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

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

15 September 2017 (latest update 20 Sep 2018)

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, sends four threatening letters to his neighbour Hanaoka Yasuko under the guise of being a jealous stalker.

The letters form part of an evolving scheme to distract police attention from Yasuko and her daughter after their unintentional murder of Yasuko's abusive ex-husband. They appear at an important juncture in the cat-and-mouse game between Ishigami and the police.

The letters are unexpected and jolting and their style is odd and unnatural. Language makes a big contribution to the persona that Ishigami projects.

On this page:

A. Content of the letters
B. Quirks of the letters
C. Translationese
D. Two levels of understanding
E. Significance of the linguistic register of the letters

A. Content of the letters

The 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 that Yasuko has kept; one is found on Ishigami's computer. Taken together, they form a brief narrative. I give a fairly literal translation for each segment.

The first letter:

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:

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:

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.'

The fourth letter (on his computer):

(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.
'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.'
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. Quirks of the letters

The tone of the letters is chilling. Apart from being replete with menace and possessiveness, including a threat to kill Yasuko's suitor, their language hints at an abnormal, obsessive psychology. At least four characteristics stand out.

1. Personal pronouns

Unlike English, which has a closed set of personal pronouns ('I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they'), Japanese uses a variety of pronouns. These vary historically and by dialect. In modern Japanese, 'I' can be ore, boku, watashi, あたし atashi, etc. 'You' can be あなた anata, あんた anta, kimi, お前 omae, おたく otaku, 貴様 kisama, etc.

The choice of pronoun depends on the speaker's sex, social status, and relationships, as well as the social situation. For instance, in speaking to his mates, a young male might refer to himself as ore, in speaking to teachers as boku, and in speaking formally (such as in a conference) as watashi.

All through the letters, Ishigami uses watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you'. Although attempts have been made to establish these as 'neutral' pronouns in Japanese (like 'I' and 'you' in English), they are far from neutral. watashi is formal. あなた anata 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. Coming from a stalker, both watashi and 貴女 anata sound strangely awkward, stiff, and distant.

Ishigami uses these personal pronouns persistently and obtrusively, especially in the last two letters. Japanese generally prefers to drop personal pronouns when they are understood. For second-person pronouns, the person's name or title is often substituted. Honorifics also clarify who is addressing who. Ishigami's persistence in using these pronouns adds to the menacing tone.

Even more awkwardly, he doubles up on watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' as in:

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.'

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:

This doubling up is also found only in the last two letters, where it is deliberately associated with an overbearing attitude.

2. Verb forms

The letters are almost entirely lacking in the social niceties expected in Japanese. The language is familiar, plain, and direct, to the point of brusqueness.

Ishigami uses plain forms of verbs rather than polite forms of verbs, e.g., da rather than です desu, 似合う niau rather than 似合います.

He also uses familiar commands like 帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'return home!' (first letter) and 別れなさい wakare-nasai 'break up!' (fourth letter). As with its pronouns, Japanese has a range of orders and requests available, from the super-polite to the rude. A brief sample is:

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 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/the stalker comes across as overbearing and possessive.

3. The noncommital language of the threats using だろう darō

The third, perhaps most sinister aspect of the letters is the language of the threats. One occurs in the third letter:

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

The 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 in Japanese represents a subjective judgement of the degree of certainty. It indicates that, in the speaker's view, the statement 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, even as he issues direct threats to Yasuko and her friend, Ishigami/the stalker delivers them 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, it is both incongruous and unsettling that he hedges his threat with だろう darō.

4. The logic

Ishigami writes in short, uncomplicated sentences. At two places the results are decidedly awkward.

The first is:

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 ungainly. They would sound more natural as a single sentence:

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

...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.

C. Specific style: Translationese

Taken together, these linguistic features deliberately give the impression of a person who is psychologically detached, socially inept, controlling, and possessive. But the language of the letters is not some arbitrary assemblage 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, conventions deriving from 19th-century translations from Western languages into Japanese. By translating according to these 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.

(Note: At least two studies of translationese in Japanese translated literature can be found online: 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. However, these papers do not deal with issues of student translationese in the classroom.)

Four 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 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 form なさい -nasai for imperatives. This allows the student to grasp the meaning without worrying about social niceties.

Convention no. 3

A third convention is the 'tentative' verb form だろう darō. This is used by students 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 are expected to translate 'He will go' as:

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

The exception is when 'will' represents a statement of intent. Students are taught to translate these with つもりだ tsumori da 'have the intention to':

But the nuances of English modal auxiliaries are not always easy for high-school students. Inevitably some will gloss over 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 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 seen in Ishigami's use of だろう darō to deliver his threats, which sounds strange precisely because he is delivering a clear statement of intent for which だろう darō is inappropriate.

(In fact, もしそうなら私は貴女を許さない moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai 'if that is so, I won't forgive you' and そんな裏切りを私は許さない。必ず報復する sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru. 'I will not forgive this kind of betrayal. I will definitely get revenge' would be more appropriate translations in this context).

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 without an explicit connection, the connection must be made explicit. Two sentences from Ishigami's letters are a good example of 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 for translated sentences like these would be:

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. An alternative approach would be to explain the premonition:

Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Sore wa anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka to omou kara da.
'I have an ominous premonition. That is because I think that you may be betraying me.'

A second example is the habitual translation of English 'because' as なぜなら naze nara 'that's because'. 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 be forced into the same order as English. Taking our example sentence:

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

D. Two levels of understanding

Because the Japanese reader knows 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 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 (if in this case 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. 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.

E. What does the linguistic register of the letters tell us?

Ishigami's ultimate goal in writing the letters is to project the personality of a stalker and lead the police to believe in his guilt. Translationese is a calculated part of his linguistic repertoire, along with more conventional expressions of familiarity, indignation, and rage. It is used selectively to achieve a particular effect and its density of use varies from letter to letter.

The first letter, revealing the stalker as a controlling, possessive personality concerned at changes in Yasuko's behaviour, makes little use of translationese. The second letter takes on solicitous tones as the stalker seeks to sound her out on the change in her behaviour. The use of personal pronouns is peculiar but the language is still reasonable. It is in the third and fourth letters that translationese comes to play a decisive role. This is where the doubled up personal pronouns start to sound oppressive, and predictions of the stalker's own future behaviour using だろう darō, peremptory commands, and split sentences begin to sound distinctly abnormal.

But while Ishigami's persona is part of his elaborate plan to protect mother and daughter, his choice of student translationese has wider implications. 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. 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 state of 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, 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 to its shocking dénouement...

My thanks to Miyaoku Masamichi (宮奥正道) for reviewing my description of 'student translationese' and offering a number of corrections and suggestions.

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