A few weeks ago, a man came into Mount Pleasant with an interesting tattoo on his neck. Curious, I asked him about it. ‘It’s me name,’ he replied proudly. The Asian characters scrawled on his neck read命名, which sure enough mean ‘naming’ (neither here nor there, I initially misread it as 冷名- lit. ‘cool (cold)-name’ - instant poker face for the rest of the contract).
I’m writing this not because I want to dissuade people from getting tattoos, or even getting hastily scrawled Chinese characters permanently inscribed on their nether regions. I understand the attraction having a symbol which appears to distil the well of meanings, shades, nuances that a word like ‘Love’ carries into a simple, elegant character like 愛. I’m not trying to discourage it; the personal meaning it carries is by far the most important thing in a tattoo. I will advise however that you do your homework first: concepts do not translate easily into different languages. It’s not appealing to suddenly discover that your expression of pulchritude is instead a commonly used euphemism for prostitutes; less so to find that it’s misspelled.
I’d advise anyone planning to get a tattoo in another language to do one simple thing: check your design. Find a native speaker (I wouldn’t recommend a student, unless they’re exceptionally proficient in the language, or it’s a commonly used word/expression. Even after a few years of study, it’s easy to get caught up in ‘Hey, I understand that!’ and miss the point that semantically, it’s a piece of drivel that a native speaker would never utter in a million years). Have them check the meaning, especially if it’s a longer phrase, or a colloquial expression. Never trust character charts at a parlour - you’re paying for someone to canvass your skin, not provide an accurate transcription in Cyrillic. And never, under any circumstances, believe anyone that claims your name can easily be transliterated. If you see a chart listing ‘A愛B 晩C気’ you can rest assured that it’s complete gibberish, and can nope out of the store safely.
The exception to this, of course, is if you have a sense of irony. I saw a woman walking the other day with the words 朝人 printed on the back of her neck. Literally: ‘morning person’. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t translate well; or that it’s likely to get a few confused stares from native speakers – it’s original, and funny (I’ll guess she’s being facetious, as no one is actually a morning person.)
I long ago decided that if I got a tattoo, it would be something completely vapid and meaningless. I would be personally thrilled with a tattoo reading ‘Should have spent more than $17.50.’ If anyone asked me what it meant, I could simply reply: Prosperity.