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

(How Higashino used 'student translationese' as a literary device)

15 September 2017 (latest update 11 Oct 2020)

cover of Japanese version by Bunshun Bunko

Tetsuya Ishigami, a brilliant but socially inept mathematical genius working as a lowly high-school maths teacher, overhears his next-door neighbour Yasuko and her teenage daughter inadvertently murder Yasuko’s no-good, abusive ex-husband, Togashi.

Secretly in love with Yasuko, Ishigami decides to help cover up their crime.

This is the setting for the crime mystery 容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha ekkusu no kenshin ('The Devotion of Suspect X) by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾).

Ishigami concocts and executes an elaborate scheme to protect Yasuko and her daughter, leading to a long cat-and-mouse game with investigators. But with the police closing in, Ishigami decides to confess to the crime himself. He writes four incriminating letters in which he poses as a jealous stalker, threatening to kill Yasuko’s admirer, Kudō, just as he killed Togashi. He gives three letters to Yasuko and leaves a fourth on his computer for the police to find.

The letters appear late in the book — at chapter 16 out of 19 — and are an important turning point in the plot, not only for their content but also for the persona and tone that Ishigami projects. This is greatly enhanced by the curious style of the letters. Although Ishigami intentionally adopted this "voice" for the letters, the effect is jolting, revealing a chilling side to Ishigami and helping drive the story to its shocking denouement.

In this post, I wish to examine the effect of this odd, unnatural style and its implications for the plot, how it is used to guide the reader's perceptions of Ishigami's psyche, and (in separate posts) how the English and Chinese translations deal with the peculiar persona presented in the letters.

On this page:

A. Content of the letters

The four letters purport to describe Ishigami's discovery that Yasuko is dating an old admirer. They form a brief narrative: suspicion about Yasuko’s behaviour in the first, disingenuous solicitude in the second, apprehension and threats about her “infidelity” in the third, and a final explosion of anger and outrage in the fourth. I give a fairly literal translation for each segment.

The first letter

The first letter points out Yasuko's undesirable behaviour (fancy clothes, heavy makeup; coming home late) and tells her to correct it. Communication is one way, in the tone of a man telling his woman what to do.

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 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.'

The second letter

The second letter attempts to engage with Yasuko, starting with a solicitous attempt to sound out what is happening. He explains that he is trying to help her and warns her not to trust other people.

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.
'Might you have some kind of worry? 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 should listen only to what I say.'

The third letter

The third letter abandons the previous chatty style, with tones of suspicion, menace, and anxiety as Ishigami asks Yasuko if she is cheating, threatens not to forgive her if she is, and suggests darkly that he is her only protector.

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.'

Fourth letter (on his computer)

The fourth letter is longer than the other three. Ishigami reveals snarkily that he has identified Yasuko's suitor, angrily asks the nature of their relationship, and declares that a love relationship would be a betrayal. He states that he has the right to tell her what to do because of what he has done for her, and threatens that her new suitor will meet the same fate as Togashi.

(Divided into three)

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 background 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.'
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.
'What do you think 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.'
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 definitely get revenge.'

B. Specific points of style

The letters' eerie strangeness and the frightening psychology they reveal is to a large extent due to the peculiar linguistic register Ishigami adopts, especially in the last two letters. But from the start, even ordinary language reveals a possessive and domineering attitude.

Examples of ordinary usage

Some of the ways in which the stalker uses ordinary language to dominate Yasuko are shown in the following table:

First letter (suspicion of Yasuko’s behaviour)
sukoshi keshō ga koku natte iru yō da
'your makeup seems to have become a bit heavy'
Typical Japanese indirectness (sukoshi 'a little', yō da 'it appears') actually sounds niggling.
anata rashiku nai
'not (like) you'
Imposes a judgement on what is appropriate for Yasuko.
no hō ga yoku niau
'suits you better'
Imposes a judgement on what suits Yasuko.
ki ni naru
'is concerning'
Although impersonally expressed, this is a direct expression of the speaker's feelings ('it concerns me').
Second letter (disingenuous solicitude)
nayami ga arun' ja nai no ka
Might you have some kind of worry?
n' ja nai no ka is colloquial, friendly, approachable.
hanashite hoshii
I want you to tell me
Sympathetic-sounding but direct demand that might be made by someone close or in a position of power.
Sono tame ni maiban denwa o kakete irun' da
It's for that purpose that I'm ringing you every evening.
n' da is explanatory. Friendly or assertive, depending on intonation.
Watashi no yū koto dake o kiite ireba ii
You should listen only to what I say
Assertive, imperious. Somewhere between 'You should only listen to me' and 'Do what I say'.
Third letter (apprehension and threats)
uragitte iru no de wa nai ka
you may be betraying me
no de wa nai ka is the same as ja nai no ka but more formal, confronting.
Fourth letter (anger and outrage)
dansei no sujō
the background of the man
In fact, Ishigami has only found Kudō's identity. Using sujō 'background' is designed to express contempt for Kudō.
sono koto wa o-wakari itadakeru to omou
I think you can understand that
While o-wakari itadakeru is honorific in form, it is, in fact, condescending.
donna koto o shita to omotte iru no da
What do you think I've done for you!
to omotte iru no da is loud, direct and confronting.
Anata ni kikitai
I want to ask you
The language is straightforward and confrontational.
dō yū naka na no ka
What is your relationship?
na no ka is similarly direct and brusque.
watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru
my anger will be directed at this man
Menacing. Describes consequences (i.e., 'this will happen') rather than threatening action ('I will do this').
ima no watashi ni wa
'for me as I am now'
The implication is that, having killed once, Ishigami can kill again.

Student translationese

While Ishigami's use of ordinary language is highly controlling, much of the eerieness of the letters is due to his use of a peculiar and immediately recognisable Japanese linguistic register: the 'hybrid' language used by high-school and university students when they are parsing English texts and translating them into Japanese.

Student translationese is the result of certain conventions (or crutches) derived from the practices of 19th-century translators. Japanese educators and teachers inculcate these conventions in learners to help them parse and understand English texts. By relying on fixed formulas or expressions, high-school and university students are enabled to create an 'interlingual text' for making sense of written English. The result is a peculiar style of Japanese removed from ordinary language.

The following discussion of 'student translationese' is based on my own experience with Japanese students and their habits of translating English into Japanese. I have confirmed the details with Miyaoku Masamichi (宮奥正道), a former high-school teacher in Japan, who reviewed concrete features and offered a number of corrections and suggestions.

There are some studies of translationese as it is found in foreign literature translated into Japanese, including Yukari Fukuchi Meldrum's Contemporary Translationese in Japanese Popular Literature (downloadable) and Johan Svanberg's Linguistic Mysteries in a Swedish village and on a Japanese island: A corpus-based translation study on Japanese translationese by Swedish to Japanese translation. These are useful in outlining some of the features of translated literature, which are shared with student translationese. However, they do not deal directly with translationese in an educational setting.

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

Convention no. 1: A fixed set of pronouns

Unlike English, which has a closed set of personal pronouns ('I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they'), Japanese has historically had a variety. The appropriate pronoun must be chosen on the basis of the speaker's sex, age, social status, and relationship to the person addressed, as well as the social situation.

In modern Japanese there is a range of pronouns that a speaker might use for him or herself: ore, boku, watashi, あたし atashi, etc. For instance, a young male might refer to himself as ore in speaking to his mates, boku in speaking to teachers or superiors, and watashi in speaking formally (such as in a conference). Apart from watashi, these are used solely by males.

For the second person ('you'), there is similar variety, including あなた anata, あんた anta, kimi, お前 omae, おたく otaku, 貴様 kisama, etc. These are also used according to sex, social status, and social situation.

Despite attempts in the past to establish watashi and あなた anata as 'neutral' pronouns (like 'I' and 'you' in English), this has succeeded only in influencing usage, not in changing it. watashi is still formal in nature and more likely to be used by women. あなた anata should not be used to a person of higher age or status — spoken by a student to a teacher, for instance, あなた anata would sound familiar and disrespectful. It is, however, traditionally used by a wife to her husband.

Despite this variety in their own language, students are encouraged to use a fixed set of pronouns when deciphering and translating from 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', whether the question is addressed to a young child or an adult of high status.

This convention lies behind Ishigami's constant use of watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' throughout his letters, in marked contrast to normal usage. Coming from a stalker, watashi sounds mechanical, stiff, and distant, while 貴女 anata sounds familiar and pushy.

In fact, pronouns are often avoided in Japanese as being too explicit or direct. Honorifics (varying the form of the verb to indicate respect or otherwise) are often enough to indicate conversational roles. A person's name (e.g., 靖子さん Yasuko-san) or title (先生 sensei 'teacher, doctor') is often substituted for a second person pronoun.

In student translationese, however, the normal practice is to translate each and every occurrence of a pronoun in the English.

This quirk is evident in the letters: Ishigami doubles up on watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' at three points in the last two letters:

watashi wa anata o yurusanai darō.
'I probably won't forgive you.'


Watashi ga anata no tame ni donna koto o shita
'What I did for you'

as well as

watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru.
'I have the right to give you orders.'

This excessive use of pronouns adds greatly to the mechanical, abnormal tone of the letters.

Convention no. 2: Omission of politeness

Japanese is well known for its elaborate systems of politeness and honorifics. In student translationese, however, normal features of polite speech are usually omitted, allowing the student to grasp the meaning without concentrating on politeness.

This convention lies behind Ishigami's familiar, plain, and direct language, totally lacking in the social niceties expected in Japanese.

(i) Normally, there is a greater tendency in letters to use polite verb forms, that is the ます -masu form, even between friends who might use a plain form in conversation. But Ishigami uses plain forms throughout, e.g., da rather than です desu, 似合う niau rather than 似合います niai-masu.

(ii) As with its pronouns, Japanese has a range of orders and requests available, from the super-polite to the rude. A brief sample is:

In the letters, Ishigami uses なさい -nasai (帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'return home!' (first letter) and 別れなさい wakare-nasai 'break up!' (fourth letter)).

なさい -nasai is a familiar way of issuing orders that might be used among family or friends, especially to people younger than oneself. A mother would use it towards a child. It is familiar but less imperious than the straight imperative 帰れ kaere, which is considered rude. Here it depicts a man speaking familiarly as though he has the right to order the woman around. In using this form, the stalker comes across as overbearing and possessive.

Convention no. 3: The future tense

In Japanese, the present form of the verb can indicate either present or future time, depending on the verb's aspectual character. In student translationese, however, the English future tense (the verb form using the modal auxiliary 'will') is translated according to two fixed formulas.

When predicting a future action or event, the 'tentative' verb form だろう darō is used. だろう darō indicates the speaker's subjective judgement that a statement is probably true but falls short of being 100% certain. It is often used out of politeness to avoid making categorical statements.

The rationale for using だろう darō for future events 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 are expected to translate 'He will go' as:

However, the auxiliary 'will' may also represent a statement of intent, in which case it is to be translated as つもりだ tsumori da 'have the intention to'. 'I will go' is translated as:

Because not all high-school students grasp the nuances of English modal auxiliaries, some will inevitably miss the key distinction between prediction and volition by using 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I'll probably go' instead of the correct form 私は行くつもりだ watashi wa iku tsumori da 'I have the intention of going'.

This is precisely the kind of error that the stalker makes when delivering his threats using だろう darō. One example occurs in the third letter:

moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō.
'if that is so, I probably won't forgive you'

A second forms the culmination of the fourth letter:

Moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.
'If you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive this kind of betrayal. I will probably definitely get revenge.'

だろう darō is, of course, appropriate if the speaker is assessing the certainty of his/her own future actions, or what his/her probable actions might be in a hypothetical situation. What is disturbing about the stalker is that he expresses direct threats as a calm objective assessment of his own probable actions.

Curiously, just before the last threat using だろう darō, Ishigami uses a straightforward 私は許さない watashi wa yurusanai 'I will not forgive'. Even more curiously, the sentence with だろう darō also contains the adverb 必ず kanarazu 'definitely, certainly, surely, without fail'. Having clearly stated that he will not forgive Yasuko if she has 'betrayed' him and having clearly threatened to 'definitely' get revenge, in ordinary Japanese it is both incongruous and unsettling that he hedges his threat with だろう darō.

Convention no. 4: Explicit sentence connections

Connections between sentences are subject to a fourth set of conventions or strategies.

(i) Where a sentence in English implicitly explains a previous sentence, the connection is expected to be made explicit in Japanese. One sentence exemplifies this:

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 would be:

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

This split sentence is ungainly in Japanese and would be better run together:

(ii) In student translationese, 'because' is frequently translated as なぜなら...からだ naze nara ... kara da 'if (you ask) why ... it's because'. The purpose is to eliminate the difference in word order between Japanese and English. In Japanese, clauses of cause are mostly sentence-initial, whereas in English they can come after the main clause (ordinary style) or before the main clause (written style).

For instance, in English one might say 'I didn't like it because it was sweet', whereas Japanese adopts the reverse order: 甘かったので好きではなかった amakatta no de 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 use the same order as English. Taking our example sentence:

There is one example of this construction in the letters:

...moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da.
'... if it were (so) I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally.'

This clause of reason is purely decorative; it makes no sense in terms of ordinary logic. Being Yasuko's only ally would not normally be considered a reason for threatening her over involvement with another man. Ishigami's illogical justification adds to the abnormal atmosphere of the letters.

(iii) Japanese expresses conditionals with もし moshi 'if' before the clause (optional) and a verb ending at the end of the clause such as -ba or なら nara (obligatory). もし moshi is mostly used for emphasis. But in student translationese, each and every occurrence of 'if' tends to be unreflectingly translated as もし moshi 'if'. While it's not incorrect to use もし moshi in ordinary Japanese, its persistent use in conditionals certainly adds to an impression of translationese.

In this passage there are four cases:

Moshi sō nara, enryo naku watashi ni hanashite hoshii.
If so, I want you to tell me without reserve.
...moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō.
'... if it were (so) I would probably not forgive you. '
Moshi ren'ai kankei ni aru to yū no nara, sore wa tonde mo nai uragiri kōi de aru.
If you say you are in a romantic relationship, that would be an outrageous act of betrayal.
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.

In all of the examples above, student translationese sounds 'overlogical' or 'unnatural' from the point of view of ordinary Japanese prose. Particularly in the last two sentences it could be omitted without affecting the sense at all.

C. Effect of using student translationese

The use of 'student translationese' affects the reading experience in several ways.

Two levels of understanding

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

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.

Similarly, the reader will immediately register blunt verb forms (especially imperatives) as stylistically and socially inappropriate, but will at the same time 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 (if erroneous) 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.

The ordinary Japanese reader will not be 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. But the way the stalker uses these will not go unnoticed. For example, the claim that Ishigami could not forgive Yasuko if she had relations with another man 'because he is her only ally' will simultaneously be understood as a meaningless trait of that style and a revelation of the horrifying logic of the stalker: that Yasuko is not allowed to live her life as she pleases as it would invalidate the stalker's sacrifice.

The dual level of understanding highlights the abnormal, obsessive psychology of the writer and reinforces the sense of menace.

What the choice of linguistic register tells us

Ishigami's choice of student translationese in his elaborate plan to protect mother and daughter has wider implications.

Insight into Ishigami's character

Few readers will fail to notice how closely it 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.

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 state of emotional and social development. The inept style of the letters reinforces the impression of Ishigami as something of a misfit. The reader becomes increasingly aware that he resembles that well-known Japanese stereotype, the otaku.

Since 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 (Ishigami's old classmate and adviser to the police) observed, do whatever was logically necessary to carry out his plan.

Role in the plot

The letters mark an important turning point as the book moves towards its close, and within the letters, translationese constitutes an essential literary device. The Devotion of Suspect X has 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 are 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, and propelling the story towards its shocking denouement.

The awkward language of Ishigami's letters presents a problem for the translator when translating the book into another language. I look at how the letters have been translated into English (Translating Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X') into English) and Chinese (Translating Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X') into Chinese). As we will see, choices made by translators have implications for the way the story unfolds in other languages.

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