News | 08.09.2010

Tattoos, translations and tears: when a mistranslation can really get under your skin!

The research has been carried out, the tattoo design, colour and subject matter chosen. Next step: check with linguist or native speaker that the text is correct. Wrong! According to an article on about the Hanzi Smatter blog (a website ‘dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in western culture’) often this step is only taken after the visit to the tattoo parlour, at which time proofreading is no longer an option!

This is how translating and tattooing jointly came under the media spotlight in August 2010. Tian is the creator the aforementioned blog and he offers proper translations of tattoos that use Chinese characters. Readers send in their photos of any such tattoos and Tian provides an honest translation – often one which is far from the intended meaning. In an interview with CNNGo, Tian stated that 90 percent of enquiries originate from people when it’s too late, in other words, after the tattoo has already been carried out. There are currently around 400 entries displayed on his blog. For example, a tattoo thought to mean ‘beautiful’ turned out to mean ‘calamity, disaster, catastrophe’. There are also many instances where people have unwittingly used Japanese characters instead of Chinese.

Nobody is immune from the collision of a mistranslation and a tattoo. It is a bad combination resulting in what can only be described as an avoidable linguistic faux pas. Singer Rihanna is the latest celebrity to have fallen into this trap and when photos emerged of her new French language tattoo ‘rebelle fleur’, French speakers and linguists alike commented on the fact that it did not make sense as a phrase. Similarly, back in 2000, the BBC reported that David Beckham’s tattoo of his wife’s name (Victoria) written in Hindi script was misspelt and read ‘Vihctoria’ instead.

Although these articles are treated with an element of light-heartedness, it is in no way a slight on tattoo artists who are certainly masters of their trade. However, not all tattooists are linguists (and vice versa!) and nor should they expected to perform as such. But when a client fails to consult a language professional in the selection and design of a new tattoo, this is one decision that could leave its mark in more ways than one!

Sources:;; BBC

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