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Don’t Let Your Kanji Tattoo Get “Lost In Translation”

Thinking of getting a kanji tattoo or kanji jewelry? Then arm yourself with this information before you buy anything. It may be the difference between being cool and national humiliation.

What? National humiliation? Well OK, national humiliation is an unlikely outcome, but an article in the March 1st, 2005 Washington Post Express shows that the possibility is there. "Lost in Translation" looked at the real dangers facing the unwary consumers who get kanji tattoos.

I am not joking when I say “real dangers”. But neither am I referring to unhygenic tattooing practices. What I am talking about is toe-curlingly appalling linguistic blunders. Specifically, I mean kanji combinations like these:

- Extremely Military Affairs Stopping
- Crazy Diarrhea
- Weird (tattooed on one B. Spears)

Yes, these are phrases that real people (yes, Britney Spears is a real person) actually have had tattooed into their skin.

To be honest, I am not entirely surprised at these and other errors. After all, I have seen many reversed images of kanji being offered for tattoos, and kanji jewelry that simply did not mean anything like it was supposed to.

One necklace, I remember, had the kanji for “road” on it - although the poor owner had been told it meant love. I guess her love hit the road and didn't come back no more, no more, no more, no more....

As Tian Tang puts it in the Post:

"People ask, 'I got the tattoo, can you tell me what this means? And I'm like, 'Why didn't you do this before you got that tattoo?'"

Yes, you would think that would be the obvious thing to do – especially if you are getting something permanent like a kanji tattoo. So how can you make sure you don’t end up a national laughingstock?

First of all, make sure you know something about the Japanese language. Check out the copious information at sites like japanese.about.com and in five minutes you will know more about kanji, hiragana and katakana than most of the people already walking around with it tattooed into their skin.

Next, remember that there is often no such thing as an exact translation. Basic nouns are one thing – a table is a table is a table, after all. But abstract concepts, like Semper Fidelis (the motto of the US Marine Corps), can be notoriously difficult to translate well.

Once you have grasped this background material, you are ready to meet with the tattoo artist. That’s right – meet. Don’t get anything done yet. At first you just want to talk. Specifically, you want to find out how familiar he or she is with the issues mentioned above. If after an hour or so on the internet you know more about Japanese than your tattoo artist, then you need to be very careful about kanji she suggests.

So what can you do if your tattoo artist doesn’t know his kanji from his katakana? How do you go about getting the kanji yourself?

Well if you are confident in your new-found kanji knowledge, then try an online kanji dictionary.

Otherwise I would recommend getting a translation from a site like the one I run - www.japanese-name-translation.com . A good translator will be able to offer you a number of different options as well as explaining the exact meaning and pronunciation of the different kanji. They should also be able to offer you a number of different styles, from basic kanji calligraphy fonts to genuine Japanese shodo calligraphy.

At the end of the day, how you decide to go about getting your kanji tattoo is up to you. Just remember that preparation is the key to making sure your kanji tattoo doesn’t get “Lost in Translation”.


About the Author: About the Author

Stephen Munday lives in Japan and is the creator of www.japanese-name-translation.com, where you can download images of over 2,200 names in kanji or have a unique phrase translated into Japanese for a tattoo. This article is © Stephen Munday 2005. Permission is given to reproduce this article as a whole with the URLs correctly hyperlinked.




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