When I say that I carve seals the first thing most people think of is the furry mammal that lives in the water, the smaller relation to the sea lion, rather than the ancient Chinese art of words or pictures carved into a hard material (usually stone), then pressed into red ink and stamped on artwork. The trouble is in the translation. In Chinese there’s one word, yin 印, which has no other meaning than “seal.” But if you look in the English dictionary a seal can have many meanings, ranging anywhere from that flippered marine animal to a verb or noun with any one of a number of connotations. Think, for instance, of a “seal of approval” or maybe “seal it with a kiss.” Some people call them “chops,” but that brings to mind everything from karate chops to pork chops. We might use the word “stamp” instead, but that’s not much better—although a lot of seals are postage stamp size.
To make matters worse, is it carving, cutting, or engraving a seal? I suppose carving should actually refer to the decoration on top of a seal—often lions or dragons in the gift shop versions. Engraving is a term which I associate with a totally different art in the western world, and isn’t a word the person on the street is necessarily familiar with. And in China the artist who cuts the words or picture into the bottom of the seal may not be the same person who decorates the top of the piece. So should it be seal cutter for the bottom and seal carver for the top? And what for the artist who does it all?
Maybe we should just use the Chinese word and get used to explaining it every time. What do you think?