Update (1 April 2014): shark0week0 has pointed out in my comments that I had used the wrong dictionary to derive “February” from the term “更衣”. After some checking, he’s absolutely right. The correct kanji to represent the month of February should be “衣更着” instead. I sincerely apologise for the error, I’m still quite new to translation work.
Original (29 March 2014): If you were watching Kill la Kill on Crunchyroll, you may have noticed that the translators did not translate Ryuko’s ultimate form, Senketsu Kisaragi 「鮮血更衣」. My friend, who had been watching the series via a fansub group called Underwater, told me that Senketsu Kisaragi was translated by them as “Senketsu Fashion Week”.
WHAT? We were both rolling our eyes at that translation, because we both knew that was not what the Chinese characters “更衣” meant. I am not here to bash the hard work of the fansub group, but to offer an alternative translation instead: “Senketsu Metamorphosis”.
Long ago in Japan, proper nouns were used to describe the 12 months of the year, and kisaragi was used for February. There are two different kanji writings for kisaragi: 如月 and 更衣, although the first one was more common. If you wanted to literally translate Senketsu Kisaragi, it would be “Senketsu February”, which sounds really silly and kind of misses the point. Let us study the two words “更衣”:
衣, pronounced as イ (i) or きぬ (kinu), is the Chinese character for clothing. 更, pronounced as コウ (kou) or さら (sara), is a slightly more complicated word with the root meaning of “renew” or “change”. So if we put those two words together, 更衣 means to “change one’s clothes”.
I was browsing an online thesaurus, desperately trying to find an English synonym for “changing clothes”, until I stumbled upon the word “metamorphosis”. It’s perfect. Let me explain:
1) Biologically, metamorphosis is the perfect term to describe both Ryuko and Senketsu, as the both of them have evolved into entirely different beings: half-human, half-clothing. They are no longer their former selves, no longer an ordinary human or piece of clothing.
2) Aesthetically, look again at Ryuko’s transformation. Look at her extended collar, and the extended pattern of her glowing skirt. They both look like butterfly wings! A butterfly undergoes metamorphism from a caterpillar. This is another perfect way to describe her final transformation.
3) Linguistically, the word “metamorphosis” can also be used in the English language to describe fashion, when someone undergoes a complete makeover through a drastic change of clothes. This transformation requires Ryuko to borrow everyone’s uniforms in order to produce a newer piece. Again, “metamorphosis” is perfect to describe this.
To be technically accurate, “metamorphosis” isn’t the right word to translate what “更衣” means. But sometimes in translation work, we have to take liberties with the language and use some creativity in order to add some poetic flavour and consistency. There are many other special attacks and transformations that were not translated in the Crunchyroll subs, and I hope to revisit them in a future post and offer the same suggestions for converting them to English.
I hope that this article was useful for those who are curious behind the meaning of kisaragi. If you have a better translation besides “Senketsu Metamorphosis”, please feel free to leave a comment below.