Chinese Character Tattoos: Lost in Translation Robert Siegel talks with Tian Tang, author of a Web site dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture. Tang posts photos of Chinese character tattoos that either contain errors or carry no meaning. Tang says as a Chinese American, he felt it was his "duty and honor to educate the public about the misusage of Chinese characters."
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Chinese Character Tattoos: Lost in Translation

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Chinese Character Tattoos: Lost in Translation

Chinese Character Tattoos: Lost in Translation

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

English speakers traveling abroad have had the experience of seeing an English sign or a menu translation from the local language that just misses the mark and produces an entertaining malaprop. Well, think about someone who knows Chinese or Japanese and sees decals on cars and tattoos on professional athletes that actually mean something or they don't mean anything at all. Well, that's the experience of Tian Tang, who is an engineering student in Tempe, Arizona, and who came to this country from China as a high school student. He is now the creator of a Web site called Hanzi Smatter, a Web site that tracks odd uses of Chinese characters in an American context.

Welcome to our program, Tian Tang.

Mr. TIAN TANG (Creator, Hanzi Smatter): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, why don't you tell us what the name of your Web site, which I just mispronounced it badly--actually means?

Mr. TANG: Oh, it's called a Hanzi Smatter. Hanzi is Chinese characters, and the smatter means superficial knowledge.

SIEGEL: A smattering of knowledge about these things.

Mr. TANG: Yes.

SIEGEL: Well, how did you start keeping track of the odd uses of Chinese characters in America?

Mr. TANG: Well, I've seen odd use of Chinese characters since when I first stepped off the plane in 1990, but I did not really start to collect them until 2004, when I took a road trip with a friend to New Mexico, and there was a vehicle--it was a Mitsubishi but had Honda stickers on it, so I took a photo of it and started collecting.

SIEGEL: Were those Japanese kanji characters actually or...

Mr. TANG: Well, the Japanese kanji and the Chinese hanzi are the same.


Mr. TANG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: So somebody who knew what that meant and also could see what Mitsubishi meant in English would find that very funny seeing that on the...

Mr. TANG: Of course.

SIEGEL: Now the first most famous American athlete I remember seeing tattooed with Chinese characters was Marcus Camby, the professional basketball player. What does his body say?

Mr. TANG: I believe he told the interviewers that it was striving for family, but I believe he just placed two independent characters that formed the meaning in English, but to a native Chinese speaker, it doesn't mean a thing.

SIEGEL: So you mean all of those millions of National Basketball Association fans tuning in in China to see Yao Ming and others, they would look at Marcus Camby's body and say, `What's all that about?' What...

Mr. TANG: Yeah, of course. I believe Yao Ming's book, he mentioned about his fellow NBA players and their tattoos, and he didn't have a very good positive thing to say about them.

SIEGEL: I see. Now there are also, of course, many people who are not professional athletes who have gotten tattoos. You've seen lots of them that don't make any sense.

Mr. TANG: Yes, that's correct. A lot of people getting tattooed in the United States or Europe, they say, `You know, so what if I get my character incorrect? And what's up if somebody's going to read it or understand it?' Well, the fact is that there's many Chinese speakers, they can spot the error.

SIEGEL: You have one tattoo on your Web site. Somebody was trying to make it say `bad boy.'

Mr. TANG: Right. But...

SIEGEL: Did he succeed?

Mr. TANG: No, he did not. Two characters were reversed, so to dyslexic Chinese person, that would say `bad boy,' but not to the rest.

SIEGEL: Well, Tian Tang, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. TANG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And there is a link to your Web site, which you can pronounce...


SIEGEL:, at our Web site, Thank you very much.

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