Lost in Translation

When it comes to watching anime as a Westerner and relying on subtitles, there are a lot of things that simply don’t translate well across the language and cultural barrier. Usually, this does not hinder our enjoyment of the media. The general meaning still gets across. The subtitles will often change what is literally being said to something that simply fits better in the context of English language and culture. While sometimes this can lead to very liberal translations, which some people take offense to, it doesn’t change the fact that, for the most part, Westerners can understand the general meaning of what is going on and appreciate it thanks to the subtitles. However, this means that the more subtle implications and meanings, which may not be vital, but are certainly enhancing, to the story, are lost.

One example is character names. It is common for authors – in all media – to select names with a meaning reflective of the character’s personality or traits. As such, without an understanding of the Japanese language, this is completely lost. While this is generally not something that will ruin your experience, it is something that can change your perspective on things. I am reminded of Cytrus’ post on the names in No Game No Life. If you remember my review of the anime, I did not like the show at all; however, Cytrus’ analysis is spot on. The names are indeed meaningful and the kanji usage does in fact hint toward things which are not immediately revealed about the characters. While this does not have any kind of drastic effect on interpretation, it is something that simply cannot be translated and is completely lost on those without knowledge of Japanese.

Another example is the very beloved Monogatari series, or rather, anything Nisio Isin writes. As popular as it is, most Westerners are missing out on numerous jokes and puns, which often rely on Japanese culture or language knowledge. In fact, the anime itself loses out on the complexity of the puns because many are more apparent when written while other times the anime will simply exclude the wordplay altogether, which can be called a loss in translation of mediums rather than language. Many Japanese puns do not work in English, and there is no feasible way to translate them. (As an aside, I should perhaps highlight Steins;Gate, where the use of Japanese memes were translated to American memes. In terms of textual meaning, they could not be farther off, but the cultural significance of using senseless jokes which populated certain internet sites remained.) Furthermore, and this is hardly limited to the Monogatari series, there are many references to Japanese culture which weave their way into the conversation to produce meanings that simply don’t register in the minds of Westerners. The result is, regardless of what your opinion on the series may be, you are largely missing out on what made the novels popular in the first place.

nekomonogatari, translation
Did you get the joke? Of course not.

Things will always be lost in translation, regardless of how skilled the translator may be. When it comes to anime, these things usually aren’t a big deal, especially in the grand scheme of things where it is merely entertainment. However, when it comes to the Bible, losing meaning in translation can be very problematic. The issues surrounding how to correctly interpret the Bible are endless and partly result in the numerous amount of denominations which all believe slightly different things about how the Bible should be interpreted and what it means to truly be a Christian. Although, I’d like to avoid that can of worms if at all possible. Unlike watching anime, if we miss out on the subtle implications or the cultural and language specifics of the Bible, we risk an incorrect interpretation that can affect our spiritual lives as opposed to mere entertainment values.

But while the consequences may be different, the root cause of losing things in translation is the same. Firstly is the use of language. The translation of the Bible whether from ancient Greek or Hebrew to English or other current age languages is not perfect – it can’t be because no translation is. As a result, sometimes the wording, while technically correct, could carry a different meaning to a different reader. It is unfortunate that this cannot be corrected without deep understanding and study of the Bible and its original languages, but it is something to keep in mind when reading Biblical text. Perhaps the most mentioned example is the word “love.” In Greek, there are multiple words for “love,” which have different implications and meanings; however, they have mostly all been translated to the same word – love. Without knowledge of both the original word used and the different meanings, you cannot fully understand the Biblical situation where they are used.

Second, and more importantly, is the cultural difference. I grew up in a Christian environment, and I was often told how the Bible is a timeless piece of writing which still has applications to us today. While that is true, it carelessly glosses over the problem that while its teachings are timeless, its exposition is not. The things written in the Bible are not stories that anyone of any time period or culture can read and understand and relate to equally. Without understanding the cultural situation at the time of the writing, you cannot understand what the Bible is truly trying to say. Jesus’ parables are a major example. Take for instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan. At face value, the moral of the story is to be kind to your neighbors, regardless of who they may be. However, for the Jews at the time, the parable was far more powerful than that. Jews and Samaritans did not simply have a poor relationship; they were enemies who would never help each other. Therefore, the story was an incredibly surprising one to hear that the fellow Jew ignored the victim yet a Samaritan not only helped but did everything in his power to ensure a safe and comfortable recovery. While the moral may remain unchanged, the impact of the story is completely different. It really forced Jews to reconsider the idea of helping others no matter who they may be rather than, at least when I was young, consider it as a simple, almost obvious, teaching that one should apply to one’s life.

Even though all Christians agree we should follow the teachings of the Bible, it can be a very complex piece of writing to interpret, especially when combined with the language and cultural differences when compared to our own. It is fortunate that the most important message of salvation through Jesus remains unchanged, but many other messages are not so easily understood without understanding the context in which the stories were written. That said, it is too much to ask the average Christian to thoroughly investigate the entirety of cultural circumstances of the Bible, and ideally, that’s what Biblical experts are for (although even these experts disagree on numerous topics). However, when you do your Biblical readings, keep in mind that the Bible, although a timeless piece of writing, is a book with a great deal of its original meaning and intention skewed by the translation of time, cultures, and languages.

featured image by こくとー | reprinted with permission (pixiv illust: 27953838)

Kaze

Kaze is a graduate from the University of Tokyo who currently works on developing gene therapies for genetic diseases. He is a Nanatard since 2009 and mostly spends his time reading VNs and studying Japanese. Strangely enough, also a devout Christian.

One thought on “Lost in Translation

  1. Recently, my father read the following biblical verse:
    “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:”
    He quickly came to the conclusion that the Bible must be false if it can claim at least three different fathers for Jesus within the space of a few pages.

    Thanks for the mention, btw ^_^.

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