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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 (latest update 29 Dec 2018)

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?

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).

Most features of '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 pronouns which are mostly obligatory. English does not explicitly mark politeness levels of verbs, and English imperatives are not inherently rude. Attempts to render 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.

A couple of difficulties in appraising the translation should be noted. One is interpreting the tone of voice of the letters, especially as they form a one-sided dialogue. In many cases we can only make a subjective judgement how they should be read. Secondly, while the reader knows that it was Ishigami who sent the letters, they were initially presented to the police as being from an anonymous stalker. This will subtly influence how they are interpreted.

With the above caveats in mind, we will find that the translator has taken a number of creative liberties with the original text, especially in the third letter, with a significant impact on the persona projected by Ishigami/the stalker. This will emerge as we look at each letter in turn.

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

A. Point-by-point comparison

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. The Japanese original uses short declarative sentences with plain verb forms, including one imperative. Communication is one way, in the tone of a man telling his woman 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.

In detail:

  • Ishigami's criticisms using impersonal sentence-endings are rendered from a first-person perspective 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'.
    The expression of personal attitudes at the start of the sentence, often using personal pronouns, is a normal feature of English.
  • 少し sukoshi 'a little', habitually (perhaps ritually) used in Japanese to soften criticism, is ignored in the English.
  • The なさい -nasai imperative, which shows that Ishigami regards Yasuko as subordinate to his wishes, is translated as 'should'. This is a suitable form for expressing an attitude of control.
  • In the 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', the translation indicates movement towards Ishigami, who lives next door. As presented from the point of view of an anonymous stalker, 'come home' highlights the stalker's creepiness and possessiveness by suggesting that he is watching nearby.

The translation uses short bald statements to convey the tone of the Japanese. The stalker's possessiveness and control are well expressed, especially through the use of 'come home'. However, while Japanese projects impersonality and distance, the English practice of putting speaker attitudes and feelings at the start of the sentence makes the letters sound slightly more personal.

The second letter

The second letter attempts to engage with Yasuko, starting with a solicitous (almost wheedling) attempt to sound out what is happening. Ishigami/the stalker explains that he is trying to help and warns her not to trust other people. While the tone at the end becomes perceptibly stronger, Ishigami does not use an imperative. This may be the most natural-sounding of the four letters in Japanese.

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 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.'


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.

In detail:

  • In the Japanese, the first sentence speaks directly to Yasuko in a sympathetic way. あるんじゃないのか arun' ja nai no ka is colloquial language and softens the tone. On the other hand, depending on the tone of voice, the blunt English translation ('Is something bothering you?') could be felt as querulous.
  • 話してほしい hanashite hoshii 'want you to tell me' makes a personal appeal to Yasuko to open up, consciously avoiding the imperative なさい -nasai. The English partly loses this attempt at intimacy by using 'please', which is polite but not necessarily friendly.
  • In explaining his daily phone calls (which Yasuko says she answered only once), Ishigami ends his sentence with んだ n' da, indicating that this sentence explains the previous statement. In the English, this function is fulfilled by 'That's why... you know'. Depending on the intonation, 'you know' is stronger than an explanation; it seems to pointedly imply that Yasuko doesn't understand and needs to be told or reminded. This also partially loses the sympathetic tone.
  • Ishigami cautions Yasuko against trusting other people, using expressions of strong advice. 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 should listen only to what I say = You should do only what I tell you'
    • English: You shouldn't trust anyone else. Just me.
    Not only is 'Just me' more casual, the meaning is also different: You should listen only to / do only what I tell you in the Japanese is changed to You should trust only me in the English, transforming overbearing advice into a friendly tone of reassurance.

Overall, the English translation is slightly awkward, wooden even. In particular, it loses the original progression from gentle engagement to strong advice. The first two sentences, with their slightly blunt, slightly standoffish phrasing, fail to fully capture the sense of reaching out. On the other hand, the sterner tone of the final sentence is reversed to something more casual and reassuring.

The third letter

The third letter abandons the previous chatty style, featuring tones of suspicion, menace, and anxiety as Ishigami raises doubts that Yasuko is cheating. He threatens that he will not forgive Yasuko if she betrays him and indicates darkly that he is her only protector.

The letter 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.

In detail:

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, a more emotive statement using everyday language.
  • 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.
  • By ignoring というものだ to yū mono da 'It is that...' and translating のではないか no de wa nai ka 'could it be that' as 'I fear' (in line with the English tendency to put expressions of personal emotion at the start of the sentence), the awkward split into two sentences is transformed into normal English.

Ishigami then uses a classic formulation: express confidence in the other person, and then threaten what will happen if they actually turn out to be guilty.

  • 信じている shinjite iru 'I believe that (absolutely not)' is translated as 'Now, I know with all my heart that'.
    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. In Japanese, the stalker is sternly giving Yasuko the benefit of the doubt. In English, the stalker is almost frantically hoping against hope that the worst has not already happened.
  • そんな事は絶対にない sonna koto wa zettai ni nai 'such a thing would absolutely not be' is also rendered in exaggerated style as 'you would never do such a thing', amplifying Ishigami's angst over her possible 'infidelity'. もしそうなら moshi sō nara 'if it were so' is translated as 'if you ever did', again expressing personal vulnerability at the possibility of betrayal.
  • In the Japanese, 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 forgive'. The Japanese stalker's clear threat of non-forgiveness is transformed into a heartfelt cry of anguish and uncertainty about how he would handle this emotionally.

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

  • The reason he gives, 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 makes no logical sense. Confronted with this, the translator:
    • Fixes the awkward construction by removing なぜなら naze nara 'that's why'.
    • Alters the veiled threat 'Only I am your ally' to 'I am the only man for you'. 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).
      The second is the most likely interpretation for most readers.
  • This poses a real problem for characterisation. Although love and jealousy are clearly the driving emotion behind the letters, at no time does Ishigami, even when writing as a stalker, 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 completely recasts Ishigami's words and supplies a motivation not explicitly found in the Japanese.

The differences outlined above are not just matters of detail. The letter is mistranslated or misleadingly translated at almost every turn. Before our very eyes, the translator transforms the gruff, controlling persona of the original into something resembling a frantic lover.

The fourth letter

The fourth letter (on Ishigami's computer) is longer than the other three. Influenced by the intensity of emotion, it also 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 part, Ishigami reveals in a snarky way that he has identified Yasuko's suitor. He angrily asks the nature of their relationship and declares that a love relationship would be regarded as betrayal.

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/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.

In detail:

  • In the original, Ishigami/the stalker uses two sentences to refer to Yasuko's relationship with Kudō:
    1. One announces that he has found out who Kudō is.
    2. The second draws Yasuko's attention to the enclosed photos as the source of his knowledge.
    In the Japanese, both sentences carry nuances of aloofness.

    Ishigami effectively casts aspersions on Kudō when he says he has found out his 素性 sujō, that is, his birth, background, and breeding. (In fact, he appears only to have tracked down who Yasuko's suitor was; hence the English translation 'identity'.)

    The second sentence contains a sarcastic honorific: 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 English translation melds the two into a single sentence, transforming the original second sentence into a bare functional clause: 'As you can tell by the enclosed pictures'. This loses most of the flavour of the Japanese.

  • In demanding that Yasuko clarify her relationship with Kudō, Ishigami uses 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 more reticent attitude fits in with other aspects of the translation.
  • 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.

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.

Second section:

In the Japanese, Ishigami continues by pointing out angrily what he has done for Yasuko. He declares that he is entitled to tell her what to do and proceeds to tell her bluntly to break up with Kudō. He then uses a slightly roundabout expression to threaten that Kudō will bear the brunt of his anger if she doesn't.

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.

In detail:

  • 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 '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.

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

Third section:

Ishigami concludes the letter by declaring that he is ready and able to kill Kudō. He repeats his threat to get revenge if Yasuko is in a physical relationship with him.

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.'


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.

In detail:

  • 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 Kudō would not be a problem. This nuance is ignored, although attempting to express it in English would exaggerate 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 from that previously used, this time the English translation is accurate.
  • This time the translator handles the awkward use of だろう darō better:
    • 許さない yurusunai 'I will not forgive' (a direct statement of intent) ⇒ 'I cannot forgive'.
    • 必ず kanarazu 'definitely' + 報復するだろう hōfuku suru darō 'will probably get revenge' (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 actually amplified ('I will have my revenge').

But there is a wrinkle: 'cannot forgive' alters the original meaning in the direction of greater emotionality. Unlike the implacable 許さない yurusunai 'will not forgive' of the Japanese, the English emphasises the stalker's inability to forgive. Rather than a threat of retaliation, the reader sees an Ishigami unable to extend forgiveness for reasons that might include personal morality, humiliation, or profound hurt.

In sum, the English does a good job conveying the sense of the Japanese. However, in place of a direct threat not to forgive, the translated Ishigami indirectly appeals to personal emotion or morality. The stalker sounds more personally affected than in the Japanese.

B. 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 his robotic style is barely reproduceable in English, the subtle differences in emphasis and style in the translation become his persona by default. The broad outlines — his possessiveness, attempts at control, and threats — are unchanged. But the portrayal 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. The pointed observation that he is Yasuko's only ally is transformed 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 stalker is portrayed less as a monster darkly intimating at consequences than as a desperate aspirant for her love.

The translator bolsters this with a slight adjustment to the circumstances. In the original, Ishigami fears that Yasuko might be betraying him or about to betray him. In the English, he worries that the act might already have occurred. And while Yasuko's relationship with Kudō 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', in the English the focus from the start is squarely on the physical side ('a relationship'). The English conveys a more urgent and immediate sense of jealousy and betrayal.

The translation highlights emotionality in other ways. Where personal judgements are expressed impersonally (ようだ yō da 'it appears', 気になる ki ni naru 'is concerning') in Japanese, English subtly emphasises the emotional aspect by using first-person pronouns ('I notice...', 'It bothers me'). Similarly, Ishigami says that he fears that Yasuko has betrayed him.

On the other hand, the translation softens some of the confrontational aspects of the letters. The imperative なさい -nasai is transformed into modals ('should or 'must'). 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 declaration, that he has the right to tell Yasuko what to do, is rendered as an attempt at persuasion. Strange conjunctions are omitted. The persona that emerges is more reasonable, more 'normal' than the impersonal character of the Japanese.

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

The reason for the translator's choices can only be guessed at.

The dramatic reconfigurations of the third letter could be due to a misunderstanding of the nature of 'student translationese'. But this explanation seems implausible. The same だろう darō that the translator rendered as 'I don't know if I could ever' at the third letter is completely ignored at the fourth. The mistranslation of だろう darō at the earlier sentence appears more opportunistic than mistaken. Smith, consciously or unconsciously, remoulded the language of the letters.

So 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 English-speaking 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?

On the other hand, given that the letters purport to be from a stalker, the translator may have felt that an intimate personal approach was creepier than the distant, controlling tone of the Japanese. The translator may simply have been striving to make the stalking letters as credible as possible.

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 abrupt and frightening. By having Ishigami express deeper, more human emotions through his letters, this abrupt change is softened. 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 ending. While the storyline is the same, the portrait of the protagonist differs significantly and the progression of the plot is subtly influenced.

While the impact of a few paragraphs can certainly be exaggerated, the translator's deliberate changes to the way that Ishigami is presented through his letters, making him appear more emotional and transparent, arguably alter the tone, psychology, and plot development at this important juncture in the book.

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.

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