Translating Titles, Part I: Kamikyoku

Why are there so many bad title translations out there?

I’m not actually going to answer that question. At least, not yet. I might not ever answer it, because I don’t know the answer. If I end up trying to answer it, it’ll be by accident. I’m just going to talk about title translations, and I’m going to start by talking about my the title translation that’s caused me the most thinking, because that’s the least logical place to start.

There’s a Hatsune Miku song by Onyuu-P called Kamikyoku (神曲, literally “God Song”, and less literally “Masterpiece”). The singer notes that the practice of prepending “kami” to a word (like in “kamikyoku”) and slapping that label on things has become so widespread that it has cheapened its meaning. Yet, the singer finds that these ordinary “godly” games, videos, bargain sales, etc. are actually “saving” him/her, much in the same way certain gods are supposed to. It’s a vaguely inspirational song about how what’s important isn’t the divine or extraordinary, but regular people and regular things.

The title of the song is straightforward and not exactly the most clever thing ever. “Kamikyoku” is one of those kami-whatever-it-is terms. So it’s like, the song itself is one of those things that got the kami-whatever label put on it.

What’s the translation of the title I hate so much?

(The) Divine Comedy.

I have no idea where that translation came from, but it’s common to see the song referenced as “Divine Comedy” in various places. Maybe it was some influential fan translator. Maybe it was slipped in by the original author somewhere (though I did do a bit of research and this doesn’t seem very likely).

Either way, it’s actually objectively not that bad. “Divine” is an okay word. Gods are divine. And “comedy” isn’t that bad a word either. There’s some irony in sucky things being called god ending up saving people, which you can argue is comedic. And Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy certainly is a… thing.

Why do I hate it so much, then?

Well, for one, at first glance, it looks like there’s a deep meaning behind it. For someone to choose to stray from the natural translations “God Song” and “Godly Song” towards an established phrase, there has to be some meaning behind it. But there isn’t. Divine Comedy certainly does have to do with God-type things, but that’s about it. There’s no relationship between the actual contents of Divina Commedia and the song. The title “Divine Comedy” doesn’t actually tell you anything about the song. It’s not representative of the song. “Divine Comedy” brings to mind a medieval Christianity-extolling epic, not a struggle to accept what is mundane. It just doesn’t fit. It might have been better if you didn’t have to stretch so much to make the individual words make sense. In fact, it would have been great if the words “divine comedy” somehow encapsulated the song in a witty way. But they don’t.

I also don’t really like it because the original title did mean something relevant (and even if I found it not too clever, there was no reason not to preserve the wordplay (or whatever you call it)), and it could easily have been kept in a literal translation. Sometimes literal translations are awkward, but “God Song” sounds fine, especially since the lyrics actually mention kami-whatevers. When you use “Divine Comedy” as the title, you lose the possibility to keep the parallelism with the mentions of the various kami-whatevers, unless you decide to call them “divine comedies” and “divine videos”. Which would be silly, because “divine” is distinctly different from “amazing”.

(One additional problem with both titles is that neither fares very well in a search engine context, but I suppose that’s just being faithful to the original, since 神曲 is actually terrible in search engines as well.)

Still, all things considered, it’s not as bad as you can get. It just happens that it’s just good enough that it makes you think it’s actually good, so you start thinking about it, and when you actually think about it, you realize it was all a scam.

Next up, “Why I don’t translate anime titles”.

2 thoughts on “Translating Titles, Part I: Kamikyoku

  1. I would translate it as God Song to be safe, though I think Divine Song sounds much more better.

    But I think Divine Comedy is totally missing the point.

  2. On the other hand, with “god song”, I think of gospel and church hymns praising the lord and saviour jesus christ, or the actual song of god, which only makes the producer seem arrogant in his thinking he can capture whatever song whatever deity sings when they’re in a musical mood. With “divine comedy”, I get a title that matches the irony of the song. Certainly some english-speaking china man who had no contact with italian literature would feel the same way.

    And what about Dante, from devil may cry? That’s a funny one too, now that you mention the divine comedy (the book, not the translation attempt).

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