The dangers of amateur translation

Latin tattoos gone awry:

when Latin goes wrong...



Latin tattoos are difficult to create successfully: in fact, attempts to produce them can very easily - and very often - go wrong. Many people have taken into their own hands the translation of English into Latin for a bespoke tattoo rather than having contacted a professional. Just a few examples of the potential chaos and indelible errors that can ensue from using the automatic translators available via Google's perversely incorrect Latin translator, and other bizarre sites are given below.


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Here is the august shoulder of Danielle Lloyd, a 'celebrity' who has sought to bring the prestige of a Latin tattoo to her body, alongside a unique (i.e. unmeaning) Hebraic tattoo (top right). Her press release told journalists that her tattoo meant: "To diminish me will only make me stronger". Alas and alack, only one of these words is correct, namely 'only': tantum. The 'meaning' of what she has actually had inked in is: "As who am I wearing away for myself, I only set (it) down for/on myself, strong man (that I am)?". Interesting and enlightening; at least Ms Lloyd will take strength away from this episode.


Full-chest tattoos are uncompromising: their message is there to be read by an attentive audience, scanning from pectoral to pectoral until the text or torso runs out of space. It is prudent, therefore, to have a tattoo that says something worth pondering - or, failing that, something that actually at least has meaning. Not all agree on this point, as the above confirms: the desired text was presumably 'It is better to live life unseen for who I am than to live life loved for who I am not'; instead, it means 'He is better, as I exist unseen [or hated] for which things I am, than as I exist (and) I love for which things I am not.' Confronted with such verbiage, you are doubtless going to be staring at the chest for some time in deep thought.



Imagine you want a tattoo that expresses the most basic statement of the relationship between two people, i.e. the most sweet and simple assertion "you and me". These are three common words: You - and - me. It is possible, however, to regard this challenge as three gaping pitfalls for error, as this hapless hip has learned. To translate the tattoo: "You [i.e. you lot (=two or more people)] are the thing that is for me", or more literally, "you that/because for me". How could things go so off-track, we may wonder? Here is to be found the quick, and disturbing, answer to that one.


Latin tattoos are good, Ancient Greek tattoos are good; incorrect Latin tattoos written in Ancient Greek letters that happen to look like Latin capitals are quite a different kettle of fish. The owner of the arm above presumably wished to write 'VOLATILIS DEFENDO', which was presumably intended to mean 'Winged defender' or 'Flying guardian' as an angelic reference. Instead the automatic translator has given 'Winged' + 'I defend' (the noun becoming a verb), i.e. 'Being a winged creature I defend'. This has then been transferred into Greek letters as 'VTHLDTPHLPHS DSGSPDTH' (the 'V' and last two 'D's are in Latin script, since Greek could not offer a suitable shape). If you can pronounce this phrase, let alone understand it, you already have powers that transcend the mortal world.





Tattoos are often enigmatic in content, challenging the idle preconceptions of mankind and offering a new perspective on the human condition. When faced with this forearm I (for one) was indeed led to scratch my head and reflect upon a line of thought that was entirely new to me: 'Fodder from - if you will, bile - a hollow from... departure, if you will, odiun.' You can say that again. What is going on here? Robotic translation (where verbs become nouns, phrases become wrongly united or divided, and grammatical chaos reigns) appears to have produced this wretched result from 'Feed me with your anger, pierce me with your hatred'. The verb 'feed' has become tangible animal fodder, 'with your' has become sodes, a colloquial Latin word for 'please' / 'if you will' (or, in older English used by a number of dictionaries, 'with your leave'): is the fate of 'leave' to appear as the noun itus, meaning 'departure', i.e. the act of leaving? odium ('hatred') has lapsed into the mysterious odiun. What is the fate of 'me' (Latin me)? That, along with the rest of this episode, must remain part of the mystery of man. 



"Rest in peace" is a commonplace sentiment among myriad cultures and, as such, is not difficult to express in simple terms, even in Latin. Nevertheless, a dictionary can still be used by those in search of their own novel translation. In this genuinely regrettable instance, words have been cobbled together piecemeal, and the full dictionary entry for 'peace' (i.e. 'pax, pacis' - literally "peace, of peace", where the noun is repeated to elucidate its declension) has led to the insertion of the word twice, which also stand ungrammatically after in. The result? "The thing that has been refreshed by rest in... peace of peace." Say the phrase to a Roman on the street, moreover, and he understands: "That which is now rested in... - Silence, you! - of peace!".





Some people love Aerosmith with such wild abandon that they devote their backs to their lyrics. One such specimen appears above, consecrated to the haunting refrain from their 1973 Dream On: "Sing for the laugh, sing for the tear". The tattoo certainly conjures up one of these emotions, as half of the words are wrong and, as it stands, it can only mean, if pro has the same meaning in both lines: "I am singing - alas! - smile! I am singing - alas! - tear". cane ad risum, ad fletum cane. Indeed, Tyler.




'Know thyself' was the maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has served as the cornerstone of the western philosophical tradition: the Greek (gnothi seauton) is regularly rendered as nosce te ipsum (as above). Whereas this is unobjectionable as a general order to the hypothetical individual, one might think that a back-width tattoo about self knowledge would reflect the owner's knowledge of their own gender: ipsum can only refer to a man. To the tattoo owner (if this is not already known) we may advise for the future nosce te ipsam.




Big arms (for arm it is) require big talk, and there is little bigger than a call for war. The phrase 'If you want peace, prepare for war' is adapted from the military strategist Vegetius' 'he who longs for peace should prepare for war' (qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum). Yet the Latin motto is si vis pacem, para bellum: the tricipital declaration above instead reads 'You want peace in this way; prepare for war'. The idea may be similar but the reader (you or me) is now compelled to set about preparing for war.




Latin having been the language of the Christian Church for almost two millennia, its established phrases are well known: turn to almost any source, in print or online, and the Trinitarian formula ('In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/Spirit') can be found in any language, including Latin: in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Whatever you do, however, do not base your phrase upon the mishearing of the Latin formula looping as a sample in a German techno/trance track . Truth and Fairness require that we translate the Latin above: E nomini patri, e fili, e spiritu sancti can only mean 'From to the name to the father, from of the son, from the spirit of the saint'.






Everyone, by contrast, knows the word 'Amen', whether religious or not. Yet sometimes this word pops up in surprising circumstances: all great David Beckham devotees dream of recreating his gallimaufry of inked glory over their bodies, and several of his tattoos have been replicated thousands of times around the world. One of the least innocuous is his parental pledge 'to love and cherish', ut amem et foveam, on his left forearm. The recreation above is close but cigarless: amem reads as amen: 'so, truly, I will also cherish' or 'so I will also cherish the truth'. Amen.





This is a Latin tattoo inspired from a Harry Potter spell: crucio, 'I am tortured'. This may be true - and it is certainly correct Latin. But we may tentatively opine that something has nevertheless gone wrong here...


What, then, is the obvious moral of this series of mistaken Latin tattoos? As fashionable as Latin (and Ancient Greek) tattoos are, they are still very much worth checking with someone who knows the Classical languages well before inking them into skin. With this task Classical Turns would be pleased to help, and further information about assistance can be found on the page for Latin tattoo translation. For any Latin tattoo request, information can readily be provided regarding Latin tattoo fonts, lettering, styles of writing, images and all matters of their appearance, as well as help regarding the choice of Latin phrases and mottoes.


For yet more unfortunate examples of mistaken Latin tattoos and meanings, try visiting here and here. Alternatively, you can search for yourself and see plenty of results via Google, Yahoo or Bing. In no circumstances should the Google Latin Translator be trusted for tattoos!




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