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When Translation Isn’t Enough: Lessons Learned from Awkward Kanji Tattoo Fails

Kanji Tattoo Fails and Typeface

Kanji is one of three Japanese writing systems that were adopted from Chinese Hànzì characters. There are about 2,100 regular-use characters in Japanese Kanji and over 8,000 in Chinese Hànzì.

Kanji is a beautifully complex language and each character has its own, unique meaning. That’s one reason it’s perfect for tattoo designs. However, if you Google “Kanji Tattoo Fails,” you’ll see countless awkward tattoos out there. But even these awkward Kanji tattoos can teach us an important lesson about typeface, and translation in general.

01. Typeface matters (It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Planning on getting a Kanji tattoo? You may want to consider this: even if you avoid mistranslation, there’s a chance that your tattoo will look awkward if you don’t use the right typeface. Of course, if you can’t read the language, it can be difficult to choose or distinguish between typefaces. To make matters worse, many of the Kanji tattoo templates available online are created digitally, using basic computer fonts.

awkward kanji tattoo fail
This says “regret” in Kanji and the font is Gothic. Probably not what she had in mind…

02. What can we learn from tattoos gone awry?

Even flawless translation can be ruined by the wrong typeface. When you work as a localization specialist, it’s important to assume that, unless the designer working with you speaks the language, they won’t know how to select an appropriate font. That’s where you come in. It’s much easier to learn the basics of a font on your own than to expect a designer to know the language.

Writers who work in localization have to take responsibility for how we communicate a message to our readers. Written text is visual–typeface is a visual tool that sets the tone and affects how readers perceive the message. There are many different fonts and each has a distinctive feel. In extreme cases, typeface can not only obstruct the message but completely change the meaning.


what we can learn from tattoo fails

Just imagine getting your favorite quote tattooed in Comic Sans. That should give you a pretty good idea of the bottom line here: find a font that matches the meaning of your text.

03. Tips for choosing typefaces

When picking a font, make sure that the typeface you like is compatible with the language. Most standard fonts support special accented characters in Western European languages. However, some fonts aren’t compatible with Eastern European languages such as Czech, Turkish, and Polish. Japanese and Chinese fonts are even trickier since they share similar characters that look almost identical.

Take a look at these, for example:

tips for choosing typefaces

Many graphic designers use the Heiti font in Japanese translations. This is odd since Heiti is a Chinese font, which includes pseudo-Japanese characters. Although Heiti can be used to show characters in Japanese, it looks fake and unnatural to a native speaker.

Localization specialists also need to be familiar with the 4 basic font types: Serif, Sans Serif, Script and Decorative. These styles apply to many Asian languages.

basic kanji font types

04. Keep your own library of fonts

Localization specialists can really benefit by keeping their own libraries of fonts, a tool they can use to help designers when it comes to laying out text. Be sure to check, though, that the fonts you recommend are not copyright protected. Some font designers prohibit the commercial use of their fonts.

"One man's fault is another's lesson."  - Japanese Proverb

So what are the most important things we can learn from awkward Kanji tattoos? Localization specialists need to be visual. It’s important for them to know the basics of typeface, so that they can help designers when it comes to creating visual assets in their language. This is all with the end goal of creating text for users that not only sounds right, but also looks right.

On a more personal note, for anyone thinking of getting a Kanji tattoo, you may want to steer clear of online templates or machine translation. Before engraving yourself–permanently–in a language you don’t read, it’s a good idea to consult with a Japanese speaker who you’re on good terms with.

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Kazu Mori, Japanese Marketing Writer at Wix

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