Whenever I read a book in translation, I always wonder whether I’m reading exactly what the author intended. Or is the translator getting in the way, superimposing his or her vocabulary, style, and preferences over those of the author? Once upon a time I read and enjoyed a version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that had been translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. Some years later I read a newer translation by Kenneth Burke. I felt like I was reading a totally different (and much better) novel—different words, different syntax, even different content! Let me give another example. When I taught Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to a Freshman Honors English class, the bookstore ordered haphazardly. We ended up reading something like eight different versions, but the exercise turned out to be a wonderful learning experience. In class, we would read “similar” passages aloud and find that the various translators had been completely inconsistent when presenting characters and interpreting events. The students were quite surprised, and the experience has made me very cautious when I review a translated book.
I know no Japanese, and have little experience with Japanese fiction. For the reasons suggested above, deciding to write about Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief seems a stretch. I honestly do not know if the translation by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates reflects the author’s intent or modern Japanese prose. Part of the pleasure in reading The Thief is the clipped syntax and the spare diction. The rapidfire pace and the stark imagery perfectly reflect the content of the novel, which itself is crisp and staccato. Should I praise Nakamura? Or Izumo and Coates? Let’s assume the former.
The nameless thief is a pickpocket. He haunts the streets of Japanese cities and the aisles of speeding commuter trains, lifting wallets and stealing cell phones. He himself is amoral, although he seems to have a somewhat idiosyncratic code of ethics. If the victim appears innocent, the thief takes only money and then puts the stolen wallet and its credit cards in a mailbox. If the victim seems malevolent, or the thief doesn’t like the victim’s attitude, the cards are shredded and the wallet goes into the trash. Although the thief leads an isolated existence, he does make occasional human contact. He recalls Ishikawa, an older man who taught the thief his trade. And he befriends a youngster, first teaching the boy to steal more proficiently and then helping the boy escape from his disastrous living situation.
I don’t mean to imply, however, that the thief is a decent or prescient man. Rather, he is amoral to the core. He functions in what I would describe as a world without ethics. When that world turns nihilistic, he is left without any decent options. However, because he comprehends contradictions, his persona is fascinating. “Reaching out my hands to steal, I had turned my back on everything, rejected community, rejected wholesomeness and light. I had built a wall around myself and lived by sneaking into the gaps in the darkness of life.” Watching him maneuver and manipulate (and be maneuvered and be manipulated) is what makes The Thief worth reading.
Still, I’m left with the question—am I truly reading the book Fuminori Nakamura intended to write? – Ann Ronald
Also available by Nakamura: Evil and the Mask.