Lost In Translation Foreign Character Tattoos
Having foreign characters such as Japanese or Chinese characters tattooed on your back can be a great idea – after all a single character of Japanese Kanji can mean a whole word or phrase and each stroke convey a powerful message about the meaning of the character. However – there are plenty of people who are taken in by this idealism and end up with tattoos that don’t mean anything at all, or possibly worse end up meaning something completely different to what you thought. Doesn’t that make you look just a little bit stupid?
Everything to know about tattoos
While the characters are beautiful and meaningful to some the can also be very intricate and complex, which makes it pretty easy to get it wrong. While some people do get it right and manage to have fantastic tattoos from it there are a shocking number of people with completely fake or useless ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’ tattoos that mean absolutely nothing. It has been identified that the template ‘font’ used by a number of tattoo shops in the past consisted of gibberish characters. While these might have had meaning alone they are used to replace typical roman lettering to create initials or names, but in actual fact have no meaning. These are among some of the most common character tattoos people have and were very common from around twenty years ago right up to the present.
The fact of the matter is that neither Japanese nor Chinese use English characters at all and don’t really have an equivalent, although Japanese does get close with hiragana it probably ends up a little childish looking to have a hiragana or katana tattoo instead of a Kanji. Kanji have specific meanings for words and this is usually contextual, complex and flexible depending on the context, who is saying it and how it is being said, the same can be true of Chinese and even Korean – it all changes and there can be many ways of writing the same thing, but only one of these ways will give the message you want to give.
One of the most common misinterpreted tattoos you see today which is often claimed to be both Japanese and Chinese is ?? – many insist that this is the equivalent of Carpe Diem and has been interpreted around the world as everything from ‘YOLO’ to ‘seize the day’ and ‘live for the day’. However, the first character means ‘raw’ in both Japanese and Chinese (many of their characters are the same but can be read very differently depending on who reads them). It can be interpreted as ‘life’ or ‘living’ in some contexts (though only read in Chinese, not Japanese), which seems to have been the intention, but without the correct context given and without a secondary character to emphasise this meaning it most commonly translates as ‘raw’ or ‘uncooked’. The second character translates in both Japanese and Chinese with very similar meanings also, representing ‘present’ or ‘current’. This is the only meaning that can be interpreted in Japanese; however in Chinese it can mean a number of things if used in the correct context, including ‘appear’ or ‘show’. So your tattoo could be more easily translated as ‘appear uncooked’ than it could be to ‘live for the day’, and yet there are many people who have this tattoo and believe that it offers some insightful philosophy which they should live by.
However if you did have your heart set on the equivalent of a character based carpe diem tattoo you can use ??? which is Chinese and translates correctly as ‘seize the day’ and is pronounced zhu?zhùti?n.
????? would be the correct way of writing the phrase for Japanese, however this uses hiragana mostly rather than kanji. You may of course have noticed that the ? character is used here, it is read as ‘i’ and when seen with the other characters; ??? is read as ‘ikiru’ meaning ‘to live’ or ‘to exist’. The phrase is read ‘ima wo ikiru’ and means pretty much the same as carpe diem, though the literal translation would be ‘live for the now’.
Emma is keen writer interested in tattoos and piercings. She currently writes for Barber Northstar, suppliers of tattoo ink (Encre Intenze) and piercing
Image source – © rcpsi