Body art is an ancient form of expression. Several Asian cultures have been using tattoos for centuries. In Japan, for example, the Ainu people – indigenous to the island – get traditional tattoos done on their faces. In many other tribal communities, getting a tattoo is one of the rites of passage for male children. Even in the Western world, indigenous groups of people were known for their tattoos; in fact, the word ‘Britons’ means “people of the designs”, and the original inhabitants of Northern parts of Britain were the Picts, a word that literally means “painted (people).”
Today, tattoos are a world-wide phenomenon. In the United States, it was estimated (in 2012) that 23% of women and 19% of men had a tattoo of some kind on their bodies. This is the first year that women outnumbered men in this category. These figures are indicative of global numbers and, despite tattoos originating as traditional and religious art forms, they are now solidly entrenched in modern popular culture.
But tattoo translations are a different story altogether!
Failed Tattoo Translations
As Western and Eastern cultures began merging in the 20th century, a strange practice began to evolve: people in either culture were getting tattoos on their bodies in languages foreign to them. In particular, Chinese symbol tattoos were becoming increasingly popular as a form of body art in the West. People from cultures that didn’t speak or understand Asian languages were getting tattoos in Chinese and Arabic scripts, and a new phenomenon was born. The often poor translation to and from English, however, resulted in hilarious tattoos that looked great, but had ridiculous meanings. Here are some examples:
- Mad Diarrhoea (Could this actually have meant “Crazy sh*t happens all the time”???)
- Meanie Crime Poet (One can only assume that this was intended to be ‘Bad Gangsta Rapper’!)
- Rice Fried by Pork Fat (Looks like someone went to a chef-cum-tattooist for this one!)
- Bad Boi! (Oh boi, what can we say?)
- Leopard Lady Dream Dragon Labour (‘Hmm’ is all we can think of.)
- Cheap Sh*t (Enough said.)
- Swift-Dumb (This must be the sports version of ‘plain dumb.’)
- Evil Bird Camphor (Yikes – demonic bird droppings??)
Though these tattoos were undoubtedly intended to convey something else, this is what they translated to. One reason that these tattoo translation are so ridiculous is that the Chinese script is primarily pictorial rather than letter-based. This, in itself, makes translating a difficult task. Add to that the fact that the person doing the translation is ill-qualified to do so, and what you have is a recipe for disaster.
But Chinese characters aren’t the only source of tattoo translation mirth. Arabic lends itself beautifully to these blunders, too. Here is one example that truly stands out:
- The Large Mother – One can only assume that the wearer of this tattoo intended to have it say ‘Big Momma!‘ Unfortunately, idiomatic expressions never translate well in any language that is unrelated to the source.
Another problem with Arabic tattoos is that the font is usually decided by a computer, not a calligrapher – as traditional hand-written Arabic would be. This results in boring tattoo fonts that do nothing to aesthetically improve the twisted meaning of the word or phrase.
Inherent Problems in Tattoo Translation
Possibly the biggest issue with tattoos in foreign languages is the poor understanding of the English language by the tattooist. The other major issue crops up when the person getting the tattoo attempts to use computer-translated text as the source. Computer-aided translation is still in its infancy and cannot compete with a qualified translator. However, since it is a convenient way to translate text, people naturally think it’s reliable, too. We know otherwise!
Another issue is the lack of validation. The simple act of checking with someone who actually reads and speaks the target language might put an end to the phenomenon of tattoo translation blunders, but few people ever get to that stage; they simply go with their instincts and end up paying for it – most often, with a lifetime of regret.
The Right Way
Unless you want to be the laughing stock of everyone who actually reads the language you want to have tattooed on your body, do the following:
- If you want an English phrase or word translated into another language, first take that word and approach a person who speaks and reads the other language.
- If you have seen a particular foreign language tattoo or piece of text that you want on your body, take a photo of it and show it to a person who speaks and reads that language.
- Ask the person what it means and what its connotations are in that language. Cultural differences can be so vast that you’ll often be surprised by the difference between what a word or phrase actually means and what you thought it meant.
- If you can’t seem to find a person who speaks the language, contact a translation agency that does professional work in that language. They won’t charge you an arm and a leg for a small tattoo translation, and any money spent here will be well worth the expense, since your tattoo will stay on your body for life – and beyond.
- Never take machine-translated text for granted: always get it verified by a professional translator.
- Never copy a tattoo unless you know for sure what it means. For all you know, it might be the Chinese zodiac of that person – which would make no sense on you.
If you’re going to get a permanent tattoo, then make sure it is worth the effort. On the other hand, a temporary tattoo is often recommended because we tend to change our minds after a while (talking from my own experience here!). If that’s the case, then something that only lasts a few days would be much better than one that you have to stick with throughout your life.