I normally wouldn’t comment on such things, because other websites already do such an excellent job of it, but I decided to write about this particular debacle because of its reportedly actual translation.

So I found this webpage that allegedly described three major [Chinese] tattoo mistranslations. However, the investigative journalism enshrined in that page was of such eye-wateringly low quality, it really blew my mind. In any case, one of them contained the following Chinese tattoo: 夕丑男, which the owner reportedly thought meant “love, honour, and obey”. Allegedly, however, the “real” meaning is “at the end of the day, this is an ugly boy”.

And while I can’t exactly say that this translation is completely off, I can definitely fault it. For one, this translation is far too idiomatic, and implies way more than three mere morphemes could possibly do. Secondly, it’s not even accurate. In fact, the “actual” Chinese is equally nonsensical, and requires some pretty creative heuristic talent to derive any meaning at all. But let’s go word for word, and see what we can discover. For austerity, I should mention that neither of the two-character combinations form idiomatic compounds. That is, neither 夕丑 nor 丑男 are established compounds.

1. 夕 ~ evening; dusk; night
This is a time of day. It’s never used alone as a time adverb in modern Chinese, and even in Classical Chinese it would require an additional time-adverbial marker. It can never mean something like “in the end; afterall; when all’s said and done”, whether by itself, or even with the aid of an adverbial marker.

2. 丑 ~ (1) clownish; ugly; (2) second Earthly Branch (the ox)
The second definition is exceedingly rare, and is only even being considered because “the hour of the ox”, an ancient Sino-Japanese way of telling time, was 1~3am, which cognitively close to the preceding character 夕(evening). Overwhelmingly, the most common usage for it nowadays is “clownish”; gaudy; ugly.

3. 男 ~ man; male
This one probably had the most success in the aforementioned translation. However, the ostensible omission is the one actually used: “boy”. 男 has no specific implications of youth.

So what we actually have is either something like “late-evening man” or the awkward “evening ugly man” (which, believe you me, is equally awkward in Chinese). It neither works as a clause, nor as a noun phrase.

Unfortunately, I was never able to track down the original text. The aforementioned website did contain a scanned image of the newspaper, containing the date, newspaper name, and author, but the newspaper’s online archives, though they stretch that far in date, did not contain the article. The author’s name was genuine, and does still contribute to that newspaper, so it seems at least to be a legitimate (and possibly retracted) article from a genuine newspaper.

As for the phraseology of the tattoo itself, I couldn’t find any evidence that the three characters were derived from some gibberish “alphabets” that maps English letters to Chinese characters, that sino-illiterate suckers sometimes use to “translate” their [lovers’] names. So we can rule that out as a possibility at least. Even working from the original intended “love, honour [and] obey”, it must have been an exceedingly inferior tattoo stencil that would so erroneously append those three attributes to the above-noted logographs.

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