Chengde (formerly Jehol), which lies 109 miles / 176 kilometers to the northeast of Beijing, was the old Manchu summer retreat, and is now a popular tourist destination. One its most notable attractions is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, built by the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796) as a copy of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Here is a photograph of the Chinese part of the sign describing a gate within the temple compound:
Regular readers of Language Log will have guessed that the punch line is in the English translation:
The gate is topped by five mchod-rten (chortens, "stupas" or "pagodas") of different colors, each standing for a different Tibetan sect. The Chinese sign explains the symbolism. But in rendering the Chinese text into English, the translator's skill progressively erodes until it ends up in free fall.
The translator's first serious stumble is in rendering Sa-skya is as a “county”, not as a sect, indicating that by this point modern dictionary definitions were being copied with little thought as to actual meaning. And the next word represents the curious decision to translate 派 pài not as the noun "sect" or "school" but as the verb "sends" — perhaps due to a feeling that all this religious discussion should be balanced by some attention to the postal service?
But in dealing with the sentence "Hēi tǎ dàibiǎo hēi jiào (bènbō pài)" 黑塔代表黑教 (笨波派) ("The black stupa / 'pagoda' represents the 'Dark Teaching' [Bon-po sect]"), the translator's stumbles turn into a spectacular pratfall.
The Bon faith is often said to be the indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. And as the Wikipedia article explains,
The syllable -po or -pa is appended to a noun in Tibetan to designate a person who is from that place or performs that action; "Bönpo" thus means a follower of the Bön tradition, "Nyingmapa" a follower of the Nyingma tradition, and so on. (The feminine parallels are -mo and -ma, but these are not generally appended to the names of the Tibetan religious traditions.)
The Chinese phrase Hēi jiào 黑教 (lit., "Black Teaching / Doctrine)" is another way of referring to the Bon religion, carrying over the Tibetan pattern of associating colors with Buddhist sects; so rendering this into English as “secret religion” is another misstep. But when we get to bènbō pài 笨波派, the translation pitches headlong over the cliff into trilingual associative fantasy.
Bènbō 笨波 phonetically transcribes Tibetan “Bon-po” into Chinese and pài 派 defines it as a "sect" or "faith", i.e., a jiàopài 教派. But instead of rendering bènbō pài 笨波派 as the "Bon-po faith" or "Bon-po school", etc., the translation renders it, incredibly, as “the stupid wave sends”.
This constitutes a classic example of a common error in bad translations from Chinese: rendering literally the surface semantic signification of characters that are meant to serve purely for sound-transcription purposes.
The word "stupid" is thus a Straussian hint that the people responsible for this sign belong to the Bèn 笨 ("Stupid") school of translation. And even readers who don't know Chinese can figure out the rest by looking up 波 and 派 in a Chinese-English dictionary, as the rituals of the Bèn school dictate.
[Many thanks to Elliot Sperling for sending the photograph and for helpful comments on the Tibetan sects]