Lost in Translation

I have been doing freelance translation and interpretation for year. I enjoy doing it a lot, specially when it involves helping people like interpreting for someone going to the doctor, or when translating a progress report to a parent from a school. It is not an easy job, and it has a lot of responsibility involved with it because you can very easily confuse or offend someone.

I also do informal translating once in a while, translating a song for someone that wants to know the meaning of something that sounds good to them, or a love letter for a couple that only have the language of love in common. Those are a little more fun to do sometimes.

The interesting thing is that I did not get into translation and interpreting because of me being bilingual, the strong pull came from having a friend during high school that was deaf. We did TTY a couple of times and it amazed me that someone would actually act as a conduit for a couple of teenager’s conversation. That friendship also lead me to wanting to learn ASL and becoming an interpreter of that language also. That goal is kind of in the back burner at the moment, but I am pretty sure that I will some day pick it back up again.

Recently I helped someone online with a couple of simple phrases. They chat in a couple of international rooms and they wanted to have something on their profile that was understood by the Spanish audience. Then I got an email from them that really got my brain going.

Being interested in tattoos and Asian cultures I have plenty of times considering getting either Kanji or Chinesse symbols as part of a tattoo. Then I discovered the complexity of the languages and the symbols. There is no such thing as a Chinesse alphabet, and a lot of the symbols are attached to a meaning rather than a letter. There is also the whole tone and other variations of meaning, honorifics, enough things to make you question your sanity about really wanting to learn one of the Asian languages.

Then I heard about the urban legend of an Asian tattoo artist tattooing people with the word “whore” and it made me even more weary about getting something in a language I don’t know on my body. You place a huge amount of trust on the person providing you the information so if you want to get one of those tattoos, please make sure you research it.

That is what the person that I was translating stuff for was going to do, or actually a friend of them. They were going to get a tattoo of some Spanish words that were a direct translation of a simple phrase in English. The problem is that the direct translation in Spanish does not have the same meaning, it actually made no sense. I am glad they inquired before getting it, and in the end they will get whatever feels right for them, but it really opened my eyes to getting a tattoo of a symbol from a language I don’t know very well. Then again, the prayer from Boondock Saints in Latin still seems like an awesome tattoo.

4 comments on “Lost in Translation

  1. I have 4 kanji characters on my upper left arm. They have a meaning together of brotherhood. I got them myself from 1 website, but used several others to verify the individual meanings of the characters. It took over 6 months before I was comfortable that it did not say “stupid fucking gaijin” Eventually my brother and I both got the characters on us on the same night.

    I wish my Spanish were stronger. I am not even really conversational anymore, let alone literate. My brothers skills are still strong tho.

    I’d like to congratulate you on working with people to translate their important documents. It’s fairly intricate reading in English some times, and it is reassuring to know that there are people really putting the effort into it.

  2. I have two tattoos in English. One says “Mason” and one says “Bailey”. I’m fairly certain these words mean what what I think they mean. =P

    In b4 “that guy is an ass!”

  3. My ad classes were filled with examples of marketing snafus in poor translations and how it backfired on the product — like for the Chevy Nova, no one would buy it since it means “no go” in Spanish. but at least those can be retracted and replaced, unlike a tattoo. My Ex got a chinese character on his chest one night when he was drunk. He said the guy told him it means “tranquility” but I’m guessing that’s B.S.

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