December 16, 2008

A stuffy scientific journal accidentally prints an ad for a strip club on the cover of its journal.

Like those idiots with their tattoos, the Max Planck Institute was seduced by the allure of Chinese characters:
Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming "Hot Housewives in action!" on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their "enchanting and coquettish performance" was highly recommended....

The Max Planck Institute was quick to acknowledge its error explaining that it had consulted a German sinologist prior to publication of the text. "To our sincere regret ... it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker," the institute said in an apology. "By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers."...

Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken.
Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken? Mark Liberman says:
I guess this is true, if you add an appropriate qualification: "Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same (to people who don't pay attention to tone) can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken"....

But what's really puzzling about this sentence is not its misleading way of describing lexical tone, but rather the implication that Chinese tone is somehow relevant to MPI's unfortunate choice of cover art. Remember that the editors of the Max Planck Forshung apparently couldn't read Chinese, and their expert advisor, asked to find a typical bit of Chinese text to put on the cover, apparently subverted their intent by choosing a strip club ad. However, the fact that Chinese is a tone language is completely irrelevant to all this — exactly the same thing could have happened with material in Japanese, or Korean, or Hindi, or Arabic. For that matter, it could have happened with Hungarian or Swahili or another language written with the Latin alphabet — all that's required is some written material that the editors can't read.
I think the writer of the newspaper article was trying to provide cover for the Institute -- for whatever reason. But his attempt at empathy was inane. A better approach would have been something about ancient, admirable poetry that really is about sexy dancers. If you're inclined toward empathy, that is.

(More about tattoo foolery at the Liberman link.)

49 comments:

Hoosier Daddy said...

Like those idiots with their tattoos, the Max Planck Institute was seduced by the allure of Chinese characters:

Are you referring to idiots who don't know what they're tattoo means or that they're idiots for getting tattoos?

peter hoh said...

Back in college, my Chinese roommate gave me a T-shirt that, according to him, meant "Number One" in Chinese. One of the Japanese students told me that, in Japanese, the characters represented "First Time."

AllenS said...

Obviously, you're better off with just a picture of something, like a battleship.

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

I had the most fucked up dream last night.

I dreamed I moved to Mineral Point and purchased a Round Barn that was converted into the house. It was spacious. But what I did was use it as a refuge for gay horses. The horses actually lived in the Round Barn with me. There were like ten of them and they were really queeny. They didn't speak but they had really queeny "manes" which were feathered and dyed and spiked. The gay horses played scribbage, read the newspaper, danced and drew paintings in the Round Barn.

The town was furious about this and I had to go before the town hall. The town did not want to be thought of as the town for gay horses.

It was all really weird.

tjl said...

This incident is too perfect to have been an accident.

The sinologist must have deliberately chosen the poem to give the stuffy scientific journal a transgressive, Regietheater jolt. And it worked. The image of the Max Planck Institute will never be the same.

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

When the gay horses galluped they really swished their asses.

downtownlad said...

Exactly. What the hell does tone have to do with it? The Chinese words that sound the same (except for the tone) actually have different characters!

Jason said...

All your housewives are belong to us.

www.engrish.com

TMink said...

With my advanced and supreme court bound empathy, I can feel not only the chagrin of the cover editor, but the schadenfreud of the trickster who perpetrated the act, and the irritated bemusement of our hostess at those who would minimize the gaffe.

Trey

Darcy said...

Hilarious. But aren't they pretty, though? ;-)

Bissage said...

Speaking of Chinese characters, I once knew a guy who was over here studying computer science. He was always saying off-the-wall kind of stuff and just about everyone thought he was really weird.

Not me, though. I thought he was a nice guy . . . just misunderstood. He liked to play practical jokes with firecrackers. What a character!

SteveR said...

I still haven't forgiven Max Plank for having to use his constant in college, a number which still occupies some of my rapidly diminishing brain cells, thirty years later.

And don't get me started on Avogadro.

siyeh pass said...

Language is a funny thing. A German sinologist? Maybe getting a second opinion (or going there first) from a native 'Chinese' linguist would have been worth the phone call.

J said...

Enough with the empathy, inane or otherwise. I can't read Chinese - does the cover mention the address of this "Hot Housewives" place? Please tell me gay horses aren't part of the act.

MadisonMan said...

Hey, English is a tonal language as well. I lost count of the number of times in seventh grade that I sang I'd like to build the world a home, and furnish shit with love.

Tibore said...

Laughing. Out. LOUD.

This sort of mistake is distressingly common. A man was disgruntled enough to start a blog about such errors:
http://www.hanzismatter.com/

And yes, the Max Planck cover is mentioned. But check out one of the most egregious "errors", this by someone overly trusting the tatoo artist to get things right:
http://www.hanzismatter.com/2004/10/crazy-diarrhea.html

To get the joke, realize that the tatoo is a "tramp stamp", i.e. it's placed in the small of the back, right above the person's rear end.

Tibore said...

" downtownlad said...
Exactly. What the hell does tone have to do with it? The Chinese words that sound the same (except for the tone) actually have different characters!


Yes, DTL is right. That is a lame explanation.

Zach said...

What a jerk move by the unnamed "German sinologist". I help Chinese speakers with their English all the time, and I've never felt the temptation to slip in a little Engrish.

Note to self: when working in the most hierarchical and seniority-based academic environment in the world, don't publicly embarrass the Max Planck Institute.

Tibore said...

For posterity's sake, the Hanzi Smatter blog says that this was the translation of the first Planck mag cover:

With high salaries, we have cordially invited for an extended series of matinées

KK and Jiamei as directors, who will personally lead jade-like girls in the spring of youth,

Beauties from the north who have a distinguished air of elegance and allure,

Young housewives having figures that will turn you on;

Their enchanting and coquettish performance will begin within the next few days.

EDH said...

Titus’s Dream?

Tibore said...

This part of the apologia cracks me up:

""To our sincere regret ... it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker..."

"Deeper levels of meaning"... Okay. Well, I guess the line reading "Young housewives having figures that will turn you on; Their enchanting and coquettish performance will begin within the next few days" could've on the surface meant a burlesque show (*rolls eyes*).

jayne_cobb said...

A general rule of thumb that I go by is that if I wouldn't want it written on me in English, I sure as hell am not going want it on me in a language I can't understand.

I mean honestly, would you want the word "fire" written on your shoulder? Because that's exactly what it looks like to those who actually understand the language you chose.

I never quite understood why people seem to think that something is cool simply because it's foreign; it just always struck me as somewhat bizarre.

Palladian said...

"...it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker..."

This whole story is wrong on so many levels...

siyeh pass said...

I'd like to build the world a home, and furnish shit with love.

Or - Jose, can you see?

Palladian said...

Please hear my pleas...

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

OMG-my little pony is totally gay and could of been one of the horses in my dream.

They flew around just like him.

I don't think I have ever seen My Little Pony before either. How weird...and gay.

Triangle Man said...

The rest of the story:
The German sinologist was actually a German nihilist (with a marmot). He saw the characters tattooed on the neck of an American student on a train somewhere between Düsseldorf and Köln. Immediately recognizing its awesomeness (Ungeheuerlichkeit auf Deutch) he immediately copied the characters into his notebook for use on the cover of the upcoming special issue. Latter, realizing his error, he had a private laugh as he noted that Ungeheuerlichkeit encompasses both "awesomeness" as well as "monstrosity".

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

Hi Palladian, I hear your pleas...

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

How was everyone's morning Loaves?

I never hear about anyone elses morning loaves here. I am curious, please share some interesting details on your loaves.

Hoosier Daddy said...

I never quite understood why people seem to think that something is cool simply because it's foreign;

Self loathing comes to mind. Modern multi-cultulturalism generally has come to mean raising the bar for other cultures at the expense of your own.

Hoosier Daddy said...

I never hear about anyone elses morning loaves here.

Some things are just too personal Titus.

Titusisveryrelaxed said...

This is a judgment free zone Hoosier. Everything is in confidence.

So please let's all share are morning loaf stories.

J said...

"How was everyone's morning Loaves?"

Do you take folding tray table in there with you, or do you have a little laptop shelf that swings out from the wall?

Triangle Man said...

Hark, the Harold angel sing.

Lem said...

the story is not all that implausible.

first consider its a poem. what is a poem? it could be anything.

then consider chinese.

Since the Chinese language uses a logographic script — that is, a script where one or more "characters" corresponds roughly to one "word" or meaning — there are vastly more characters, or glyphs, than there are keys on a standard computer keyboard.

http://tinyurl.com/yf9d2x

Chip Ahoy said...

Needs a lame tag.

Oh how mysterious and complex that Chinese language that means different things in different tones and differs from one region to the next. How unlike, say, ordinary English that remains perfectly constant wherever it's spoken and where words that sound the exactly the same with no tonal differentiation whatsoever can possibly mean entirely different things. For instance, the contraction "they're" in the first response to this post.

jayne_cobb said...

It's not just multiculturalism ( granted that's probably a component).

It's been present for years, and is not just found in American culture. Trust me you get the exact same thing amongst the japanese, who like to insert random bits of english all over the place.

I've always thought that it's just an idealization of the unknown (which has always struck me as odd).

Palladian said...

"I've always thought that it's just an idealization of the unknown (which has always struck me as odd)."

Tattoos in strange languages add an air of worldly mystery to people who generally lack any worldliness or mystery in other, non-dermal areas of their lives.

Palladian said...

It's like douchebags who get Latin mottoes tattooed on themselves.

Alget qui non Ardet. Deep, man! Can you do it in those Oldy English letters? Cool. What does it mean again?

Palladian said...

There's nothing more hilarious than seeing an Elizabethan Latin motto written in badly drawn German Fraktur characters (which are ugly even when they're skillfully drawn) tattooed on a woman named Tonya who has to take one last draw on her Kool cigarette before she can help you at the auto body shop.

The only thing that makes it better is when the tattoos start to fade and look like malignant melanoma.

Darcy said...

That was so cute about "Hark, the Harold..." Triangle Man. I thought the same thing!

Hoosier Daddy said...

It's like douchebags who get Latin mottoes tattooed on themselves.

I have one that has SPQR and another wrapped around a cross that says Nomini patri et fili et spiritu sancti.

And you will in the future refer to me as Dr. Douchebag. I didn't go to evil douchebag school to be called mister thank you very much.

Der Hahn said...

Doesn't Round John Virgin play for the Harold Angels?

Freeman Hunt said...

Agree with DTL. Plus, don't they know anybody from China? Wouldn't you run a the Chinese characters past a Chinese friend before you ran them on your magazine cover? Couldn't you at least take it with you to lunch to some local Chinese restaurant and ask a Chinese immigrant there to take a look at it? The journal's failure to check is pure laziness.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

I used to work with a waitress who's construction worker husband had a chinese character tattoo on his neck. He claimed it meant "strength", she said the family believed it meant "ass".

Lem said...

Professor Althouse has a certain jé ne se qua ;)

mcg said...

You know, reading the article it seems to me that the article's author isn't really trying to offer the comment about Chinese tones as a defense. Rather it seems that the last three sentences are intended to speak more generally about the difficulties Westerners have with Chinese languages. However, it does seem out of place regardless, as it's the only sentence in the entire article that refers to the spoken word.

Zach said...

I ran the magazine cover past one of the Chinese students in my office. He said "Oh, it's a poem" and didn't pick up on the fact that it was an ad for a strip club. So it's possible that the meaning really was subtle enough to slip past a first glance.

peter hoh said...

It works (or rather doesn't work) both ways.