Translating Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X') into English
(Is Alexander O. Smith's Ishigami a lovesick admirer?)
5 August 2018 (latest update 5 Sep 2020)
In my earlier post, I looked at how 'student translationese' sets the tone for the letters that Ishigami, posing as a stalker, sent to Yasuko when she was seeing Kudo (工藤 kudō). Ishigami used this style to present himself like a socially inept, robotic, obsessive otaku.
The novel 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 emerges from them?
Most of the features of Japanese 'student translationese' are difficult or impossible to directly render in English. The inappropriate pronouns and their insistent use cannot be replicated since English has a fixed set of mostly obligatory pronouns. English does not explicitly mark politeness levels of verbs, and English imperatives are not inherently rude. The strange use of the verb だろう darō for the speaker's own future actions would be hard to reproduce in English. There is little reason to believe that a 'pen of my aunt' style of student translationese in English would sound anything but ridiculous.
Consequently, while taking note of how 'student translationese' is handled, for the most part we will focus on the wider features of style and how the stalker's "voice" is presented in translation.
We will find that the translators have not tried to recreate the robotic tone of the original, and that they have taken a number of creative liberties, especially in the third letter, with a potentially significant impact on the persona projected by Ishigami/the stalker.
On this page:
A. Point-by-point comparison
‣ The first letter
‣ The second letter
‣ The third letter
‣ The fourth letter (a)
‣ The fourth letter (b)
‣ The fourth letter (c)
B. General comments
‣ The question of "voice"
‣ Implications for plot and characterisation
A. Point-by-point comparison
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 translation uses short bald statements to convey the tone of the Japanese. The stalker's possessiveness and control are, if anything, expressed more directly in English.
- 少し sukoshi 'a little', habitually used in Japanese to soften criticism, is ignored in the English.
- The niggling tone of the Japanese is expressed more directly and personally ('I notice', 'it bothers me').
- The なさい -nasai imperative is appropriately translated as 'should'.
- In Japanese, the stalker'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', the translation indicates movement towards the writer (appropriate for Ishigami, who lives next door), highlighting the stalker's creepiness and possessiveness.
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.
Overall, the English translation is slightly wooden, losing the original progression from gentle coaxing to strong advice. Instead, it starts out sounding distant and ends sounding reassuring.
- The first sentence, 'Is something bothering you?' could be felt as more cold or querulous than solicitous.
- The sense of reaching out in 話してほしい hanashite hoshii 'want you to tell me' is lost with 'please', which is polite but not necessarily warm or friendly.
- Ishigami's explanation for his daily phone calls uses 'That's why... you know', which seems to be pointedly implying that Yasuko doesn't understand or needs to be reminded, partially losing the sympathetic tone.
- In Japanese, Ishigami's caution against trusting other people ends with the imperious
Watashi no yū koto dake o kiite ireba ii
You should listen only to what I say = You should do what I tell you'
The English mistranslates this as 'Just me', meaning 'You should trust only me'. This alters both the meaning and the tone.
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 is recast at almost every turn. Before our very eyes, the translators transform the stalker's gruff, controlling persona into something resembling a frantic lover.
1. The first two sentences are reworked:
- The somewhat literary idiom 不吉な予感がする yokan ga suru 'I have an ominous premonition' is turned into the colloquial and emotive a feeling that something terrible has happened.
- 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, Ishigami fears that the betrayal has already taken place.
- The awkward connector というものだ to yū mono da 'It is that...' is omitted and のではないか no de wa nai ka 'could it be that' is translated as 'I fear'.
The result is more natural than the Japanese, but also more personal ('I fear') and more concerned at betrayal as a fait accompli.
2. The classic formulation of expressing confidence in another person, followed by a threat of dire consequences if they turn out to be guilty, is completely altered from the stern tones of the Japanese to emotional tones in the English.
- 信じている shinjite iru 'I believe that' is translated as 'Now, I know with all my heart that'. The sentence seems imbued with passionate hope, almost a desperate cry for confirmation.
- そんな事は絶対にない sonna koto wa zettai ni nai 'such a thing would absolutely not be' is rendered as 'you would never do such a thing', placing shame and guilt on Yasuko.
- もしそうなら moshi sō nara 'if it were so' is translated with the reproachful 'if you ever did'.
- 許さないだろう yurusanai darō, literally 'probably won't forgive', is student translationese for 'will not forgive'. In English, this is expanded out of all proportion into 'not sure I would ever be able to forgive'. A clear threat of non-forgiveness is transformed into a heartfelt cry of uncertainty about his ability to handle betrayal.
3. The stalker then explains why he may not be able to forgive: 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', which awkwardly splits the sentence and makes no logical sense. The translators respond by:
- Removing the offending なぜなら naze nara 'that's why' to make the sentence more natural.
- Altering the veiled threat 'Only I am your ally' to 'I am the only man for you'. This has two plausible meanings:
- 'I'm your man!' (You can rely on me)
- 'I'm the only man you want' (You should pick me, not Kudō).
This change would seem to pose a real problem for characterisation. Although love is clearly a motivation for Ishigami, at no time does he express a direct interest in becoming her 'man'. It is precisely his failure to state the obvious that gives his letters their flavour. The translation recasts the wording to supply the stalker, if not Ishigami, with a motivation not explicitly found in the Japanese.
The fourth letter
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 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 snarky tone and the confrontational attitude of the Japanese are partly lost. Concern about a physical relationship is highlighted more strongly.
1. In the original, Ishigami/the stalker refers to Yasuko's relationship with Kudō with two sentences:
- One announces that he has found out who Kudō is.
- The second draws Yasuko's attention to the enclosed photos as the source of his knowledge.
Both carry nuances of aloofness or contempt.
The English translation melds them into a single sentence, transforming the original second sentence into a businesslike 'As you can tell by the enclosed pictures'. This loses the flavour of the original.
2. In demanding that Yasuko clarify her relationship with Kudō, Ishigami says 貴女に訊きたい Anata ni kikitai 'I want to ask you', the language of arguments. In translation, this becomes 'I must ask', indicating that the stalker feels impelled, perhaps by feeling or circumstance, to ask this question. This sounds more reticent than the original.
3. 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.
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.
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 is conveyed but there is one important difference:
- The stalker's blunt assertion of the right to order Yasuko what to do (私は貴女に命じる権利がある Watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru) is softened to 'I believe I have the right to tell you what to do in this matter'. By adding 'I believe' and 'in this matter', the stalker sounds altogether cooler and more reasonable.
Kurikaesu ga, moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.
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.'
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 largely reflects the Japanese but conveys a greater sense of being personally affected.
1. 今の私には ima no watashi ni wa 'for me as I am now' is translated as 'for me'. The implication is that, having killed once Ishigami can kill again. This nuance is glossed over in the translation, which simply reveals Ishigami's cold willingness to kill.
2. 男女の関係にある danjo no kankei ni aru 'be in a male-female relationship' becomes 'engaged in a relationship'. This time the English translation is a more accurate reflection of the original.
3. The translators handle the stalker's awkward threat differently in this letter:
- 許さない yurusunai 'I will not forgive' (a direct statement of intent) becomes 'I cannot forgive'.
- 必ず kanarazu 'definitely' + 報復するだろう hōfuku suru darō 'will probably get revenge' (determination + uncertainty) becomes 'I will have my revenge', an expression of strong determination.
On the one hand, だろう darō is ignored and the certainty of revenge amplified.
On the other, the implacable 許さない yurusunai 'will not forgive' is transformed into an inability to forgive. Rather than a threat of retaliation, the reader sees a stalker unable to extend forgiveness for reasons that might include personal morality, humiliation, anger, or profound hurt.
B. General comments on the English translation
From small differences to mistranslations, the English subtly and not so subtly changes the way the stalker presents himself. The broad outlines — his possessiveness, attempts at control, threats, and determination — are unchanged. But the portrayal of his emotional and psychological state appears to differ considerably.
Most startling is the difference in the expression of emotionality. Where the Japanese Ishigami presents an emotionally repressed stalker, at almost every point the translation seems to hint at a stormy and tormented soul beneath. This is most apparent in the third letter, where the stalker sounds like a desperate aspirant for Yasuko's love.
The slight adjustment to the circumstances, from fears that Yasuko might be betraying him or about to betray him to worries that the act might already have occurred, put the focus from the start on the physical side ('a relationship'), conveying a more urgent and immediate sense of jealousy and betrayal.
Similarly, the stalker says that he fears that Yasuko has betrayed him.
On the other hand, the translation softens some more confrontational aspects. The declaration that he will not forgive becomes cannnot forgive, hinting at deeper reasons of emotion, pride, or morality. 'I want to ask you' becomes 'I must ask you'. An element of aloofness and sarcasm when pointing out that he has photos of Kudō is filtered out. His high-handed 'right' to tell Yasuko what to do becomes an attempt at persuasion. The persona that emerges is more reasonable, more 'human' than the impersonal character of the Japanese.
These various changes seem to make the stalker into a real person expressing his emotional vulnerability.
The question of "voice"
But words on the page do not tell the whole story. In the English, the style of delivery will have a decisive effect on the impact of the letters.
Declaimed in an emotional style, the letters would certainly seem to show Ishigami projecting an emotionally vulnerable stalker. But delivered in a quiet, cynical manner, the stalker's aggrieved language almost sounds sinister. One just has to imagine a psychopath or sociopath calmly laying out the reasons for his cruelty to perceive a persona manipulating the language of emotion to persecute his victim. It appears that the translators decided that a stalker quietly expressing himself in terms of injured feelings would be creepier than the robotic tone of the Japanese.
In the novel, the sudden depiction of a socially awkward otaku and jealous stalker in the original is abrupt and frightening. The letters signal that Ishigami is more ruthless than we thought. By turning the stalker (Ishigami) into a manipulative psychopath, the English gives Ishigami's letters a totally different "voice".
Implications for the plot
Whether this is a positive in terms of plot and characterisation is another question. At this point in the original, the letters reveal a brilliant, logical-minded, but awkward and socially isolated otaku who is literally prepared to do anything for the woman he loves.
In translation, the stalker is a sinister, sociopathic, manipulative genius. This is every bit as terrifying as the Japanese. But while the letters in both the Japanese and the translation reveal frightening aspects of Ishigami that the reader did not suspect before, the translation appears to be mostly aiming to inspire fear. It does not lead towards the final denouement in which we find that Ishigami loves Yasuko to the point that he is willing to completely sacrifice himself for her sake.
For Alexander O. Smith's comments on preserving the formality of the language in The Devotion of Suspect X and his stance on literal translation, see this interview: Alexander O. Smith: LibraryThing Author Interview.