We’ve all seen it before- an innocent, misguided soul walks into a tattoo parlor with their favorite word or quote translated into a language they are not familiar with. Before they know it, the Chinese symbol for “oven” or meaningless Arabic gibberish is permanently etched on their body. For speakers of these languages, I imagine seeing these tattoos on their peers, on strangers and on celebrities causes some combination of frustration (because their language is being used incorrectly by people who will probably never know what they really have written on them) and entertainment (because it’s sort of like a little inside joke among those who know the language).
One of the first things I learned in my introductory Italian class was the difference between “e” and “è.” “E” in Italian translates to “and,” while “è” translates to “is.” Mixing these two up can completely change the meaning of what you are trying to say. One often quoted Italian phrase is “la vita è bella,” meaning “the life is beautiful.” This is a popular tattoo among both Italian speakers and non-Italian speakers. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is the phrase written as “la vita e bella,” which translates to “the life and beautiful.” Leaving out one simple mark changes the meaning of the whole phrase! Fortunately, this can be easily fixed. Unfortunately, it might take a while for someone to recognize the mistake.
If you’re looking to get a tattoo in a language you’re unfamiliar with, make sure to do a little bit of research on what you want written and on the language you want it written in, or find someone you trust to help you out. Don’t be another person on the long list of foreign language tattoo fails!