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Expensive translation mistake for Science journal

By on December 10, 2008

Max Planck Institute Science journal mistakenly uses flyer for Macau brothel to illustrate report on China…

The respected research institute wanted beautiful and elegant Chinese classical texts to adorn its journal, which included a special report on China. Little did they know that the text they had chosen was from a saucy flyer promoting strippers and other features of a brothel!

To Western eyes, Chinese characters look dramatic and beautiful, and have a powerful visual impact, but be careful that you know what they say before you print or publish whatever you are using them for!

There were certainly red faces on the editorial board of the Max Planck Institute, after the text from a flyer for a Macau strip club ran on the front page of its latest journal. Editors of the MaxPlanckForschung journal had hoped to find a traditional, elegant Chinese poem to put on the cover of a special issue focusing on China, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming “Hot Housewives in action!”, and recommending their “enchanting and coquettish performance”.

The use of traditional Chinese characters and references to “the northern mainland” would suggest that the text originated in Hong Kong or Macau, and it promises burlesque acts by “pretty-as-jade” housewives for daytime visitors to the club.

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. ”

However, publication of the journal caused some anger among some internet users in China, who felt the institute had done it on purpose to insult China, or that it was disrespectful to use Chinse as a decoration. In general though, the faux-pas sparked much amusement among Chinese readers.

The journal has since been updated online and its cover now carries the title of a book by the Swiss Jesuit, Johannes Schreck (1576–1630). The Jesuit text in question was “Illustrated Explanations of Strange Devices”.

Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken.

There are many tales of drunken teenagers walking out of tattoo parlours with characters reading, “This is one ugly foreigner” or “A fool and his money are easily parted”.

One Chinese web-user wrote: “I recently met a German girl with a Chinese tattoo on her neck which in Chinese means ‘prostitute’. I laughed so loud, I could hardly breathe.” I myself remember someone who was proudly showing off his tattoo of the word “rat” in Chinese at a party. Don’t say you weren’t warned, girls….

Originally spotted in The Independent.

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