Literal translation or adaptation? The debate about the Italian dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion

Friends of STUDIOTRE, are you familiar with the name Gualtiero Cannarsi? Unless you follow the Italian dubbing scene or you’re a fan of the Japanese anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE), it’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard of him.

Nonetheless, Gualtiero has been the most Googled translator in Italy ever since Netflix released Neon Genesis Evangelion in June. Fans of the anime series have been up in arms on social media because “the dubbing is a fiasco and some of the dialogue distorts the work”.

What has made NGE lovers so angry?
Below are a few examples of “mistakes” mentioned in online articles in the last few weeks:

  • In the new version of NGE, the monstrous beings that they battle are called “apostles” instead of “angels”. This choice of words is very controversial because in many of the scenes in the series the word “angel” appears in English. In addition, there’s a specific reference to angels in the opening theme song, which is entitled “Zankoku na tenshi no teeze”, or “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis”.
  • The language used is often archaic, with utterances that sound as odd to modern Italian ears as “verily” or “thou art” might seem in English.
  • Instead of realistic military jargon, the dialogue features terms that sound totally out of place.

Having said all this, the real issue at the heart of the debate is not the supposed mistakes but the difference between two approaches: adaptation and literal translation. The path chosen can have a significant impact on the extent to which an audience enjoys a complex creation like Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Adaptation involves transferring a film or literary work from a foreign language into your native tongue as comprehensively as possible. It is important to stay true to the nuances, intentions and emotions that the original creator wanted to convey, but overall meaning takes precedence over individual words.
It’s a tricky task, especially when the languages and cultures in question are as different as Japanese and Italian.

In contrast, Cannarsi aimed for more of a literal translation from Japanese into Italian. On a number of occasions, he’s stated that he was “serving the work rather than the public”, to the detriment of contemporary Italian grammar and syntax.

The difference can be illustrated with a simple example. In a dubbed version of a Japanese film, “Itadakimasu” could be adapted and translated with “Buon appetito” (the Italian version of “Bon appétit”), thus reflecting Italian colloquial language in a set context. In Cannarsi’s version, a more literal translation was used: “I receive this food with gratitude”.

It seems that the decision to remain so faithful to the source language in the translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion has prevented Italian audiences – both old fans and new viewers – from really savouring the delights of the Japanese anime series, which have been obscured by “pompous, abstruse and antediluvian” language.

Friends of STUDIOTRE, what do you think?
Have you ever been disappointed with the translation of a film or literary work that you love? Tell us all about it on our Facebook page or in an email.


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