You May Not Actually Be Cool: Please Read This Before You Get a Chinese Tattoo

This poor guy thought he was getting a very cool “OUTLAW”
tattoo but instead came away with “HIDING CRIMINAL”
which basically carries the meaning “RAT FINK”.
Not as cool.

I have never been cool.  I’ve spent nearly 4 decades just behind the trend curve and the closest I have come was that mullet just four years after mullets were hot (and they were hot).  I used to blame my mother who said no Nike’s in the fourth grade, no rat tail in the fifth grade, no parachute pants in the sixth grade, no red, pleather, Michael Jackson zipper coat in the seventh grade and no earring . . . ever.  She just didn’t see the value of cool.

Now I am thankful.  If it had not been for the absolute inability to be cool that she planted deep in the core of my very being I’m guessing I would have a tattoo by now.  That thought cross-referenced with the trend over the past decade and my connection to China would lead me to think that my tattoo would be (like all of the cool kids these days) a Chinese character . . . or the Fonz . . . or the Fonz with a tattoo of a Chinese character.  How cool would that be?

Here is the problem . . . Translation is a vicious beast.

Speaking Chinese is hard (go here and here and here to learn more about that) but translating is a whole new level of pain.  If speaking Chinese is a bear then translating it is a fire breathing T-Rex with laser beam eyes and a big tattoo that says “Bears taste good” (in Chinese).  The cardinal sin of translation is that the translator makes the mistake of thinking language is words.  Language is actually layer after layer of grammar and structure and rules and exceptions to rules and culture and history and emotion and . . . that list goes on for a while.  So when you ask, “what’s the Chinese word for ‘I love you baby cakes?” you might end up with something that actually means “Your child’s flap jacks are loving and generous to me.”

The “filth room” is the Janitors closet at the
hospital down the street from our home.

Expats in China get a lot of giggles out of poorly translated Chinese (go here for “The Onion Explodes the Mutton and Other Fine Chinese Dishes”) but the translation beast eats Western food too.  There are multiple thousands of very cool looking Chinese tattoos out there that would cause a Chinese crowd to laugh out loud (not with them . . . at them).

At least they’re not alone.


Here’s an excerpt from the NY Times on the subject:


“Marquis Daniels, of the Dallas Mavericks, thought he was getting his initials in Chinese characters but what his arm actually says is “healthy woman roof,” . . .  Shawn Marion of the Phoenix Suns was under the impression that his nickname, “the Matrix,” was tattooed on his leg, but the inscription translates as something like “demon bird moth balls.” . . . Britney Spears . . . reportedly got a tattoo she thought said “mysterious” but actually meant “strange.”


I also heard a rumor that one of the Spice Girls tried for a “Girl Power” tattoo and ended up with “Electric Woman”.  No idea if that’s true . . . but it’s funny. 


Just for fun I’ve taken up translating.  These are the love songs that I would have tattooed on my body by now . . . if I was cool.  I translated them into Chinese using iciba.com (a Chinese online translator) and then back into English using Google Translate


1. I’m everything I am, because you loved me (first dance at my wedding)  = “Because you believe me because you love me that I”
2. You are the wind beneath my wings = “You breeze in my arms under”
3. I got you babe = “The same car with the boys” (?)
4. Nothing compares to you = “You . . . unparalleled” (actually cooler)
5. You light up my life = “You light up my life” (about the same cool only it probably really means “you set me on fire”)


So pretty please . . . before you tarnish your body for life with a Chinese typo . . . send me your text and I’ll have it proofread by real live Chinese people.  If I can’t be cool, at least I can help you be.

Check out these sites for more translations gone horribly wrong:
Hanzismatter.blogspot.com
Engrish.com

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