Saucily garbled blurb

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To say the least, I was perplexed when a book that I co-edited with Mark Bender was described thus on Tao Blog:

In The river Anthology of Asiatic Folk and Popular Literature, digit of the world’s directive sinologists, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender, getting the dimension of China’s oral-based literate heritage. This assemblage presents entireness worn from the super embody of test literature of some of China’s constituted social groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazak — and the selections allow a difference of genres. Chapters counterbalance sept stories, songs, rituals, and drama, as substantially as poem traditions and professed storytelling, and feature both old and little-known texts, from the news of the blackamoor warrior Hua Mulan to the fuck stories of cityfied storytellers in the Yangtze delta, the priest rituals of the Manchu, and a hoaxer tale of the Daur grouping from the forests of the northeast. The Cannibal Grandmother of the Yi and another strange creatures and characters unsettle acknowledged notions of Asiatic story and literate form. Readers are introduced to phrase songs of the Tai and the Dong, who springy among the strange limestone hills of the Guangxi Tai Autonomous Region; impact and matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She of Fujian province; and water songs of the Cantonese-speaking dish grouping of Hong Kong. The editors feature the Altaic poem poems of Geser Khan and Jangar; the depressing tale of the Qeo kinsfolk girl, from the Tu grouping of state and Qinghai provinces; and topical plays famous as “rice sprouts” from Hopeh province. These fascinating juxtapositions elicit comparisons among cultures, styles, and genres, and proficient translations preserves the individualist case of apiece thrillingly creative work.

Uncertain what it meant to be described as "digit of the world’s directive sinologists," and embarrassed to have brought together "fuck stories" and "a hoaxer tale," not to mention having assembled all sorts of other bizarre literary works, I set about trying to make sense of this most mystifying tribute to the editorial prowess of Mark Bender and myself.

Fortunately, I remembered that our book had recently also been featured on the Website of the Institute of Ethnic Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).  When I hurried over there to compare the CASS blurb with the one on Tao Blog, this is what I found:

In The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, two of the world's leading sinologists, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender, capture the breadth of China's oral-based literary heritage. This collection presents works drawn from the large body of oral literature of many of China's recognized ethnic groups—including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazak—and the selections include a variety of genres. Chapters cover folk stories, songs, rituals, and drama, as well as epic traditions and professional storytelling, and feature both familiar and little-known texts, from the story of the woman warrior Hua Mulan to the love stories of urban storytellers in the Yangtze delta, the shaman rituals of the Manchu, and a trickster tale of the Daur people from the forests of the northeast. The Cannibal Grandmother of the Yi and other strange creatures and characters unsettle accepted notions of Chinese fable and literary form. Readers are introduced to antiphonal songs of the Zhuang and the Dong, who live among the fantastic limestone hills of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; work and matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She of Fujian province; and saltwater songs of the Cantonese-speaking boat people of Hong Kong. The editors feature the Mongolian epic poems of Geser Khan and Jangar; the sad tale of the Qeo family girl, from the Tu people of Gansu and Qinghai provinces; and local plays known as "rice sprouts" from Hebei province. These fascinating juxtapositions invite comparisons among cultures, styles, and genres, and expert translations preserve the individual character of each thrillingly imaginative work.

A little more checking on the Web and I traced the CASS blurb directly back to the Website of Columbia University Press, where the identical description of our book is found.

Trying to figure out the means whereby the Tao Blog editors had come up with such a fantastic transformation of the CASS / CUP description of our book, my first thought was that they had done a machine translation into Chinese and then another machine translation from that back into English.  However, upon comparing the CASS / CUP and Tao Blog blurbs sentence by sentence, it soon became obvious that what the Tao Blog editors had done is to spice up (and perhaps attempt to camouflage) the CASS / CUP blurb by changing a word here and substituting a synonym there.  Unfortunately, nearly every change they made was inappropriate, or worse.  Strangely, however, I found the Tao Blog version to be a most entertaining read.


  1. Steve Kass said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:11 pm


  2. Zora said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    "who springy among the strange limestone hills"

    I would like to springy.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    Welcome to the wild world of article spinning. Most of these automatic substitutions appear to be drawn from Wordnet synonym sets ("folk" = "sept", "love" = "fuck", "live" = "springy", etc.). In some cases, a Wordnet relationship other than a direct synonym is used (e.g., "two" is a type of "digit", "boat" is a type of "dish", "leading" is similar to "directive").

  4. Traven said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    It's a splog engine that harvests book reviews and sells Amazon affiliated links. This wasn't "translated" by a human. It looks like what spambots post as blog comments: they repeat parts of a previous, presumably human, comment with lexical substitutions to get past the spam filter and the readers' relevance filter. Here it's about getting past Google's duplicate content filter. Have you seen the footer? "Powered by WP Robot". The link in the footer is dead but here's WP Robot.

  5. Carl said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 1:25 am

    This happens a lot with plagiarists. (At least the ones I catch.) They'll take Wikipedia or SparkNotes or whatever, then paraphrase it so I "can't" tell, except by paraphrasing they make the language as awkward as hell, and at first I just think they can't write, and eventually I google it and figure it out anyway.

  6. Steve said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 1:54 am

    That looks exactly like the type of essay I receive from my Chinese students every summer. I'm still puzzling over this one: 'in pregnancy period, the foetus develops inside the mother’s domestic trivia.’ Bet you never heard it called that before.

  7. Lareina said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 3:19 am

    "fuck stories"…haha this is hilarious.
    I agree with the assumption that they use machine translation from english -chinese – english. There's actually a website where you can do this via Google trans for like 50 times back and forth *i.e. start with how are you and into chnese and into Danish and into chinese again etc.
    And usually the result is far from the original.
    I cannot remember the website, but
    English -> Danish -> Estonian -> Catalan -> Czech -> Filipino -> Welsh -> Yiddish -> Chinese = hilarious!

    They change "saltwater song" into "Water song"!
    It's different without the salt…

  8. David Moser said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    Ah, the babel and blather of modern automatic translation. If only Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and the Dada leaders of the early 20th century could come back and see what language has become in the 21st century. They would conclude that their aesthetics had come to totally dominate the culture.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 6:40 am

    Last night just before I went to sleep, I was gobsmacked when I read Ben Zimmer's comment that this sort of alteration is done mechanically and regularly. As I drifted into dreamland, I kept thinking, "Tomorrow morning, I've got to ask Ben, 'Why? For what earthly purpose would anyone take the trouble to devise programs that would methodically carry out such transformations?'"

    Upon awakening, I was relieved of having to ask Ben my questions, since Traven had already answered them.

    A lot of my correspondents have noticed the wonderful line: "who springy among the strange limestone hills" — the program that produced that breathless clause must have been schooled in some of the modernist writers mentioned by David Moser.

    This past semester, I had a lazy student who tried to write a book review using these methods. For a foundation, he started out with a Wikipedia article on a related topic, added two sentences of his own at the beginning and end, and then manually (I presume) proceeded to perform the sorts of manipulations as those carried out by the article spinning programs and WP robots mentioned by Ben and Traven. Unfortunately, the results were so bizarre that I immediately caught him. Amazingly, when I called him into my office to confront him with the evidence, he was so brazen as to deny that he had done any such thing. I gave him an "F" on the report, but probably could have gotten him kicked out of school — at least that's what happened with convicted plagiarists when I was in college. Anyway, the remarks of Carl and Steve resonate deeply with me.

  10. Vasha said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 7:18 am

    There's a French word for attempting to disguise plagiarism in this manner: they call it "démarquer", that is removing identifying marks, or filing the serial numbers off.

  11. Amy West said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    I'll follow up Steve's comment by saying I see this in my freshmen comp. classes, regardless of whether they're ESL students or not. This is what some call a "literal" paraphrase: swapping out one synonym for another, or changing a noun phrase to a verb phrase with the same root. Once I read the first line of the original, I immediately spotted "river" for "Columbia", and "digit" for "two": they had gone for generic synonyms, I guess you'd call it. I realize now that this is echoing a lot of what Victor says. In my class, they're told that a literal paraphrase is academically dishonest. Good on you, Victor.

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    I too teach Frosh Composition. Make no mistake, the art of paraphrase is extremely difficult, requiring an extensive grasp of the language as well as the content. Only my very best readers have any chance of doing well on paraphrase exercises, even after I teach them all kinds of useful strategies.

    Watson be damned. If there's an AI device out there that writes a good paraphrase, I want to know about it.

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Dr. Liberman discussed such things several years back on the previous incarnation of Language Log:; (The money quote, IMHO: "maybe they hired a competent spammer, not an incompetent writer".) Sadly, it doesn't look like the situation has changed very much since then.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    I've never considered that there might be a body of work on teaching paraphrasing. Do either of you happen to have any sources? Thanks.

  15. Carol Lisker Kennedy said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    Victor, Thanks for sending us this link! I teach Middle-School children not to plagiarize. This example of plagiarism will drive home the fact that plagiarism is not only unethical and illegal, but it also creates some nonsensical writing that will never get past knowledgeable readers!

  16. Amy West said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    I use _Writing from Sources_, which has *chapters* on summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing. Like Jeff said, there has to be skilled reading at the base of it. I, however, don't have specifically useful strategies, so Spell Me Jeff, I'd like pointers as well.

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    Thanks, Amy.

  18. Sai said,

    May 22, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    My contributions as a Msinterpreter:

    What wooden club?(from the prosecutor in Court): Answer: You know, the union of carpenters.
    What political asylum? (from a Refugee Board member) Answer: Oh, the nuthouse for politicians.
    The Canadian Bar Association (in an English paper) Translation into a Chinese daily: The drinking club for canucks.

  19. Matt said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    How does an automatic process would get you from "woman" to "blackamoor", I wonder?

  20. jdmartinsen said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    @Steve: "domestic trivia" is the canonical mechanical (mis)translation of 家常 jiācháng, "daily life" — doesn't make the sentence any more understandable, though.

  21. David Bird said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    @jdmartinsen: "domestic trivia" might have been "private parts" or "family bits".

  22. David Walker said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    This reminds me of a recent software-themed blog I stumbled on, which had all sorts of incomprehensible prose in it. For example, it said that your computer might create a memory dump and give a blue screen when it feels that an error is about to occur.

    Now that would really be useful: predicting errors that are about to happen.

  23. David Walker said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    No one else has commented on the "matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She". Indeed!

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