Great books deserve to be read and to be talked about, but obviously, one of the biggest hurdles on the road to world-wide domination of any book is the language hurdle. The fall of the Tower of Babel is basically one of the reasons this blog exists, as I try to promote Japanese mystery fiction in the English-language world, even if the effort is very little. And as I know that learning a language costs a lot of time and effort, you'll usually hear me cry out that book X or Y should be translated, rather than cry out people should just learn Japanese. And yet, I am very well aware that some books I've read in the last few years, some very amazing books even, have very little chance to be ever translated in English. And I'm not talking about the economics of the whole business. Right now, I'm purely talking about the topic from a linguistic point of view.
Of particular interest to me is the concept "role language" in the Japanese language. The authority on Japanese role language, Kinsui, defines it as:
“Role language refers to a certain speech style ( vocabulary, expression, phrasing, intonation et cetera) that makes one think of a stereotype (age, gender, work, class, generation, appearance/features, character et cetera). Or vice versa, the speech style that comes to mind when presented with a stereotype.” (Kinsui 2003, 205)
So where does this linguistics class bring us? Well, basically, there are a lot of mystery novels that make use of these characteristics of the Japanese language. Obviously, these are most often stories with a narrative trick aimed at the reader. An easy example is the gender-switch. Suppose you come across character X in a story who uses the personal pronoun atashi, leaves out the copula at the end of the sentence and uses the interactional particle wa. These are all elements usually associated with 'female language', so the context invites the reader to think X=female. And here lies the trap, because it is very possible that X is in fact male and the writer only wanted you to think X = female. Note that the author never lies to the reader in this case: it's an assumption made by the reader based on cultural and linguistic assumptions, but the author has done nothing unfair here (as he never stated that X=female). And because Japanese is a high-context language (also because of other characteristics of Japanese), you never ever have to refer to X with a gender-specific word (for example, 'she' or 'her') throughout a story.
There are of course other tricks possible that make use of the expection of the reader's linguistic assumption. In Japanese, it is common to leave the subject or object of a sentence away for example, if already mentioned earlier in a dialogue, but this too leaves opportunities for the author to play with the reader's expectations. Because of the high-context culture, the reader will always fill in the blanks by himself , but the author can steer that process with certain sociolinguistic misdirections, leading to tricks played at the meta-level. The reader thus has to pay attention not just to the situations described in the story, but even the very words used to describe those situations.
Mystery fiction with narrative tricks can thus be very difficult to translate to English (or other low-context languages), because they function not in the "in-universe" level, but on a linguistic level outside the story. Obviously, this is a case-by-case thing and I am definitely not saying that all stories with narrative tricks are impossible to translate. But sometimes, the incompatability between the source and target language can form a considerable, if not unsurmountable hurdle for these kind of mystery stories. Korean and Japanese in comparison for example are linguistically relatively close to each other (closer to English, anyway), meaning that it's a lot easier to translate these kinds of narrative tricks (in fact, I've seen several Japanese novels with narrative tricks translated to Korean).
In a way, the Japanese mystery story that actually uses the Japanese language as part of its performance might be considered the Japanese story. But because of that, these kind of stories can also prove to be difficult to bring to other lanauges. I for one can name several titles I wish more people had read, but are just difficult to render in languages like English and Dutch.
金水敏 （２００３年） 『ヴァーチャル日本語 役割語の謎』 岩波書店