Mad Dogs and Engrishmen

Back in the days of Anime UK we used to call it Japlish, but far leveller heads have prevailed in the mainstream, and today it is usually known as Engrish. It is an awful, fractured mangling of English, usually found in Japanese instruction leaflets and T-shirts, where someone has had a really good stab at English, but ended up saying something mildly rude or downright ludicrous.

But while we point and laugh at little old ladies with obscene phrases on their T-shirts, we should perhaps wonder what happens when the reverse happens. Believe me when I say it is no urban myth that some oriental tattooists have wreaked a terrible revenge on drunken chavs in their care. I once saw a woman in a Stratford supermarket with Stupid White Bitch written in perfect, permanent Chinese across her shoulders, although she was convinced that it some kind of romantic haiku. What can you say in a situation like that? It’s not like the truth is going to help anyone…

Which brings me to this month’s story – a little glimpse of the world of T-shirt manufacture and Japanese slogans, not in Japan, but right here in the UK. A designer had knocked up a very nice picture of Wolverine fighting the Incredible Hulk, and had decided to throw in their names in Japanese to be cool. To do this, he switched his font to Japanese and simply typed them in. I mean, that was how translation happened, right?

Luckily someone smelled a rat, and decided to run everything past an expert. When they couldn’t find an expert, they came to me, and I snickeringly informed them that the Japanese words on the picture were deliciously random. In fact, according to the legend, they had found a metal-clawed member of the X-Men whose name was apparently Dellabe Pissbarmy, and he was fighting a muscly, green-skinned man called Gaggy Bammy Sauce Swishy Bag-o-bay.

A few emails with the aid of a Japanese word processor, and I had saved everyone’s blushes, although almost immediately I started to feel pangs of Evil Translator Guilt. In order to bring a little joy to the world, surely I should have looked at their mock-up and said: “Yes, that’s absolutely fine.” Better men than I have clearly once been working at Japanese advertising companies and marketing firms, and managed to say with a straight face that Baseball Throw-Up is an ideal T-shirt slogan, as is Sroog: Your Demonstrator Has a PhD For, which I once actually had on a T-shirt and proudly wore all over London.

Broken Japanese, of course, is the common currency of the otaku, and I have long since stopped trying to correct it when it is flung around me like some sort of linguistic dirty protest. I regularly hear anime fans, for example, adding a superfluous honorific in introductions as if addressing themselves, (e.g.: “Call me Derek-chan”) which as my Japanese teacher once memorably explained: “You would only do if you were a bit simple.” But who am I to stop such faux pas from bringing a little joy into the life of the Japanese? I now realise that I really let the side down by not waving through Dellabe Pissbarmy to give all the Japanese tourists a laugh next time they are in London. Oh well, next time…

(This article first appeared in NEO #68, 2010)

7 thoughts on “Mad Dogs and Engrishmen

  1. And this is why I go out of my way not to even try and pronounce a word of someone else’s language, I mean, most of the time I don’t know what I’m saying in English.

    A friend of mine, who was learning Japanese, was out with her sensei when they came across a woman exhibiting a tattoo kanji character across the back of her neck. She told the assembled that it was the Japanese word for “woman”. The sensei smiled and after leaving ear-shot of the group told my friend that the character in fact meant [cough, cough] “whore”. I am told that the two characters are extremely similar (what would I know?). Now whether this character was done accidentally or on purpose, perhaps by some evil translator, we’ll never know. But it does present everyone with a moral dilemma- should you tell the unfortunate person the truth or leave them in ignorance (being bliss)?

    Moral of the story, and why I don’t practice my language skills, stay away from what you don’t fully understand.

  2. Ah the wondrous world of gibberish Kanji tattoos. If you’re all desperate for some photographic proof has been charting, and then trying to translate them for years. They have a handy gibberish font to English chart up too.

  3. Hanzismatter is terrifying, but proof if proof be needed that I am not making this up. Paul, I’m guessing that the character you saw was ?, which is the one I have run into in London adorning the skin of several women who are probably better off living in ignorance.

    I think I shall be returning to the world of ill-advised tattoos in future. In fact, I shall return to it next time someone tells me that I’m too expensive. I shall suggest to the producer in question that we both go and get tattoos, and I’ll select the characters for mine, and his choice can select the characters for his.

  4. Ah – but there’s now a trend for T-Shirts sold in the West aimed at Westerners, to have Engrish on them. I have picked up a couple of shirts from Asda with:

    -“New Japan Authentic Laundry Products” (OK not very Engrish but getting there)


    ‘Go!!! Tokyo Tuna canning Company OK!’

  5. I do think you should tell the person, as they can either cover the tattoo up in future or try to get it converted into some sort of generic design.

    You may assume that the tattooee has been a horrible white bitch when she went into the studio, but it could have been the tattoo artist was simply having a bad day or was just an evil git, and the lady in question was perfectly lovely to the staff and didn’t deserve the tattoo.

    On the other hand, I doubt any victim would believe you if you told them (how many white people can read Japanese/Chinese) and may just have a go at you.

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