Without the fluency of any other language but English, I have always looked at translators with reverence. They hold so much quiet power. Without them, so much would remain unexpressed, so many divides between people and cultures uncrossed. In the micro-exchanges and contemplative silences that characterize Katie Kitamura’s worlds, volumes are spoken, much is considered, and significant possibilities are catalyzed — or concluded. Like her accolade-winning novel A Separation, her new book Intimacies casts a spell as it offers us insight into the thoughts behind a woman’s careful words and small actions.
Intimacies tells the story of an American woman living in the Hague and working as a translator at the International Court of Justice. Unfamiliar with Dutch culture as well as with the culture of those she translates for, she is nevertheless able to bridge gaps and fill silences with her knowledge of languages. When she is called to translate for a man accused of horrific war crimes, she realizes the intimate nature of interpreting one person’s words into your own.
At the same time, she is enmeshed in an inchoate relationship with a married man whose wife has left him. They are intimate – and yet, much is unspoken and tacit between them. When he goes to see his wife in another country, he asks the narrator to make herself at home in his apartment. She does – but of course can’t. This is not her home, or her life. She is an interloper, seeking to translate what is for much of the book incoherent to her: her very relationship with an intimate partner.
I love Kitamura’s use of suspense and ambiguity in her novels. Much of the time, we don’t know what is going to happen or what we want to happen. For example, until a judgment is made as to the accused war criminal’s culpability, he, we, and his people are in limbo. The narrator seems to think that he is guilty, but also grasps his humanity, and senses the turning tide in the courtroom as his legal team bests the prosecution. She isn’t ardent in her opinion, as she doesn’t really have one. Her purpose is to translate – nothing more, nothing less.
Kitamura’s brief novel is a masterwork in miniature, a glimpse into the infinite expanse of space among thoughts, actions, words, and responsibilities. Whether you read it in a day or savor it over a stretch of time as I did, you won’t soon forget it.