Translation is rarely a straightforward process – things like cultural differences, grammar differences, and implied information can make a simple line an unholy mess to translate. But things get really tricky when one language has a unique word that the other lacks.
In this second Tricky Translations article, we’ll examine a pesky word that regularly appears in Japanese entertainment: shitennō, more broadly known as “the Four Heavenly Kings” outside of Japan.
The term “Four Heavenly Kings” refers to four Buddhist gods that rule over each cardinal direction: north, south, east, and west. Different countries have adopted Buddhism in different ways over the centuries, so the Four Heavenly Kings sometimes go by different names and are depicted differently. But they almost always look fierce and imposing.
In Japanese, the Four Heavenly Kings are called the 四天王 (shitennō) – 四 means “four”, 天 roughly means “the heavens”, and 王 generally means “king”, “ruler”, or “lord”.
In short, shitennō is a very specific word that’s steeped in Buddhism and Japanese culture – the perfect recipe for a tricky translation.
The word shitennō doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, so translators have to get creative whenever it pops up. Here’s a short list of translations I found for shitennō while working on this article:
- Four Heavenly Kings
- shitennō (left untranslated)
- Four Fiends
- Four Archfiends
- Fearsome Four
- Vile 4
- Four Lords
- Four Monarchs
- Elite Four
- Big Four
- Four Devas
- Four Generals
- Four Guardians
- Four Kings
- The Four
- Spice Boys
So what’s the deal? Why are there so many translations for shitennō, and why is it such a problem for Japanese-to-English translators?
There are all kinds of reasons – the English language doesn’t share the same Buddhist roots as Japanese, the word shitennō has taken on additional meanings, and the word shitennō has certain nuances that are easily lost in translation. I’ve outlined these issues and a few others below.
Issue #1: Shitennō Has Different Religious Nuances
First, shitennō can refer to the four Buddhist gods, of course:
But the easy translation of “Four Heavenly Kings” adds nuances that don’t always match. For example, in many English-speaking countries, the phrase “Heavenly King” is likely to bring to mind the Christian God, Jesus, or something similar instead:
In fact, even calling the shitennō “gods” is an oversimplification – they’re more technically devas. Basically, translating between languages can be hard enough, but nuances can drastically change when switching between religions too.
Issue #2: Shitennō Can Be Ordinary People
Although shitennō originally referred to a specific group of gods, the word has grown over time and is now used just as often to refer to groups of people:
Issue #3: Shitennō Aren’t Necessarily “Heavenly”
Similar to Issue #1, the English word “heavenly” carries certain images with it – goodness, holiness, peacefulness, and beautiful angels, for example. But shitennō isn’t bound by those same ideas – they can look and act like pure evil:
Issue #4: Shitennō Aren’t Necessarily “Kings”
The English word “king” often (although not always) refers to men in power. So while the phrase “Four Heavenly Kings” roughly suggests a group of four men, shitennō doesn’t have that same implication. Shitennō can easily include women – or be entirely comprised of women:
And as we’ve seen here and in previous issues, shitennō aren’t exactly “kings” in the Western sense. As a result, the phrase “Four Heavenly Kings” can give a different impression than what was originally intended.
Issue #5: Shitennō Aren’t Necessarily Living Beings
As we’ve see, the shitennō don’t have to be gods, or kings, or women, or heavenly. In fact, they don’t even have to be living things. Almost anything can be a shitennō now – even food:
Issue #6: The Word Shitennō Itself
The word shitennō evokes the image of four mighty beings, sounds snappy and intimidating, and is a relatively common term in Japanese. In contrast, the literal translation of “Four Heavenly Kings” is much longer, clunkier, and not quite as intimidating on its own.
These probably sound like silly little issues, but game and subtitle translators are locked in a never-ending struggle with tight text windows and limited screen space:
To sum everything up, while shitennō can often be translated as “Four Heavenly Kings” without much trouble, there are times when it’s too long, sounds awkward, gives the wrong impression, or borders on being completely off the mark.
It’s difficult to find an English word for shitennō that solves every issue listed above, so there’s no single “correct” translation most of the time. It’s even normal to see it left untranslated in some situations!
In the end, everything usually comes down to the translator’s creativity and personal preference. As a result, shitennō has seen many different translations over the years.
For whatever reason, “Four Heavenly Kings” has been the default translation among fans of Japanese entertainment for years and years. I never knew why until now: apparently that particular English phrasing has been in use since at least the 1850s.
Still, despite how long the term has been in use, there’s rarely been a consensus on how it should be translated in more modern, non-Buddhist situations. So let’s look at how the phrase has been handled by professional translators over the past few decades.
Final Fantasy Series
By coincidence, the fourth Final Fantasy introduced the “Four Heavenly Kings” idea to many gamers outside of Japan – including myself – and that same association is strong even among Japanese gamers.
Final Fantasy IV has a lot of different translations as well (more details), and most of them handle shitennō in different ways:
Other Final Fantasy games have used the shitennō term too:
The Pokémon series is probably how most gamers were introduced to the shitennō idea. As such, the translation choice of “Elite Four” has remained strong throughout the series’ history and has become a common go-to translation for shitennō ever since.
Megami Tensei Series
The Megami Tensei games center around religious icons, so it’s no surprise that the shitennō appear in the series.
Dragon Ball Series
The Dragon Ball series is humongous, so it’s no surprise that it features its own shitennō. The first reference that comes to mind is during the Garlic Jr. arc:
Other Anime & Manga Series
It’s neat to know that the Elite Four, the Four Fiends, and the Spice Boys all come from the same Japanese word, but there’s another tricky trap here: not every group of four is a shitennō:
While it usually doesn’t matter too much how shitennō gets translated into English, my hope is that this has shown how a single, simple word in one language can be troublesome to translate into another. Hopefully it’s been a fun and educational look at how cultures, religions, and languages aren’t separate things, but are all twisted together like a messy bunch of computer wires. And if you’re not careful when you plug them into a foreign electrical outlet, you’re gonna get zapped.
All silliness aside, the translation examples I’ve listed above are only a fraction of what’s probably out there, so I’d love to document more. If you encounter any other instances of the shitennō or Four Heavenly Kings in a translation, let me know in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll update this article from time to time.
And who knows, maybe we’ll eventually learn what the “Four Heavenly Kings of Four Heavenly King translations” are!
By the way, if you enjoyed this look at all the different translations for "Four Heavenly Kings", you'll love my article about the term "Maō/Demon King"!