At one point in Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura, the protagonist describes her job as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as trying to make the space between languages as small as possible. She knows that it’s impossible to create one-to-one translations. This poetic definition captures part of the reason I am in awe of interpreters. Most of us (Americans at least) operate in one language. Depending on how much caffeine I have on board, there are moments when my tongue trips over itself or I can’t find the right word or I even try to say two things at the same time. While I have studied a bit of Spanish and German, I never got anywhere close to fluent in anything other than English. How much work it must take to not just be able to converse or read another language, but to be so fluent that one can smoothly and simultaneously translate from one language to another. But Intimacies is not just about language. Rather, it’s about moments when we connect or fail to connect with another human being through misinterpretation.
Interpreters are meant to be invisible, to a certain extent. Unfortunately for our narrator, she seems to have extended her professional inconspicuousness into her personal life. She has a friend and a boyfriend, but none of them seem particularly close. The narrator appears to drift around the city from work to occasional meals with the friend or boyfriend in between spending a lot of time alone. The only times the narrator really seems to come alive are the moments when she is in court, translating for people accused of war crimes and their defense teams. There is a small plot arc involving the narrator and her boyfriend that, because it mostly consists of the narrator thinking about whether or not her boyfriend loves her or his ex-wife more, lacks drama. An even smaller plot sees the narrator’s friend trying to help her make another friend that also doesn’t really go anywhere.
In the same way that the narrator drifts through her days in The Hague, Intimacies touches on a lot of potentially interesting topics before gliding on to something else. There are references to why the International Criminal Court seems to go after Africans more than any one else. There are also references to the changing demographics of The Netherlands and Europe and resistance from Dutch who refuse to mix with new immigrants from Africa, Asia, and South America. I picked up this book because it takes place partially in the ICC, something that has interested me for a long time. I think the development of war crimes and how they are adjudicated is amazing and complicated and full of unrealized potential for good. So it was disappointing that Intimacies also glossed over this, apart from some discussion about how disturbing it can be when an interpreter slips out of simultaneous translation enough to realize what they are actually saying.
I’ve put off reviewing Intimacies because I can’t make up my min about how I feel about it. It’s not the book I was hoping for, but I try not to fault books for that. (I tend to blame book blurb writers who fail to adequately describe a book’s content.) There were moments I liked–just not enough to make me really like the whole book. Because of the way this book just breezes along and never really settles into any of the themes or characters that appear, I felt frustrated by this book more than anything else. There’s also a good possibility that I missed what Intimacies was trying to tell me. How ironic for a book about translation, especially for one written in a language I am fairly proficient at reading.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.