is questionable. As a man supposedly taking Yasuko under his wing, Ishigami might have addressed her as kimi 'you' or with respectful distance as 花岡さん Hanaoka-san. By choosing the supposedly 'neutral' second-person pronoun 貴女 anata, Ishigami conveys an impression of stiffness and formality.

This awkwardness is reinforced by the occurrence of watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' together, as in:

私は貴女を許さないだろう
watashi wa anata o yurusanai darō
'I probably won't forgive you'

and

私が貴女のためにどんなことをした
Watashi ga anata no tame ni donna koto o shita
'What I did for you'

as well as

私は貴女に命じる権利がある
watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru
'I have the right to give you orders'

In Japanese, this doubling up of formal pronouns verges on the unnatural, much like the classic line that many non-Japanese speakers mistakenly believe is real Japanese:

私はあなたを愛しています。
watashi wa anata o aishite imasu
'I love you'

2. Verb forms

In contrast to the curiously formal pronouns, the letters are almost entirely lacking in the social niceties expected in Japanese. Verb forms are familiar, plain, and direct, to the point of brusqueness.

This is most obvious in the use of plain forms of verbs in preference to polite forms, as in da rather than です desu, 似合う niau rather than 似合います niaimasu, つきとめた instead of つきとめました tsukitomemashita, する suru instead of します shimasu, and 思う omou instead of 思います omoimasu. In letters it would be more normal to use the polite form.

The letter also uses imperatives like 帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'return home!' and 別れなさい wakare-nasai 'break up!'. As with its pronouns, Japanese has a range of orders and requests available, from the super-polite to the rude. It is beyond the scope of this post to list all the ways that Yasuko could have been told to go straight home, but a few might be (ranged from painfully polite to bluntly imperative):

すぐに帰って頂けませんでしょうか
sugu ni kaette itadakemasen deshō ka
すぐにお帰りになってください
sugu ni o-kaeri ni natte kudasai
すぐに帰ってください
sugu ni kaette kudasai
すぐに帰りなさい
sugu ni kaeri-nasai
すぐに帰りな
sugu ni kaeri-na
すぐに帰れ
sugu ni kaere

Needless to say, Ishigami could also have chosen other ways of conveying his displeasure, for example by making suggestions or recommendations.

What Ishigami chose was -なさい -nasai, a familiar way of issuing orders that might be used among family or friends, especially to people younger than oneself. It is the kind of language used by a mother towards a child. It is not particularly impolite, although familiar in tone, and is less blunt than the straight imperative. Here it depicts a man speaking familiarly as though he has the right to order the woman around. In using this form, Ishigami comes across as overbearing and possessive.

3. The noncommital language of the threats

The third, most sinister aspect of the letters is the language of the threats:

もしそうなら私は貴女を許さないだろう
moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō
'if that is so, I probably won't forgive you'
さもなくば、私の怒りはこの男性に向かうことになる
Samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru
'If not, my anger will be directed at this man'
必ず報復するだろう
kanarazu hōfuku suru darō
'I am likely to surely get revenge'

Apart from their content, these threats are expressed in an unnervingly detached manner.

だろう darō in Japanese represents a subjective judgement of the degree of certainty. It indicates that, in the speaker's view, the statement that it is attached to is probably true but falls short of being 100% certain. It is often used out of politeness to avoid making categorical statements.

A speaker can, of course, use だろう darō to assess the certainty of his/her own future actions, or what his/her probable actions might be in a hypothetical situation. What is disturbing here, though, is that Ishigami delivers a calm objective assessment of his own future actions even as he issues a direct threat to Yasuko and her friend. Despite his own clearly expressed intent, he comes across like an outside observer dispassionately weighing up possibilities.

This is particularly striking when Ishigami uses the adverb 必ず kanarazu 'definitely, certainly, without fail' but hedges it with だろう darō. Since he is clearly threatening to get revenge, it is incongruous and unsettling to state that this is what he would 'probably' do.

The other sentence, using 向かうことになる mukau koto ni naru 'will reach a state of being directed at', also avoids stating his own intentions. Instead, he frames his predicted actions as a natural result of circumstances (ことになる koto ni naru 'will come about that').

Phrasing his threat to kill Yasuko or her boyfriend in cold objective terms of what will 'probably' happen is arguably more frightening than a direct threat.

There is one place, however, where Ishigami is more straightforward and does not use だろう darō:

もしこの男性と男女の関係にあるのならば、そんな裏切りを私は許さない。
Moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai.
'If you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive this kind of betrayal.'

The use of the straightforward threat 私は許さない watashi wa yurusanai 'I will not forgive' actually serves to highlight the strange use of だろう darō in the subsequent sentence (必ず報復するだろう kanarazu hōfuku suru darō 'I am likely to surely get revenge').

4. The logic

A fourth feature of the letters is the way that the text unfolds. Ishigami writes in short, uncomplicated sentences, with forced results at two places.

The first is the two sentences:

不吉な予感がする。貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか、というものだ。
Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

The split into two sentences is awkward and they would sound more natural as a single sentence:

貴女が私を裏切っているのではないかという不吉な予感がする。
Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka to yū fukitsu na yokan ga suru.
'I have an ominous premonition that you may be betraying me.'

The second example is なぜなら naze nara 'that's because' in the following sentences:

...もしそうなら私は貴女を許さないだろう。なぜなら私だけが貴女の味方だからだ。
...moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da.
'... if it were (true) I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally.'

Like the previous example, the second sentence purports to clarify the first. In this case the second sentence is not only awkward; it makes no sense in terms of ordinary logic. Being Yasuko's only ally would not normally be considered valid grounds for threatening her over involvement with another man. Ishigami's justification adds to the abnormal atmosphere of the letters.

Specific style: Translationese

Taken together, these linguistic features give the impression of a person who is socially inept, disengaged, psychologically detached, controlling, and possessive. But Ishigami's language is not some arbitrary collection of linguistic idiosyncrasies. As any Japanese reader will immediately recognise, much of it belongs to a distinctive linguistic register: the 'hybrid' language of students mechanically parsing and translating English into Japanese.

English-language education in Japan employs certain conventions (or crutches) to help students parse sentences. By translating according to fixed formulas or expressions, high-school and university students create an 'interlingual text' that helps them understand what they are reading. The resulting 'translationese' is a style of language removed from ordinary spoken and written Japanese.

Four of the linguistic features of Ishigami's letter writing style have their roots in these conventions.

Convention no. 1

One is the mechanical use of a fixed set of pronouns as equivalents of English personal pronouns. Despite the important subtleties of Japanese pronouns that we saw above, students use the following pronouns indiscriminately in deciphering English:

'I' = watashi
'you' = あなた anata
'he' = kare
'she' = 彼女 kanojo
'it' = それ sore
'we' = 私たち watashi-tachi
'you' (plural) = あなた方 anata-gata
'they' = 彼ら karera.
To translate a sentence like 'Where are you going?' into Japanese, students will use あなた anata for 'you', regardless of whether the question is addressed to a young child or to an adult of high status. This convention lies behind Ishigami's constant use of watashi and あなた anata in his letters.

Convention no. 2

A second convention is the omission of the normal features of polite speech. Interpersonal elements of politeness and distance tend to be treated as embellishments that can be added later. This encourages the use of plain forms for verbs and the straightforward Japanese form -なさい -nasai for imperatives. This is again designed to allow the student to grasp the meaning as easily as possible without worrying about social niceties.

The lack of social niceties, particularly the lack of politeness, is one of the most striking characteristics of Ishigami's letters.

Convention no. 3

A third convention is the use of the 'tentative' verb form だろう darō to translate English verbs in the so-called future tense (i.e., those using the modal auxiliary 'will').

The rationale for using だろう darō is impeccable. Japanese requires sensitivity to the truth value of a statement — whether it is certain, whether it has been heard second hand, or whether it is based on appearances. Since the future is inherently unknowable, predictions should not be stated as certainties; hence the use of だろう darō to indicate that the speaker does not regard a future event as 100% certain.

For example, students will translate an English sentence like 'It will rain tomorrow' as:

明日雨が降るだろう
ashita ame ga furu darō
'It will probably rain tomorrow' / 'I think it will rain tomorrow'

This indicates that it is not 100% certain that rain will fall. In fact, this how Japanese weather forecasters are expected to speak. Where English says "Rain is expected tomorrow", Japanese forecasters habitually say 明日雨が降るでしょう ashita ame ga furu deshō, using the polite form of だろう darō.

In the same vein, students would translate 'He will go' as:

彼は行くだろう
kare wa iku darō
'He will probably go' / 'I think he will go'

Unlike the categorical nature of the English, this gloss conveys the judgement that future actions are not certain.

While this convention works well on the whole, in one important case it falls down badly. That is when 'will' indicates volition rather than prediction. In English, a speaker who says 'I'll go' is not indicating future probability; he/she is expressing the intention to go. The listener can assume that, barring exceptional circumstances, the speaker has made a decision or even a commitment to go. In order to indicate volition or intention, the English sentence should actually be translated into Japanese as 私は行く watashi wa iku or, better still, 私が行く watashi ga iku. This uses the grammatical present tense to refer to a future action and indicates certainty.

When Japanese high-school students interpret 'I will go' as 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I'll probably go', they are getting the message wrong. だろう darō denotes a high probability of the speaker going but doesn't indicate a decision or commitment to go. In a situation where it was absolutely essential that someone should go, a person who could only say 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I will probably go' in Japanese would be either pressed to give a stronger assurance or passed over in favour of someone else.

Ishigami's use of だろう darō in his threats is strange in Japanese precisely because he is delivering a clear statement of intent for which だろう darō is inappropriate.

Convention no. 4

A fourth set of conventions or strategies relate to the connections between sentences.

According to one convention, where a sentence is used in English to explain a previous sentence but the connection is not made explicit, the construction というものだ to yū mono da 'it is the fact that' is typically used to clarify the connection. The two sentences from Ishigami's letters are a good example of this:

不吉な予感がする。貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか、というものだ。
Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

The putative English original for translated sentences like these would be:

I have an ominous premonition. You may be betraying me.

Japanese adds というものだ to yū mono da 'it is the fact that' in order to show that second sentence explains the content of the premonition.

A second example is the habitual translation of English 'because' as なぜなら naze nara 'that's because' in order to preserve the original order of clauses. In Japanese, clauses indicating cause are normally sentence-initial, whereas in English they often follow the main clause. For instance, English says 'I didn't like it because it was sweet', whereas Japanese adopts the reverse order 甘かったから好きではなかった amakatta kara suki de wa nakatta 'because it was sweet, I didn't like it'. By using なぜなら naze nara 'if (you ask) why' and からだ kara da 'it's because', Japanese can be forced into the same order as English. Taking our example sentence:

'I didn't like it because it was sweet'
好きでなかった。なぜなら甘かったからだ
suki de wa nakatta. naze nara amakatta kara da.
'I didn't like it. If (you ask) why, it's because it was sweet.'

In both of the examples in Ishigami's letters, these devices are employed in a way that sounds superfluous or unnatural from the point of view of ordinary Japanese prose.

Two levels of understanding

Because the Japanese reader knows that Ishigami's style resembles a schoolboy's or schoolgirl's translation from English, the letters can be interpreted on two levels at once:

1. The straightforward meaning in sociologically normal Japanese
2. Its meaning in the hybrid language of student translations

The two levels coexist and echo off each other.

For example, coming across Ishigami's strange use of pronouns, the reader will notice that they are stiff and socially inappropriate. At the same time, he/she will recognise them as the kind of language that results when translating directly from English, accounting for the unnaturalness.

Similarly, the reader will immediately register blunt verb forms (especially imperatives) as stylistically and socially inappropriate, but will also associate this with translationese.

More importantly, while だろう darō makes Ishigami sound chillingly distant from his own actions, the reader is simultaneously aware that だろう darō is a direct translation of English 'will'. Ishigami's threat to get revenge is a translation of the putative English sentence 'I will definitely get revenge'. The knowledge that Ishigami is making a naked threat, as translated from the English, while at the same time setting himself apart from his own probable actions in terms of normal Japanese usage, helps account for the eerie effect of the letters.

Given the strangeness of the rest of the language, the Japanese reader will not be totally surprised at awkward constructions like というものだ to yū mono da and なぜなら...からだ naze nara ... kara da since these are both familiar mannerisms in translationese. The claim that Ishigami could not forgive Yasuko if she had relations with another man 'because he is her only ally' can be understood as a meaningless trait of that style. At the same time, in a single ingenious stroke it reveals the horrifying logic of the stalker. Yasuko is not allowed to live her life as she pleases as it would invalidate the stalker's sacrifice.

By adopting the peculiar register of student translationese, Ishigami greatly enhances the impact of his letters to Yasuko and their effectiveness in drawing responsibility for her ex-husband's death onto himself.

The significance of the linguistic register of the letters

But Ishigami's choice of student translationese has wider implications. While his chosen persona appears to be just another element in his elaborate plan to protect mother and daughter, few readers will fail to notice how closely the style fits Ishigami's character.

We know that Ishigami is a brilliant but intensely private person working for many years as a high-school teacher, a job that wastes his true potential. We know that he spends much of his spare time alone bringing his formidable logical intellect to bear on his true passion: abstruse mathematical problems. We know that he relates poorly to people, including the school administration, the students in his class — and Yasuko, the object of his unrequited, probably unrequitable passion. We note his increasing obsession with Yasuko's other suitor.

Ishigami's choice of student translationese is thus uncannily apt. When he uses the unformed language of high-school and university students to express himself he highlights his own arrested emotional and social development. The inept style of the letters reinforces the reader's impression of Ishigami as something of a misfit. The reader becomes increasingly aware that Ishigami resembles that well-known Japanese stereotype, the otaku.

Since the language of student translationese is associated with English, it is also a stereotype for how foreigners speak Japanese. By adopting this voice, Ishigami presents himself as an 'outsider', one who is beyond the ordinary conventions of Japanese society.

The letters also highlight Ishigami's obsession with logic. In Japan, there is a traditional view of English as 'logical' and 'analytical' compared with the supposed subtlety and sensitivity to human emotion of their own language. The clunkiness of translationese has encouraged that view. Direct translations from English, particularly the compulsory and obtrusive use of pronouns and logical conjunctions, give the impression that English is mechanical, rigid, and lacking in social subtlety and warmth. Such translations sound to Japanese ears like the writings of a robot. This is indeed how Ishigami's letters sound — logical, cold, and lacking in the normal social expression of human emotion. Ishigami would, as Yukawa observed, do whatever was logically necessary to carry out his plan.

The letters mark an important turning point as the book moves towards its close. In The Devotion of Suspect X there is no omniscient author; the narration takes place from the perspective of different characters as they appear, allowing Higashino to manipulate the reader's knowledge through selective presentation. The letters form part of the author's escalating revelations, providing a deeper glimpse into Ishigami's mentality, bringing the realisation that the persona is not entirely a mask, propelling the story to its shocking dénouement...


Ishigami's letters in translation

容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha X no kenshin has been translated into many languages. Here I would like to look at how successful the English and Chinese translations have been in capturing Ishigami's psychology as revealed in his letters. Since 'student translationese' is a peculiar register of Japanese, difficulties can be expected in conveying the implications of his language.


Japanese original           Chinese           English

Chinese

A Chinese translation of 容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha X no kenshin was published in 2008 under the title 嫌疑人X的献身 xiányírén X de xiànshēn. (The title in Taiwan is 嫌疑犯X的獻身 xiányífàn X de xiànshēn but the translator is the same.)

The letters quoted above are translated as follows. A fairly literal English translation of the Chinese appears below each segment.

The first letter:

最近,你的妆化得很浓,衣服也很花哨。这样不像你,素雅一点的装扮才适合你。另,你的晚归也很令人在意。下班之后,就该立刻回家。
Zuìjìn, nǐ de zhuāng huà de hěn nóng, yīfu yě huāshao. Zhèyàng bú xiàng nǐ, sùyǎ yìdiǎn de zhuāngbàn cái shìhé nǐ. Líng, nǐ de wǎnguī yě hěn lìng rén zàiyì. Xiàbān zhī hòu jiù gāi lìkè huíjiā.

'Recently, your make-up is very thick, your clothes are also gaudy. This is not like you, only simple and elegant attire suits you. Besides, your returning late is causing people concern. After finishing work you must return home immediately.'

The second letter:

你是否有什么烦恼?如果有,希望你毫无保留地告诉我。我就是为了这个才每晚打电话。我可以给你提供很多建议,别人都不能相信,也不可相信,你只要听我的话就好。
Nǐ shìfǒu yǒu shénme fánnǎo? Rúguǒ yǒu, xīwàng nǐ háo wú bǎoliú de gàosù wǒ. Wǒ jiù shi wèile zhège cái měiwǎn dǎ diànhuà. Wǒ kěyǐ gěi nǐ tígōng hěn duō jiànyì, biérén dōu bùnéng xiāngxìn, yě bùkě xiāngxìn, nǐ zhǐ yào tīng wǒ de huà jiù hǎo.

'Do you have troubles? If you do, I hope that you will tell me without reservation. It's for this that I ring you every night. I can give you many suggestions, other people you should not trust, also cannot trust, you should just listen to me.'

The third letter:

我有不祥的预感,我担心你会背叛我。虽然我相信这绝不可能,但如果真有这种事,我绝不会原谅你。只有我才是你的战友,只有我能保护你。
Wǒ yǒu búxiàng de yǔgǎn, wǒ dānxīn nǐ huì bèipàn wǒ. Suīrán wǒ xiāngxìn zhè jué bù kěnéng, dàn rúguǒ zhēn yǒu zhèzhǒng shì, wǒ jué bù huì yuánliang nǐ. Zhǐ yǒu wǒ cái shi nǐ de zhànyǒu, zhǐ yǒu wǒ néng bǎohù nǐ.

'I have an ominous premonition, I worry that you might betray me. Although I believe this definitely cannot be possible, if there is such a thing, I will definitely not forgive you. I am your only comrade-in-arms, only I can protect you.'

The letter on Ishigami's computer:

我已查明和你频频见面的人是何来历。我特地拍下照片,你应该明白我的意思。我想问你:和这个男人是何关系?如果是恋爱关系,那你严重背叛了我。我想问你:你也想想,我为你做了什么?我有权命令你,立刻和这个男人分手。否则,我的怒火将烧向他。让此人经历与富㭴相同的命运,对我而言易如反掌。我已有此心理准备,也有办法做到。再重复一次:如果你和此人有男女关系,我决不允许这种背叛。我一定会报复。
Wǒ yǐ chámíng hé nǐ pínpín jiànmiàn de rén shi hé láilì. Wǒ tèdì pài xià zhàopiān, nǐ yīnggāi míngbai wǒ de yìsi. Wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ: hé zhège nánrén shi shénme guānxi? Rǔguǒ shi liàn'ài guānxi, nàme nǐ yánzhòng bèipàn le wǒ. Wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ: nǐ yě xiǎngxiǎng, wǒ wéi nǐ zuò le shénme? Wǒ yǒu quán mìnglìng nǐ, lìkè hé zhège nánrén fēnshǒu. Fǒuzé, wǒ de nǔhuǒ jiāng shāo-xiàng tā. Ràng cǐ rén jīnglì yǔ Fùjiān xiāngtóng de mìngyùn, duì wǒ ér yán yìrúfǎnzhǎng. Wǒ yǐ yǒu cǐ xīnlǐ zhǔnbèi, yě yǒu bànfǎ zuò dào. Zài chóngfù yícì: rúguǒ nǐ hé cǐ rén yǒu nánnǚ guānxi, wǒ jué bù yúnxǔ zhè-zhǒng bèipàn. Wǒ yídìng huì bàofu.

'I've found out what the origin of the man you often see is. I've specially taken photos, you should understand my meaning. I want to ask you: what is your relationship with this man? If it is a romantic relationship, then you have seriously betrayed me. I want to ask you: you also think, what have I done for you? I have the right to give you orders; break up with this man immediately. Otherwise my flames of anger will burn towards him. To me, making this person experience the same fate as Togashi is extremely easy. I'm already psychologically prepared, and I have the way to do it. I repeat one more time, if you have physical relations with this person, I definitely will not forgive this kind of betrayal. I will certainly get revenge.'
cover of Chinese simplified version by Nanhai Chubanshe

Several aspects of the translation are worthy of comment but we will confine our attention to those dealt with earlier on this page.

Personal pronouns

Like English, Chinese has a set of fixed pronouns for 'I', 'you', 'he/she/it', 'we', 'you', and 'they'. As a result the unnatural use of the pronouns watashi and 貴女 anata is not easily reproduced. The translator uses the standard pronouns 'I', 'you', and 'he' in line with ordinary Chinese usage.

Verb forms

Chinese lacks the elaborated verb forms of Japanese, meaning that the bluntness of the Japanese cannot be easily rendered through the manipulation of verb forms.

In order to convey the tone of Ishigami's imperatives, the Chinese translator uses the following:

1.

Where the Japanese has

すぐに帰りなさい
sugu ni kaeri-nasai
'Return home straight away'

using the familiar imperative form なさい -nasai, the Chinese has

就该立刻回家
jiù gāi lìkè huíjiā
'should immediately return home'

where gāi means 'should'. jiù, meaning something like 'just', is an emphatic adverbial that adds to the force of the statement and is meant to be strongly stressed in this sentence. In contrast to the flatness of the Japanese, in the Chinese translation we can virtually hear Ishigami haranguing Yasuko and laying down the law.

2.

Where the Japanese says

即刻、...別れなさい
sokkoku, ...wakarenasai
'break up ...immediately'

the Chinese uses a direct imperative

立刻...分手
lìkè ... fēnshǒu
'break up... immediately'

While the Chinese verb form does not change for the imperative, politeness can be indicated by other expressions (e.g. qǐng 'please', 麻烦你 máfan nǐ 'may I trouble you', 一下 yíxià 'for a moment', 好吗?hǎo ma 'is that ok?', ba 'ok?', etc.). In informal everyday speech, however, the verb can be used on its own as an imperative without necessarily sounding rude. The imperious nature of Ishigami's demand is mostly conveyed by the word 'immediately' (立刻 lìkè).

Threats

The threats in the Japanese original using the curious verb form だろう darō 'will probably' are rendered as straightforward threats in the Chinese translation.

3.

私は貴女を許さないだろう
watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō
'I (probably) won't forgive you'

is translated in a direct way as:

我绝不会原谅你
wǒ jué bú huì yuánliàng nǐ
'I definitely won't forgive you'

While huì has a predictive function in Chinese, it is not nearly as tentative as the Japanese, being perfectly natural as a description of one's own actions, especially in an expression like 不会 bú huì 'would not', where the meaning is close to 'I won't' or 'there's no way I would'.

The clearest change is the addition of jué meaning 'absolutely' or 'definitely'. This makes for a considerably more vehement tone than the Japanese.

4.

必ず報復するだろう
kanarazu hōfuku suru darō
'I will (probably) definitely get revenge'
is translated straightforwardly as
我一定会报复
wǒ yídìng huì bàofu
'I will certainly get revenge'

This use of 一定会 yídìng huì 'certainly, definitely will' is quite normal in Chinese for both promises and threats.

5.

Ishigami's roundabout threat to Yasuko's suitor

さもなくば、私の怒りはこの男性に向かうことになる
samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru
'If you don't, my anger will be directed at this man'

is rendered dramatically as:

否则,我的怒火将烧向他
fǒuzé, wǒ de nùhuǒ jiāng shāo-xiàng tā
'otherwise, my flames of anger will burn towards him'

This is more exaggerated than the Japanese. The intent of the Japanese is to indicate where Ishigami's anger will be directed while subtly removing him from the equation. The translator attempts to render these senses ('anger' and 'direction') with 怒火烧 nùhuǒ shāo 'flames of anger burn', followed by xiàng 'in the direction of'. The effect of the translation is to strongly play up the intensity of Ishigami's potential anger and lose the chilling effect of distancing Ishigami from his own threat. In the Chinese, Ishigami sounds more overdramatic than understated.

Peculiar logic

As we noted above, there are two sentences where Ishigami's prose is affected by the habits of student translationese. In both cases, the Chinese translator smooths the idiosyncrasies out:

6.

不吉な予感がする。貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか、というものだ。
Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

is normalised to

我有不祥的预感,我担心你会背叛我。
Wǒ yǒu búxiàng de yǔgǎn, wǒ dānxīn nǐ huì bèipàn wǒ.
'I have an ominous premonition, I worry that you might/will betray me.'

The Chinese changes the time of the feared betrayal from the present (裏切っている uragitte iru 'are betraying me') to the future (会背叛我 huì bèipàn wǒ 'might/will betray me').

7.

The 'illogical' conclusion, that Ishigami could not forgive Yasuko for relations with another man because he is her only ally, is smoothed over.

もしそうなら私は貴女を許さないだろう。なぜなら私だけが貴女の味方だからだ。
moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da.
'if it were I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally.'

is transformed into

如果真有这种事,我绝不会原谅你。只有我才是你的战友,
rúguǒ zhēn yǒu zhèzhǒng shì, wǒ jué bù huì yuánliang nǐ. Zhǐ yǒu wǒ cái shi nǐ de zhànyǒu,
'if there is such a thing, I will definitely not forgive you. I am your only comrade-in-arms,'

This muffles the stalker's logic — that the stalkee has no right to live life as she pleases — into a general appeal to human emotions. Interestingly, the translator renders 味方 mikata 'ally', having the sense of 'person who is on your side', as 战友 zhànyǒu 'comrade-in-arms', suggesting an appeal to solidarity.

Implications

The cumulative effect of these translation choices is that, while the content of Ishigami's letters remains the same, with similar undertones of jealousy, possessiveness, and control, for the most part the language used is neither strange nor abnormal. It features straightforward, familiar expressions from everyday life. They are the kinds of expression that might be used in situations of dramatic conflict and strong emotion. Unlike the cool, logical, detached tone of the Japanese, we can almost hear Ishigami's voice as he browbeats Yasuko.

Given that many young Chinese men have what Westerners might regard as a possessive and controlling attitude to their girlfriends, and given that delivering 'lectures' is not an unfamiliar part of Chinese life, Ishigami's letters are not outside the range of normal expectations in Chinese culture. They could easily be perceived as a paternalistic, culturally-appropriate expression of love and concern for Yasuko. The translator has effectively 'naturalised' Ishigami's unorthodox Japanese into familiar modes of expression in Chinese.

This has implications for the unfolding plot. Where the Japanese reader is taken aback by the abnormal tone of Ishigami's letters, the Chinese reader might be forgiven for seeing only a man who, smitten with a woman and aiming to possess and protect her, goes too far in his devotion.

Because the translation does not fully present the psychology and personality projected by the letters, it arguably alters the tone of the crucial final stages of the novel. Given Higashino's technique of gradually revealing important facts as the story progresses, the failure to fully convey these increasingly dark aspects potentially affects the plot's progression towards its final revelation.


Japanese original           Chinese           English

English

An English translation of 容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha X no kenshin was published in 2011 under the title The Devotion of Suspect X.

The letters are translated as follows.

The first letter:

I notice you've been putting on more make-up recently. And wearing fancier clothes. That's not like you. Plainer attire suits you better. It also bothers me that you've been coming home late. You should come home right after work is finished.

The second letter:

Is something bothering you? If it is, please don't hesitate to tell me about it. That's why I call you every night, you know. There are many matters on which I could advise you. You can't trust anyone else. You shouldn't trust anyone else. Just me.

The third letter:

I have a feeling something terrible has happened. I fear you've betrayed me. Now, I know with all my heart that you would never do such a thing, but if you ever did, I'm not sure I would ever be able to forgive you. I am the only man for you. I am the only one who can protect you.

The letter on Ishigami's computer:

As you can tell by the enclosed pictures, I have discovered the identity of the man you see frequently.

I must ask, what is this man to you?

If you're having a relationship, that would be a serious betrayal.

Don't you understand what I've done for you?

I believe I have the right to tell you what to do in this matter. You must stop seeing this man immediately.

If you do not, my anger will be directed at him.

It would be a simple thing for me to lead this man to the same fate Togashi suffered. I have both the resolve and the means to do this.

Let me repeat, if you're engaged in a relationship with this man, that is a betrayal I cannot forgive, and I will have my revenge.

The English translation not only deviates from the tone of the Japanese, which is typical student translationese, it also departs from the original content of the letters in substantive ways.

cover of English version by Abacus Books

Personal pronouns

English has a set of fixed pronouns for 'I', 'you','he/she/it', 'we', 'you', and 'they'. As a result, the unnatural use of the pronouns 私 watashi and 貴女 anata is not easily reproduced. The translator uses the standard pronouns 'I', 'you', and 'him' in the letters.

Verb forms

English lacks the elaborated verb forms of Japanese, meaning that the bluntness of the Japanese cannot be easily rendered through the manipulation of verb forms.

In translating Ishigami's abrupt language, including the familiar imperative なさい -nasai, the translator is inconsistent between letters.

1.

Where the Japanese uses なさい -nasai in the first letter,

仕事が終わったら、すぐに帰りなさい
shigoto ga owattara, sugu ni kaeri-nasai
'Return home straight away after work is finished'

the English uses the modal auxiliary 'should':

You should come home right after work is finished.

'Should' here advises the correct or best thing to do. While the tone of 'giving advice' is considerably weaker than なさい -nasai in the Japanese, it still carries the implication that Ishigami feels justified in telling Yasuko what to do.

Note that the English uses 'come home' rather than 'go home'. Given that Ishigami lives next door to Yasuko, this is normal since 'come' implies moving in the direction of the speaker. However, the choice of 'come' in the translation also contains an attitude of possessiveness.

2.

Where the Japanese uses the familiar imperative form なさい -nasai in the letter on Ishigami's computer

即刻、...別れなさい
sokkoku, ...wakarenasai
'break up ...immediately'

the English uses the modal auxiliary 'must':

You must stop seeing this man immediately.

'Must' conveys strong insistence on the necessity that something should happen. It has a sense of compulsion and is considerably stronger than 'should'.

Threats

The threats in the Japanese original using the verb form だろう darō 'will probably' are rendered differently in the third letter and that on Ishigami's computer.

3.

In the third letter

私は貴女を許さないだろう
watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō
'I (probably) won't forgive you'

is translated as

I'm not sure I would ever be able to forgive you.

The translator leverages the largely meaningless word だろう darō — as we saw, corresponding to English future tense in student translationese — into an emotional warning over consequences. The sense of uncertainty associated with だろう darō in ordinary usage is elevated into a declaration of the speaker's inability to predict his own reaction ('I'm not sure I would...'). The prediction conveyed by 許さない yurasanai 'won't forgive' is simultaneously given a more dire characterisation ('ever be able to forgive').

In reflecting and amplifying the surface meaning of 許さないだろう yurusanai darō 'probably won't forgive', the translation ignores the meaning as understood in student translationese, namely, 'will not forgive'.

4.

In the letter on Ishigami's computer, the translator takes the opposite tack. だろう darō is ignored and the sentence is translated as a direct statement of intent.

必ず報復するだろう
kanarazu hōfuku suru darō
'I will (probably) definitely get revenge'
is translated as
I will have my revenge.

The direct threat conveyed by 'will have' reflects the presence of the adverb 必ず kanarazu 'definitely' in the original, overriding だろう darō 'will probably'. 'My revenge' (using 'my') suggests that revenge is something belonging to Ishigami, something that he will seek and desire in response to Yasuko's actions.

5.

The roundabout threat to Yasuko's suitor is treated as follows:

さもなくば、私の怒りはこの男性に向かうことになる
samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru
'if you don't, my anger will be directed at this man'
is rendered as
If you do not, my anger will be directed at him.

The English follows the Japanese fairly closely. It is more direct than the Japanese for grammatical reasons — there is no direct equivalent to 向かうことになる mukau koto ni naru, which is completely impersonal and without agency — but the passive is a reasonable equivalent.

Peculiar logic

As we noted above, there are two sentences where the unfolding of Ishigami's prose is affected by the habits of student translationese.

6.

不吉な予感がする。貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか、というものだ。
Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

is translated as

I have a feeling something terrible has happened. I fear you've betrayed me.

Ironically, the translator has produced two natural English sentences where the Japanese sounds unnatural. In fact, the English recreates exactly the type of sentence that the author's translationese is supposed to represent: a second sentence used to explain the first.

In an attempt to avoid the expression 'have an ominous premonition', the translator uses 'have a feeling something terrible has happened'. This represents the feared betrayal as having already taken place.

7.

The 'illogical' conclusion, that Ishigami could not forgive Yasuko for relations with another man because he is her only ally, is completely altered in the English translation.

もしそうなら私は貴女を許さないだろう。なぜなら私だけが貴女の味方だからだ。
moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da.
'if it were I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally.'

is transformed into

if you ever did, I'm not sure I would ever be able to forgive you. I am the only man for you.

No attempt is made to present the second statement as having been caused by the first. There is no need to; the second sentence departs completely from the Japanese.

To sum up, the English translation does not attempt to recreate the eerie effect of 'translationese' in the original Japanese. Instead, it selectively reshapes the language of the letters to show an escalation from emotional panic in the first three letters to blatant threats in the letter on the computer. From 'should' in the first letters Ishigami moves to 'must' in the letter on the computer. From 'I'm not sure I would ever be able to forgive you' he moves to 'I will have my revenge' in the letter on his computer. This tends to exaggerate the escalation in both content and language of the original by emphasising particular aspects for translation.

In addition to the change in tone of the letters, the English translation also takes liberties with the substantive content of the letters, particularly in the letters kept by Yasuko.

Changes in content

Some of the significant changes in the content of the letters include:

貴女が私を裏切っているのではないか
anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka
'you may be betraying me'
I fear you've betrayed me.

As mentioned above, the translation expresses not fear that Yasuko might be betraying Ishigami, but concern that she has already done so.

そんな事は絶対にないと信じている
Sonna koto wa zettai ni nai to shinjite iru
'I believe that this is absolutely not true'
I know with all my heart that you would never do such a thing.

Ishigami's straightforward statement that he believes she is not betraying him is transformed into an emotional statement of desperate trust and misgiving. The language is that of the frantic lover.

私だけが貴女の味方だ
watashi dake ga anata no mikata da
'only I am your ally' ('I am your only ally')
I am the only man for you

Although jealousy is clearly the driving force behind Ishigami's letters, at no time does he dare directly indicate that he is romantically interested in Yasuko in the Japanese original. It is precisely this inability to come out and state the obvious that makes his letters, with their unnatural language, so disturbing. The translator appears to have felt that English-speaking readers need a more transparent declaration of Ishigami's motives in the context of the story.

私は貴女に命じる権利がある。
Watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru
'I have the right to give you orders.'
I believe I have the right to tell you what to do in this matter.

Ishigami's imperious assertion of his right to tell Yasuko what to do, an irrational statement of his right to control Yasuko, is watered down into a reasonable statement of what he perceives as his rights 'in this matter'.

Implications

Although it features stiff expressions like 'Plainer attire suits you better', the English translation does not make a serious attempt to reproduce the robotic tone of the Japanese. Instead, it amplifies the dynamic of Ishigami's letters and takes liberties with the content.

The most noticeable feature of the dynamic is the escalation from a tone of emotional panic in the third letter to serious threats in the letter on the computer. While this is a natural emotional progression and is partly justified by the content and language of the original, it tends to highlight Ishigami's emotionalism more than the Japanese.

The open disclosure of Ishigami's romantic interest in Yasuko and the emotional and rational appeals that he makes depart significantly from the awkward emotional repression and irrational desire to control conveyed by the Japanese original. Where Higashino leaves it to the reader to interpret suppressed emotions and emotional processes, the translator consciously spells them out for the reader's benefit. The result is a more accessible, less complex, and (possibly) 'dumbed down' picture of Ishigami's mentality.

In conclusion, neither the Chinese nor the English translator has attempted to reproduce the peculiar flavour imparted to Ishigami's letters by his use of student translationese. Whether either was even aware of the implications of this style is unclear. It's possible that they were not. But wittingly or unwittingly, both translators transform the style and, in the case of English, the content of the letters to conform with what might be understood as cultural expectations. In the Chinese translation, Ishigami addresses Yasuko in the style expected of a male taking a proprietary attitude to his woman. In the English translation, a rudimentary level of emotional description is supplied in line with what might be considered as character development in detective fiction.


容疑者Xの献身 was published in 2005 by 文藝春秋 bungei shunjū. The Complex Chinese Translation was published in Taiwan in 2006 by 獨步文化 (dúbù wénhuà) under the title 嫌疑犯X的獻身. The Simplified Chinese translation was published under the title 嫌疑人X的献身 by Nanhai Publishing (南海出版公司 nánhǎi chūbǎn gōngsī) in 2008. The translator in both cases was 刘子倩 / 劉子倩 liú zǐqiàn. There are apparently some minor differences between the two translations, and some deficiencies in the earlier Mainland edition were apparently resolved in a 新版 xīnbǎn new edition. I have access only to what is identified as the 第二版 dì'èrbǎn 'second edition' published by Nanhai Publishing in 2014. The English translation by Alexander O. Smith and Elye Alexander, titled The Devotion of Suspect X, was first published in the United States in 2011 by Minotaur Books. My copy was published by Abacus (UK).


Japanese original           Chinese           English