You might (reasonably) believe that embarrassing foreign language tattoos are a trend that mostly died in the early 2000s, but we’re here to let you know that people are still busy memorializing their mistranslated tattoo fails on their bodies forever — and there are some fairly high-profile celebrities included in that cohort.
This practice has old roots, and it arguably extends beyond tattoos themselves. It was once considered fashionable to embellish medieval and Renaissance art with Arabic text that basically translated to gibberish.
Though this makes for easy laughs, not everyone agrees that foreign language tattoo fails are a “bad” thing. Arabic professor Kevin Blankinship believes there’s something significant about the way we reach for meaning in languages we’re unfamiliar with, even if, yes, it can be appropriative to commodify a language you couldn’t be bothered to run through spell-check.
“People risk embarrassment because foreign-language tattoos give them a permanent invitation to contemplate cultures and ideas beyond their own,” Blankinship writes in The Atlantic. “That effort can still succeed, even if the tattoos have errors…To gain access to something ‘foreign’ is, in a grander perspective, to go beyond one’s own locality, to resist the accident of circumstance, to expand the boundaries of self-perception. It is to discover oneself in something wholly unlike oneself.”
Though this still doesn’t make a great case for getting a foreign language tattoo that hasn’t been carefully vetted by a native speaker, it’s a good perspective. And, just maybe, it’ll make you appreciate the following tattoo fails that much more.
1. Let’s start with the most famous tattoo flub of recent memory: Ariana Grande’s kanji catastrophe. The singer attempted to get “7 Rings,” the name of her single, tattooed in Japanese on her palm. Unfortunately, her tattoo said shichirin (七輪), which means “barbecue grill.” She attempted to correct it by adding an additional kanji, but all that accomplished was making her tattoo read “barbecue grill finger.”
Why… how… now Ariana’s tattoo reads “Japanese BBQ finger” 💅 pic.twitter.com/zC2LxSKJtI
— Eimi Yamamitsu | 山光瑛美 (@eimiyamamitsu) January 31, 2019
2. In a Reddit thread of poorly translated Chinese and Japanese tattoo examples, one user reported a sighting of a man who thought his tattoo said “I love my grandson.” It actually translated to “I love fat boys.”
3. One Chinese tattoo sighted in the wild was adopted by a woman who thought they meant “eternal happiness.” On the contrary, 足 and 菌, separately, translate roughly to “foot” and “fungus.”
4. There are multiple cautionary tales rolled into one here, and “don’t get your significant other’s name tattooed on your back” isn’t even the most compelling one. One girl translated “I love [insert boyfriend’s name here]” into Hebrew using free online translation software and brought it to her local tattoo shop. Now she has a back tattoo that says “Babylon is the world’s leading dictionary and translation software” in Hebrew.
5. One woman believed her Japanese tattoo meant “inner power.” Unfortunately, ハンバーガー, pronounced hanbaga, actually means “hamburger” in English.
6. This Hebrew tattoo shows why you should never assume words retain their meaning when you combine them together — or vice versa.
— Ryan’s Ruminations (@Ryan__Hyman) September 8, 2016
7. The best tattoo fails are only realized later in life — well after you’ve made the decision to get random Japanese characters inked on your body for purely aesthetic reasons. One woman had 大過 tattooed on her shoulder during her teenage years. Fittingly, it translates to “serious error; gross mistake.”
8. In perhaps the most meta example of foreign language tattoo fails we’ve seen, one man asked to get “lover of Asian beauty” tattooed on his arm in Chinese. In reality, he got branded as a “foreign pervert” (and it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think it might have been an intentional move on the artist’s part). Justice does prevail sometimes.
9. Rihanna can generally do no wrong, but she’s flubbed at least two foreign language tattoos. She had “forgiveness, honesty, suppression, and control” — a popular Sanskrit prayer — tattooed on her side. But it was misspelled, so the actual tattoo reads something closer to “‘long suffering, truthfulness, self-restraint, inward calm, fear and fearlessness.” She also has rebelle fleur tattooed on her neck, which is supposed to mean “rebel flower” in French but technically translates to “flower rebel.”
10. Another compelling case for why you should always get a second opinion: one girl asked the restaurant staff at her favorite local Chinese spot to write down the translation for “free spirit.” She later met a Cantonese speaker who broke the news to her that, having misheard her, they wrote the translation for “free spare ribs” instead. Unfortunately, it was already permanently etched on her body.