Sep. 30th, 2010


Sep. 30th, 2010 10:47 am
j_rant: Protecting your temple from demons and your Japanese class from idiots! (temple guardian)
Every Japanese learning forum gets periodic tattoo requests. They usually go something like this:

"Can anyone translate the word [love/hope/faith/joy/etc.] into Japanese? This is for a tattoo." or
"I want to get [idiomatic expression specific to English] as a tattoo, but I think it would be cooler in Japanese. Can anyone help me translate this?"

Posts like these generate instant flamewars and links to hanzismatter. Their authors rarely understand why. Below is my attempt to pick apart the reasons people want these horrible tattoos and the reasons everyone else objects.

Baths, Yakuza, and Japanese Culture
The first thing people on Japanese learning communities will tell you when you ask about kanji tattoos is that Japanese people hate tattoos: They'll think you're a yakuza and they won't let you into the public baths if you have visible ones. This might have been true in the past, but that's not how things are now. No one is going to think you're actually a yakuza unless you have yakuza tattoos (the full-body traditional irezumi). What they will think is that you're a tacky, clueless foreigner with an ugly tattoo.

Tattooing doesn't seem to be as popular with young Japanese people as it is in, for example, the US, but it's becoming increasingly common. Popular styles include cheesy tribal armbands and other small designs that are easily hidden from elderly relatives or employers. They don't usually include badly written Japanese.

My Soul is Japanese!
Many Westerners considering a Japanese language tattoo say that they are motivated by their long-time involvement with Japanese culture or interest in the Japanese language. For someone already seriously into body modification, this makes sense. (If that's you, you've probably already got the names of your nearest and dearest, a bunch of favorite quotes, and references to all of your other serious interests all over your body. What's one kanji more?) However, if this is going to be your first tattoo, consider the situation described in the last section. Japanese people do not get this kind of tattoo. Japanese people do not like or understand the motivation behind this kind of tattoo. Japanese people will think you're a weirdo and your fellow Western Japanophiles will think you're a terrible n00b if you get this kind of tattoo. Are you sure this is going to demonstrate a serious interest in Japanese culture? Positive? I can tell you right now that you're one of the only people who thinks so.

I'm Getting It For Me, Not For You
If you genuinely don't care what anyone else thinks, fine. Most people who ask for help so they can get their tattoo "right" do care what other people think, but maybe you're the exception. Again, these tattoos generally end up being totally embarrassing later, no matter how well you've checked your dictionary before going to the tattoo parlor. Those people trying to warn you on the Japanese learning communities are not just being mean. But, hey, it's your body.

Enough social points. Now some points on why checking your dictionary doesn't always help:

Japanese, Chinese, Uh Oh
Kanji aren't just Japanese writing, they're also adapted hanzi--Chinese characters--and they're used to write more than one language. Unfortunately, while many characters mean exactly the same thing in different languages, many don't. It's almost always obvious whether a block of text is in Japanese, but most tattoos only include a few characters. There is a distinct possibility that someone seeing your tattoo could interpret it as Mandarin or some other character-using language, perhaps with hilarious results. Even the most contientious tattoo-ees rarely think to check with native speakers of multiple languages before getting inked.

Here's an unfortunate example from hanzismatter: "In Japanese, 我慢 means 'to persevere' or 'patience, endurance, perseverance.' However, it means 'I am slow' in Chinese."

Words Have Multiple Meanings
Words can also mean more than one thing even within a single language. Here's an example from that same hanzismatter post: "芽出度い [...] can mean 'happy' but can also colloquially mean 'pregnant' or 'crazy.'" Oops.

Since Japanese is a language with all of the normal natural language quirks, a gorgeous "symbol" that means something like 'love' or 'freedom' in one context might be used in some banal word having to do with accounting or perverted slang or something totally irrelevant in another. Getting a language tattooed on you is a lot more complicated than getting an astrological symbol or a picture of an animal.

Words, Not "Symbols"
Another problem is that many people who are only familiar with the Latin alphabet think of other types of writing as symbols or pictures. This is offensive in a Noble Savage kind of way. There is nothing exotic or mysterious about Japanese writing to a Japanese person. In fact, it's the Latin alphabet that looks exotic to them, which is probably why so much wacky Engrish ends up decorating Japanese products.

Since this is writing, not mystical sigils, you have to think about grammar and morphology and all that boring stuff when selecting words. Japanese verbs, for example, have endings that conjugate. These aren't written with kanji, so if you want to tattoo a verb on yourself, you'll need to use kana or a combination of kanji and kana. You can't just use a cool-looking kanji by itself.

If you find a 2-kanji compound, sometimes the two halves mean something obvious when you split it apart, but sometimes they don't. You have to make sure you're getting 'ice' from 'icebox' and not 'refrig' from 'refrigerator'. Making up new compound words is hard. Many bad tattoos are supposed to say something like super l33t hell warrior but end up as an incomprehensible mish-mash of characters that no native speaker would put together.

Another facet of the 'words mean multiple things' problem is that English words also mean multiple things. A Japanese word may be a completely valid translation of one meaning of an English word--but maybe not the meaning you were thinking of! Concepts like 'love' and 'freedom' are very popular as decorative motifs, but are we talking about capital-L romantic love? Are we talking about sex? Are we talking about familial affection? Freedom is even worse: are we talking about high ideals or civil liberties or one of those "free to a good home" signs on a bag of abandoned crap on the sidewalk? Japanese-English dictionaries don't usually do a good job of explaining nuances. Machine translations do an even worse job.

Machine Translation
Does not work. You need to talk to a live human, but not all humans are equally good. For example...

Japanese Learning Forums Are For Beginners
Japanese people don't hang out there. Why would they? They already know Japanese. A few (very few!) native speakers do answer questions in those spaces, but most responses you get there will be from students, usually beginners. Extremely advanced students of Japanese like to practice by talking to native speakers or reading and watching media intended for native speakers. They don't usually hang out in beginner/intermediate forums either. Whether it's a livejournal community or the boards on one of the many Japanese Learning websites or a newsgroup or whatever other forum you've found, nearly all of the posters are going to be intermediate students at best. That's great if you have a beginner question about the grammar in chapter 5 of your textbook. It's not so great if you're researching an advanced topic like tattoos and the nuances of words.

Native Speakers Differ
Before you go "But my friend saaaaaid the tattoo made sense!" consider that being a native speaker and being a good writer, a poet, a nerd, or a translator are not the same thing. Asking one native Japanese speaker is usually better than just asking a bunch of non-native students. Asking a lot of native speakers or asking an expert would be better still. That guy who does hanzismatter has looked at tons and tons of horrible tattoos. He has a friend who's a J-E translator for questions involving Japanese. It's pretty likely he knows what he's talking about. The random Japanese teenager you met on the internet may or may not give equally good advice.

Ok, so let's say you've asked a native speaker who knows what they're talking about, and you've checked that your kanji don't mean something horrible in Chinese, and you've picked a word/concept that's not too painfully stupid as a tattoo... Don't relax! You're not out of the woods yet!

Your tattoo artist probably doesn't speak Japanese. But you have a great idea: you're going to print out your word/phrase and have them work from that. Unfortunately, just like in English, lots of fonts are really, really ugly. It can also be hard to adapt a printout to a tattoo unless you're both a skilled tattoo artist and know some of the language you're writing. Plenty of otherwise gorgeous kanji tattoos are upsidedown or reversed. Sometimes individual characters or pieces of characters are written in the wrong direction even when everything else is fine.

Ok, you're going to find someone who knows Japanese. Keep in mind that even a Japanese-American (British/French/etc.) person who learned some Japanese from their parents probably didn't become fully literate in the language. Maybe they can read, but they didn't go through the whole school system there, and that means...

Their Handwriting Sucks!
My handwriting is very messy. I wouldn't get English tattooed in my own handwriting. A Japanese tattoo that's based on an ugly font or an ugly fake-handwriting font or someone's actual ugly handwriting is going to look like you let a 4 year-old scribble on your skin. Handwriting is a big deal in Japanese culture, maybe not as much as it once was, but still more than it is in the US. Combine this with a tattoo artist who doesn't know that much about Japanese and whatever ugly example you gave them to work off of, and you're guaranteed an ugly tattoo.

If you want one that looks nice, it would be a good idea to consult a Japanese calligrapher. Pay them to produce a life-size version of what you want. The tattoo artist will do a much better job if they aren't trying to blow up a teeny tiny picture to cover your whole back. The more experience your tattoo artist has with this kind of work, the better.

But I'm Poor! And Busy!
If you can't afford to consult a Japanese calligrapher or go to an experienced tattoo artist and you can't take the time to find a native speaker to consult, should you really be getting a tattoo? If it's that important to you to get it "right", you'll find the time and the money. If it's not that important to you... well, I look forward to seeing you on hanzismatter with all of the other n00bs with ugly body art.


j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)

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