Japanese Fans, Official Translator Weigh in on Netflix Evangelion English Subtitle Debate
posted on by Kim Morrissy
The Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion films launched on Netflix on June 21, sparking a ton of new chatter about the classic 1995 robot anime series. One subject that has come up for returning fans of the series is the difference between the translations in the Netflix subtitle and dub tracks and the translations provided by ADV Films in the platinum edition on DVD for the North American market. One interaction between Shinji and Kaworu in episode 24 has come under particular scrutiny.
(Note: Spoilers for the TV series below.)
Episode 24 shows Shinji and Kaworu having a bath together. After holding Shinji's hand and telling him how much he understands the pain he is suffering, Kaworu says, "好意に値するよ" (You are worthy of my grace/favor/affection). When Shinji asks what Kaworu means by that, Kaworu responds, "好きってことさ".
ADV translates this line to "It means I love you." On the other hand, the translation on Netflix renders it as "It means I like you."
The differences carry to the end of the episode, where a depressed Shinji says, "カヲル君が好きだって言ってくれたんだ、僕のこと". ADV translates the line to "It was the first time someone told me they loved me," while the translation on Netflix is "That's the first time anybody's ever said they liked me. Ever."
Japanese fans have also taken note of the debate after Japanese news outlet J-Cast reported on the issue. Dan Kanemitsu, the translator of the Netflix Evangelion subtitles, told J-Cast, "This translation was made from the ground up. It has no connection to the previous translation at ADV."
Users on the pop culture site Nijimen have been having their own discussion on whether "like" or "love" is a better translation in this context. The top-voted comments are translated below:
"I felt like I got a glimpse of the difficulties of translating nuance, but I also have the feeling that people are being swayed by the vocal minority."
"Given Kaworu's personality, I think you're supposed to be wondering, 'Huh? Is it like or love?' when he says 好きってことさ."
"The issue is whether it was right to revise 'love' into 'like.' The nuance is ambiguous, but if [the American fans] heard it as 'love' first and didn't have a problem with it, then I can see why they'd be confused when it got changed."
"I also think it's weird for the line to get changed all these years later."
"As far as the nuance goes, I think that 'love' fits better, but for a Japanese person it feels too direct to straight out say 'I love you' (愛してる), so normally you'd say 'like' to convey the gist."
"Personally, I like it when characters express love but make out that they just 'like' the other person. It's very like a Japanese person to not express their feelings too directly when they're in love. It's realistic. Also, depending on the way the words are said, it changes the vibe of the scene."
"I think that it fits the character for the Kaworu of the TV anime to express his feelings towards Shinji as 'love,' although he only appeared in one episode and talked with Shinji for a few minutes."
"Kaworu-kun is expressing 'love' but making out that it's 'like.' That's the nuance behind his love..."
On the subject of "Ask Anno," Dan Kanemitsu provided a translated excerpt of an Evangelion companion book, titled Hideaki Anno Schizo Neon Genesis Evangelion, in an email to ANN as follows:
Anno: [Eva is a work] where the remaining process [of completing the work] is in the hands of the audience. I place strong emphasis in that relationship. After you get to a certain point, I want them to make their own judgment. There are portions where things are left ambiguous, so it all depends on how you view [and judge it for yourself.] I think the character of the person [e.g. a personality] reveals itself in that process. [Eva is a work] where if 10 people watch it, not all of the 10 will [compliment] it. In that sense, it's very Japanese.
Kanemitsu clarified in the email that this excerpt should not be interpreted as a "defense" of his translation choices, but rather as "an argument of what makes Evangelion so wonderful and compelling for people of so many walks of life."
Kanemitsu has provided translations for the staff who would eventually form Khara since the early days of General Products in 1989-1990, the retail outlet and merchandising store that complimented Gainax. He has been working with Khara on translation assistance since the very first Rebuild film in 2007. Speaking generally about his translation methods, he told ANN that he commonly consults the original creator in cases where the meaning is unclear or needs to be specified.
The question of "love" vs "like" brings up an oft-discussed quandary among translation theorists: who or what does the translator owe their fidelity to? To the original creator? To their understanding of the work itself? To the audience? Which part of the audience?
Some English-speaking fans have criticized the Netflix translation of "downplaying" or "erasing" the homoerotic overtones in Shinji and Kaworu's relationship, pointing to a history of queer erasure in anime localizations, such as the Cloverway dub of Sailor Moon, which infamously changed Haruka and MICHIRU's relationship from lovers to cousins. They argue that by translating Kaworu and Shinji's lines literally, the translation gives fuel for deniers to argue that no romantic attraction exists between the two characters at all. This perpetuates a culture where gay relationships are seen as "just shipping" or "fan delusions" in media barring works explicitly labelled as "queer" or "LGBT."
Such arguments bring to mind something that the famous Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki is said to have taught his students: the ideal Japanese translation for “I love you” is "Tsuki ga tottemo aoi naa” (The moon is so blue tonight). "I love you" may be too direct for a Japanese person to say aloud, even if the intent is implicit, an idea corroborated by some of the Nijimen commentors quoted above. This suggests that perhaps English translations of Japanese texts should be more explicit in regards to statements of romantic affection, depending on context.
Speaking personally as a Japanese-English translator, I think that "love" is a better fit in this particular context. Shinji's despondent reaction at the end of the episode only makes sense if he believed that Kaworu expressed feelings stronger than mere "like" towards him. What is ambiguous is the nature of what Kaworu calls "love." Does he love Shinji as a man or as a divine figure, the way the Christian God loves humans? At the end of the day, it's up to each of us to decide what word best describes the relationship between the two characters. Even after this particular controversy dies down, the questions it provokes about translation fidelity will remain.
(NOTE: ADV Films first released the series dubbed on VHS in 1997-1998, and then produced a remastered version on DVD in 2002 and a platinum edition in 2004. According to users from the Evangelion fan community Evageeks, the VHS release used a different translation from what is quoted in the article. ANN was unable to independently confirm the translation on the VHS release.)