Lost in Translation? Interpreting and Identity in Suki Kim’s The Interpreter

The Interpreter (2003) is the first novel by Suki Kim, who was born in Korea and immigrated to the US with her parents at the age of thirteen. The plot revolves around the interpreter Suzy Park, also born in Korea and immigrated to America, who lost contact to her parents after she ran away with a married man. She later finds out her parents were murdered, but the case is not solved, which leads Suzy to investigate the murder herself. Aside from the murder mystery, Kim’s novel touches upon themes like depression, hybridity and multiculturalism.

The character of the interpreter in any kind of fiction certainly became more prominent in recent years, especially in Speculative Fiction. Examples include Ted Chiang’s Arrival, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. However, interpreters are also often used in crime fiction, which is the case in Suki Kim’s novel. Just like the name of the novel’s title already suggests, interpreting is one of the central issues of Kim’s work. The question of what interpreting has to do with detective narratives and its use might arise if you are, just like I was, unfamiliar with the concept. Is interpreting a mere plot device? Is it of any significance at all to the character of Suzy? If you want to find out, please do keep on reading!

As Suzy narrates the story, her profession as an interpreter is of high relevance time and time again. So let’s take a look at how and why Suzy uses her interpreting skills throughout the novel. When Suzy first mentions her job, she says: “The interpreter, however, is the shadow. The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who knows the truth, a keeper of secrets” (Kim12). Invisibility and the illusion of transparency is also discussed in Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility and underlines the translator’s ability to intervene (1).

These aspects of intervention and manipulation can also be found in Suzy’s interpretations, which is why she can be called an untrustworthy interpreter. Ingrid Kurz, a scholar researching infidel interpreters in fiction, clarifies that the first and most important task of an interpreter is conveying the speaker’s message as truthfully and clearly as possible (206). Any other possible outcomes caused by the interpreter are generally considered as infidelity – regardless of intention. Examples include wilful manipulation or betrayal, a lack of skills, or siding with an underprivileged speaker (cf. Kurz). In Suzy’s case, she herself says she often “finds herself cheating” (Kim 15). In a flashback, Suzy interprets for the first time in the novel and sides with a Korean man who fell victim to a cultural misunderstanding: 

“[…]‘Surely,’ the lawyer insists, ‘the injury must not have been severe if you even refused medical attention!’ But Suzy knows that it is a cultural misunderstanding. It is the Korean way always to underplay the situation, to declare one is fine even when suffering from pain or ravenous hunger. This might stem from their Confucian or even Buddhist tradition, but the lawyers don’t care about that. […] The witness gets all nervous and stammers something about how he’s not a liar, and Suzy puts on a steel face to hide her anger and translates, ‘I was in shock, and the pain was not obvious to me until I got home and collapsed.’”

Kim 15f.

Suzy is well aware of the controversy attached to her decision, because a revelation would very likely cost her her job(16). What this scene very well illustrates, is how Suzy is caught between her professional/legal commitment and her personal/moral commitment. Kurz underlines this with the common observation of people with the same ethnic heritage viewing the other as an ally, just as it happens here.

But this is not Suzy’s only intention, as she also willingly misinterprets at court to gain information about her parents: “’Can you describe to me again the ways in which you hire and fire your workers?’ […] Five years ago, you said, you worked for people who are dead. Can you describe to me what happened to them?” (Kim 95). In this situation, she is not helping the underprivileged, but she is manipulating the testimony in order to investigate her parents’ murder further. This demonstrates a usurpation and abuse of power that clearly violates the law and emphasises Suzy’s infidelity. Lastly, it also underlines how Suzy’s need for personal gain leads to her unreliability and therefore connects to her parents’ decision to provide information about fellow Koreans to save their own necks.

Even though interpreting is certainly a tool for Suzy’s detective work, another concept that is central to my argumentation is that of hybridity. Very roughly speaking, the idea of hybridity deals with the “merging of disparate identities” (cf. Burger and Mattila). In relation to Suzy and her actions throughout the novel, one could consider her a hybrid detective, as she is not only the investigator, but is to an extend invested in criminal activity herself. Furthermore, she is also frequently moving between a privileged and poor life, which is by her immigrant parents and her simultaneously going to an Ivy League college (and then dropping out of it). However, the idea of disparate identities also shows in her interpreting skills, since Suzy is constantly torn between to languages or two identities, which connects back to her multicultural upbringing.  As Eco puts is, “translation is always a shift, not between two languages, but between two cultures” (192). This impression can be backed up by Suzy:

“Being bilingual, being multicultural should have brought two worlds into one heart, and yet for Suzy, it meant a persistent hollowness. It seems that she needed to love one culture to be able to love the other. Piling up cultural references led to no further identification. […] She was stuck in a vacuum where neither culture moved nor owned her. Deep inside, she felt no connection […].”

Kim 166.

As underlined by the quote, Suzy’s sense of identity is constantly challenged, which leads to her identity crisis caused by a missing sense of belonging. Therefore, her skills as an interpreter are not only a mere plot device to help her investigate her parents’ murder, but are also crucial to her character as a whole, as interpreting offers an intro-perspective into her mind and the issue of multiculturalism. Just as Suzy links the job of the interpreter to invisibility, she and her cultural understanding of herself become invisible and hollow. In the end, interpreting is essential to protagonist and plot and the key to Suki Kim’s work.

Works Cited

Burger, Bettina and Lucas Mattila: “Hybridity and Doubling in Suki Kim’s The Interpreter.” YouTube, uploaded by Lucas Mattila, 25 November 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hw93CsFBNuI.

Eco, Umberto: Experiences in Translation. University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Kim, Suki. The Interpreter. Picador, 2003.

Kurz, Ingrid. “On the (In)fidelity of (Fictional) Interpreters.” Transfiction. Research into the Realities of Translation Fiction, edited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014, pp. 205-220.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility. A History of Translation. Second Edition. Routledge, 2008.