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Translation on Tattoos

Posted 7 years 289 days ago ago by Annette Labbé     0 Comments

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I’ve been noticing a trend in Hollywood for the last little while….it may seem strange and/or problematic on the surface but it’s interesting and makes sense when I look at it from a translator’s point of view.  The new Hollywood trend is to get tattoos of written sayings (quotes, poems, words etc.) that are translated. For example, an English-speaking person would get a tattooed saying in French or Italian or any other language.

When I first saw this, I immediately thought “What a strange thing to do. What would motivate someone to do something like that?” But the more I thought about the significance of tattoos in general, the more it made sense.

Tattoos, as I’ve come to think of them, are symbols of things that are important to us…an ideal, an interest, a reminder, they basically show what we would like other people to know about us.  They offer a sense of belonging….the link between tattoos and identity is undeniable.  But sometimes tattoos are just a particular “benchmark” of time and place. They’re a lot like photographs in that sense. So I’m seeing a lot of duality here: tattoos have the ability to simultaneously represent what is core to our being and the immediacy of experience.  Either way I look at it, tattoos are a way to mark our existence. It’s a fundamentally human thing to do.  

When I think about the reasons why someone would get a translated tattoo specifically, a few things come to mind:

Mystery: Anything unknown, exotic or unusual certainly has an appeal on a very fundamental level.

Sophistication: This is in the same vein as “mystery”, I think, but the ideas of worldliness, unique experience and proximity of experience (showcasing the immediacy of time and place using a foreign language as a vehicle) have their own appeal as well.

Discussion: I cannot talk about translated tattoos without mentioning the social aspect. They generate discussion and help form bonds between people.

As a translator, all of this makes sense to me. But let’s not forget, when someone gets a tattoo of a saying that is not in his or her own native language, there are definite issues to consider:

There’s an extraordinary amount of trust involved here. You have to trust that the artist is capable of transmitting both the spirit and the meaning of the intended message. You have to make sure things are understood perfectly because it’s difficult and costly, and sometimes impossible to fix afterward.

You have to make sure the grammar and spelling of the artist are up to par. How can you really do that? Do you test him or her before –hand?

Sometimes meaning differs by region. 

You have to do your best to make sure that the meaning in the source language (the language you are getting the tattoo in) cannot be easily misinterpreted in another language.

I’m not saying this would happen a whole lot, but you have to again, trust the tattoo artist to transmit the message faithfully and not “make a joke” of the message.

Translated tattoos show and bring forth some of what is most interesting about human nature but they are not without risk. Human nature itself is flawed. My best advice to someone who might be thinking about getting a translated tattoo would be to research everything before doing so.

What do you think about Hollywood’s translated tattoo trend? Is it just a fad destined to die out or is this something we’ll see and deal with for a while? What are the benefits and risks you see with them?  Leave your comments at www.write2thepoint.ca  and let’s discuss. A la prochaine…

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