Translating Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X') into English
Studies of grammar in prose
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Translating Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X') into English

(How Alexander O. Smith transformed a misfit otaku into a lovesick admirer)

5 August 2018

In my earlier post, I looked at how 'student translationese' sets the tone for the letters that Ishigami sent to Yasuko when she was seeing Kudo (工藤 kudō). In the letters, Ishigami used this style to present himself as a socially inept, robotic, obsessive otaku.

The book has been translated into English, raising the interesting question: How has the translator managed to capture the tone of the letters (if at all), and if not, exactly what kind of Ishigami is presented in them?

cover of English version by Abacus Books
容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha X no kenshin was translated into English by Alexander O. Smith and Elye Alexander under the title The Devotion of Suspect X. It was first published in the United States in 2011 by Minotaur Books. My copy was published by Abacus (UK).

Given that it is, in fact, extremely difficult to render Japanese-style 'student translationese' in English, the focus must be on the wider issue of how the letters portray the attitude and personality of Ishigami in English.

On this page:

The first letter
The second letter
The third letter
The fourth letter (a)
The fourth letter (b)
The fourth letter (c)

The first letter

In the first letter Ishigami admonishes Yasuko for her fancy clothes and heavy makeup, and for coming home late. The letter features short declarative sentences with plain verbs. Communication is one way, in the tone of a man telling his woman or wife what to do.

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 rashi ku 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 have become a bit heavy. Your clothes are also 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.'

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.

Short bald statements convey the tone of the Japanese. Ishigami's possessiveness and control are well expressed, especially through the use of 'come home'. Unlike the original, however, which projects impersonality and distance, the English gives slightly more weight to Ishigami's emotional involvement.

  • In Japanese, Ishigami's order to return home straight after work, 帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'return!', is neutral as to direction (either 'come home' or 'go home'). By pointedly using 'come home' in English, the translation indicates movement towards Ishigami (who lives next door), highlighting his possessiveness.
  • The imperative using なさい -nasai, which shows that Ishigami regards Yasuko as subordinate to his wishes, is translated as 'should'. This is a suitable form for expressing control.
  • At two places, impersonal sentence-endings are rendered with first-person pronouns in English:
    • ようだ yō da 'it appears' ⇒ 'I notice'
    • 気になる ki ni naru 'is concerning', which does not make explicit who feels concerned ⇒ 'it bothers me'.
    While more natural as English, both suggest a slightly greater sense of personal emotional involvement.

The second letter

In the second letter Ishigami attempts to engage with Yasuko. He starts with a tone of sympathetic understanding (or a pretence thereof) and an attempt to sound her out on what is happening. He explains that he is trying to help and, avoiding imperatives, warns her not to trust other people. Despite its disingenuousness, this may be the most natural-sounding of the four letters.

Nanika nayami ga aru n' ja nai no ka. Moshi sō nara, enryo naku watashi ni hanashi te hoshii. Sono tame ni maiban denwa o kakete iru n' 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 kii te ireba ii.

'Might 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.'

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.

Overall, the English translation is slightly awkward, wooden even, and doesn't fully capture the feeling of reaching out. But then, in the last sentence, the translator turns around and considerably softens both the meaning and the tone of the original. These differences from the tone of the Japanese are noticeable and make the letter sound slightly unnatural. While the translation does not fully reflect the original tone for this particular letter, it does arguably convey some of the awkwardness that hovers over all four letters in Japanese.

  • The first sentence in the Japanese is sympathetic, as though speaking person to person. あるんじゃないのか arun' ja nai no ka is relatively colloquial language. Depending on the tone of voice, the English translation ('Is something bothering you?') arguably sounds more querulous.
  • 話してほしい hanashite hoshii 'want you to tell me' makes a personal appeal to Yasuko to open up. Ishigami consciously avoids using his customary imperative なさい -nasai. The English uses a polite command ('please'), partly losing the attempt at intimacy.
  • In explaining his daily phone calls, Ishigami ends his sentence with んだ n' da, which indicates that this is an explanation of the previous statement. The English adds 'you know', which is more explicit and forthright, and carries the implication that Yasuko doesn't understand and needs to be told or reminded.
  • Ishigami cautions Yasuko against trusting other people, using expressions of strong advice rather than imperatives. The English captures this, except for the last sentence:
    • Japanese: 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
      Shin'yō shite wa ikenai. Watashi no yū koto dake o kiite ireba ii
      'You shouldn't trust [other people]. You need to (or should) listen only to me'
    • English: You shouldn't trust anyone else. Just me.
    Not only is 'Just me' more casual, it also has a different meaning: You should listen only to what I sayYou should trust only me. Strong advice is transformed into a friendly tone of reassurance.

The third letter

In the third letter Ishigami abandons his previous chatty style. The letter has tones of suspicion and menace, along with undertones of anxiety. Ishigami uses more formal expressions like のではないか no de wa nai ka 'aren't you?' (rather than んじゃないか n' ja nai ka) and finishes one clause with the relatively formal conjunction ga 'but'. The letter contains a high concentration of 'translationese'.

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 shinji te iru ga, moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasa nai 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.'

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 third letter is mistranslated, or misleadingly translated, at four places. By substantially altering the sense of the original, it transforms Ishigami from a jealous controlling persona into a frantic lover blurting out desperate emotions of trust and despair, a conflicted exclamation of doubt at his ability to forgive, and to cap it all off, an ambiguously worded declaration that he is the only man for Yasuko.

The first two sentences are reworked considerably:

  • The slightly literary idiom 不吉な予感がする yokan ga suru 'I have an ominous premonition' is transformed into a feeling that something terrible has happened, using more emotive, everyday vocabulary.
  • The timing of the supposed betrayal is altered. 裏切っているのではないか uragitte iru no de wa nai ka is ambiguous between 'might be in the process of betraying' and 'might have betrayed'. In English, the feared betrayal is presented as having already taken place.
  • By starting the second sentence with 'I fear', replacing というものだ to yū mono da 'It is that...', the awkward split into two sentences (a feature of the letters' 'translationese') is transformed into normal English. Again the translation gives more prominence to personal feelings.

Ishigami then uses a classic formulation: express confidence in the other person, then threaten what will happen if they are actually guilty:

  • 絶対にないと信じている zettai ni nai to shinjite iru 'I absolutely believe that (...not)' is translated as 'Now, I know with all my heart that you would never do such a thing'. This imbues the sentence with passionate hope. 'Knowledge' is stronger than 'belief', but knowing 'with all one's heart' is a desperate cry for confirmation. The Japanese Ishigami is sternly giving Yasuko the benefit of the doubt. The English Ishigami is almost frantically hoping against hope that the worst has not already happened.
  • The だろう darō in 許さないだろう yurusanai darō, literally 'probably won't forgive', is, as we saw, a product of student translationese. The actual meaning is 'will not forgive'. In the translation, だろう darō is amplified out of all proportion into 'not sure I would ever be able to'. The Japanese Ishigami's threat of non-forgiveness is transformed into a heartfelt cry of anguish and uncertainty.

Ishigami then explains why he may not be able to forgive:

  • The reason given, なぜなら私だけが貴女の味方だ naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da 'that's because only I am your ally', splits the sentence in the style of student translationese. What is worse, it also makes no logical sense. In response, the translator:
    • Fixes the awkward construction by removing なぜなら naze nara 'that's why'.
    • Alters 'Only I am your ally' to 'I am the only man for you'. To be fair, this has two plausible meanings:
      1. 'I'm your man!' (You can rely on me)
      2. 'I'm the only man you want' (You should pick me, not Kudō).
      But the second is the most likely interpretation for most readers.

This poses a real problem for Ishigami's characterisation. Although love and jealousy are clearly the driving force behind Ishigami's letters, at no time does he express a direct interest in becoming Yasuko's 'man'. It is precisely his failure to state the obvious that gives his letters their flavour. The translation completely recasts Ishigami's words and supplies a motivation not explicitly found in the Japanese.

The fourth letter

The fourth letter (on Ishigami's computer) is longer than the other three and, influenced by the intensity of emotion, has more varied sentence structures. The language features an honorific and uses である de aru, a more formal version of da.

In the first section, Ishigami reveals that he has identified Yasuko's suitor and angrily asks the nature of their relationship.

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/photos.
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.'

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.

The English is more concise than the Japanese and uses natural language. Overall, the sense is conveyed adequately. 'What is this man to you?' is an excellent rendition. But the business-like tone (verging on sarcasm) and the confrontational attitude are partly lost. Ishigami's concern about a physical relationship is highlighted more strongly than in the Japanese.

  • Ishigami uses two sentences to point out Yasuko's relationship with Kudō:
    1. One announces that he knows of the relationship,
    2. The second draws Yasuko's attention to the enclosed photos as the source of his knowledge.
    The second sentence contains an honorific with a somewhat sarcastic tone: 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 shashin o totte iru koto kara, sono koto wa o-wakari itadakeru to omou 'From the fact that I've taken photos, I think you can understand that'.
    The translation unites the two into a single sentence, transforming the second Japanese sentence into a strictly functional clause: 'As you can tell by the enclosed pictures'.
  • To demand that Yasuko clarify her relationship with Kudō, Ishigami uses the blunt expression 貴女に訊きたい Anata ni kikitai 'I want to ask you', the language of arguments in Japanese. The translator transforms this into the more reticent 'I must ask'.
  • The relationship that Ishigami would regard as a betrayal, 恋愛関係 ren'ai kankei 'love relationship', is rendered as 'a relationship', arguably more suggestive of a physical relationship than the original.

Second section:

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.'

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.

The main sense of the Japanese is conveyed, but by supplying extra wording the translation changes Ishigami's blunt assertion of his right to tell Yasuko what to do into something more reticent, making him sound cooler and more reasonable at this point.

  • Ishigami's stark assertion of rights, 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 order you', is softened into the more reasonable 'I believe I have the right to tell you what to do in this matter', adding two expressions that are neither found nor hinted at in the Japanese:
    1. 'I believe', and
    2. 'in this matter'.
  • In この男性と別れなさい Kono dansei to wakare-nasai 'Break up with this man', なさい -nasai is translated as 'must' in the English, unlike in the first letter where it is translated as 'should'. This matches the greater vehemence of the fourth letter but is still not as strong as the Japanese.

Third section:

Ishigami then threatens to get the revenge that he hinted at in his previous letter:

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

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 conveys the sense of the Japanese well, although, with his implied appeal to personal emotion or morality, Ishigami sounds more deeply conflicted.

  • 今の私には ima no watashi ni wa 'for me as I am now' is translated as 'for me'. The implication, which is not totally clear in the context, is that Ishigami has reached a point where killing a man would not be a problem. This nuance is ignored, although attempting to express it in English would risk drawing too much attention to what is a minor detail in the Japanese.
  • 男女の関係にある danjo no kankei ni aru 'be in a male-female relationship' ⇒ 'engaged in a relationship'. Since the Japanese uses a different expression, this time the translation is accurate.
  • This time the translator handles the awkward sequence of verb forms better:
    • 許さない yurusunai 'I will not forgive' (a direct statement of intent) ⇒ 'I cannot forgive'.
    • 必ず kanarazu 'surely' + するだろう suru darō 'will probably' (determination + uncertainty) ⇒ 'I will have my revenge'.

Unlike the third letter, where the translationese form だろう darō 'will probably' is incorrectly translated as 'not sure I would ever be able to', だろう darō is here ignored and the certainty of revenge is actually amplified.

'Cannot forgive' subtly alters the original meaning. Unlike the implacable 許さない yurusunai 'will not forgive' of the Japanese, the inability to forgive expressed in the English indicates that personal morality, deep feelings, or other factors lie in the background.

General comments on the English translation

From small differences to glaring mistranslations, the English subtly and not so subtly distorts the way Ishigami presents himself in the letters. Since Ishigami's robotic style in the Japanese is barely reproduceable in English, the subtle differences in emphasis and style in the translation become Ishigami's persona by default. The broad outlines — his possessiveness, attempts at control, and threats — are unchanged. But the presentation of his emotional and psychological state differs radically.

Most startling is the difference in emotionality. Where the Japanese Ishigami presents himself as an emotionally repressed stalker, the translator at almost every point opens a window onto a stormy and tormented soul beneath. This is most apparent in the third letter, where a direct threat not to forgive is transformed into anguished doubt over his ability to do so. When he points out, again in a threatening manner, that he is Yasuko's only ally, the translator transforms this into a declaration that he is the man for Yasuko. And while the original contains a conventionalised expression of belief in her innocence, the translation has him exclaim that he knows with all his heart that she would not betray him. The Ishigami presented is not a monster darkly intimating at consequences. Instead, he becomes a desperate aspirant for her love.

The translator bolsters this with a slight adjustment to the circumstances. In the original, Ishigami is concerned that Yasuko might be betraying him or about to betray him. In the English, he is fearful that the act might already have occurred. And while Yasuko's relationship with Kūdo is initially presented more delicately in Japanese as 恋愛関係 ren'ai kankei 'love relationship', and only in a later letter as an unmistakably physical 男女関係 danjo kankei 'male-female relationship', the focus in the English from the start is squarely on the physical side ('a relationship'). There is a more urgent sense of jealousy and betrayal.

The translation highlights Ishigami's emotionality in other ways. At a couple of places where his personal judgements are expressed in an impersonal way (ようだ yō da 'it appears', 気になる ki ni naru 'is concerning'), the translation subtly puts the emotional aspect to the fore ('I notice...', 'It bothers me'). He fears that Yasuko has betrayed him. Even the declaration that he cannot forgive hints at deeper reasons of emotion or morality.

However, the translation also softens some of the imperiousness of Ishigami's style. The imperative なさい -nasai is transformed into modals ('should or 'must'). 'I want to ask you' becomes 'I must ask you'. Some sarcasm is toned down. His high-handed declaration, that he has the right to tell Yasuko what to do, is rendered as an attempt to persuade in the English. Strange conjunctions are omitted. The Ishigami that emerges is calmer, more reasonable, and more 'normal' than that in the Japanese.

As a result of these various changes by the translator, Ishigami appears more as a real person than a repressed otaku, putting his emotional vulnerability on full display. His fragile state explains, even if it does not excuse, his violent reaction to his rival.

The reason for the translator's choices are not easy to fathom.

The dramatic reconfigurations at the third letter could be due to a misunderstanding of the nature of 'student translationese' by the translator. But this explanation does not seem very plausible. Alexander O. Smith is a veteran Japanese-English translator who is well attuned to nuances in Japanese. Moreover, the same だろう darō that he translated as 'I don't know if I could ever' at the third letter is completely ignored at the fourth. This suggests that Smith, consciously or unconsciously, remoulded the language of the letters. The mistranslation of だろう darō at the first sentence was just as likely opportunistic as mistaken.

So the question remains: why did the translator feel the need to take liberties with the original? Could it have been a feeling that, in line with the expectations of Western readers, especially consumers of detective fiction, Ishigami needed to be made into a more easily-understood protagonist, or at least a more emotionally accessible one? For the reader used to having emotions and motivations spelt out, a person like Ishigami would seem to cry out for a more revealing character portrayal. Or did the translator feel that, given the impossibility of reproducing the translationese of the letters in English, an alternative version of Ishigami was called for that laid bare what lay below the surface? Or perhaps the translator felt that a deeper glimpse of Ishigami was needed to make plot and character development more plausible as the story approached its conclusion. In the Japanese, the sudden depiction of Ishigami as a socially awkward otaku and jealous stalker is an abrupt and frightening development. By having Ishigami express subtler, more personal emotions through his letters, this abrupt change is softened, resulting in a more nuanced lead-up to the conclusion.

Whatever the reason, the change in the presentation of Ishigami through his letters arguably has an impact on the tone of the entire book. In the Japanese, the letters signal that Ishigami is more ruthless than we thought. In the English, the letters reveal a depth of feeling that prepares the reader for an emotional, wrenching conclusion.