This is a Guest Post by Siân Morgan
Alongside text based tattoos the selection of tattoos conveying a message in another language is a popular and often beautiful option, but are you certain it is correct?
One thing that you should know before going to get your new tattoo, is that your tattoo artist is probably not a linguistics expert; they don’t just know every hanzí and kanji and they probably don’t have any reason to learn them, if you want to use them you should do the research yourself, but do so carefully and thoroughly to avoid making mistakes. Everyone hears the horror stories of foreign language tattoos, the sort where people actually end up with part of a Chinese takeaway menu tattooed down their back and in most cases what you end up with is actually just gibberish.
The ‘Asian’ font or ‘gibberish’ font as it is sometimes called is something that was distributed through tattoo studios and American tattoo parlours during the early 80s when the Asian character tattoos first became more popular. This was most commonly used to spell out names or words but had no real bearing on the meanings of the characters, most of which do in fact have real meanings in body Japanese and Chinese, but appear as nothing more than gibberish when put together.
For one thing; names don’t get translated into other languages. There is no way of writing a typical English name in Kanji or Hanzi, though there are sometimes options that are similar. For example; if your name is Hannah you couldn’t write that in Japanese, but you could use the kanji 花, this is read ‘hana’, so sounds very similar when spoken but actually translates as flower. Of course finding a similar word with a nice meaning is not entirely easy to do and does require a fair amount of research, prior knowledge can also be useful.
You can’t blame your tattoo artist if things don’t mean what you thought they did; you certainly can’t expect them to look at a block of hanzi and tell you that you’ve misspelled one of the characters, the same for any language tattoo; if your tattoo artists doesn’t know French they won’t be able to tell you the right way to translate your quote into beautiful French words, the best they can do is use Google translate and that isn’t always accurate enough to give you the message you wanted.
The first thing you have to do is identify the language you want the tattoo to use; most people don’t distinguish the difference between hanzi and kanji because they share a lot of the same characters, but have different meanings for most of them and different ways of putting them into sentences. So if you want a Chinese tattoo don’t accidentally start looking at Japanese meanings, because you’re not going to look very smart when you show it to someone who understands Chinese hanzi and tell them what it means, because to them it will probably just look like complete gibberish.
A foreign tattoo can be a beautiful thing if you have the same meaning from your tattoo, but it probably has more meaning to you than those who see it, because they won’t know the translation unless they read the selected language or you explain it to them. This can make it a lot more personal to you and of course for native English speakers, other languages often seem to have a more beautiful quality, either in the way they are written or the way they are spoken.
Some of the most common themes for foreign tattoos are variations of the ‘Carpe Diem’ phrase, which is a popular Latin philosophy meaning “seize the day” or “live for the moment”, more recently abbreviated into the more ‘hip’ sounding “YOLO”. Quite often in both Chinese and Japanese this is written incorrectly using the characters 生現 – however this would more accurately be translated to “raw present” in Japanese, and in Chinese the context and use of both characters together brings you closer to the translation “appear uncooked” than it does to “live for the day”.
Carpe Diem is a safe way to go, at least you can be certain of the meaning, of course simply writing the message in English using ‘live for the day’, ‘live for the moment’ or ‘seize the day’ would also be perfectly effective to displaying the tattoo’s meaning. Those who have their heart set on using other characters of course are not out of luck; the phrase can be translated.
抓住天 is how the phrase would be written in hanzi, this correctly translates as ‘seize the day’ and is read ‘zhuāzhùtiān’. This is quite an attractive tattoo in itself and so long as you can remember the meaning, and ideally the pronunciation, it can make quite an effective and attractive way of representing the message. Chinese characters can also be beautifully incorporated with Chinese themed designs, which makes for an extra layer of meaning and beauty to your tattoo.
今を生きる is how the phrase would be written in kanji, literally translating as ‘live for the now’ the characters are read as ‘ima wo ikiru’. This is generally easier to pronounce than the Chinese version but longer, of course, and it can make a fantastic addition to a Japanese themed design.
Anyone hoping to get a foreign language tattoo would benefit greatly from first discussing it with their tattoo artist as well as researching it. While it is not particularly common for a tattoo artist to have a detailed understanding of a number of languages, it is a possibility that they, or someone else at the studio, know enough to help you accomplish what you are looking for. Contacting professional translators and researching can also be greatly beneficial to you.
Barber DTS are a professional tattoo supply company and have several different sites to accommodate your language needs. These include Barber ES (Spanish), Barber Northstar (French) and Barber NL (Dutch)