“You know I’m a…”: On the Value of Liberal Translation

This post contains major spoilers for every iteration of Devilman.

Devilman completed serialization in 1973, and didn’t receive an official English translation until 2018, meaning that for approximately 50 years, the only version available to people who didn’t speak Japanese (and even those who did, but couldn’t get their hands on copies of the original) was the scanlation. And it was the scanlation—there was one by Dynamic Pro Scans that was widely circulated, and that was what the fandom was familiar with. The thing is, it can be a little…dubious. Which brings us to the subject of this post—a certain panel from the fifth volume, during Satan’s explanation of their motives, particularly the fact that they (as the human Ryo Asuka) fell in love with Akira Fudo. It’s…bad.

Satan: Are you surprised? You know that I…

an hermaphrodite

Let’s unpack this, because there’s kind of a lot to unpack. First of all, “hermaphrodite” isn’t necessarily an inaccurate translation of the Japanese (though the use of “an” is questionable at best). The term used is 両性生物, with 両性 meaning “both sexes” or “bisexual” (perhaps with slightly clinical overtones) and 生物 meaning “organism” or “life form.” These are both common phrases on their own, but googling them as a compound gets no results, meaning there’s no accepted dictionary translation to use as precedent. So on a purely literal level, “hermaphrodite” is perfectly accurate. “Intersex” might have been a better choice with the same nuance (it’s extremely rude to refer to a person as a hermaphrodite, after all), but it’s not wrong.

“Because of your hedonism,” on the other hand, is wrong in just about every way it’s possible for a line to be wrong. The original is そのために—a literal translation would be something like “because of that.” There’s nothing that could remotely be interpreted as hedonistic in Ryo/Satan’s behavior towards Akira, either—he never tries to force his affections on him, and doesn’t seem to have any particular expectation that his feelings will be returned (we’re not talking about Shin Devilman). Everything Satan does is for the sake of protecting Akira and making sure he’s strong enough to survive in the new world of demons, even if it means undermining their own plans. Not exactly what you’d call hedonistic. What possessed the scanlators to take that particular liberty is beyond me, but I’ve spent the past few years quietly fuming about this being the version the most people were familiar with.

So that’s the scanlation, but what about the official translation? You’d think it would have to be better, and you’d be absolutely right.

Satan: Yes, I know. But that…

male and female

That’s more like it. Xenon’s line isn’t made up wholesale, and “both male and female” is likely the least dubious possible way to translate 両性生物 without changing the meaning. In short, this is a very good close translation.

The thing is, sometimes what you want isn’t a close translation. Sometimes the source material itself is deeply flawed, and the right choice isn’t to stick to it, but to make some judicious alterations. Because the thing is, this whole scene is kind of a mess to begin with. It uses the fact that Satan has a non-cis body for cheap shock value, which is obviously offensive to non-cis people, and it implies that the only reason Ryo fell in love with Akira to begin with was because deep down he was actually part female. Because clearly a man could never fall in love with another man. It tells us nothing about Satan or their feelings for Akira—if anything, it trivializes those feelings. There is precious little to defend about this scene in its original state.

As for how I’d reinterpret it—one could spend weeks agonizing over the nuances of phrasing, but I’d probably go with something along the lines of “Yes, I know. But even so… I couldn’t help but fall for him…” This is the thrust of the conversation Satan is having with Xenon in this scene to begin with—if anything, it’s a much more natural response. You could even do something like “My human heart couldn’t help but fall for him” or “That’s the weakness of the human heart,” depending on how much you wanted to emphasize that particular aspect. None of this changes the meaning of the scene as a whole—it just cuts the cringeworthy “reveal” of the original in favor of focusing on Satan’s feelings for Akira.

“Preserving the original meaning” tends to be used as a rallying cry by those who favor extremely close translations, but the original meaning here is awfully hard to defend. Besides, translation is always a process of adaptation, especially between two languages as different as English and Japanese—there will always be meaning changed and nuance lost, and while the goal of a translator is usually to minimize that, there are places (such as game localizations) where it’s undoubtedly for the best. One could also argue that erasing offensive or antiquated language is what leads to repeating the mistakes of the past, but it’s hard to call this censorship, especially because it is only a translation—the original is still very much available for anyone who’d be inclined to look it up, and there will always be neurotic individuals like me who do close readings of the things that get left behind in the translating process.

All I’m saying is that Devilman is 50 years old and written by a misogynist—a few small edits might not be out of place.

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