Saturday, January 12, 2008

Librarian's Freebie

Everyone has a different opinion about librarians. Some may think they are a bunch stiffy nerds who are addicted to books & obsessive compulsively trying keep everything in order. While, other urban myth has branded librarians as a naughty bunch of nympho sexual freaks.

Few weeks ago I received this photo from a librarian. She got it over ten years ago and thought it mean "to give love". Of course with time, certain phrases in any language would morph astray from their original meaning.

I had a discussion with Alan, my senior Japanese linguistic consultant (I want my "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" back, damn it!), about this and here is our conclusion.

Tian: in Chinese means "to give/pay". To me, this tattoo means "pay(paid) love". What do you think?

Alan: This combination 付恋 is not found in Japanese, so it has no fixed meaning.

I can't think of an instance in Japanese where or 付ける has the meaning of "to give/pay" but it certainly does have lots of meanings. A lot of them have to with adding something, fixing or attaching something to something else. There is one sense where 付け means a "tab" or "bill" at a bar or the like, so it has more of the sense of running up or adding to a bill rather than paying it.

The phrase -付き as a suffix means "with" in the sense of something that comes with something else like an apartment that comes with a garage or a lunch set with coffee.

Perhaps the creator of this tattoo wanted 付恋 to mean "with love" but the character order is wrong for Japanese. This would also not be the normal way to write "with love" anyway, because it would be more like 愛を込めて as a set phrase for this.

Well, I guess it could be interpreted as something like giving love in addition to something else. A "freebie" perhaps? Giving a little love on the side? I don't know.

Tian: The owner of this tattoo is a librarian, and you know the rumors about how naughty those librarians... ;)

Alan: Oh, yeah? You don't say... I thought those librarians were a pretty straitlaced, bookish sort. You'll have to tell me some of those rumors...


  1. Librarians are usually better at research than this tattoo would indicate. An MLS degree mostly teaches one information theory, and the bulk of the job consists of helping people find things. This is a disappointing librarian.

  2. "With love" as 付恋? it makes sense, with and love in the word order for English. The Japanese word order is quite the opposite, same as Turkish. some linguists even put Turkish and Japanese (also Korean) in the same group of a related origin...this is subject to debate of course. "with love" can be written in Turkish as "Sevgiyle" "Sevgi" being "fondness, love" -le being the suffix meaning "with" and y is the letter that you put between the word and this suffix when the root word ends with a vowel.

  3. There's a really REALLY simple way to find out if you're translating something correctly into another language, even if you don't have a friend who's a native speaker. Get a bilingual dictionary and back-translate the translation into the language you started with. If it still makes sense, fine. If it doesn't... "Backstroke of the West".

    I don't know why this doesn't occur to more people.

  4. Xenobiologista, you do make a good point. Back-translation can be useful in some cases, but its usefulness is limited and it does not replace a good review by a knowledgeable native speaker.

    Take this tattoo for example. Let's assume that it was supposed to be a translation of the English phrase "with love" into Japanese. In this case, a back-translation from Japanese gives no meaning for the full phrase 付恋.

    So someone not fully fluent in Japanese might just look up the individual characters in a Japanese-English dictionary, and among all of the meanings of 付 they might just find 付き, which does mean "with." And 恋 is pretty clearly "love." If our back-translator is ignorant of Japanese grammar and word order, they might just take this as confirmation that 付恋 does mean "with love."

    The back-translation would thus give a false sense of security.


  5. My guess is they wanted to get "tsukiai" (付き合い or 付合) meaning "companionship". When we go to the hot springs together we refer to it as "hadaka no tsukiai" (naked companionship).