Tattoos in Native Tongues

You’ve seen them, those tattoos that people sport featuring words or characters in a language other than one in which they are fluent.  You may even have one yourself.  I’m telling you, though, that’s a mighty dangerous path to tread.

Leaving aside questions of cultural appropriation and exoticization (and there is some potentially rich academic soil to till about this issue), what I’m talking about is the plain and simple, practical reason to not get a tattoo in a language you don’t read: It may end up being incorrect.

Now, I know someone to whom this happened.  Because of that, I realize that bright, intelligent, thoughtful people can make that mistake.  And because I know that readers of this blog are equally bright, intelligent and thoughtful, I’m providing you this warning: Don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t read!

Don’t believe me?  Let’s consider this object lesson:

Thai Tattoo

My friend Jack is a Thai who lives in the American midwest.  Note that this is not a picture of Jack’s back.  While he was on holiday, Jack spotted a young caucasian man with this tattoo and curious, asked him about it.

It seems that the young man, a native of Springfield, Missouri, was a basketball player and he went on some program to Thailand where he played ball with Thai high schoolers and spoke to them about basketball and life in the U.S.  Returning to Springfield, the young man decided to get a tattoo, using Thai script.

So far, so good.  Glad to hear that Thailand made such a positive impression on him that he wanted to immortalize the Thai language on his skin.

The problem is two-fold:

First, there are two spelling mistakes.  The words ไม and อยาง are both missing accent marks  They should be ไม่ and อย่าง.  As a tonal language, the use (or absence) of a tone mark can often alter the meaning of Thai words.  In this case, the misspelling does not change the meaning but simply makes the words incorrectly spelled.

Second, the phrase doesn’t say what he intends it to say.  Based on the cross, I guessed he wanted the Christian phrase, “You will never walk alone.”  When I asked Jack, he confirmed that this was the young man’s understanding of how the tattoo read.  Jack, being Thai and characteristically too polite to embarrass someone, didn’t tell him that the tattoo says something else entirely.

The phrase reads khun ja mai duhn piang yang diaw, which means “You will never just only walk” – in other words, you will walk while doing something else at the same time, perhaps chewing gum or humming or whistling.

No word on how the young man managed to get this incorrect translation.  My guess is he thought it would be cool and asked someone he met in Thailand – someone who doesn’t understand English well enough – to write the phrase in Thai.  Given what I’ve learned while living here, I can see how “alone” could have easily been misunderstood as “only just”.

So let this be fair warning to you, your friends or family members.  If you or someone you love is planning on getting a tattoo, stick with a language you can read so you are 100% certain that the tattoo says what you think it says.

That’s today public service message.  Cheers.


0 thoughts on “Tattoos in Native Tongues

  1. LOL! I know many such stories and they mostly revolve around Asian languages like Chinese, Thai etc where the absence of a single stroke can drastically change the meaning of the word.

  2. This reminds me of an entrepreneur in Miami who wanted to capitalize on a visit by Pope John Paul II by selling t-shirts emblazoned with “I saw the Pope”. This being Miami he figured Spanish was the right language and so his t-shirts read “Yo vi a la Papa” which literally translates into “I saw the Potato”. I guess he forgot Papa for Pope is always masculine (the phrase should be “Yo vi a el Papa”) and the fact that the word ends in an “a” does not imply it’s a feminine subject. Oh well … I guess he got a tax deduction from donating all of his inventory to a charity.

  3. bahahahahahahahaHAhahaha! That’s hilarious. It’s popular among the Greeks at my school to get Chinese/Japanese script. Part of me hopes that what they’re getting isn’t what they intend since they never follow-up, and since its hilarious.

  4. yikes! i’ve often wondered how many people actually know what their tattoos say. i’ve seen a similar thing, although it wasn’t a tattoo — someone thought it would look pretty to hang up a string of mini paper lanterns, except they all had the chinese character for “taste” on them so it was a weird way to decorate a room!

  5. Haha~you’re very right about Thai languages and their tonal nature, one single word has multiple meanings, somewhat similar to Chinese. Learning Thai is indeed very complicated to me, so far, I only managed to read and write the numerical characters.

  6. check this blog out!it is dedicated to the misuse of Chinese funny! always matter too!Commonly people will want to put their Chinese zodiac sign on their body as a tattoo. We all know Rooster is one of the 12 possible signs.Yet the character for Rooster by itself without context but only on a lady as a tattoo can easily mean something else as a slang… WHORE.Hound and Boar also have nasty connotations in different context… oh well.

  7. I see that all the time with Chinese character tattoos…Oh…the horror stories I could tell…There are some evil, evil Chinese people out there that play with homonyms and homophones…

  8. I guess this is the Thai equivalent of Engrish. Perhaps one day we’ll all have telepathic tattoos so the meaning will always be conveyed correctly. This of course makes no guarantees about the owner of the tattoo’s intelligence, correct translation or not!

  9. @Dezinerdreams – @TheLatinObserver – @yang1815 – @secade – @TheCheshireGrins – @kunhuo42 – @CurryPuffy – @ZenPaper – @murisopsis – @Wangium – @dynamiqvision – @minhaners – Thanks, everyone, for the comments, links, and personal experiences.  I’ll share one more with you:When I was in university, I shot this short film that was a series of interviews with people suffering from AIDS.  One man I interviewed had been a tattoo artist for a Hell’s Angels group.  His body was covered with tattoos.  After spending several hours interviewing him about his experience with AIDS (this was in the early 1990s), as we were saying our goodbyes he gave me this advice: Never get a tattoo for two reasons – first, you’ll never be able to stop with one; second – they’ll look terrible when your body is no longer youthful and fit.It is advice I’ve taken to heart.

  10. Oh you have forced to me comment, you naughty man. I love my tats, the only reason I don’t have more is the line of work I’m in and the fact that the next one I get I want to be something about the man I’m involved with and he wisely won’t give it a green light until we have been involved for longer than we have now. That being said, I have a tattoo in Thai, it is spelled correctly, thank the lord. I know this because Thai people always read it to me and comment on it. My tattoo says jing jai, sincere, and not jing joo, kangaroo, which always makes me thankful to the man who gave it to me. It is in a strange place on my body to a Thai person, above my ankle on the inside of my right leg, but once they speak to me, they seem to accept that I’m just an odd American, meant no disrespect and all my other tattoos usually endear me to them, or my crappy Thai, or my chubbiness and understanding of the culture. I have to admit I have lied to non-Thais about what the tattoo says and means, if only people that were irritating me.That being said, I saw a tattoo when I lived in America that was in Hebrew that was wrong. The girl was not Jewish, which must be said as Jews are not allowed to get tattoos. I myself will not be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of my ink. Sorry to be so long winded. The point is, she wanted a tattoo that said snow, and had a tattoo that said cold. Not horribly off, but humorous none the less. So check first. And yes, they are horribly addictive.Love from Oz

  11. @Aussiegirl – Thanks for your perspective and I look forward to seeing you next month.@Wangium – And it is all but guaranteed that as you get old, there will be some sagging!  Of course, there are nip and tuck ways to keep the canvas tight.  LOL@yang1815 – Good reason.  Of course you have several decades left…

  12. I have a really humorous story about a much less than fluent Thai speaker ( that would be me!!) using the wrong tone in a word with a VERY embarrassing outcome…I Will have to share it with you at a later time. Or maybe I will write a blog about it…if I don’t mind shocking the other little old ladies that read my blog!!! I am going to have Pat read your tattoo…see if he can spot the mistake. Ruth Ann

  13. ugh that really sucks. it’s always funny to see people with chinese characters that are really poorly written, or otherwise don’t make any sense whatsoever. i really want to get a tattoo (i know what i want already) but like u said, i am afraid that i wouldnt be able to stop after one. after i got my ears pierced i just kept piercing them and now i want more. in fact, i almost got another one today.. haha. i’ve been thinking about this one for a long time though. at least i haven’t started on any other parts of my body, otherwise who knows what’ll happen x_x

  14. @Redlegsix – One of the most common mistakes I make in Thai is the word for “to ride” as in “to ride an elephant”.  Sadly, with another tone, it means “excrement”.@tdalch – I thought you might like my choice of books.  Actually, that is the book I used for a bit of learning before moving here.  As for the addictive nature of body modification, I can relate.  I eventually had three piercings in one ear and one in the other ear before finally decided I was over the pierced ear look.@NikBv – Now, that is a practical approach.@mycontinuity – Thanks for the comment.

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