I am a sophomore in college, working toward an Asian Studies major. Since I started learning Japanese and Chinese, I began noticing Chinese characters on T-shirts, tattoos and other places. I know many common words and a few not-so-common ones.
One day, I talked with a nice lady who had a tattoo on her upper arm. When I mentioned my major, she brought up the tattoo, but I quickly realized it didn't say what she thought it did. She told me it said "butterfly," but it actually meant bird. I didn't point this out, but felt guilty.
Another time, a man told me the tattoos on his forearms said "love" and "hate." "Love" was correct, but the other character said "bad."
Sometimes I see shirts with entirely nonsense phrases. And some places that offer temporary tattoos have listings wrong, like switching "heart" and "love", or writing the two-character "peace" with just one symbol, which means "flat'" or "smooth".
I know there's no tactful way to approach a stranger, but if I'm talking to someone, is there a way to point out how I read the character?
Please explain to your readers the importance of being sure what a character says before buying a shirt or getting it etched into their skin.
The key word here is "before." While Miss Manners appreciates your desire to rescue people from the danger of being misread, your instinct about not correcting the would-be Madame Butterfly was even kinder. What exactly would you have expected her to do about it?
One rule about correcting others is to do so only if the error can be easily and immediately remedied - the Spinach on the Tooth rule. Another is you not shame innocent people by showing you know more than they do.
Translations are not always one-on-one, and correctors are in danger of encountering more knowledgeable correctors.
Address your etiquette questions to Miss Manners, c/o the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.