Do some Googling on Chinese tattoos and you’ll quickly come across horror stories. Last year a story surfaced of a tattoo artist in Sao Paulo, Brazil arrested for tattooing a client with characters translating to “Chicken Noodle Soup” instead of a sentimental quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.
Fortunately, there is an app for that. Waygo is a wonderful new app that acts as an instant visual translator for Chinese and Japanese — and the amazing thing is, it works OFFLINE! It’s as easy as pointing your phone at Chinese text to understand if you didn’t get the tattoo you wanted. Thankfully it also works for menus, signs, and just about anything for adventuring all over China.
Bad Chinese translations litter the backs and forearms of westerners to our amusement. For example, a common mistake is the word for freedom. People get the two characters inked onto a lower back: 空闲. While 空闲 (kòngxián) means “free,” it’s the “free” that means you’re not busy, as in “you’re available to hang out for lunch.” People likely intended to get “free” as in “freedom,” which would be 自由 (zìyóu). Waygo translates the two different “free” words:
You’d be surprised how often incorrect Chinese characters are forever inked on someone’s body. In order to ensure your foot or back isn’t the victim, we recommend you follow this four-step test.
1. First off, make sure at least one—but preferably several—native Chinese readers inspect the design to ensure the characters are correct.
2. Next, decide if you’d like the tattoo in simplified or traditional characters. While neither option is more correct than the other, you should know that you have an option. Most people choose traditional characters because they are more elaborate, and perhaps considered more beautiful, but it’s really a personal preference. Whichever you choose—simplified or traditional—make sure all of the characters in your tattoo are either one or the other, not a mixture. For example, these are the two different characters for love:
3. Find a tattoo artist that knows how to write Chinese characters. If the artist goofs up a single stroke, it can entirely change the meaning of a character. For example, these characters all differ from one another just by a single stroke, but each yield different meanings: 大 丈 尢 犬 太 尤 六 . To a tattoo artist who has never studied Chinese, the differences are difficult to see and seemingly insignificant. To the Chinese speaker, the differences are definitely 大 (dà), or big.
These characters were either drawn by someone who has not studied Chinese writing or has the handwriting of a child.
4. Test With Waygo.
While Waygo cannot read vertical text, you can translate the characters one by one.
Highly stylized text is difficult for the app to translate. If you don’t have a Chinese friend nearby, you can always take a picture and post it to Waygo’s Facebook wall — and the humans there would be happy to help you out!
Waygo can (usually) translate tattoos with horizontal text with normal font:
In conclusion, if you’re unable to complete the four steps of the above test, we recommend waiting. This is a test that you definitely don’t want to score poorly—the 75% score doesn’t mean you’re taking home a “C” on your report card, it means you might end up with 鸡汤面 (jītāngmiàn), or Chicken Noodle Soup, forever inked on your arm.