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News broke this week that musician Ariana Grande got a sweet new tattoo. The only trouble is that the tattoo is in Japanese, and Ariana doesn’t know Japanese. Perhaps neither does her tattoo artist. After she posted the image of her tattoo on social media, the Internet swiftly gave its assessment, calling it a tattoo fail.

Grande got inked to promote her new single “7 Rings.” The music video accompanying the song uses the correct translation of the name of the song, “七つの指輪.” But her tattoo uses only the first and last characters, “七輪” (“shichirin”), which means “small barbecue grill.”

When she was confronted with the fans’ interpretation of her body art, she deleted her original tweets and joked that she’s a “huge fan of tiny bbq grills,” which is great because Amazon is running some great deals on them now.

Why Do We Keep Getting Asian Tattoos?

So why do Americans and others who don’t understand Asian languages keep getting Asian tattoos? Some commentators claim that when non-Asians get Asian body art, they are committing disrespectful cultural appropriation.

But I don’t think the typical non-Asian who gets an Asian tattoo means disrespect. I think it typically shows admiration for the beauty of the language, as well as a desire to have on their skin some mysterious and profound art.

It’s undeniable; Japanese and Chinese calligraphy is beautiful. It’s not unusual to find students of Asian languages who began their studies simply because of the beauty of the characters. (I’m guilty as charged.)

Further, the mystery of having markings on your skin that only you know the meaning of is alluring. It is a symbol that seems to have a great profundity.

The only trouble is that if you get an Asian tattoo, you are not actually the only one who knows the meaning. What’s more, you probably think of Japanese and Chinese characters as symbols with deep meanings, but they’re not symbols.

They’re words.

So if you wouldn’t get the English words inked on your skin, don’t ink the Chinese translation. If the English words would look silly, so will the Chinese words.

Let the following images be a cautionary tale lest you consider getting drunk, checking Google Translate, and getting “super cool ninja” inked in Japanese on your back.

Sure the Tattoo Artist Might Know Some Chinese, But . . .

if he hates you, he will give you a tattoo like this:

He or She Might Just Not Actually Know Anything . . .

and give you something like this:

Or Maybe You’ll Discover That It’s Sideways . . .

for no good reason.

Or It’s Extremely Ugly . . .

and the wrong characters.

If You Can’t Think of Anything Profound . . .

just tattoo some silly words in Chinese. It’ll still look cool, except to Chinese people.

You Have Few Good Options for Fixing Bad Tattoos

Ariana Grande, after she realized her error, contacted her Japanese tutor to ask for advice. Based on that advice, Grande added the character “指” howbeit in the wrong place. So now, the Internet chatter says that the tattoo reads “BBQ grill finger,” still not quite the perfect tattoo Grande was looking for.

The episode leaves you to wonder how it was that a woman whose career depends upon her public image would get a permanent mark on her skin in Japanese without first checking with multiple linguists.

Too many people are careless about the Asian tattoos they get. One restaurant waitress actually had me write down a couple characters on a napkin so that she could get them tattooed on herself the next day.

Too many companies are also equally careless with their translations. Although printed materials or websites are not permanent in the same way as a tattoo, the bad impression left by careless translations can be permanent, lasting for a lifetime.

If you are producing materials in another language, take the time to find a reputable translation provider so that you won’t learn from your customers about your embarrassing language mistakes.

Do you just have to get a Japanese or Chinese tattoo? To avoid having a Chinese tattoo fail at least email us first with your ideas. You want to ensure that you aren’t getting something absurd inked on your body for life.

If nothing else, you can try the following solution:

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Darren Jansen, Business development and content manager for IVANNOVATION has a lifetime love for tech and languages. At IVANNOVATION he helps software developers get professional localization for their apps, software, and websites. On his time away from the office, he can be found hiking the Carolina wilderness or reading Chinese literature.

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