The Babel-Fish Puzzle

"The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks."
- Douglas Adams (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, 1988)
In a recent post annotating the second anniversary of this blog, I alluded to a "germ of an idea" festering in my mind, and if it had worked, I would've had an impossible situation for you armchair detectives to unravel – unfortunately, it proved itself to be untenable. 

Janwillem van de Wetering

The Pledge:

If it had worked, the following would have transpired: a guest review from one of my fellow bloggers/mystery enthusiasts would've appeared discussing Janwillem van de Wetering's Een Oosterse huivering (An Eastern Shiver, 1980). It's a compendium of short stories in the vein of Edogawa Rampo's Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), but offering a wider selection of goods from all over Asia. The guest reviewer would've briefly touched upon all the stories, capsule reviews of sorts, as well as providing critical commentary on Van de Wetering as an anthologist – remarking how disappointing the reviewer was that he included stories by himself and Robert van Gulik but not one of Judge Ooka's cases by Bertus Aafjes.

The Turn:

There is, however, something curious and faintly miraculous about this review: the anthology has only appeared in Dutch and the reviewer I would've picked does not speak that language! But before I pull a "Masked Illusionist," and reveal how this trick can be done, I'd like to point out that I have already furnished you with several clues. Oh, and shame on you, if you're the first answer that popped into your head was that I had "ghostwritten" the review or translated the stories. That would be cheating!

The Prestige:

So how can I make a person understand a language he does not understand for just this one book? The answer is as simple as it’s obvious and as Nathan Ford remarked on his own methods, "I just pretty it up a bit, add this and that," and how well it would've worked depended on the presentation – and the willingness of the sleuth hounds that roam this blog not to run straight for google.

The biggest stumbling block in actually putting this up was the obviousness of it all, once part(s) of the solution clicks in place. And from there on, you can fill in the blanks.

An Eastern Shiver
Let's consider the clues given in the summation above: it's a collection of stories from all over the Asian continent (e.g. Japan, China, India, etc.) and the absence of Bertus Aafjes. The first should’ve clued you in that they probably weren't original translations by Van de Wetering (who was also known as English/Dutch translator) and the second that, if this anthology had contained a Judge Ooka story, it would've been categorically impossible for anyone who doesn't understand Dutch to have read the book – because they've never been translated into English. Van de Wetering culled these stories from pages of such collections as Ellery Queen's Japanese Golden Dozen (1978), Stories from a Ming Collection (1958) and Seven Japanese Tales (1963) and pieced them together as An Eastern Shiver. Never translated before or again... together... in Dutch. Hence my insistency on mentioning Aafjes, a distortion in the illusion that alludes to the truth, and the post-title.

But this would have put a lot of work on the plate of my co-conspirator, who would've had to collect, read and review all the separate stories and that's just asking too much for something that can be solved in matter of minutes or even seconds. There was also the problem that one of the stories, a standalone by Van de Wetering, appears to be untranslated and that would've meant cheating on one of 'em – and that just isn't the sporting thing to do.

Well, that was my idea for a "one-of-a-kind impossible situation" with the blogosphere and a creepy black-and-white picture of a dead mystery writer as a backdrop fizzling out into an off-hand dénouement, but I hope, at least, you found the idea of my Babel-Fish puzzle interesting or were amused by it. 


  1. Actually, translating the stories yourself seems like the more interesting solution: it's the first solution that pops up in your head, but then you realise that it would take too much work to be practical, and dismiss it.

    I almost feel tempted to ask for a Norizuki Rintarou short stories review :P

  2. I actually kind-of solved this... but I cheated (sort of) by owning a copy of Ellery Queen's Japanese Golden Dozen.