It is always refreshing to find somewhat of an unorthodox request for translation services land in your inbox.
A few weeks ago, a client asked us to translate a tattoo they had recently had done in Khmer script, fearing he may have been victim to an embarrassing mistranslation such as a restaurant menu rather than a sage proverb.
Straightforward enough, we naively thought. Little did we then know that we would need the help of Buddhist monks in Cambodia.
We were sent a photo of his tattoo, which we immediately recognised as being in Khmer. However, as our translator pointed out, the phrases on the tattoo were in Pali, a sacred and now dead language that has not been widely spoken for more than 200 years.
Currently, it is generally only spoken by Theravada Buddhist monks. Indeed, the language was used by Gautama Buddha for his teachings and was used to write the earliest Buddhist scriptures way back in the first century BC.
The challenge, therefore, was two-fold: First, to translate the Pali words into English and, second, to explain their intended meaning.
Foreign script tattoos
Anyone seeking to get a phrase or proverb in a foreign script inked onto their body knows the risks that they are taking. Mistranslated tattoos – ranging from the unfortunate to embarrassingly hilarious – have been the butt of jokes on the internet for years now. Nevertheless, they remain highly popular.
London and Edinburgh-based tattoo artist Jake Galleon told us that certain languages go through phases of popularity. For example, a few years back, Kanji (Japanese script) used to be the most popular scripture but has since been overtaken by Arabic.
Galleon believes that the popularity of such tattoos rests predominantly on the mystique of Asian scriptures, as well as their aesthetic appeal. This rings particularly true to Western eyes that see the art before the message.
Galleon says he always makes sure that his clients know of the risks they are taking when requesting such a tattoo: “Clients tend to provide the script drawn up, usually by someone they know, like the local Chinese takeaway. I always make sure the client knows the risk of the script not actually translating properly.”
While Galleon has never given a client a mistranslated tattoo himself, he does cite one client of his with a Kanji tattoo that, instead of saying “good luck”, read “good morning”.
Translating a Pali spell
Fortunately, our client did not experience the same embarrassing fate.
By chance, our translator’s wife had monks on her side of the family, to whom she could pass on the photograph of the tattoo. Once he received the Khmer translation he subsequently passed his English translation on to us, as well as its meaning. The verses, as it turned out, were part of a Buddhist spell intended to deflect bullets and confuse evil spirits. The translation reads:
Reverence to All Buddhas, wellness unto me
verence to All Buddhas Re, wellness unto me
to All Buddhas reverence, wellness unto me
All ddhas reverence to Bu, wellness unto me
to All reverence Buddhas, wellness unto me
Our translator explained that the second to fifth lines are intentionally written incorrectly with misplaced syllables. By putting words and syllables in backwards order, evil spirits and bullets are said to also change direction. Furthermore, the symbol at the end of each sentence is often used to denote the end of a chapter or verse. In this case, the symbol also appears reversed at the beginning.
Remember to do your research
Our client was fortunate this time around, but if you are thinking about getting a foreign scripture inked onto your body, be sure to do your research first. And if you are still in doubt, then please feel free to come to us for advice. We have managed to translate a dead language that today is spoken almost uniquely among Buddhist monks, so we are quite confident that we can handle your request, no matter how obscure or rare the language.
Many thanks to our translator who helped us tackle this project and to Jake Galleon who agreed to offer additional information to this story. Be sure to check out Jake’s work on Instagram at @galleontattoo.