Help me translate an idiom without being an idiot
August 28, 2018 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Japanese Character Tattoo Filter: I’m getting a 3rd tattoo. I would like to have a phrase in Japanese. However I only know the English version and am sure there’s a better translation than the literal Google translate version. I’m open to either translation suggestions or a reliable service you have used and paid for.

The phrase is the title of a book. ... water bears no scars.

(Which is a great book but I can’t find a Japanese version to see how the title is done.)

Some context to help with what this phrase means to me....
This book is based on some Japanese ideas about living and written by an American therapist who is actually quite widely respected in Japan for helping promote a therapy developed by a Japanese psychoanalyst in the 1930s.

It has had an amazing impact on my life. My very first tattoo was the character for water so this phrase, now that I’ve heard it, has a deeper personal for me. I also spent a large part of my life working with an environmental nonprofit I helped found that focused on waterways and their power to survive and thrive is amazing. We do a lot of damage to rivers and creeks but it is repairable, even if they were kind to catch fire in the past.

What I’m looking for is a translation that carries the same meaning but might be less literal than google translate or a dictionary.

The idea is that flowing water doesn’t stagnate and gather weird dead parts. It is literally about “go with the flow” but gosh that’s cheesy.

Is there some kind of Japanese saying or character choice that will better convey this?

Google translate says
Water will not hurt (which is not what I’m going for )

There’s also several characters that mean “scar” and I’m not sure which best carries the meaning I’m looking for.

posted by sio42 to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've searched around the Japanese internet for his books, but strangely enough 'Water Bears No Scars' seems to be the only one that hasn't been translated. Here's the most comprehensive list of his books in translation I could find... click on each link to see the original English title:
posted by JamesBay at 10:36 PM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I highly, highly recommend getting the original English phrase tattooed on you, because that's what has meaning to you and it is in a language you understand. Or maybe you could consult with a tattoo artist on an image that could convey this concept, if you want the tattoo to have a meaning private to you.
If you insist that this has to be in Japanese please please please find a trustworthy native speaker. Do not even think of using Google translate, and don't use the Japanese book title (I found it, and you shouldn't get it tattooed on you under any circumstances, it's just a generic self help book title).
I don't know if it's going to be easy to find someone trustworthy and willing to help you. Many Japanese people don't approve of tattoos in general, and Japanese speakers get hit up for tattoo translations a lot. Speaking for myself, I would never ever try to provide someone with a Japanese phrase or word for a tattoo, not only because I'm not a native speaker, but because I've seen too many pictures of people tattooed with backwards, weird, childish writing. Even if I were some like Japanese poet, there's no guarantee that the tattoo artist won't mess up the characters or put it on backwards or something.
Maybe you should start by trying to find a Japanese tattoo artist where you are with a good reputation willing to work with you.
posted by sacchan at 1:55 AM on August 29, 2018 [41 favorites]

Yeah, I wouldn't trust internet strangers or even native speakers you know on this. Not everyone takes translations very seriously (as evidenced by some of the worse translations even of printed novels I've seen over the years), and this will be on your body permanently. I'm also not sure what the author's supposed respectability in Japan has to do with this; as said above, Japanese people won't respect your tattoo more because of this. Plus, actually, most Japanese people don't just frown on tattoos, but also on psychotherapy.

Nonetheless, I tried to solve your problem with the help of my idiom dictionary and a Japanese husband. We've come up 傷跡を水に流してしまう (kizuato wo mizu ni nagashite-shimau), while mizu ni nagasu means sth. like wiping away or forgetting what was.

I still think it makes a super awkward tattoo phrase, so DO NOT have this tattooed onto you without at least consulting several other Japanese speakers on it.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:52 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'd start here. These are some 4 character sayings that involve 水.
Maybe you can find a suitable one in here somewhere and do some double checking. I think they're less likely to be WRONG BAD TATTOO.

一衣帯水 [いちいたいすい] /(n) (yoji) (being separated only by a) narrow strip of water/narrow strait (channel, river)/
雲水行脚 [うんすいあんぎゃ] /(n) (yoji) itinerant monk being on pilgrimages to many lands/
我田引水 [がでんいんすい] /(n) (yoji) seeking one's own interests/straining (the interpretation or argument) to suit one's own interests/drawing water for one's own field/
鏡花水月 [きょうかすいげつ] /(n) (yoji) flowers reflected on a mirror and the moon reflected on the water's surface/something that is visible but having no substance/the subtle and profound beauty of poems that cannot be described in words/
行雲流水 [こううんりゅうすい] /(n) (yoji) (metaphorically) floating with the tide/
高山流水 [こうざんりゅうすい] /(n) (1) (yoji) high mountains and running water/the beauty of nature/(2) beautifully (skillfully) played music/
山紫水明 [さんしすいめい] /(n) (yoji) scenic beauty/
山容水態 [さんようすいたい] /(n) (yoji) scenic beauty of mountains and streams/fresh and clear beauty of nature's splendor/
水天彷彿 [すいてんほうふつ] /(n) (yoji) view in the distant offing where the sea and skyline cannot be distinguished/
水天髣髴 [すいてんほうふつ] /(n) (yoji) view in the distant offing where the sea and skyline cannot be distinguished/
水平思考 [すいへいしこう] /(n) (yoji) lateral thinking/
千山万水 [せんさんばんすい] /(n) (yoji) many mountains and rivers/a great distance to travel/
千山万水 [せんざんばんすい] /(n) (yoji) many mountains and rivers/a great distance to travel/
泥水稼業 [どろみずかぎょう] /(n) (yoji) making a living in the red-light district/
明鏡止水 [めいきょうしすい] /(n) (yoji) clear and serene (as a polished mirror and still water)/
落花流水 [らっかりゅうすい] /(n) (yoji) mutual love/the love one shows to another person being returned/
posted by zengargoyle at 4:06 AM on August 29, 2018

One reason i would argue against trying to make this work in Japanese is that, to me at least, hiragana and katakana characters (the phonetic alphabets) just don't look that great as tattoos. I mean, they're phonetic symbols, and carry no more meaning than the abc's.

Maybe you're looking for Chinese characters, not Japanese? Having no phonetics, you're looking at all kanji symbols, all the time. If that's what you're hoping for, maybe that might be the way to go. I know there's the Japanese connection to the title, but for the most part, tattoos with hiragana or katakana are really hard to make look good.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:15 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

> I highly, highly recommend getting the original English phrase tattooed on you, because that's what has meaning to you and it is in a language you understand.

Seconded. I've never understood why people want tattoos in languages they don't know, and the proliferation of non-Asian people with Asian-language tattoos has an unavoidably Orientalist look regardless of your intentions. Japanese people who see you with this tattoo won't know about its deep backstory and how meaningful it is to you, they'll just think "Oh, great, another gaijin who thinks kanji are cute/sexy/deep." Please reconsider; if it's in English it causes no problems and is surely more meaningful to everyone.
posted by languagehat at 5:41 AM on August 29, 2018 [16 favorites]

I’m a Chinese-American who sees a fair number of people out and about with Chinese characters tattooed on them. It may be my geographical location, where there are few Chinese or East Asian tattoo artists, but the tattoos rarely look good me, because either the translation is janky, or the lettering is janky and clearly not done by someone who actually knows how to write Chinese and it therefore looks crude. Or both. It’s almost always both.

Also. I’m not Japanese, and I do not know what your ethnic or cultural background is, but from the perspective of a Chinese-American who sees a lot of people with Bad Tattoos — if you do not speak or read a language, and do not have a strong enough personal and cultural tie that you can talk to a person who is immersed in that culture, I’d suggest asking yourself what having the phrase in Japanese adds. If it makes the underlying idea more “spiritual” or “special” or “remarkable”, please ask yourself about whether you’re okay with using an actual living culture of actual living people to give something on your body cultural cachet.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:44 AM on August 29, 2018 [16 favorites]

This is all great info! I wanted in Japanese because I do not want everyone to know what it means just by looking at it. I don’t feel it’s more authentic or anything. It’s a personal love of languages and character based languages and thus just has a personal meaning to me as does wanting it in Japanese. It’s certainly not meant to be exoticizing anything.

However everything that’s been said about the artist not being able to render characters appropriately is helpful and good to know.

I am having these characters as a very small part of a larger image so I think I will just pick a character or two I am confident of the meaning and that are simple. I do have a tattoo of water already (Chinese character used in Japanese also). It’s a very simple character and looks just like the dictionaries.

I really appreciate all the comments here. It’s exactly what I was looking for. I’m gonna go either with very small simple 2 or 3 characters or forego entirely.

posted by sio42 at 8:59 AM on August 29, 2018

If you do not want people to know what it means, and you're averse to English, why not a pictorial representation?
posted by fluttering hellfire at 9:11 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Having it in writing and in a language other than Roman alphabet (and not a made up one like Evlish or something) has a personal meaning for me for a variety of reasons beyond what I’d want to explain here. :)

I hadn’t thought about the aspects others have raised though with regards to how it might be seen by others to use a language not mine.
posted by sio42 at 9:19 AM on August 29, 2018

You could try 川の流れのように. It's a lovely song, too.
posted by JamesBay at 10:38 AM on August 29, 2018

(Because of their connection to organized crime, tattoos are generally scary and taboo in Japan, although "tribal"-style tattoos are becoming popular in the music industry. If people have Chinese characters as tattoos usually it's a wannabe gangster with a Sopranos-level, cringeworthy malapropism of a Buddhist koan or something)
posted by JamesBay at 10:49 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Water bears no scars" is specific, poetic, and the kind of thing that is just never going to have a translation that means what you want it to and is still related to the original thing you're wanting a connection to.

I err very much on the side of "cultural appropriation is a thing that happens and is more often harmless than not" but using Japanese as a secret code is definitely iffy.
posted by Smearcase at 12:09 PM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Evil me says: 水の音


The old pond:
A frog jumps in,—
The sound of the water.

Matsuo Bashō

Why do you have "sound of water/water's sound" written on you.

It bears no scars, always a voice.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:05 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

"I wanted in Japanese because I do not want everyone to know what it means just by looking at it."

What!? Are Japanese people and people who can read Japanese somehow "not everyone?" Even ignoring the problematic aspect of that (also ignoring that poetry is inexorably tied to the language and culture in which it was written), in a practical sense, Japanese is one of the top 10 most spoken languages on Earth, so if you don't want people to immediately know what it means by looking at it, it doesn't make sense to put it in a form that over 130 million people will read it upon sight since it's written in "plain english" to them.
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:23 PM on August 29, 2018 [15 favorites]


水音 [みずおと] /(n) sound of water/EntL2516780/

There are ~150 popular words of 2 characters containing 水.
And ~719 if you include the uncommon.
With 3 characters it's ~57 and ~859

memail if you want lists...
posted by zengargoyle at 1:27 PM on August 29, 2018

it doesn't make sense to put it in a form that over 130 million people will read it upon sight since it's written in "plain english" to them.

TBH, I wouldn't worry about it because a translation of the English is going to border on the nonsensical in Japanese. Japanese readers would be more familiar with yojijukugo. There are a lot to choose from, but they are conventional.

Hard to say, but "water bears no scars" doesn't really sound like a yojijukugo.
posted by JamesBay at 3:46 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes I know lots of people can read it. I’m not an idiot. If I got it in English there’s ALSO a lot of people that canNOT read it. I get it.

I don’t want in the language most people around me can read it where I am most of the time. the few that can I don’t care if they can. I’m not considering using as a secret code like Drink Your Ovaltine. It has meaning to me to do this way and I’m sorry for not thinking through that people would be wildly offended and judge me based on a few small well-researched characters of a language that is, as noted, quite popular, and have them done in a tasteful manner.

I’m trying my best to be inoffensive but seem to have stepped on the wrong things here.

A philosophy and book about it and some personal stuff have led to this decision and I feel I’m being given shit like I’m wearing Native American headdresses and going to Glastonbury.

I have been studying Japanese but not to the extent I could confidently do on my own. I knew there were some Japanese folks who have offered some better context for their responses.

Thanks to be the people who gave actual answers and context without the extra attitude

I’m gonna step away from this thread now. At least the info I got was sufficient to outwin the shittiness.
posted by sio42 at 3:50 PM on August 29, 2018

Look at the question. It asks how to do something "without being an idiot," and people have tried to point out that that is very hard to do. In the event you do come back and look at this, I have a suggestion.

Get the phrase in the original English but make it an element of the design in such a way that you know it is there and can read it but somebody on the train or across a counter from you cannot. Work it into the larger design. Something like writing the outline the character 水 with small font text of the phrase (repeat as needed to complete outline). Incorporates the Japanese image you want. Readable to you. Only readable by someone else if they are very close to you physically / fairly intimate.
posted by Gotanda at 5:09 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

GoblinHoney: "Are Japanese people and people who can read Japanese somehow "not everyone?""

OP lives someplace where all ethic groups outside their top 7 comprise 1/10th of one percent of the population and less than 3000 people. Though obviously Japanese readers aren't restricted to ethnic Japanese it's entirely possible they never encounter someone fluent in written Japanese.

sio42: "I’m trying my best to be inoffensive but seem to have stepped on the wrong things here.

Unfortunately you stepped in a well trod flame war of cultural appropriation in (US?) tattoo culture. It went predictably badly from your first four words.

Note to future foreign language tattoo askers: You'll get more on point answers if you say you want the translation for the title of a book or something.
posted by Mitheral at 9:07 PM on August 29, 2018

> Note to future foreign language tattoo askers: You'll get more on point answers if you say you want the translation for the title of a book or something.

Literally what the OP asked. Doesn't make it not problematic.

OP, if you want an answer to your question from a machine with no opinions, you can ask a machine, but as you noted, this is not what you were after. If you want help from humans with expertise and context, you got it. I'm sorry that you didn't like the advice you received, but your indignant reaction seems...out of sync with the message of your intended tattoo?
posted by desuetude at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2018

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