Utena - translation notes

I’m interested in translation. I’ve been known to do it myself. So I pay attention to how things are translated.

It is an iron rule that a translation is never good; at best it can be good enough for its purpose. A translation always twists the meaning, and shifts the tone, and alters the emphasis in the original. Nuances, and sometimes essential ideas, may depend on cultural background that can’t be conveyed briefly. Translation is at heart impossible, and people who can do a skilled job of it anyway are to be respected. My issues with the translations should not be taken as disrespectful.

New stage. In episode 25, after checking out the gondola to the dueling arena, Miki reports to the student council that he believes it is to “carry us to a new stage.” The subtitle translation is literal. But in English it is ambiguous: It could mean a theater stage, or it could mean a new stage of the dueling game. It is both! In Japanese it is unambiguous, and specifically means a theater stage. The dueling arena is itself a stage. Miki’s insight suggests that this is when the dueling tower and Akio’s tower become the same place, as we see in the final showdown. The gondola is the elevator to Akio’s tower residence. Before then, they were different places.


The Nozomi English translation of Utena is professional and aimed at a general audience.

The subtitles sometimes dumb things down. In episode 4, when Miki is kicking off the math study session, the subtitles have him saying “Let’s start with the simple problems.” In Japanese, he says “Let’s start with monomials (tankoushiki).” Those are certainly simple problems. I suppose the theory is that the typical American has heard of monomials but forgot the word before the end of the school term. The simplifying translation bothers me because it flattens the texture of the scene. But it was the right way to go with a commercial release for a general American audience.

The subtitles sometimes miss the underlayer of meaning and translate in a way that obscures it. For me, a salient example is Utena’s babble in the First Seduction of episode 33. Some of the lines obscure the metaphors in the babble and erase part of its meaning.

“The end of the world” is the Nozomi translation of sekai no hate (世界の果て), which can’t be translated precisely. The time the world ends is not what it suggests, so in a way the translation is misleading. In the movie Penguin Highway the same phrase is translated as “the edge of the world.” You might try something more abstract like “the limits of the world”. Since there’s no good translation, and since Utena associates sekai no hate with the apocalypse, I think “the end of the world” is fine.

Utena Encyclopedia Translation

Empty Movement hosts a fan translation of Utena’s scripts, credited to “Yasuyuki Sato/Project Utena Encyclopedia”. It has different goals than the Nozomi translation. It is usually more literal, and pays less attention to smooth flow and natural English. For example, it translates sekai no hate as “Ends of the World” which is technically closer to the true meaning and is unnatural in English (while its original is perfectly natural in Japanese). That’s the tradeoff it chooses.

I doubt it is the latest thing in fan translations. It comes with Japanese transcripts of three episodes. The transcript for episode 1 is dated 2011 May 25, and the first word of the first line has a typo. It reads いそぎ良く格好良く isogiyoku kakkou yoku, when it should be 潔く格好良く isagiyoku kakkou yoku. The typo destroys the meaning completely. (The translation itself is OK at that point and must not have been made from this transcript.)

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 19 January 2022
updated 4 August 2022