Tattoo Translation

I’ve been doing quite a lot of swimming recently and have been seeing more tattoos than I ┬ánormally do in the cold rainy London streets. Very often my response is “Wow, who hates you so much?!” –feeling extremely sorry for the poor person who probably has no idea what a ridiculously wrong tattoo he/she is carrying.

As tattoos with Chinese characters become ever more popular in the west, tattoo translation can become a niche area. Just as with any other kind of translation, if not treated with the right attitude and skill, these can be degrading to both the art of translation and the art of tattoo. Things tattoo translators probably would say include:

1. Cultural difference: A popular type of Chinese character tattoo is a zodiac symbol. But do you know that in Chinese, the character for the year of rooster is also slang for prostitute?

2. KISS principle: Keep it simple and short. No one wants an essay on him/her. Translation of tattoo should be simple, yet precise.

3. Not too straight forward: The best tattoo is like a Chinese painting–instead of presenting everything straight forward, it leaves a space for imagination and interpretation. This is why ancient poems and sayings often work quite well in creating nice tattoos.

4. Be straight forward to the client and tell them if the words they want to have tattooed are not appropriate. I am not going to put pictures here but tattoos like “??????”(Rice fried in pork oil), “??”(serious diarrhea), “?????????”(I don’t eat meat but I can bite) are just not tolerable.

Think before you ink. For those who are considering getting a Chinese tattoo, I’d be more than happy to double check the translation for you.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)


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    Wow?great content and your blog template is so beautiful. Is this template free or not. If so, would you please share this template? if not, how much does it cost? Thanks a lot!
    Best Wishes!!

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    It goes both ways though, I know of someone Chinese who mocked my Xian tattoo, who himself has had NASA tattooed in massive blue letters on his lower-back, as it means ‘whatever’, or something, in Chinese but in English makes him look like property of the National Aerospace Agency.

    Also, in defence of my Xian tattoo, I like having a straight forward tattoo of simple characters. Everyone has an ornate, complicated tattoo that has some cryptic meaning which is still pretentious and ill-fitting, like ‘dragon courage’ or something stereotypically oriental like that. To have an aesthetically minimalist tattoo, IMHO, therefore looks less cliched and less pedestrian.

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      Heck of a job there, it absoltuely helps me out.

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      I’m out of league here. Too much brain power on dislpay!


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