On Tattoos and Translation

For a few years now, it’s been fashionable to get a tattoo of some word that has a special meaning for the person in question, but in another language… and especially in languages that use a different alphabet than our own. Coming in first are Japanese and Chinese, but it’s increasingly common to see tattoos in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc.

The reasons for such popularity are, on the one hand, the beauty of the graphemes of these languages (which, for those of us who use the Latin alphabet, seem to be almost drawn) and on the other hand, the exotic and mysterious air which, one assumes, they give the person that wears them.

However, like a beautiful flower that turns out to be poisonous, these tattoos may come with more than a person has bargained for. Oftentimes, these tattoos are chosen, designed and applied without much meditation, and with even less research.

Thanks to the almost limitless flow of information we have access to via the internet, these days this danger should have waned a little. Nonetheless, there is a huge amount of blogs dedicated to discovering these errors (almost indelible errors) that day by day track the number of “victims.”

The most frequent “errors” are:

– getting a tattoo of a symbol or word with the wrong meaning (a kanji that should have meant loyalty but actually means noodles);

– getting a tattoo of a symbol because of its appearance without concern for its meaning (and ending up with a tattoo of random words that may or may not mean bus, dog, card…). In this case, I think that the person wearing the tattoo deserves it, but that’s just a personal opinion;

– believing, without any shred of research, that there is a perfect equivalence between the letters of the Latin alphabet and those of the Hebrew alphabet, or Japanese and Chinese characters (thus, there are people who believe they got a tattoo with the initials of a loved one in Chinese, when in reality they’ve got invented symbols);

– in the case of Hebrew and Arabic, which are written from right to left, it often happens that upon using a text processor to print the word or phrase that will become the tattoo, the order of letters is changed, as the program is set up for languages that are written from left to right, or there is only standard type installed that doesn’t join the letters and words, which can change their meaning (especially in Arabic).

So, girls and boys, ladies and gentlemen, we request – no, we beg – that you please also check with a translator before making a decision as permanent as is the case with getting a tattoo… you’ll see that in the end, it’ll prove to be much cheaper than not doing so.