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Red Letters: Translation as Detection in a Sino-Japanese Murder Mystery

In 2004 Japanese author Ashibe Taku published his novel Murder in the Red Chamber, in which he adapted Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber as a compelling murder mystery. In 2008 I would take on the challenge of translating Ashibe’s novel into English. This required me to draw on a wealth of primary and secondary materials. Not only did I have to familiarize myself with the novel’s peculiarities, but also with those of its Chinese source. Over these layers of text I fashioned yet another from my own engagements with Western detective fiction. In order to reconcile these disparate cultural understandings of detection and law, I assumed the role of detective myself in navigating at least two cultural milieus at any given time. Consequently, I found myself empathizing with Ashibe’s characters in an entirely new way. This thesis is a case study that investigates two questions: (1) What does it mean when the translator’s method mimics—in the target text—that of the author of the source text? (2) How have murder mystery paradigms been displaced and/or embedded in my chosen text through this process of cross-cultural rewriting? In exploring these questions I have developed a kinship with Ashibe, for we are both rewriters seeking to flesh out the evidence laid before us into admissible testimony. Whether or not I “solved the case” of this translation matters less than the adding of another layer in another language with the intent of enriching the whole.