The MaxPlanckForschung Cover Fiasco: How It Happened

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In "Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft", I detailed the unfortunate appearance of a rather unseemly Chinese text on the cover of the flagship journal (3/2008) of the Max Planck Institut. As evidenced by the enormous outpouring of comments on this subject here at Language Log and across the Internet, people were perplexed, titillated, amused, and outraged that such a strange event could have occurred. All sorts of explanations were proffered, from accusations that somebody was trying to make fun of Chinese to insinuations that nefarious persons wished to make fools of the Germans. After weeks of further investigation, I can now say with confidence that the real cause for what happened was sheer ineptitude.

George McAllister (comment number 75) was right when he said, "Given that the only evidence we have is the cover itself and a generic 'we're sorry' statement, it seems to me we should turn to statistics to solve the 'incompetence v. very clever trick' debate." There was no dirty trick to make fun of Chinese or to deride Germans / Westerners — at least not on the part of the editorial staff of MPF.

Much of what actually occurred is reported by Christopher Schrader ("Jadefrauen für Max Planck") in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Nr. 288, Dec. 11, 2008, page 16). Christina Beck from the MPF obtained the Chinese text as a picture from the "Fotoagentur Visum," which is a well established agency located in Hamburg. The picture had been found under the search entry "chinesische Schriftzeichen," but when I checked last week, it was no longer there. According to my sources, what MPF did was apparently to choose a text simply for "aesthetical reasons," a matter of pure exoticism.

Now, here is the crucial point: MPF did show the text to a female "Sinologist," and I know the name of the person who is said to have looked at it before publication, but I will not reveal who she was because nothing would be gained by further embarrassing her. I shall mention only that the word "Sinologin" in German must not mean exactly the same thing that "Sinologist" does in English, namely, an accomplished philologist who specializes in Chinese, especially from earlier periods (at least that is how I have always understood it). Rather, a Sinologin might refer to someone who only knows a year or two of Modern Mandarin. This, in fact, is the case in the present instance, where the person in question is a scientist who happens to know some Chinese.

If a trick was intentionally played on anyone, it was by the photographer who supplied Visum with a salacious text without warning them about its contents. It is clear that Visum is not in the business of checking the content of the words in the photographs that they market to their customers, but offer such images only for visual qualities. I wrote to as many people as I could at Visum to find out who sold them the photograph with the text that ended up on the front cover of MPF. So far, they have not responded to my inquiries.

Of course, none of this would have happened if MPF had done the sensible thing and sought the advice of some of the real Sinologists who work in, for example, the History of Science Institute at MPI. I know a couple of them (Dagmar Schäfer and Martina Siebert) who are very sharp and have excellent Chinese reading skills; they would never have been hoodwinked into thinking that such a sloppy advertisement was a classical poem.

Enough for trying to track down the real culprit in the MPF cover story. Before closing this post, however, I'd merely like to address one of the most puzzling language aspects of the vexed text, namely, what the function of the two "K's" is. Since the answer to that question ties in with the identity of the establishment that posted the advertisement in the first place, it is worth spending a moment in an attempt to figure out this enigma. To be brief, in solicitations for the services of "jade-girls" that are ubiquitous in Hong Kong, such as this, "K" often occurs in combination with the character YA1 壓 ("press"). So, one of the services of these ladies is a kind of "pressure," i.e., massage. It is too complicated for this post to demonstrate how these activities parallel the DERI-HERU ("delivery health") industry in Japan. Suffice it for the moment to remark that our JIA-K and MEI-K both are found in an advertisement for a Mongkok (Kowloon, Hong Kong) "nightclub" that offers K-YA1 and related services.

Tips of the hat to Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, Hans van Ess, Helmut Hornung, Doug Wilson, Bob Bauer, Wicky Tse, Genevieve Leung, Kenneth Yeh, Andrew Curry, Wolfgang Behr, and Rodo Pfister.


  1. zhwj said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    K壓, at least in the advertisement linked in the post, appears in the name of a "Karaoke Massage Club." This posting explains that K stands for 卡拉OK "karaoke" and 壓 stands for 指壓, or a type of sexual massage. It also says that this particular combination of singing and services started around 2001 and became popular in Hong Kong in 2004.

    Also, in the advertisement linked in the post, 加K and 美K appear in a list of hostesses' names (along with 海K). Is the K in these names related to K壓?

  2. Dan T. said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Hanlon's Razor says to "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

    Will somebody be walking the Planck over this?

  3. finlayson said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    There indeed seems to be a difference in meaning of "sinologist" between the US and Europe. According to Wikipedia:

    Sinology in general use is the study of China and things related to China, but, especially in the American academic context, refers more strictly to the study of classical language and literature, and the philological approach. […] In the context of area studies, the European and the American usages differ. In Europe, sinology is usually known as Chinese Studies whereas in the United States Sinology is a subfield of Chinese Studies.

    So a European sinologist would not necessary have particular knowledge of the language. But I'm not sure if this is relevant in this case.

  4. bianca steele said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    I’m with Dan T., and I agree, for the most part. However, I’m of two minds as to whether this sounds much like “incompetence” to me. Yes, it would be nice if the publishers would hire people who know their stuff. On the other hand, surely, the situation lies somewhere or other between (a) “stuff happens,” and (b) the necessity of performing adequate due diligence. Does the incident illustrate the need for publishers to add one more thing to their to-do list for cover preparation?

    [(myl) I agree that this is lack of minimal (much less due) diligence. As a mere blogger, not the editor of the flagship journal of a multi-billion-euro scientific enterprise, I wouldn't publish a picture (of a person or an animal or a poem) without knowing — or at least believing that I knew — what it depicted, where it came from, etc. I might well turn out to be wrong, but I wouldn't (I hope) go ahead without a reasonably well-founded belief about what I was using. If I stuck in a stock photo of text in a language that I can't read, I wouldn't call that incompetence, exactly — it's more like lack of standards. ]

  5. Joel said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    I recently had a conversation with a director of one Max Plank Institute in Germany (to remain unnamed) about this fiasco. He revealed that after the initial letter sent out by the MPI regarding the controversy he ran the text in question by some Chinese colleagues, none of whom were able to understand quite what the text was about, which was also my first response when reading the cover without being told of the specific import. I understood that the subject was beautiful women but missed the bit about sexual arousal.

    Given that most persons in HK also do not speak or read Classical Chinese, are we to understand that this is a 'trade language' specific to the trade in question and known by participants in HK (perhaps like the peculiar form of English that peppers pirated DVD productions), or that the advertisement is geared towards a high class audience with a working understanding of Classical Chinese, or some third option?

  6. Adrian said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    MPF got into this mess through laziness to start with. The mentality of "We're doing an issue about China – let's decorate it with a blob of Chinese text" is not to be encouraged. The cover is an important part of a magazine. Many people reading the magazine will have wanted to know the significance of the text, and some information about it should've been included in the magazine. Of course, if the publishers had set about providing some info, they would've discovered their error.

  7. bulbul said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    I shall mention only that the word "Sinologin" in German must not mean exactly the same thing that "Sinologist" does in English
    While this makes sense, I'm somewhat surprised to see that this has spread so far. I'm quite used to German "Germanist" meaning "someone who studied German" (though I still believe that it should mean "someone who can read Das Nibelungenlied, Beowulf or the Eddas in the original") or Slovak "romanista" meaning "someone who translates from Spanish and possibly French", but I was under the impression that this semantic shift did not affect the more, um, exotic languages and fields of study. Thus when I hear someone referred to as an "Arabist", I still expect that person to have a good command of Arabic, a "hebraista" should be able to at least read Biblical Hebrew and a "japanológ" should be proficient in Japanese.

  8. chris said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    @Adrian: Absolutely right, although I'd rephrase things slightly – the mentality is not "let's decorate it with a blob of Chinese text" but rather "let's decorate it with a blob of Chinese writing". The woman from MPF found the image by seaching the Visum database for "chinesische Schriftzeichen" i.e. "Chinese characters", not "Chinese text". As NelC said in a comment to the original post, the graphic artists repsonsible for covers often don't think in terms of text (= communication) but rather in terms of pictures (=decoration): "Graphic artists tend away from being very rigorous with text, regarding words as mere decoration for the most part, even those in their own language. Left to their own devices they will even mispell the names of their clients."

    @bulbul: Looks like German differs from Slovak in this respect. I'm not aware of any difference at all in German in the use of these kinds of terms between more and less exotic fields of study.

  9. ahkow said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    @ Joel:

    I'm a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and the text is not that difficult to understand. It is written in traditional Chinese, however, and that might be a real problem for people who are unfamiliar with this script. (I've had two friends, one from Singapore and another from China, who've had problems reading the text. Both grew up using the simplified script only).

    The text reads:

    Of which, I am pretty certain that the terms that are used to describe the ladies: 青春,玉女,佳丽,身材惹火,风骚, 迷人 are pretty common (Googling these terms produce millions of results, some even with pictures captioned as such). They are also encountered on TV where these adjectives are used to describe starlets, models, etc. So no, it's not exclusively literary.

    I still think that the two Ks should be read as KK and the other 2 characters as 加美. The main text is written top-down, right-left, and it doesn't make sense for that chunk of 4 characters to be read left-right, top-down, in a total reversal of directions.

  10. bianca steele said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    Re. my previous comment and Mark L.’s note on it:

    I’m just not sure where this situation falls within the (very wide) range of possibilities. One important point is that the publisher thought the person they had hired was a competent authority, but it seems that was not the case. Possibly, they had other work from this person that was clearly of a high quality and had never seen anything from her that could give them cause for any concern. Possibly, they had heard very good things about her and her background. They only found out about the issue after she made an unwise choice that resulted in a scandal. Possibly, their decision made perfect sense given the information they had available to them.

    On the other hand, Victor Mair provides a lot of reasons to think the “possiblies” I listed above couldn’t be the case. But maybe we could go into those reasons in depth and challenge each in turn. (Not here, because this is his blog. But "due diligence" might require that.)

  11. david said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    As far as the definition of Sinologin goes, my copy of Wahrig defines it as 'Wissenschaftler, Student der Sinologie' — academic student of 'Sinologie', in turn being merely '…chines. Sprache u. Kulture' — language and culture. Certainly no implications of the kind of expertise you describe the English term as having.

  12. Joel said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 1:05 pm


    Although I'm neither a native speaker nor especially familiar with the traditional characters I did pick up up on most of the terms mentioned above. Was '玉女' the give away that it was referring to prostitution? Or simply the fact that attractive women were being offered? In either case, I read the text first without context and did not immediately understand that it was an advertisement.

    Perhaps I would have if I spent more time with the text, but was not initially under the impression it was important in any way.

  13. bulbul said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    Certainly no implications of the kind of expertise
    I would think that that implication lies in the suffix "-logie".

    you may be right. But then again, who would you say is a "Hebraist"? A scholar of the Hebrew language (and history etc.) or merely a speaker of Hebrew? I would go with the former meaning and wince whenever seeing it used in the latter.

  14. Achim said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 4:33 am

    @bulbul: The German terms for the different pholologies imply, traditionally, a bundle of competencies – active command of the language under scrutiny, especially registers beyond literary, philosophical and historical sources, is not on the top of the list and a more recent addition. Historically, philologists studied the development of the language, the classical works, and the history of ideas of a region or linguistic community. This goes back to the beginning of the 19th century when "Germanistik" was invented to underline that the German nation, albeit cut up in an extraordinary number of sovereign territories, was one nation with a common heritage.

    Studying "Sinologie" in Germany means you get a training in these disciplines related to China. So, a "Sinologin" should have an overall knowledge of Chinese literature, history, culture, and standard language. (In the "European" philologies, such as "Germanistik", "Anglistik" etc., the tendency for the last 30 or 40 years has been to specialize in either lingusitics or literature, and history of ideas, history of religion etc. have long since been delegated to the corresponding specialized disciplines.)

    But what I would expect from any person asked to judge a text sample selected for a magazine cover is to judge their own judgment. If you're lost and can't make out what the text is about, shouldn't you say so and hand it back? Or maybe, even better, ask the editors what the message was they chose to get across and, maybe, by your knowledge of the literature of the culture in question, suggest something more suitable? (Well, the last point might be influenced by the fact that my wife is a journalist, and I regularly have to judge ideas for magazine covers…)

  15. KYL said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    @Joel, if someone has lived a very sheltered life, it's conceivable that he/she would not pick up that this is an advertisement. But it seems highly unlikely. Also, this is not written in some obscure, dense, "classical" Chinese. It's just put into the form of doggerel. (And just to be clear, this is not explicitly an ad for prostitution, just for stripping. If you knew the local market well, you can then infer whether the stripping is meant to be a cover for more services). I wouldn't say any specific term "gave it away." It was rather just the whole text. If there are any real "clue words," maybe “惹火” and “風騷“ are it. These are not terms you'd use to speak of a "respectable woman" or a colleague/friend.

    I agree with akhow that as for the Chinese colleagues consulted by the Institute, if they didn't understand this, they were either students from the Mainland who never spent any time in Hong Kong or read anything in Traditional script, or perhaps ethnic Chinese who grew up overseas with a working, but not good, knowledge of the language. [I've found that most students from the PRC can read Traditional script just fine, especially if they've had some training in school, but many science and engineering students never get any training on Traditional script and stumble over it. The PRC's education system specializes so early that many science and engineering students do not receive much training in what we think of as "language arts," and literacy in Traditional script suffers.]

    This ad is no harder to read and understand for a literate Chinese than something like the following would be for an English speaker: "Beautiful women will take to the stage at KK's House of Dance next Friday. From shy housewives to bold cowgirls, their hot figures and curves will raise your spirits and whet your appetite." Perhaps a very sheltered person would not pick up that this is an ad for stripping, but it seems unlikely.

    I'm most impressed by Victor's dedication in digging up the truth behind this story, so that we can finally understand what really happened. (The cleverness, if that's what it was, was apparently in the photographer). Rather than just making a lot of speculation. I offer my gratitude to him for going the extra mile to do the real work of coming up with facts.

    Now if only we can somehow do the same to the many "Chinglish" examples posted here and find out the real story behind them, we'd be a lot further along in understanding what happened in those cases too.

  16. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    @ Bianca Steele:

    One important point is that the publisher thought the person they had hired was a competent authority, but it seems that was not the case.

    I think it's pretty clear from Prof. Mair's text that this wasn't someone hired by the MPF, or its publisher, exclusively for the purpose of Chinese language expertise. He states "the person in question is a scientist who happens to know some Chinese," which sounds to me like this is someone that works for the MPF as a scientist primarily. Probably someone there just happened to know that this person knew some Chinese and so since she was immediately available, she was used to give the OK to the image.

    I don't think there's likely to be any more to this other than the necessity to re-examine the editor's attention to due diligence, which for me would involve having a clear explanation and translation of the text of a language I didn't personally speak before sending it off for publishing.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    I am grateful to KYL for his appreciative remarks about my "going the extra mile"; I really did spend a lot of time tracking down all possible leads about the MPF cover. With regard to KYL's concern about the need for lucid explanations for Chinglish, rather than a mere voyeuristic interest in the prurient, scatalogical aspects of the language, I always try my best to detail exactly how a given Chinglish expression arose. You can expect to see a few more unusual specimens on LL within the coming weeks and months, but always with an eye toward comprehending rather than sneering or leering.

    I also want to thank zhwj for providing further confirmation that the K in advertisements for this type of business is related to K壓 ("K pressure / massage") and that the K in such expressions derives from the K of 卡拉OK "karaoke." So far as I know, K is used to represent the Cantonese morpheme kē ("excrement, shit" — also conventionally written with the graph 茄 Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM] QIE2 "eggplant"), hardly relevant here. Pronounced kēi, K also is very commonly seen in Hong Kong Cantonese as signifying karaoke bars, karaoke attendants, and anything else remotely related to karaoke.

    Speaking of karoke, this seems the perfect moment for me to recount my first acquaintance with the expression. Back in the 1980s, I was visiting my brother Denis, who was then a translator for Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. He lived in the old Russian-built Friendship Hotel, a very spartan place compared to today's luxury accommodations in big Chinese cities. There wasn't much unusual, interesting, or attractive about the place, but I was deeply intrigued by a small sign at the back of one of the buildings that led to a basement room. On it was written 卡拉OK. The best I could make of that novel expression was "card pull OK," and I thought that it might have something to do with documentation. I asked all my Chinese scholar friends what this mysterious sign meant, but not one of them knew (remember that this was back in the mid-80s). It was only when I returned to the United States, where the technology was invented (in the 70s, I think), that I realized 卡拉OK KA3LA1OK was the Chinese transcription for Japanese karaoke. It took a lot more time and effort before I figured out that karaoke is the abbreviated Japanese translation-transliteration of English "empty orchestra," viz., kara (空) "empty" and ōkesutora (オーケストラ). When I reported this to my Chinese linguist friends (Zhou Youguang, Yin Binyong, and others) back in Beijing the next year, they were absolutely flabbergasted. They had been convinced that the OK was simply the English term meaning "all right," but they had no idea what to make of the KA3LA1 portion.

    A final note is my pleasant recollection of the UCLA Hittitologist, Jaan Puhvel, some years later demonstrating the origins of the word "orchestra" by doing a little jig before an admiring audience at an Indo-European workshop at the University of Texas in Austin. Much to our amusement, he showed graphically the Greek basis for our English word (orkheisthai "to dance"). I think that Jaan added a colorful Hittite aspect to his exposition, but I forget what it was. In any event, I thought it was simply fascinating that the origin of "orchestra" has to do with dance rather than music.

  18. KYL said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 10:59 am


    I think you should pull the two stories you told here into a full LL post so more people can see it. These are great stories. I had no idea that was the origin of the Chinese and Japanese terms for karaoke. Very enlightening.

    But how did "to dance" become "musicians playing in a group"?

    I do appreciate your efforts in getting to the bottom of things (for example, the very illuminating post you did on the terrible Chinese-English auto-translation dictionaries). I wish more people, myself included, could take this kind of effort more often in investigating things. This is the sort of thing that makes LL so great.

  19. mollymooly said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:00 am

    As to terms having different meanings in different countries, "philology" is one. OED:

    1. Love of learning and literature; the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative, and critical aspects of literature; literary or classical scholarship. Now chiefly U.S.
    By the late 19th cent. this general sense had become rare, but it was revived, principally in the United States, in the early 20th cent.
    3. The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages or language families; the historical study of the phonology and morphology of languages; historical linguistics.
    This sense has never been current in the United States, and is increasingly rare in British use. Linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language, and (often with qualifying adjective, as historical, comparative, etc.) has generally replaced philology.

    As to eminent publications making embarrassingly cavalier use of Asian stock photos, The Economist got into less trouble for a perhaps worse gaffe a few years ago.

  20. HW said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    It's lewd, lascivious, salacious, outrageous.:-)

    Those who watch Seinfeld will know where this comment's from. I saw this story in C&E news today, and for the most part simply found it amusing. It's difficult to believe that any native speaker of Chinese would mistake it for an 'elegant-looking classical Chinese poem'. The first couple of lines may be confusing, with the K’s and everything, but it's quite clear what the entire paragraph is about. Even if one is not well acquainted with the Hong Kong lifestyle, it should be obvious that a passage basically about 'hot chicks' may not be the most appropriate for the cover of a scientific journal.

    I also find the calligraphy quite hideous, by the way.

  21. Jerome Chiu said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:39 am

    The text is a typical quasi-advertisement placed at the entrance of a Hong Kong nightclub, most commonly found in the Jordan, Yau-ma-tei, Mongkok, and Prince Edward areas. Most often (if not always) this serves also as a notice, for frequent customers, that certain "managers" ("daban" 大班 or "jingli" 經理 or "Mamasan" and so on; or "zhuren" 主任 as is referred to in the text, i.e. "manager" of a group of girls working in a nightclub, as in Bai Xianyong's "Jin Daban de zhuihou yi ye" 金大班的最後一夜) have transferred from one nightclub to another, thus alerting those frequent customers that if they would like to be served by one of those managers and/or the girls under him/her, they should go to the new club instead of the old one.

    Nightclubs in Tsim Sha Tsui consider themselves more upmarket, and their managers seldom transfer to other clubs, therefore notices such as this are used much less frequently there.

    The intended grammatical (and logical) object of the first 4 words in the text, namely "zhongjin lipin" 重金禮聘, lit. "respectfully invite [by means of] heavy gold" refers to those managers (in this case: KK and Jiamei) who have transferred to the new nightclub. The logical subject of the "zhongjin lipin" is the [owner of] the nightclub itself.

    The "jiri" 即日 in the last 4 characters of the text, namely "jiri dengchang", means "[they (i.e. the managers and the girls under them) are] available [from] today [onwards]", i.e. immediately.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    A final note? Here's the last I heard from someone at MPI: "The responsible person had to leave and apologies have been accepted."

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