Lost in Translation: When the Uncertain Becomes Certain

While the Angel Beats! anime continues to be a loved series, not as many fans are aware of its visual novel counterpart. In reality, the VN was released just last year and that is only the first of several parts, so the VN still has a long way to go before being fully released, let alone in English. Whether fan translations will become a thing or whether Visual Arts Key continues its heavy investment in the localization of its games is unknown; however, last year, I ended up translating a chunk of the trial version. It was a fun experience, and one I mostly did for the sake of my own studies. However, as one who is not much of an Angel Beats! fan, there were a number of translation choices which I left to the fanbase rather than deciding myself how to go about translating.

The most memorable debate was in regards to the translation of Tenshi’s name. In the opening scene, Otonashi is introduced to a character called “Tenshi,” which is the Japanese word for angel. Depending what sub you watched/read, you may have seen it translated as Angel or left as Tenshi. There are various reasons for each, and many arguments were brought up about which was the “correct” or “better” translation. The core of the question comes down to whether the Japanese is referring to her as an actual angel or is it a mere reference and should be treated as a name or title. Actually, there is no right answer. In fact, it is this very dilemma that makes the Japanese, and the visual novel, so interesting.

Angel Beats VN Trial

Japanese as a language is very ambiguous by nature. It often requires the context of the situation to fully grasp the meaning behind what is being said. The same sentence can mean a variety of things depending on the context in which it is said. This is coupled with, or perhaps a result of, a culture where people try to speak vaguely because they don’t like to be direct with their words. Thus, the reading of Tenshi in Angel Beats, even in the context of being read in Japanese, is ambiguous. Reading individual sentences, one could choose to translate the phrasing of “Tenshi” as “an angel,” “the angel,” “Angel,” or simply left alone as “Tenshi.” All of them are definitively a “correct” translation when looking at an individual sentence in which the word is used. To eliminate choices and choose the most correct and best translation, one must look at the surrounding sentences and the context of the situation. When looking at the context of the plot of Angel Beats!, the first 2 choices appear to be wrong and it becomes a match between the remaining 2.

But that’s not entirely correct. Playing the visual novel, you read from the perspective of Otonashi, who begins by knowing nothing of the situation going on. In this context, the context is supposed to be vague. From the view of Otonashi, the character within the visual novel, he does not know the context we could know from reading the plot synopsis; he is very confused at his current situation. As a result, the ambiguous nature of Japanese means Otonashi himself does not comprehend the words because he does not understand the situation. Thus, the truth behind the language is that all the potential choices are simultaneously the correct answer! The writing of the visual novel in fact is written in such a way that the player must consciously, or subconsciously, choose how to interpret it. With each passing sentence, the reader may gain an insight into the context, changing how the sentences are being read. First she was an angel, but then she became the angel. No, perhaps she is still an angel? Ahh, her name is actually Angel. Or is it just her title, Tenshi? Is there actual meaning behind the play on words or is it only a joke? Despite these changing perspectives, the language of the Japanese does not change; it is always ambiguous but also written in completely natural Japanese (TL note: it does get less ambiguous at times). As you read through Angel Beats!, the reader is the one to decide how Tenshi is read, and thus the reader fills in the blanks in Otonashi’s thoughts, making for a more immersive experience.

…regardless of the choice, the translator is now inserting his own interpretation of the situation into the story. The English reader can no longer judge for his or herself how to read it; it is already decided by the translator’s choice of words.

As a translator, however, one must choose how to translate it to English. With all interpretations being “correct,” it is impossible to be as vague as Japanese to try to maintain an equally mysterious atmosphere surrounding her identity. The translator must choose one of them. He can choose different ones at different times, if he feels there is reason to believe the perception has changed. However, regardless of the choice, the translator is now inserting his own interpretation of the situation into the story. The English reader can no longer judge for his or herself how to read it; it is already decided by the translator’s choice of words. There is no right translation because any translation destroys the intentional ambiguity behind the words. The immersion is lost because now Otonashi’s English is telling the reader how to think rather than the reader deciding what Otonashi is thinking. The uncertainty of Tenshi’s identity becomes certain.

Angel Beats, Kanade
There is double layered question here, asking why she’s called “Tenshi,” as well as asking what is meant by “Tenshi.”

When it comes to Christianity, there is so much in the Bible that is uncertain. This uncertainty in interpretation may not be intentional or “brilliant” the way the Angel Beats! VN is, but it is an unavoidable problem. It is why we have so many denominations that believe so many different things despite having the same core beliefs in regards to Christ. And therein lies a problem: Different denominations have interpreted the Bible their own ways and tell their members how to interpret the Bible their way, preventing people from making their own interpretations. Certainly, the original members of each denomination are in the clear – they disagreed with the beliefs at the time, formed their own set of beliefs, and created their own denomination based on those differing beliefs. But for the people who grow up in church or those entering one for the first time, they are largely unaware of how many interpretations exist. They are simply told what is “correct,” with little consideration given to other beliefs.

The ability to critically think about why you believe what you believe is an incredibly valuable skill in life, especially when it comes to your religious beliefs. As a tangential aside, I have great respect for atheists who can critically explain the reason for their beliefs in contrast to those who childishly mock the idea of a god without further thought. The Bible is an incredibly complex piece of writing, not necessarily because it’s a text from God, but because of how old and symbolic it can be. The Bible as we know it has gone over revisions and translations across cultures and time periods in ways that the average person has no hope of comprehending. So, it is understandable that we rely on the scholars of our time to tell us how to interpret the Bible. However, even these people disagree on interpretations. It is not enough to follow a single pastor’s or denomination’s teachings simply because it is one you find most agreeable; it is necessary to question why you believe an interpretation to be true over others. This is one reason why I consider myself non-denominational: because I recognize my own inability to discern between interpretations of the Bible and do not think I should align myself with a certain set of beliefs when I lack the ability to judge why I believe them over the other options. I do, however, believe in the core of Christianity and therefore consider myself a follower of Christ, even if I am non-denominational.

Don’t let the interpretations of others define your beliefs. Rather, they should be a single part to the foundation of your thoughts.

Interpreting the Bible yourself will make you closer to God as you are more invested in the Word. This reflects the immersive experience of the Angel Beats! visual novel, where in Japanese, the reader is the one to decide the meaning of Otonashi’s thoughts and words. It is really interesting to see how the inherent ambiguity of a language can be utilized as a part of a story telling medium to engage the reader. In the same way, God wants us to be engaged when we read and study the Bible. It should not be something we interpret by blindly listening to others. Yes, there are leaders who are more knowledgeable than yourself, and their thoughts should be given proper consideration, but not 100% trust in all things. Think for yourself, ask other leaders their opinions, pray to God, and draw your own conclusions based on a multitude of reasons. Don’t let the interpretations of others define your beliefs. Rather, they should be a single part to the foundation of your thoughts.

The most important part, however, is to keep an open perspective. There are too many aspects of the Bible which are uncertain. Having conviction in your beliefs is good, but refusing to listen to the opinions of others is not. If we have the common belief in Christ, then there is no reason to not give our attention and listen to others, even if it is not a perspective which we find appealing. In terms of Tenshi’s name, there are multiple interpretations, none of which are wrong and none of which are uniquely correct. While you can make valid arguments for all sides, especially as the story unfolds, there is not a single way to interpret Otonashi’s thoughts, because you, the reader, are the one who’s supposed to decide them. Likewise, we can interpret the Bible and hold conviction in those beliefs, but that does not automatically invalidate the interpretations of others. The Bible’s reading is uncertain, perhaps not by design, but certainly by the fault of language and culture. We should instead (and I know some of the top scholars do) engage in conversation to try to clear the uncertainties of the Bible, but as long as the conversation remains between flawed humans, it can never truly be known.

8 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: When the Uncertain Becomes Certain

  1. This is an interesting point. As we all read the Bible, we each glean different things. There are essential doctrines of which we all agree, but there are secondary doctrines which divide us into denominations (paedobaptism vs credobaptism, transubstantiation vs metaphorical belief on communion, etc). There are even tertiary doctrines which we still disagree on, especially from those who study Revelation. Each of us coming with our own mindset, beliefs, background, and personality coming differently into the word.

    As with translation, we each approach things differently and, in the end, we may all be correct or wrong simultaneously. As you noted before, as long as the primary things are correct – the secondary and tertiary we can argue about all day. Same is true for translations. Well stated.

    1. Honestly, I think some people are too focused on arguing about the secondary and tertiary things. I’m all for civil discourse, but sometimes I see people so caught up in arguing that they forget to actually do the primary things of Christ’s teachings.

  2. Kaze,

    I love your work on this article! The timing of your subject in your writing is impeccable, considering that I have been reviewing Angel Beats for my own blog.

    I feel especially strongly about how you said that Christians must have their own opinions about the Bible. Growing up in a Christian home, doctrines and thoughts have been taught to me from childhood as fact, allowing me to fall into the trap of misinterpreting God’s word in the present. Only through opening the Bible myself and reading new passages with a fresh set of eyes has God brought spiritual revelations to me.

    Empathizing with other believers has also helped me in my endeavors for understanding God’s word. Because man is fallible by nature, we may not discern every correct answer from reading. However, collaborating with those who have different opinions and backgrounds than you can also bring a new light into chapters and verses that you may have gotten nothing from. In all honesty, not empathizing with other believers is making a conscious choice to bask in religious ignorance, which is exactly what God does not want us to do.

    Again, thank you for your work here on Beneath The Tangles, and I can’t wait to see your future articles!

    Micah Marshall

    1. Thanks for your supportive words. I think this problem is incredibly common for anyone who grew up in the church, myself included. While a large part of it is kind of an inherent problem in schooling (i.e. teachers are merely teaching their own interpretation, believing it to be the “one” truth with no ill will), perhaps the core of the issue is the refusal to admit when we just don’t know some answers. There is a certain amount of pride involved in not admitting this fault, which is amplified when facing young children. It is too easy to cast away the questions of a child as unimportant, and it is even easier for a child to accept such rejection with little thought. The long term result is seen in a high rate of Christians who grew up in the church falling away from faith once they reach adulthood. Probably, they are not really rejecting Christianity so much as that single, rigid ideology that they were taught and the hypocrisies that creep into such a stubborn view.

      On empathizing, I think this can even be applied to empathy in general. It’s very common for different people to view the same thing or event very differently. Yet, less empathetic people will project their own belief onto others, which generates a disconnect and friction when the projection and reality do not align. Just like with believers and the Bible, in everyday life, you can see this inclination in believing your interpretation of a given situation is “correct,” when no single interpretation is. It is only by communicating calmly and rationally with others that we can then piece together a mutual understanding.

      Thanks for reading, and I hope I can deliver on your expectations for my writing!

      1. Kaze,

        I can totally see the whole falling out from church thing happening in my own generation. Many of my friends whom have grown up in the church their entire lives are leaving the body of Christ. I have asked many of them for their reasons, and the responses that I received were:

        -They didn’t think that God was there for them
        -They went through extremely difficult trials, and didn’t understand why a loving God would have them experience that
        -They saw hypocrisy in their own churches

        For me personally, I had begun to believe for many years that my addictions to pornography were better than the plan that God had for me. I saw the Christian fight as something that was impossible, and I had no faith at all. However, over the past month, God has showered me with blessings despite my past trials, and is teaching me to humble myself to him every day. I have been able to start my own Christian anime blog, meet the staff and community here at Beneath The Tangles, gain many new people in my own inner circle, and many more amazing things!

        From my own personal experiences as one of those young adults who had almost fallen completely from the church, I think that empathizing goes further than just discussing the Bible with others. I only learned the things that I did about my friends because I asked them. Especially if you were very broken and lost in your past, you can empathize and relate to nonbelievers better than most, sharing the love of Christ and the hope that they can have.

        Micah Marshall

        1. Thanks for sharing, Micah. I’m glad to hear you are making progress in your life, as well as that we at Beneath the Tangles are able to play a role in that. I really hear you about empathizing beyond just discussing the Bible. The common trend I see is a kind of hollow sympathy for people struggling in that we offer words of comfort but nothing beyond the cliches of “just trust God more,” or “I’ll be praying for you,” etc. These may all be well intended and good things, but if you never offer empathy or truly listen to their troubles, as you have listened to your friends, then it is no surprise that such people lose faith in Christianity.

  3. This was so interesting! For the school year I decided to sneak into the Japanese 3 class so I could learn Japanese even though I haven’t any prior Japanese knowledge. I took French in my first high school. Ah, why! But slowly, I’m learning how lovely the language is in it’s openness. I can understand why it seams translating Japanese would be harder then other languages. Like with the Bible, it’s the struggle between translating word for word, or thought for thought. Which one is “more right”, can’t be known. It almost sounds like surgery to me – don’t make the wrong choice or you’ll kill the patient – the anime. In regards to the bible, I can’t help but think of the tower of Babel. If those men wouldn’t have tried to build a tower to heaven, would we still have such diverse languages around the world? I’m glad there are, the diversity of earth and it’s languages and culture, especially the Japanese in my opinion is what makes humanity so beautiful.

    1. Haha wow you jumped into Japanese 3? That sounds quite adventurous, but it’s great that you’ve learned to appreciate the language. Translation is really far more difficult than people give it credit for, and I’ve learned to appreciate all kinds of diversities and differences since I started studying it. It gets particularly interesting/difficult when you look at translating fictional terms, ideas, etc. – that’s when you really need to understand author’s intent or, as you said, you will kill the anime. The flip side, however, is that while there is no perfect translation, truly excellent translations do exist, and even if you don’t realize, it can really affect your perception of a work for the better compared to a sub-par translation.

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