Evangelion’s original English scriptwriter has some harsh words for people complaining about translation choices, but also a pretty good point.

On June 21, Netflix began streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion’s original 1995 anime TV series, as well as the compilation Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth movies and End of Evangelion theatrical follow-up. These portions of the landmark anime series have been out of print in English-speaking territories for roughly a decade, and Netflix’s streaming deal gave many their first chance to legally experience the shock, suspense, and psychological deep dives of creator Hideaki Anno’s anime masterpiece.

Oh, and viewers have also been able to experience another key element of watching Eva: fierce, fiery fan fights regarding how certain lines should be translated, and what they really mean.

Netflix’s streaming version of Evangelion, in both dubbed and subtitled formats, features a new translation, produced by Eva rights holder Studio Khara’s regular designated translator, Dan Kanemitsu. The new translation differs from the one used in previous versions by Eva’s former U.S. distributor, the now defunct ADV Films (a.k.a. AD Vision), in a number of places, but the most controversy-causing has been the moment when invading-alien-in-the-form-of-a-teenage-boy Kaworu is talking to protagonist-and-actual-teenage-boy Shinji and tells him “Suki tte koto sa..”

▼ Kaworu’s “Suki tte koto sa

Short as the line may be, it’s a tricky one to translate. ADV Films originally translated it as “I like you,” before switching to “I love you” in later versions of its home video release. For the Netflix version, though, it’s back to being “I like you,” and some anime fans are taking that decision as Netflix and/or Khara backing away from what they feel is supposed to be an explicit declaration of homosexual love from Kaworu to Shinji.

So what’s the best way to render the line in English? Well, suki is most commonly translated as “like,” and it’s the phrase used to express light, positive feelings about something. Do you like sushi? You’d say “Sushi ga suki.” And Japanese does have a separate phrase, ai shiteiru, that can translate only as “love.”

However, suki can also be translated as “love,” as it can be used to express romantic affection too. It’s sort of how teenage kids might say they “like” a boy or girl they’ve got special feelings for. While that’s a phrasing most people in English-speaking countries move away from as they mature, in Japan using suki to mean “love” doesn’t carry any juvenile stigma, and continues into adulthood.

But at the same time, suki can also be used to mean someone “likes” another person in a platonic sense. The end result is that suki is an inherently vague word, and one that can cause confusion and uncertainty even when used between two native Japanese-speakers, especially when it’s being said for the first time in their interpersonal relationship. From that standpoint, there’s a pretty solid foundation for those who argue Kaworu’s suki should be rendered as “like,” as that word carries a comparable level of potential ambiguity in English (arguably more so than the non-romantic applications of the word “love” in English).

▼ Netflix’s Evangelion trailer

But on the other side of the debate, one could also argue that the breathless way in which Kaworu says “Suki tte koto sa,” plus the fact that he’s reached over and begun holding Shinji’s hand before he delivers the line, indicate that he’s openly expressing a level of passion that goes beyond what “like” conveys (and while the conversation taking place in a shared bath isn’t particularly significant, as communal bathing has long been part of Japan’s culture, it’s not at all common for two Japanese dudes who are just platonic pals to hold hands while in a shared bath).

Arguments can be made for either “like” or “love” being the better translation on thematic grounds as well. The “love” camp holds that the profound effect Kaworu’s words end up having on Shinji clearly show that the protagonist assigns to them a deeper meaning than mere “like.” On the other hand, Shinji’s entire psyche is clearly based upon never feeling as though he’s experienced any sort of genuine affection or acceptance, and one could cite that as proof that even someone directly and undeniably saying he likes Shinji in a platonic sense is all he’d need to feel like he’d just formed a life-changing connection.

▼ Shinji becoming able to believe that it’s OK for him to even exist was a reality-shattering revelation for the kid, after all.

Then there’s the messy topic of whether or not there may be a disparity between what Kaowru’s feeling and what he’s saying (i.e. the possibility that he mentally “loves” Shinji but is verbally expressing that he “likes” him), as well as the issue of whether dialogue rendered in English should always be representative of what someone from an English-speaking culture would say in that situation, or whether it should instead aim to retain the emotional characteristics of the original Japanese speaker, particularly when the conversation is one taking place between two Japanese characters in Japan.

Once again, as mentioned above, audiences getting into heated discussions over what’s really going on in Eva is nothing new. Fire-spitting disagreements have been going on since the series’ premier in 1995, with few, if any, definitive conclusions being reached. As a matter of fact, the recent uproar over the Netflix-version’s translation prompted Amanda Winn Lee, who served as ADR (dubbing and sound) director on AD Vision’s release of the Eva TV series and English scriptwriter for the company’s Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion releases, to make the following comment through her Twitter account:

Personally, I always prefer to leave people’s dietary choices up to them, but the rest of her advice is solid.

Often, people’s understanding of translation and other linguistic conversions goes through three phases. When they know nothing about the foreign (to them) language, they think it’s a simple, direct process. “Just plug the words into a Japanese-English dictionary, and you’re good to go, right?” Once they gain a little more understanding of the foreign language, though, they often swing back in the entirely opposite direction. “Japanese and English share no linguistic or cultural roots, and nothing can ever be accurately translated. That’s why everything should be localized instead.”

But honestly, the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Sometimes, switching Japanese to English is easy. “Watashi ha ramen wo tabeta” means “I ate ramen,” and there’s really no significant wiggle room to speak of in translating it. On the other hand, as Evangelion has reminded us, the English-equivalent meaning of suki depends largely on circumstances, and when those circumstances are fuzzy, even its meaning to native-Japanese speakers becomes hard to pin down, and makes the either/or choice that has to be made for the English version something less than air-tight.

But on the plus side? A whole new group of people just learned a distinctive quirk of the Japanese language, even if their initial intent was just to watch some giant robot cartoon. If Netflix’s handling of Kaworu’s declaration has your blood pumping and your brain buzzing, maybe it’s a sign that you’re ready to start learning a bit more Japanese beyond suki, and speaking as someone who got a lot of his early language-study motivation from gnashing his teeth over anime translations he didn’t agree with, it’s a decision I doubt you’ll regret.

Top image: YouTube/Netflix
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s always up to talk about anime, Japanese, or Japanese in anime.