Tattoo translation is ghettoized within the translation industry. Certainly, revenue-wise it is lowest form of the translator’s art.
And low margins tell: of all the different translation categories, say from rocket science to power generation, from medical devices to 911 calls, tattoo translation has the highest error rate in the industry.
But it’s not just pricing that makes for such frequent bad translation. Linguistic quality control processes are not top-of-mind for tattooees looking for just the right ink. Hey, it only involves permanently dyeing your skin for all time. So why worry about it?
Translated tattoos are for keeping secrets. An incomprehensible tattoo hides meaning, or reveals it only to a select few, like everyone who speaks Chinese, for example. The mystery of the tattoo lies chiefly in the way the wearer sees it. It’s it may be a secret he or she carries alone, even if it is plain as day to everyone around. And that personal hidden language gets even more mysterious when the tattoo artist doesn’t know the language either.
A Vietnamese tattooist in Brazil was busted recently for his bad Chinese spelling. For example, a woman who ordered “You become responsible forever for what you tame,” got “Chicken Noodle Soup.” Another woman wanted “Fire, Strength, Faith” got “Thailand Church Tree” instead. A request for “God loves people,” got “Pull-man Influence Slut.”
Are these translations completely random? The motives of the tattooist (and his Chinese ability) remain unknown, but customer service was obviously not a priority. “Possibly the most egregious example of the artist’s contempt was when a man reportedly asked him for a tattoo which said “God is a lover” in Chinese; instead, he got “Ralph is an asshole.” Not. Nice.
“Well, at least its unique,” you might say as you stare at your life-mistake in the mirror yet again. But bad Chinese tattoos are actually pretty common, an industrial category of sorts , or at least a popular meme. Check out this list of the 34 most ridiculous Chinese tattoos ever.
Fortunately, for those who’ve found their way to this post with regret, there is a blog dedicated to the identification of misused Chinese characters in Western Culture. Lots of emails from people discovering that they have had a stupid tattoo for years (as if they didn’t already secretly know.) Comments are pretty brutal. “Obviously, stupidity is one thing love can’t conquer.” Ouch!