Evangelion and the crisis of translation

Evangelion and the crisis of translation

Earlier this month, the famed anime series Neon Genesis: Evangelion finally made its way to the streaming service Netflix. More than twenty years old, it remains well regarded and is soon to receive a follow up. As with any product emanating from Japan, the series is a product of its culture and translating its original Japanese dialogue has proven to be contentious.

Part of the issue here lies in the fact that there are literal ways to translate the Japanese words that characters use in the show, and there are more casual, contextual ways that reflect their conversational use and intent. Choosing between competing options among certain English words that may reflect the speaker’s intent is something that is not easily settled.

The new English version made for Netflix has a number of changes. Some of these are relatively straightforward, including the removal of curse words, many of which have no English equivalent and are different from culture to culture. Particularly controversial, however, is a dialogue change made to a scene where a character named Kaworu tells another character, Shinji, that he loves him. While the exact meaning of this love, romantic or platonic, is itself not entirely made clear within the episode itself, in the context of the story it is a major event: to this point Shinji has never had anyone else tell him that they love him. In the new Netflix version, however, Kaworu says that he likes him.

The subject contestable translations is not itself new to the series, as Evangelion was translated into English some twenty years ago for broadcast and home video collections. At the time, an English translator was engaged to work through some translation options that were already offered.  

Amanda Winn Lee said on Twitter 30 June that she had listened for the better part of two decades to fans who complained that “I took too many liberties with the translation of Eva. Now their knickers are in a twist because it’s too literal.”

“I translated the translation if that makes sense,” she explained. “I had three different people’s translations that I worked from to try to turn it into comprehensible English.”

This kind of translation controversy has some perhaps unexpected parallels with the translation of key biblical texts. For centuries, myriad controversies have swirled about how to convey what the Bible’s original texts wanted to say, exactly, to the world of their day. In Ancient Hebrew, Koine Greek, and other languages, many of these key phrases convey quite different realities that are somewhat difficult to translate to English.

One passage that demonstrates this is a story that seems rather awful on the surface. Namely, the story of the prophet and the bears. Appearing in the Old Testament, this story often has the prophet Elisha insulted by a group of ‘children’ for his bald head. After this, God sends a bear who attacks the insulting group. It is unclear whether or not they survive the experience.

In the case of this story, one problem is that passage does not, in its original language, make reference to children, drawing on phraseology used elsewhere in scripture to describe members of the army. And so, it is unlikely that the prophet was merely being teased by a group of kids, but rather intimidated by a group of young adult men. There is also much to the story’s contextual placing, both in its location and its part within the wider narrative.

The above story is a fairly mild example of how competing options for translation may cause a biblical verse to be misunderstood and why debates over the text are important. Far more contentious within the life of the church has been debates regarding sexuality, which hinge in part on a series of six Pauline verses in koine Greek.  

While a rather different controversy on the surface of it, involving as it does two languages that people currently speak, the Evangelion Netflix controversy demonstrates how translation debates can hinge on a relatively small number of key words, and as we see in scripture, the meaning of words matters.  

Neon Genesis: Evangelion is now streaming on Netflix. Insights will have a review of the show soon.

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor

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