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Be aware of the danger of a foreign language

November 19th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

When one deals with a foreign language, there is always a chance to produce (sometimes hilarious) errors. This blog has cautioned readers against the danger of relying on automated translation services. Now it seems consulting with a human expert does not necessarily guard one from embarrassment either.

The Max Planck Society in Germany recently released an issue of its research magazine with a theme “Focus China”. The editorial office wanted something Chinese on its cover and the result was the one shown above. However, that Chinese text is really an advertisement for a club of an adult nature. It is also most likely from either Hong Kong or Taiwan instead of the mainland China because of the classical Chinese characters used and its up-and-down, right-to-left arrangement.

The magazine sent out an explanation/apology after, I imagine, some interesting feedback. The cover, meanwhile, has been updated online.

The cover of the most recent German-language edition of MaxPlanckForschung (3/2008) depicts a Chinese text which had been chosen by our editorial office in order to symbolically illustrate the magazine’s focus on “China”. Unfortunately, it has now transpired that this text contains inappropriate content of a suggestive nature. Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in an non-controversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.

By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. The editors of MaxPlanckResearch sincerely regret this unfortunate error and would like to offer an unreserved apology to all of their Chinese readers for any upset or distress they may have caused.

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  1. bt
    November 20th, 2008 at 03:38 | #1

    Hahaha, that’s funny 🙂
    What is this ‘expert’ that cannot read Chinese? Sounds like a ‘face-saving’ move.
    Next time, they can choose a Classics, to be sure!

  2. November 20th, 2008 at 10:09 | #2

    Some of the odd characters and phrases make me think it’s likely from Hong Kong? Not sure though.

  3. TonyP4
    November 20th, 2008 at 14:26 | #3

    same for english ‘experts’ in china.

    i had one making fun of the signs before the olympics, but i cannot find it. hope some one will post it here.

    one in a tourist area: ‘having fun is prohibited here’.

  4. miaka9383
    November 20th, 2008 at 16:18 | #4

    well there’s this website called engrish… it is pretty awesome..

  5. Steve
    November 20th, 2008 at 16:25 | #5

    Engrish: http://www.engrish.com/

    Most of them are from Japan but some are from China and Taiwan. I’ve had it bookmarked for a long time but forgot about it until miaka mentioned it just now.

  6. November 21st, 2008 at 02:02 | #6

    more likely from macau 🙂

  7. Wukailong
    November 21st, 2008 at 03:27 | #7

    @Steve: I remember a favorite from the Engrish page that I think was from a bookstore in Taiwan. Only one letter was wrong: “Sports and hobbits”.

  8. tonyP4
    November 21st, 2008 at 16:24 | #8

    Here are some. I’m still looking for the Olympics. I almost died from laughing so hard.


  9. November 22nd, 2008 at 10:23 | #9

    So… a post about English speakers being goofy about Chinese quickly turns into poking Chinese about being goofy about English. Absolutely fascinating.

    Which sort of reminds me, after three months in Hebei, of the frustrating arrogance of many foreigners in China. To quote an over used refrain by one of them, “ridiculous.”

  10. Snail
    November 22nd, 2008 at 10:31 | #10

    you have no idea how many Chinese ‘scientific papers’ translate ‘working hard’ (干) into the F word (generally a scientific paper in Chinese is appended with an English version of abstract, some poeple just use google tranlation or something to do that).

  11. yinbinn
    November 23rd, 2008 at 23:47 | #11

    To MutantJedi,
    Yes, exactly. The extent to which some Westerners are unwilling to admit their own failings is amazing!

  12. bt
    November 24th, 2008 at 00:20 | #12

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I think you are not very fair on this case 🙂
    TonyP4 claims to be Chinese.
    It’s just like throwing something, waiting for the fish to bite and then accuse the fish of biting 🙂

    However, MutantJedi, “arrogance of many foreigners” is something true, for me included.
    Self-correction is good … and this is also a Confucian value!

  13. November 25th, 2008 at 05:48 | #13

    This just shows that it is easy to overlook what the actual meaning of a text might mean, especially when trying to use that text for design purposes without worrying about the context of the text.

  14. dg
    December 10th, 2008 at 02:11 | #14

    I’m from Hong Kong and have read related news in local newspaper today…

    I have searched on web and seen the following translation (which is accurate in my opinion):

    “We have offered a lot of money to hire two managers — KK and Jaime — to lead the girls stationing in the club during the daytime. Our young girls are elegant northern beauties with attractive physiques. We also have housewives who are coquettish and enchanting. They are appearing here and now.”

    Such wordings are quite common for advertising post for low-class and cheap nite-clubs in Jordan/Yau Ma Tei/Mongkok district…

  15. LittleNicky
    December 10th, 2008 at 06:41 | #15

    omg… that’s a pretty lame reason… those characters have no ” deeper” meaning other than erotic in nature, even I can read it… very lolz

  16. C.P.
    December 10th, 2008 at 07:08 | #16

    Being a native of Yau Ma Tei, I’m really proud to see this advertising post of cheap night clubs which can be seen everywhere in my neighbourhood appeared as the coverpage of a journal published by a world renowned institute! LOOOOOOL!

  17. dg
    December 10th, 2008 at 07:29 | #17

    To #16 C.P.

    Yes, such ads are quite common in Yau Ma Tei even till now. Foreigners may not know/remember where is Yau Ma Tei even they have visited Hong Kong, but should know Temple Street—and Temple Street is in Yau Ma Tei district.

  18. Yong
    December 10th, 2008 at 20:50 | #18

    I think it is so funny case when I read this news today. I am curious about why the editor office did not ask Chinese in Germany about the meaning of these words? I know in Max Institutes, there are many Chinese working there. It is so unbelievable they made a so interesting mistake on Chinese characters.

  19. SteveL
    December 11th, 2008 at 07:16 | #19

    The ad was from Macau according to this report.

  20. ttvfwong
    December 12th, 2008 at 07:17 | #20

    I echo dg and CP. I used to live in the Jordan area of Hong Kong and saw many times similar posters. I think I recognise the handwriting too. I dont think the earlier report about the Macau origin is correct. It is really funny that this particular naughty pastime of Hong Kong is now given international exposure. How it all started would be really interesting to know.

    I have made the following translation to mimic the line structures:

    We paid handsomely to hire Manager KK and Camay full time;
    They personally present young and beautiful girls;
    Northern beauties in million swaying poses;
    Young housewives of fiery figures;
    All bewitching, seductive and are here on board today.
    – translated by ttvfwong, Hong Kong

  21. Berlin
    November 13th, 2009 at 14:48 | #21

    Haha! It could so easily be avoided if only they had cared to ask one native speaker.

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